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.”

Interesting essay samples and examples on: https://essays.io/movie-analysis-examples-samples/

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