Identity and possibility

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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.


22 thoughts on “Identity and possibility

  1. Rare that I disagree with you but I do because you aren’t making a sound argument but an unevidenced one.

    In terms of knowing about how to enter certain professions, I would say that is a class issue more than anything else, yet lo and behold people still do it. How do they? That’s actually worth finding more about but identity politics advocates ignore this in favour of peddling idea that groups x, y and z are victims of society. While at the same time demanding (usually they) should be given job “x” so they can be said role model. This negates learning the truth about pioneers who break through who usually don’t care about the fact that there was no one with their identity doing whatever it is they have chosen to do. This turns identity politics advocate arguments on it’s head which promote the need to care disproportionality about identity on it’s head.

    I do think there is an element of “I could have been a contender…” in this too. People who think they could have done “x” or “y” if only a role model with same identity had existed but this is engaging in fantasy. There is no evidence that we can all be “whatever we want to be”. A more valid question is has there ever been or is there any connect between the abilities of said person and profession they wish they had a role model in?

    As for the curriculum being driven by identity – where is the evidence for this? Indians/Chinese have achieved in UK ed system at a time where they were not represented on the curriculum, yet the recipients of Black History Month, no matter how religiously observed, have not seen educational results improve. Steele (in “White Guilt and Black Power”) describes at length the curriculum programmes designed for Black/African Americans and the complete failure of any of them to make a dent in improving the educational outcomes. So why didn’t it work?

    I don’t have a problem with the proposal of the idea that we should have greater representation/ more role models/ multicultural books to improve outcomes. I have a problem with advocates of such approaches a) showing no evidence to support their beliefs, b) their refusal to engage with reality and facts when they don’t support what they think should happen and c) doubling down when failure of their approach is clear bc there just aren’t enough role models/books, etc…

    This attitude is no different to that taken by progressive educationalists so I’m surprised that you didn’t make the link.

    1. What would that evidence look like both for and against? Mixing in some more esorteric knowledge to challenge preconceptions is healthy.
      The trick is finding the curiculumn balance and avoiding weak examples.
      However since these choices are subjective and popularity has a large element of chance this would still produce problems.

      1. I agree that evidence for any particular initiative is difficult to pin down but at a basic level the programs in the US were promoted on the basis that they would promote self esteem and enhance academic outcomes for poor black students. The issue could of course be implementation. However the real problem here is that there is little or no evaluation of said programs because it has become conventional wisdom that such programs do have a beneficial effect.

        However, at this point in time, it is for Greg (and anyone else) making statements such as:

        “If the literature curriculum is entirely white or male then this sends a signal about possibilities.”

        to back this up with some evidence and account for those who make it regardless of role models. In fact, according to this way of thinking there would never be a first black author because without a role model it’s not possible. Yet there are black authors…. so how did that happen?

      2. I don’t have any evidence and I don’t know how you would get it. It’s what I believe to be true. Feel free to reject my opinion, as you have.

    2. I’m puzzled that you’ve criticised the lack of “evidence” three times in your comment, yet have provided no evidence of your own. The only reference you’ve provided is Shelby Steele, who is hardly a credible source:

      Steele’s repeated claim that all government policies have been unalloyed failures and the cause of current black problems is now so demonstrably false that one need not waste time discussing them.


      In terms of knowing about how to enter certain professions, I would say that is a class issue more than anything else, yet lo and behold people still do it.

      Do they? In what numbers? And what levels of representation? Are these levels of representation reflective of the broader community or are they concerning?

      identity politics advocates ignore this in favour of peddling idea that groups x, y and z are victims of society.

      Where is evidence of this “ignorance”? How can you assert with evidence that these “identity politics advocates” (your term, by the way, not theirs) are not struggling for better representation?

      Indians/Chinese have achieved in UK ed system at a time where they were not represented on the curriculum, yet the recipients of Black History Month, no matter how religiously observed, have not seen educational results improve.

      Are you saying there have been no issues with Asian British who have been hurt by racist – both overt and subtle – comments, policies and / or actions? Furthermore, I have seen similar arguments where those who criticise affirmative action policies for African Americans, for example, then go on to say that Asian Americans / Brits / Australians have never needed it. To conflate the two is wilfully ignorant, as is to scoff at initiatives like Black History Month. Asian Americans do not have the weight of four hundred years of mostly slavery and / or segregation that they have to work through. There are moves to re-label that shameful part of American history, in which estimates range up to 100 million who were killed as a result, the Black Holocaust.

