The Children's Laureate says education needs relevance, but is 'identifying' really so important?

As young readers we probably wouldn’t have said that the best books are inclusive in a way that transcends skin colour, religion or ethnic identity, but we knew they were

Share

Pleased to see the new Children’s Laureate, Malorie Blackman, coming out of the blocks fighting. Let’s get children reading, she says, and let’s ensure that black and other minority ethnic children don’t turn against history because of too great an emphasis on Nelson and the Tudors. Let’s have a few heroes who are culturally easier to identify with. We are in favour, in this column, of getting young people to read, even if we don’t think they have to read books especially written for them. Remember, we say, the example of John Stuart Mill who knew his way through the classics when he was three. Yes, he went on to have a nervous breakdown, but at least he had the classics to help him out of it. Never mind the Prozac, try Plotinus. And we are in favour of a little more Henryless history (and Tudorless television) as well. Too much Tudor and you end up on temazepam. So we are disposed to listen when the new Children’s Laureate speaks.

Two statements she has just made strike me as important. The first is: “I still remember feeling I was totally invisible in the world of literature.” And the second: “I understand you need to learn about Henry VIII, but when I was young I wanted to learn about something that felt more relevant.”

What a person remembers about being young is not open to controversy. What you felt, you felt. But I have to report differently. Not only didn’t I feel invisible in the world of literature, it would not have occurred to me that there was such a feeling to have. I am a few years older than Malorie Blackman, and those years might well have been decisive when it comes to what we think we have a right to feel – I put it like that because feeling is not autonomous: feelings catch on, go in and out of fashion, are determined by external circumstance and ideology – but however it’s to be explained, I didn’t feel excluded from what I read and nor did my friends. True, we weren’t black, but we were Jewish, northern and working class, so if there was an invisibility to feel, we were well placed to feel it.

“Where are the Jews?” It’s possible that one of the reasons we refrained from asking that question was that when a Jew did pop up in literature we wished he hadn’t. Thanks, Fagin, but no thanks. Quite simply, though, we were perfectly happy to read about people who weren’t us. We didn’t read to self-identify. We might not have said in so many words that we read for precisely the opposite reason – in order imaginatively to enjoy the company of others, in order to understand what those who were not ourselves were like, in order to feel the world expand around us, in order to go places we didn’t routinely go to in our neighbourhoods or in our heads, in order to meet the challenge of difference – but that was what we were doing. We probably wouldn’t have said, either, that the best books are inclusive in a way that transcends skin colour, religion or ethnic identity, but we knew they were. Reading felt like a journey out of self, not into it. And if occasionally we thought we saw something specific to us in Hamlet, or Heathcliff, that was interesting but not obligatory.

There’s another way of putting this. If I didn’t feel invisible, it was because I wasn’t. Madame Bovary c’est moi, Flaubert declared, invoking the writer’s creed. The reader’s creed is similar. Jane Eyre c’est moi, I felt when I read Charlotte Brontë’s great novel at school, and she was no less moi because she was a girl. If we should resist the principle of ethnic identity when reading, we should resist the gender principle no less. I was not invisible when I read Jane Eyre a) because the best writers make general what’s particular, and b) because I, who had not been taught to go looking for myself missing, honoured the writer/reader compact and found me in characters who weren’t me. Did my being a boy make me more Biggles than Little Dorrit? No, it did not. Would I have been more Biggles had Biggles been Jewish? No, I would not.

Our disagreement with Malorie Blackman about history – Tudors aside – is essentially the same. It’s not history’s job to be relevant to us; it’s our job to be relevant to history. I certainly see the argument for schoolchildren to be introduced early to the great issues that bear on racism – the Holocaust and slavery, for example – but that’s not because of the special relevance they have for Jews and black people. It’s because knowing about them matters to everyone.

I remember where I was when “relevance” entered the education debate. I remember where I was standing, what window I was looking out of, what bleak landscape I surveyed. That it would come to no good – that it demeaned those it pretended to help by assuming limits to their curiosity; that it denied those it offered to empower, cutting off their access to “irrelevant” intellectual pleasure and enlightenment; that it was in every essential philistine in that it narrowed the definition of learning to the chance precincts of an individual’s class or upbringing – I was certain. The education system I benefited from assumed an equality of eagerness for knowledge, and an equality of right to acquire it. “Relevance”, as the Children’s Laureate’s urgency to promote a lost literacy proves, has benefited no one.

The answer to a history course that doesn’t interest children is not more digestible history; it’s better history teaching. A person who has trouble learning to drive isn’t advantaged by being taught only how to crash. I applaud your energy and passion, Malorie Blackman, but take the relevance route and you don’t educate, you disinherit.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Weekend Factory Operatives

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This high quality thread manufacturer is curr...

Recruitment Genius: FP&A Analyst

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A market leading acquirer and m...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fully qualified electricians re...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service and Business Support Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: By developing intimate relationships with inte...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: the Labour leadership election hasn’t yet got to grips with why the party lost

John Rentoul
Kennedy campaign for the Lib Dems earlier this year in Bearsden  

Charles Kennedy: A brilliant man whose talents were badly needed

Baroness Williams
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific