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Why are English curriculum books still in the hands of straight white men? | Jeffrey Boakye

IIn my 15 years of teaching English to hundreds of children in various parts of England, there are four books that have been on the curriculum of every school I have been to, without exception: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, Animal Farm by George Orwell, An Inspector Calls by JB Priestley and Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo.

Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

They are each well-known classics and perennial favorites for decades. But if you’ve managed to skip them, here’s a quick summary. Of Mice and Men: A Depression-era friendship strained by a world of toxic masculinity. Animal Farm: a political warning where the farm becomes an allegory of the Russian revolution. A Detective Calls: An upper-class British family struggles with basic morality when a working-class woman is announced dead. Private Peaceful : two brothers leave the rural idyll to face the horrors of the First World War front.

You can see why these books keep coming back. They speak of empathy and humanity, and defy brutal authority imposed from above. They have a liberal orientation which puts them more or less on the good side of history. But they also assume default narratives that stem from ideologies so broad that we cannot easily see the edges, default masculinity and default whiteness being two of the most important. We can’t ignore the fact that these books were written at times in history when social narratives were mostly limited to the perspectives of straight white males.

As a black writer who taught a white curriculum and now ponders deep questions of the education system as a whole (such as: why am I in such a minority as a black English teacher? And what can be done to tackle structural racism in UK schools?), one thing people love to ask me is what would I rather choose to put in the English curriculum. If education needs an overhaul, if it is steeped in historical biases, unchallenged ideologies and age-old blind spots, then what should replace the highly rated classics that many teachers have taught them? themselves?

George Orwell Animal Farm Penguin Classic book cover
Photography: flab/Alamy

It’s a good question. Since the rise of Black Lives Matter in 2020, conversations surrounding the so-called decolonization of the program have accelerated. It is a vast ambition to see a program born from Britain’s imperial past freed from its colonial shackles. The stories we choose to tell are central to that purpose and when it comes to program choices, there are no accidents. The four texts I mentioned have persisted because they tell stories that have become embedded in the British understanding of the world. They come from long-accepted voices of authority (male and white) that have become the default over time. And, above all, they don’t talk about the huge diversity of lived experiences that really makes Britain. All these settlements, all these migrant stories, all this resistance and resilience in the face of imperial control. Tellingly, Of Mice and Men is a text that Michael Gove sought to suppress in 2014 when he was Education Secretary, on the grounds that it was American and therefore not English enough for British schools.

Of all the texts I have taught, Of Mice and Men is by far the most controversial. In addition to all the inherent misogyny and toxic masculinity, its depiction of a single black character, Crooks (painted as a tragic victim of racial discrimination), is a source of ongoing debate about this book’s effectiveness in addressing racial conversations in the 21st. century. Particularly problematic is the fact that teaching this book requires classrooms full of children to say the N-word, leaving the teacher with an enigma of how to navigate the inevitable fallout. I’ve been there, often as the only black teacher in the school, and it’s a burden. I had to think quickly, on my feet, how to keep the lesson from collapsing into chaotic confusion. Then I had to slowly think about what needed to be included in the curriculum to improve racial literacy in the first place.

Cover of The Crossing by Manjeet Mann
Photography: Costa Book Awards/PA

It’s tempting to think that the so-called canon can be easily updated, with older texts swept away and replaced with something fresher, more modern, or relevant. But the reality is that we enter conversations that swirl and change at a pace that can often feel hard to follow. In 2007, the year I began training to become a teacher, there were no nuanced conversations about the areas of identity politics and social justice that now dominate public discourse. Any program that can even hope to be useful in these new contexts will need to be adaptive, flexible, responsive and curious.

When you come to this conclusion, the question of what goes into the program becomes less about keeping an unshakeable canon of books, and more about how you communicate your core values. A few examples: I had huge success teaching wellness through RJ Palacio’s Wonder, alongside the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid with Jaden Smith. I explored masculinity and nationalism as I examined England’s journey through the 2020 Euros. Not long ago, I gave a university lecture on critical race theory through the lens of Dirty Dancing. And more recently, I’ve discovered that Jhalak Prize-nominated Manjeet Mann’s The Crossing can offer powerful insight into modern refugee crises.

So what should be on the program? Well, it depends on who is being taught and what debates are taking place in the world around them. This must include identity politics and social justice, but also sustainability and geopolitics. In these key areas, the program must seek to broaden perspectives, put marginalized narratives at the centre, and accept the truths of the past, however unpleasant those truths may seem.

This is the work that educators must undertake; liberate ourselves, liberate our students, and ultimately allow the program to breathe with new life.

Jeffrey Boakye is an author. His new book, I Heard What You Said, will be released on June 9

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