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The classroom culture war

Saving education from the forces that wish to politicise it is one the most important cultural challenges of our time

This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic.

“My child has been told in a series of assemblies that she ‘has white privilege’, that she ‘subconsciously perpetuates it’, may even ‘consciously enjoy it’ and that she ought to be ‘starting to address it’. She has been shown slides of protesters holding placards that say ‘I will never understand’, told she needs to listen and educate herself and that intersectional theory shows that ‘whiteness will always insulate and protect her from racism’.”

Ten years ago, this mother’s story would likely be considered a joke; a parody of the culture wars that were starting to simmer across the Atlantic. But a lot can happen in a decade: the child whose mother recently reported the above attends an academy in London. Indeed, what was once considered an American eccentricity has gone global, and Britain’s curriculum engineers are doing their utmost to make up for lost time.

In the UK, curriculum engineers have embraced the approach of their American colleagues and are now busy targeting what they describe as outdated views and ideals. The term “outdated” serves as a euphemism for describing ideas and sentiments that do not accord with their project of distancing children from the traditions and way of life of their parents and grandparents. Under the banner of “relevance”, they wish to cancel the classics of literature and replace them with stories written by contemporary writers. Even the works of Shakespeare have been denounced for their outdated racist, antisemitic and misogynist views.

One of the most important and unremarked feature of recent developments in British classrooms is the uncritical and slavish manner with which curriculum experts imitate the cultural crusade of their American colleagues. Earlier this year it was reported that numerous American schools (including the prestigious $45,000-a-year Brentwood School in Los Angeles) were scrapping the apparently outdated To Kill a Mockingbird.

Evidently, some British curriculum leaders swiftly got the message. For example, the James Gillespie High School in Edinburgh decided that it no longer wants to teach classics like Of Mice and Men or to To Kill A Mockingbird in its English classes. The school claims that the “dated” approach to race of these wonderful novels disqualifies them from a place in the English literature curriculum.

Advocates of the project of decolonising schools target what they perceive as outdated views on issues as diverse as gender, trans culture, race and what it means to be British. School subjects as diverse as history, literature, geography and religious education are now used as vehicles for countering what they describe as “white privilege”. They encourage pupils to acknowledge their whiteness and perceive Britain as a society defined by its systemic racism.

Publishers of textbooks for schools have signed up to support the drive to decolonise the curriculum

Recently published resources and course material for teachers consistently advocate the need for educating children in the language of the culture wars. Publishers of textbooks for schools have signed up to support the drive to decolonise the curriculum. In July, Pearson Edexcel boasted of its “active commitment” to decolonise drama. The Head of English, Drama and Languages at Pearson stated: “We want all learners to see themselves in the literature they study.”

Identity politics trumps the study of outdated classics. That is why it stated that it “will also be considering adding playwrights that give us greater representation across gender, heritage, LGBTQ+ and disability”.

Religious Education, too, is fast coming under the spell of the crusade against outdated ideas. For example, “Anti-racist RE: 20+ key ideas for teachers of RE” encourages teachers to use their subject as a medium for challenging ideas it deems outdated. It promotes the virtues of a “decolonised curriculum” and calls on teachers to familiarise their students with the vocabulary that dominates campus politics.

Anyone reading this document would struggle to find anything that even remotely has any educational or intellectual connection with religion. What it offers is an account of RE that is devoted to the exploration of concepts such as that of intersectionality, whiteness, white privilege, unconscious bias, cultural appropriation and microaggression.

When a resource that ostensibly aims to offer pedagogic ideas to RE teachers reads like a manual designed for dogmatic campus activists, it is evident that its purpose has little to do with a genuine attempt to improve the education of children.

Yet the approach outlined in this teaching resource is consistent with what sections of the religious establishment advocate. A report published in April by the “anti-racism taskforce” of the Church of England promised that by the next academic year all of its 4,500 British primary and secondary schools will “develop a broad RE curriculum with specific reference to the promotion of racial justice”.

In many ways it is fitting that RE has been reinvented to serve as a medium for the moral re-education of children. The arguments promoting the decolonisation of the curriculum are often framed in a zealous quasi-religious tone. Some teachers literally adopt the tone previously associated with old-school fundamentalist preachers, demanding white pupils to atone and repent. Numerous parents report that their children have been encouraged to embrace the dogma of white guilt. In some schools the very act of questioning white privilege is interpreted as a contemporary form of sacrilege.

The doctrinaire and intolerant ambitions of curriculum engineers is increasingly endorsed by teachers’ unions and official and quasi-official bodies. In Scotland, teachers are invited to take a white privilege test in order to help them participate in the decolonisation of the curriculum. A document published by the executive agency of the Scottish government urges teachers to identify and consider “white fragility” — defined as the clumsy defensiveness of a white person confronted with information about racial inequality and injustice — which it says “upholds white supremacy”.

It is important to understand that the project of decolonising the curriculum is not simply about changing children’s reading material or tinkering with the curriculum. The aim of this project is to capture the levers of socialisation and to fundamentally change how people perceive themselves.

That is why the campaign to decolonise the curriculum is hostile to Britishness and symbols of British identity. The ambition to re-socialise the young is explicitly promoted by the guidance issued by the Scottish government.

The introduction to its teacher guide declares:

If you are socialised as white, you grew up in a world where you were consistently told/fed by the culture around you that your way of life is the right, sophisticated, enlightened way to be. Of course, it is painful and disappointing to hear that some of these choices cause someone else harm. Fragility is the urge to justify your actions, to have a defensive reaction and to fight off any accusations (to reason and explain your actions and why you made this decision … ‘I am a good person, I didn’t know’).

That’s another way of signalling that if you want to be seen as a good person you had better leave behind the values and the way of life into which you were socialised. Many parents are not aware that their values are systematically denounced and pathologized in numerous educational establishments. The imposition of a new curriculum that seeks to indoctrinate pupils with the outlook of the decolonisation movement often occurs behind their backs.

Some educators also claim to possess the authority to not only discuss intimate questions to do with sexuality and gender of young children but also to keep parents out of the loop. In Scotland, children as young as four will be allowed to change their name and gender at school without their parents’ consent. Sometimes the parents are the last to know that their child has — with the approval of the school — decided to transition. That is why parents need to take a greater interest in finding out what their children are taught in school. They cannot remain indifferent to a curriculum that encourages children to become strangers to the values and way of life of their parents. This year numerous groups of parents in the United States have finally started to mobilise and protest against the politicisation of their children’s education. Unfortunately, British parents have not yet realised what’s at stake in the culture war fought out in the classroom.

As I point out in my book 100 Years of Identity Crisis: The Culture War Against Socialisation, the question of who gets to decide how children are socialised is one of the most important issues facing western society. If children are instructed to turn their backs on the values of their community, they become deprived of a legacy that gives meaning to their life. Detached from a web of meaning that can help young people make their way in the world, they become uncertain of who they are.

The current obsession with identity and the sense of fragility promoted by the young is a direct outcome of a regime of socialisation that self-consciously seeks to distance children from the values of the older generations.

Adult society needs to understand that the decolonised curriculum has nothing to do with the goal of educating children or improving the performance of the disadvantaged. It has nothing in common with the honourable tradition of radical teachers who devoted their energy to help children from poor families acquire a good education. Unlike the contemporary decolonisers of the curriculum, they were educators and not indoctrinators. Saving education from the powerful forces that wish to politicise it is one the most important cultural challenges of our time.


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