The problem with dead white men – a reply to Mary Bousted

Apparently, Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union has announced that England is “hurtling forward to a rosy past” with its emphasis on knowledge.

She is reported as having said the following:

As an English teacher, I have no problem with Shakespeare, with Pope, with Dryden, with Shelley. … But I knew in a school where there are 38 first languages taught other than English that I had to have Afro-Caribbean writers in that curriculum, I had to have Indian writers, I had to have Chinese writers to enable pupils to foreshadow their lives in the curriculum.”

If a powerful knowledge curriculum means recreating the best that has been thought by dead, white men – then I’m not very interested in it.

It is important for students to know some of ‘the best that has been thought and said’ but it is also important for them to know that it was a choice that was made and a choice made by the powerful. So you can have an uncomplicated reading of Shakespeare which is ‘it’s just about society’. Actually, Shakespeare was an intensely conservative writer who wrote a lot of time to bolster the divine right of kings – so you need different voices in that.

You can’t teach skills in a vacuum. … You need content and knowledge, but neither can you ignore skills and hope in the process of acquiring knowledge they will somehow magically be caught. Skills need to be fostered, nurtured and evaluated.

I wasn’t at the event to hear Bousted speak and so I’m conscious that I may be misrepresenting her views, but because what she has been reported as saying is so outlandishly wrong, I feel moved to respond.

To take her first point first, Bousted’s argument seems to be that teaching Shakespeare, Dryden, Pope and Shelley should be balanced against the need to also teach Afro-Caribbean, Indian And Chinese writers. Balance is a good thing, after all, the curriculum schools teach is expected to be ‘broad and balanced’, but does this really represent balance? I would interpret ‘balanced’ as meaning ‘representative of the domain’ rather than giving equal time to writers of different ethnicities. It’s not that I don’t want children to know about the literature of other countries – there are, after all, many exceptionally fine writers from every country on earth – except that the subject under discussion is English literature.

To understand the literature of England you have to know something about where it came from, how it developed and where it might be going. English literature is a story that has its roots in ancient Greece. Homer’s epic poems have – directly or indirectly – influenced all literature written in English and so this is another culture to which children should certainly be exposed. They ought also to know about the invention of poetry and drama and there again we cast our gaze eastward. Aeschylus is not only the earliest writer of tragedy, he also invented much of what we understand drama to be. He was the first to put two characters on stage at the same time and the first to use dialogue. Just think, something most children (and most adults) take so utterly for granted had to dreamed up in our ancient past. Of all the ancient lyric poets, Sappho is the most revered. And she’s a woman. A lone and startling female voice in an ancient world which can seem so homogeneously male.

An English curriculum ought also to make children aware of the origins of legend. The Beowulf poet, an anonymous Anglo-Saxon, tells tales of flesh eating monsters and dragon slaying. But it’s also early Christian propaganda; literature as indoctrination. And it is the root, through Tolkien, of modern fantasy. Should children know this, or is it too male, pale and stale? And what of Chaucer? The Canterbury Tales gives life and voice to characters drawn from all sections of society, and the rich and powerful are usually treated with irreverence if not scorn. Is this too anaemically masculine?

The story of English literature is, it must be said, written mainly by men. Should we pretend otherwise? And, yes, most of them, human senescence being what it, are dead. The fact that they were white was something most would not even have been aware of. It’s only latterly that we look back and make this distinction. When we can substitute the choice of a male writer with a female, we should. Should we teach Aphra Behn instead of Shakespeare? Probably not, although we should probably find an excuse to at least include as an example as a Restoration playwright. But why teach Dickens when you can teach Eliot? Why teach Scott or Fielding when you could teach Austen? Writers like Mary Shelley and the Brontës have more than earned their place in the canon. And then, as the world becomes more equitable writers from other culture writing in English start to have an influence on and become part of the story of English literature. Every student should read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and although I think many teachers would shy away from teaching it before Key Stage 5, every human being should read Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. The diversity of our literature is reflected in the choice texts specified by exam boards: Myra Syal and Kazuo Ishiguro are available whatever board’s spec you teach.

But all this is an aside. Contra to Bousted suggestion that powerful knowledge is somehow synonymous with dead white men, it’s not about people at all. It’s about concepts, ideas and modes of thought. In Michael Young’s view (and he should know because he coined the term) powerful knowledge is that which “can provide learners with a language for engaging in political, moral, and other kinds of debates.” Who but the most loutish could fail to be interested in that?