      1. 1) Greg and others (including advocates of identity politics) have made assertions about role models and curriculum choices. It’s for them to provide the evidence as they’ve made the claim. As you can see above, he states he doesn’t have evidence, it’s what he believes. I asked for evidence because if we are making decisions that involving the curriculum and spending of public funds, it’s fair enough to ask on what basis we are doing so. If it’s based on opinion and hope then that doesn’t necessarily discount it but it needs to be taken into account as part of any decision as to what approach to take.

        2) The article you link to does not deal with the evidence Steele provides, it dismisses it without providing any source for the “demonstrably false” statement. We can all make statements saying something is false without evidence – it proves nothing. It’s clear the author disagrees with Black Conservatives like him and Sowell. The latter also provides evidence in his books – the latest one tackling the issue of Discrimination and Disparity directly. The idea that Black Conservatives are not credible sources because they are Black Conservatives is a circular argument that deals with neither evidence nor arguments made.

        3) Social mobility exists as a phenomenon. The latest UK government indexes can be found here:
        In terms of whether the numbers are “of concern” is a subjective criteria that you have constructed. You would need to outline what you mean by that.

        4) Your last paragraph has nothing to do with the comments that I made but just a set of increasingly negative ideas that you seem to want to believe “someone like me” holds.

        If you can find evidence of the positive outcomes that Black History Month has led to, I am genuinely interested, I have searched on and off for years and haven’t found any research indicating this.

        I haven’t conflated the issues curriculum and affirmative action, you have.

        “Are you saying there have been no issues with Asian British who have been hurt by racist – both overt and subtle – comments, policies and / or actions?”

        Very Cathy Newman of you but no I didn’t say anything of the sort.

        This is clearly dodging the issue of how Chinese/Indians have succeeded educationally without the need for a curriculum tailored to their identity. Hurt feelings due to comments/actions impact on individuals involved but haven’t led to poor educational outcomes for members of these groups. There are no education policies in the UK that are racist. I should know as I would have been subject to them. If there are elsewhere and then it’s a policy not a curriculum issue.

      2. The main problem is not role models, it is not knowing about possibilities in the first place. The only careers that seemed open to me at sixteen were teaching and nursing, neither of which I fancied. I wanted to be an architect but was told my maths and drawing skills were not good enough, and for good measure journalism was too difficult to get into – the BBC was a local employer yet careers in TV were never mentioned. It was a he narrow careers information rather than a sense that people like me did not do those sort of jobs. That is not addressable through providing suitable role models – my school was full of strong people of my own sex and the curriculum was quite wide. It was lack of information not role models that stymied us.

  2. I’m not sure when or where the curriculum has ever been exclusively white or male, but these days it’s all but impossible to get a novel published if it’s written from a white, heterosexual male perspective. Thinking in terms of identity politics is both restrictive and patronising, especially when the result is to deny access to ‘the best that has been thought and said’.

      1. Your link is crashingly irrelevant–it refers to people who have salaried jobs as writers in business & industry–absolutely nothing to do with publishing novels. And in any case, over 60% of these writers were female.

  3. I don’t often disagree with you but on the subject of relevance I do. Relevance is too often used to deny the disadvantaged access to the ‘best that has been written, said and done’. Why I feed should teenagers from s sink estate be interested in reading stories with that background? They know about all that. They need to see the possibilities beyond that estate, the possibilities you want the to see.

  4. I think there are two fundamental problems with this argument, one theoretical and one practical. From the theoretical point of view, the problem is that identities are not simple: they tend to coalesce these days around race and gender (and almost never class anymore, which I think is frankly far more relevant than the other two), but there are all sorts of other identities that could conceivably enter the picture. Rural? Inner-urban? Migrant? Second-generation migrant? Service families? Diabetic? Autistic? Short? Overly tall?

