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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
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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.