Powerful knowledge is different from everyday knowledge and is “cognitively superior to that needed for daily life. It transcends and liberates children from their daily experience.” Knowledge is powerful if it allows you to make judgements and generalisations about things outside your immediate experience. It allows children to take part in a community of ideas so they can help shape the world around them. It is the foundation for democracy and civil discourse. Who could object to that?

Bousted then says, quite sensibly that “It is important for students to know [that] ‘the best that has been thought and said’ … was a choice that was made and a choice made by the powerful.” Well, yes. Of course they should know this. No one, I hope, is wanting to indoctrinate children into sharing the beliefs and world views of people from earlier eras. Children really ought to know that several US presidents including Washington and Jefferson owned slaves, that Churchill described the people of India as “a beastly people with a beastly religion.” They should be told that D.H. Lawrence, George Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf were unapologetically racist. But none of this means anything if children don’t know who these people are and what they did.

I sort of sympathise with Bousted’s attempt to suggest that Shakespeare’s place in the canon can and should be questioned, but saying he “wrote a lot of time to bolster the divine right of kings” is either a very poor example or the product of ignorance. What in Shakespeare’s writing would lead us to that conclusion? That Macbeth murders Duncan and is punished? That Brutus murders Caesar and takes his own life? That Lear’s daughters overthrow him? There’s no more uncomplicated reading of Shakespeare’s plays than that. Royal patronage was a reality for Elizabethan and Jacobean writers. What sort of fool goes out of their way to explicitly upset someone with the power to have you executed? But, the broader point is, of course we should ask questions and critique the Bard’s central place in the canon. But to do that you need knowledge; both of the thing itself and other a range of other voices.

The problem of dead white men is neatly summed up by E.D. Hirsch in Why Knowledge Matters:

Because of an inherent and inescapable inertia in the knowledge that is shared among hundreds of millions of people, the Core Knowledge plan was necessarily traditional, and was criticised in the 1990s for being so. It appeared to perpetuate the dominance of the already dominant elements of American life, while the aim of many intellectuals in the 1990s was to reduce that dominance and privilege, and valorize neglected cultures and women. So there was quote a lot of controversy attached to the Core Knowledge plan, which, though egalitarian in purpose and result, looked elitist on the surface. The aim of giving everybody entrée to the knowledge of power ran smack up against the aim of deprivileging those who are currently privileged.

When we express our righteous indignation that some knowledge is valued over other knowledge and decide to teach this other knowledge in the name of liberty and social justice what we’re actually doing is denying children choice. As Hirsch puts it, “If we tried to teach children a fully non-traditional knowledge set, they could not master the existing language of power and success.”

Deciding that children do not need to know things you consider elitist or offensive in some way condemns then to ignorance. There are only two ways out of this bind: first, we should be alert to supplement a core of traditional knowledge with whatever non-traditional knowledge we can find time and space to add in. And second, we should aim  to teach the knowledge with the most cultural capital and then learn to critique it. After all, you can’t really criticise something you don’t know.  No one should be taught to unthinkingly agree that the British Empire was a glorious thing, or that Shakespeare is the best writer ever, but if we don’t learn about these culturally important aspects of history and literature we won’t know enough to understand the effects of colonialism and that the legacy of the bard is as much to do with cultural imperialism as it is to do with literary merit. Ignorance benefits no one.

Bousted’s other objection appears to rest of the notion that “You can’t teach skills in a vacuum.” No you can’t. In fact you only teach skills in relation to knowledge. ‘Skills’, whatever she means by this, are not “magically caught” they are the product of knowledge. Skill is applied knowledge. There’s no magic in this, just several decades of research in cognitive science. But, there’s no need for us to explore that here as, in the words of Christopher Hitchens, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

22 Responses to The problem with dead white men – a reply to Mary Bousted

  1. David F says:

    David—have you ever read Allan Bloom’s “Closing of the American Mind”? Worth tackling his arguments, for despite today’s critics of a knowledge based education painting this as a left-right thing, Bloom’s arguments are framed more as an “old Left” vs “new Left” dispute (ie, Enlightenment vs. Post-Modernism). Worth the read and reminds me of Postman’s Building a Bridge to the 18th Century.