    Some of these may appear facetious, but they’re not much sillier (if at all) than some of the identities that currently demand their share of attention in the strange world of intersectionality. And if one form of identity should be promoted within the curriculum, why not all the others? This is the line of thinking that can lead to the sort of deeply narcissistic battle-of-the-identities that now dominates the literary world. (And don’t get me started on the ludicrous “cultural appropriation” arguments…)

    From a practical point of view, the idea that presenting examples of successful members of the professions from different ethnic groups acts as a spur is, I would argue, not supported by recent history. How many dozens of kids’ books do we see with presentations of successful indigenous Australians in the professions (or, more often, in sporting or cultural areas)? And yet the genuine gains of indigenous Australians in a socio-economic sense over the past generation have been minimal. How many books do we see making a point of presenting Indian or Chinese migrants in a successful light? I can’t think of a single one that I’ve seen. And yet they have been outstandingly successful.

    Ultimately it is a variety of ideas and settings that will be valuable in a literature curriculum, and that should leave plenty of room for, say, R.K. Narayan or Chinua Achebe. But that is because they are writers of real quality – and that’s ultimately what matters.

    1. I am not suggesting a ticklist of identities. I am suggesting that if you discover your curriculum is full of eg white guys then you might want to have a think about whether it could be a bit more diverse. Perhaps you are considering which book to introduce in Year 9. You have identified three that all have roughly equal literary merit but two are by men and the third is by a woman. If you have already identified a man heavy curriculum then why not select the book by the woman?

      1. I am not suggesting a ticklist of identities…

        But that is, sadly, inevitably how it ends up. Re your hypothetical example, (a) what if the theme/tone of the woman’s novel was similar to one already on the curriculum? (b) what if one of the male authors was black/gay/Asian/whatever? (c) if it were the other way around, would you choose the one by the man? If not, why not? There are always too many variables to make this sound curriculum policy.

        The kids I teach are overwhelmingly from non-white backgrounds. Mainly Chinese but also from the subcontinent, the Middle East and increasingly sub-Saharan Africa as well. You know the only ones whose parents ever complain about the lack of minority representation on the curriculum? The white ones! The others simply want a quality education for their kids, and couldn’t give a rats about the identity wars.

      2. You know the only ones whose parents ever complain about the lack of minority representation on the curriculum? The white ones! The others simply want a quality education for their kids, and couldn’t give a rats about the identity wars.

        Or they have learned to keep their heads down and shut up because “no one likes a and you should consider yourself lucky to have what you have.”

        Sorry for such an extreme hypothetical reaction but … it’s quite possibly just as likely as your assumption that they “couldn’t give a rats”.

  5. Sorry, my comment was supposed to read:

    “no one likes a (insert racist stereotype here) and you should consider yourself lucky to have what you have.”

    WordPress hates me – I’m becoming increasingly certain of it.

  6. This is the first article I have disagreed with as well. The purpose of literature is to take us out of our narrow worlds and provincialism, and to expand our minds in time, place and person. The Great Ideas are universal and belong to everyone, no matter what ‘identity’ they might think they fit with in their narrow worlds. The author is purely the messenger, and this over-focus and obsession with the author is a very recent ‘provincial’ idea. In the past, authors used to write anonymously, or under the name of someone they admired. But the ideas are the same, no matter who says them.

  7. “Shall We Burn Babar” (by Herbert Kohl) covers many issues that Greg has mentioned here. Nearly 25 years old but still extremely relevant.

  8. You are right; literature takes one places…places you could never conceive. I’m glad at school I didn’t read books about suburban teenagers….I knew all about that…but novels and poetry took me to great places. After uni, doing architecture, I was encouraged by colleages’ literary interests and started reading more widely…all taking me to places new and novel. I’m worried that kids miss this at school these days.

  9. The issue Greg raised is whether you tailor the curriculum to the identity of the students or provide a deliberately diverse curriculum. In Ontario there is a move to add more Native American authored literature at the expense of Shakespeare. Before you worry that this is sacrificing the best for the diverse you need to know that currently the general idea is one Shakespeare play per year for four years of high school. So dropping one still means students have studied three of his plays. To me this seems like a fair tradeoff.
    Arguments that this is a slippery slope leading to ever more fractured programs in the name of diversity have the usual problem with a slippery slope argument. That is they claim that anything to one side of the status quo is bad because the extreme on that side is bad.
    People concerned about getting enough of a particular type (e.g. Shakespeare) should worry more about how to make education more effective to cover more.

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