I think it was the summer between school and university that I read Cannery Row by John Steinbeck. It was part of a Steinbeck anthology; one of the three books a month that arrived through my Dad’s mail order book club, alongside the Oxford Companion to the Mind and Chaos by James Gleick. For the last two years of school, I had dropped English to focus on science and maths and so I drank my novels neat, without the ice or mixers of a literary education.
As I stalked depression era Cannery row, hiding in the alleyways and eavesdropping conversations, I smelt the fishy sea air, grappled with the different compromises the characters made and formed a naive theory of my own. Literature, I reckoned, can be distinguished from entertainment by the extent to which it makes you experience other lives.
We underestimate our powers of empathy; our capacities to imagine ourselves into other worlds and people. And we do this with children, a lot. We assume that teenagers from a council estate in Bristol need to read books about teenagers from a council estate in Bristol. This is despite the fact that books popular with teenagers, such as Harry Potter, Tolkien or The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, are rarely about council estates in Bristol.
And there is danger in this attitude. One of my guilty pleasures is The Moggcast, a podcast where Paul Goodman of Conservative Home interviews Jacob Rees-Mogg, a right-wing English politician. I don’t agree with Rees-Mogg on very much. He is staunchly pro-Brexit. I did not vote in the Brexit referendum, as my life is now in Australia, but if I had, I would have voted to remain. And although to modern identitarians, Jacob Rees-Mogg and I are exactly the same, both being white, male and heterosexual, we come from quite different backgrounds. My forbears made chain and staircases, whereas his were landowners and business-people, with his father editing The Times. Whereas I went to a government school and was once mocked at university for my Midlands accent (the stereotype is that we are stupid), he is the archetype of an English ‘toff’. Yet I listen to his reasoned opinions about politics with genuine interest.
To many on the political left, it is acceptable to viscerally hate people like Rees-Mogg. If he ever becomes a party leader then they assume that simply pointing to his privilege should be enough to signal to the masses that their vote should go elsewhere. Yet time and again, the public at large have shown that they are happy to vote for people who are not like them at all. Identity doesn’t matter that much. Ideas are far more important and political activists of all persuasions forget this at their peril. That’s why I’m keeping an eye on what Rees-Mogg is up to.
Does this mean that the school curriculum should focus on ideas rather than identity? Should we stop looking for those novels about council estates in Bristol? Maybe. However, I also see a problem with simply loading up the curriculum with ‘the best that has been thought and said’ without any consideration of identity at all.
A couple of years ago, I took a school group on a trip to London. I contacted an old friend from university who now worked for a TV production company and she showed us around and gave the students a mock selection exercise. This was the same exercise that the company ran through with genuine applicants. Apparently, the company is inundated with young people looking to get into television and applying for jobs.
This made me pause. When I was a young person, I simply did not know about any of this. I suppose I assumed that people like me did not do those kinds of jobs. I wouldn’t have had a clue how to get into television or where to apply in order to do so. I suspect this is common in the media and is a key reason why it is so uniformly staffed by those with privileged upbringings (well, that and the habit of offering unpaid internships that require interns to have wealthy parents).
It is therefore critical that schools open students’ eyes to the possibilities out there. If you are a black kid from Wolverhampton and the only scientists and mathematicians you ever see are white, you may think that science and maths is not really a possibility for people like you. This perhaps changes if you have a black teacher with a passion for physics, not because you can now empathise but because you start to realise what is possible.
If the literature curriculum is entirely white or male then this sends a signal about possibilities. And so I think we need to ensure that different voices are represented. Again, this is not because these are the only texts that some kids will be able to empathise with, a narrative of deficit that limits potential, it is because it shows the possibilities for intellectual development and fulfilment for all of our students.