  2. chris says:

    Just a factual correction – Lincoln didn’t own slaves; when people make this reference, they are usually talking about Thomas Jefferson (who wrote the Declaration of Independence).

  3. AB says:

    The full quote being, ““We are hurtling forward to a rosy past *where academic success in subjects is all that matters.*” In reading the article, I don’t see her saying (or suggesting) that content is not of utmost importance – just that it’s not the end of the story. I agree content is absolutely necessary for a good education (it doesn’t make sense otherwise), but the ever-narrowing focus on grades alone is of deep concern to me as a teacher and a parent. When I look at other programs like IB or IMYC, there is the glaringly obvious difference that the UK curriculum seems to lack a balance of traits / values / wellbeing against academic results. When was the last time any of us heard discussion about a school being brilliant, other than the grades the students in it produce? There may be sections of OFSTED reports on the socioemotional wellbeing of students but do readers even notice much less analyse and report on these results? When I see self-harming, bullying and (most tragically) suicide in schools as a much more common feature of the present than the past, I have to agree that something is up.
    And when we talk about ‘English’ literature, we need to be cautious of being interpreted that it is only literature produced on the British Isles (and that which preceded it) that is of importance or relevance. Of course we need the historical development piece, and there is nothing to be ashamed of in celebrating our own canon, but thanks to colonialism, England expanded it’s borders (and language and literature) long ago and this complexity of ‘Britishness’ and ‘evolution of literature’ needs to be acknowledged, so our multicultural cohorts can understand how their own histories relate to the overarching story of ‘English’ literature. We need to be very careful how we define ‘English literature’ so as to avoid (once again) the narrative of the British white male being the only one (although of course it must be included given its historical dominance). That ‘students [need] to be able to see themselves in the curriculum’ is not something that is likely to happen if we stick to the traditional path – some experiences / traits / concepts are human universals and we can certainly find them in many works, regardless of authorship but we also need to find empathy and identity in the finer details.
    I would also agree that “we should aim to teach the knowledge with the most cultural capital and then learn to critique it,” though I would change the words ‘and then’ to ‘as they also’.
    Thanks for the thoughtful piece David.

    • David Didau says:

      Hi, Ab: quick response:

      1. Yes, teaching to the test is unambiguously bad:
      2. Did you think my argument somehow neglected Britain’s colonial legacy? I thought I was fairly explicit.
      3. The unexamined notion that ‘students [need] to be able to see themselves in the curriculum’ is a patronising assumption. Is ‘seeing yourself’ to be understood in terms of skin colour? Cannot children see themselves in terms of attitudes, ideas and actions?
      4. You cannot critique something meaningfully *until* you know it. I’ll stick with “and then”

      Thanks for reading, David

      • AB says:

        1. Indeed.
        2. I wasn’t suggesting there was any neglect – merely stating my thoughts.
        3. Not patronising at all I’d say. In any case, I believe I talked about ‘universals’ we can all find across humanity. As someone who sought hard to find something (anything!) I could relate to (in terms of identity and positive role models) within the literature I was presented with in school well into my adult life, I find the idea most relevant and I see (and hear) it recur in the students I teach every year. It’s not simply (although it is partly) an issue of skin colour.
        4. Good for you.
        Cheers – it’s good to see the range of comments and views on this.

        • As a working class girl I did not have much difficulty in identifying with the characters I met in the novels I read at school (or those I chose from the library either – though I noted that boys tended to have more adventures than girls), though most were middle class. I don’t think class came into it at all – much more important was interest in the character and their outcome. I loathe the idea that children must be taught stuff they can identify with because it has a tendency to disadvantage the already disadvantaged. What good would it have done me only to meet working class characters (actually I met them in Sons and Lovers – a book I absolutely loathed)? It would have closed my understanding to other possibilities of existing.

  4. Mark Featherstone-Witty says:

    A fundamental is the point that AB has rightly raised: ‘Students need to be able to see themselves in the curriculum’. Since every child is different and every school is set in a different culture, the presumption of defining curriculm content from Westminster Big Brother.

    Only yesterday, another parents told me that her boy had been turned off English Literature because pf the current curriculum. If many respond like this, then the point of the dictat will have the reverse affect, Once again, the ‘Elders’ have shot themselves (and our young) in the foot.

    That one negative.

    Another negative is no-one, no committee has a right to force their version of ‘the best’ anything onto young minds in a liberal democracy. Your best is not my best; it never can be – because we are different and our learning community is different.

    Richard III and Henry V, as films, rekindled an interest (no more than that) in Shakespeare, which schooling had removed. I have no idea why our ‘Elders’ believe that youngsters can begin to critique outstanding writers, when their experience of life is so slim.

    Our ‘Elders’ should fuck off to build expensive railways and airport runways and leave learning to those who have devoted their lives to it.

    • Michael Pye says:

      The only way to avoid a committee deciding curriculum is for an individual to do it. Letting the students decide does not change this. One persons dream topic is another’s turn off so no matter what someone doesn’t get what they want, though considering their lack of exposure they are not likely to even know what they like yet.

      We desire a large amount of standardization in curriculum because it allows shared resources, the ability to develop our teachers expertise no matter where they work, and the shared cultural reference points it provides. Argue how this shared curriculum needs to change and offer alternative topics.instead.

  5. Shirley says:

    Very interesting articles. Thanks for sharing.

    I am an English teacher. I teach IGCSE and IB English in Latin America. When Cambridge changed the curriculum and dropped writers from other places, my school stopped doing the Cambridge Literature exam, as it seemed too rigid for us.

    I love the opportunity to teach Americans such as Eliot and Fitzgerald. Other writers such as Joyce and Beckett, Sylvia Plath and Toni Morrison are amongst my favourites to teach. None of these writers are English and I am thankful to have to autonomy to be able to teach them, alongside Shakespeare.

    You say that:

    ‘It’s not that I don’t want children to know about the literature of other countries – there are, after all, many exceptionally fine writers from every country on earth – except that the subject under discussion is English literature.’

    I often wondered if the English in ‘English literature’ meant literature from England or literature written in English? If it is just English, then I presume it excludes Scotland? The Scots get lumped into the idea of a ‘UK curriculum’ which doesn’t exist for me as a Scot. I would like to think English literature means what I have always thought it to mean – literature written originally in the English language.

    • David Didau says:

      It’s an important question. Is English literature distinct from British literature? Probably. Should English schools be expected to design a literature curriculum around Scottish, Welsh or Irish literature? Probably not. But can an English literature curriculum in an English school include writers in English from other countries? Of course.

  6. Michael Rosen says:

    Meera Syal.

  7. It’s interesting that you talk about Ancient Greek and Roman literature but no one actually studies Homer, Sophocles and Ovid in secondary school English Literature, do they? They are just ‘referred’ to or ‘cited’, aren’t they?

    Then, yoking ‘Beowulf’ to a narrative of Englishness or Britishness is a tough ask. The story takes place in what we now call Denmark, the Christianity you refer to was founded in the Middle East and its history in the British Isles at that time was a story of missionaries coming from a variety of places outside of the British Isles. Because it’s the only epic to have survived, no one knows the range of sagas and epics told by Saxons, Jutes, Angles, Franks and Frisians, prior to the Vikings turning up and to what extent they influenced each other.

    The ‘Canterbury Tales’ is a wonderful example of hybridity as the tales are mostly borrowed from Italian and French sources, (e.g. Boccaccio and ‘fabliaux’) and the ‘frame’ as a literary motif has its roots in Arab traditions (not that Chaucer would have borrowed that directly from those traditions).

    The point is ‘English Literature’ itself, as a concept, has its roots in a tradition too. We study it in England because it’s a way of telling a national story – or rather, several versions of that story. We don’t study ‘literature’ and we don’t study ‘culture’. If we did, the syllabus would look very different. When the present guidelines were laid down, a certain Secretary of State made the national element here fairly clear and indicated that this was necessary and desirable. What we study and why in Eng Lit, includes this ‘national’ element.

    • David Didau says:

      You’re right that few children study ancient Greek or Roman literature, but without knowledge of some of the roots of what we now think of as English literature, children’s understanding will, necessarily, be impoverished. My view is that by having some knowledge of what went before, what the writer of the text you are studying *now* would have known, you will better understand what they have written. As I said, Homer’s epics have had as much, if not more impact on English literature than any other individual.

      You’re right that Beowulf is not English. But ‘tough asks’ are excellent starting points for teaching. A good curriculum will seek to embrace controversies. The fact that Chaucer borrows so widely is another excellent reason for teaching him. I would also want to teach the King James Bible as literature for it’s influence both on English literature and language.

      I’m pleased to see that you point – that English literature is a concept – fully supports my arguments. Thank you.

      • Not quite sure what you’re thanking me for. Yes English Literature is a concept and a construction. I think the issue is whether it’s been conceived and constructed in ways that are a) explicit to the learner (I don’t think it is) and b) that are valid and hold water. (I’m not sure that it is worked through, and consistent. And anyway, why is ‘literature’ yoked to a ‘national’ project?)

        My argument above and below is that the yoking requires some fudging or making misleading suggestions around provenance and origins, e.g. re Christianity.

        btw I hardly have a problem about studying anything, so long as we can justify it and explain that justification. In general, I reckon that the connections between the different elements we study in the lessons we call ‘English’ can evolve as we investigate them.

        I did a single A-level class on The Tempest a few weeks ago, and I asked the students to prepare for the class by researching what Shakespeare could possibly have known about such issues as slavery, slave trade, plantations, responses of native peoples to being invaded, slave revolts ie all before 1611. They brought these to the class and we read the scenes that were relevant to this material…and talked about it. The material the class brought in was amazing. Now, I could see a connection between this and Lope de Vega’s play ‘Fuente Ovejuna’ and given a bit more time, we could have each thought of connections, brought them back to the class and gone from there. I suspect we wouldn’t have been quite so bound to the concept or construct of ‘English Literature’, if we had.

        • David Didau says:

          You seem to be ascribing to me a position I don’t hold, but, as I don’t hold it, none of your points disagree with anything I actually think. Your A level lesson sounds great although *just* taking a cultural materialist perspective necessarily lessons the thing itself. Caliban is not a caricatured Arfo-Caribbean freedom fighter. In the words of Harold Bloom, “This is not even a weak misreading; anyone who arrives at this view is simply not interested in reading the play at all.” Shakespeare deliberately created a character who was not natural – half human, half monster. He has pathos but is not admirable. Although Caliban submits to Prospero’s “grace” at the end of the play, Shakespeare has worked had to make Prospero, whilst in the right, cold and unlikeable. He never commands our sympathies in the way Caliban does. Why is this? And why, despite Caliban’s monstrous appearance, glee at the thought of peopling “all the isle with Calibans” and murderous brutality is given, among his less that 100 lines, the sublime beauty of the “sounds and sweet airs” speech? Maybe he is the child in all of us: part childish tyrant, part a childlike aesthete who sees the wonder in the world? He is the victim both of his outcast nature and the cutting short of his education; perhaps the living embodiment of the adage that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Certainly, when it comes to literary scholarship a little knowledge can thoroughly distort a text. All this is to say that we should acknowledge controversies but should always strive to show the limits of all our ideologies.

        • It might have been profitable to look at the types of government the play discusses – it finds none of them very effective. Certainly it is an interesting window into Jacobean thought on the body politic. Less than half a century after this play was written the English state was turned upside down by people who believed that there were other means of government than autocracy – and the seeds of this revolution are found among the religious seperatists of Elizabeth England, whom Shakespeare would have know about, just as much as he knew about slavery. Certainly Shakespeare does not particularly support the divine right of kings, even though his characters talk about it – and particularly about the separateness of kings. He uses English history to explore rebellion and usurpation, and the results of these things: matters which were of great importance in the late 1500s, when the succession to Elizabeth was in question.

  8. Apologies, I got called away. I wanted to add that Christianity itself is anglicised beyond a matter of e.g. the Tory and Stuart Reformation or the King James Bible. The way it’s usually taught as part of English Literature, it’s hard to remember that it was founded as a Middle Eastern religion formed under Roman Imperialism, and that its roots are neither Greek or Roman but Judaic. So, if Christianity has a huge influence on English Literature – as it does – part of that influence must be ancient Jewish.

  9. Michael Pye says:

    Michael we can engage in infinite regression (or at least to paelothic times) with the history of any idea. Judaism likely has it’s roots in polythestic pantheons, but it is unlikely we would need to mention it in a English Lit class. Also you make way to many unnecessary assumptions about peoples motives when teaching, this argument is very much more about what we teach. How about a clear example of what you would remove and what you would replace it with. We need a relative comparison to judge if we think the opportunity cost is appropriate.

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