The following is my comment on Debra Kidd’s blog (Hey you. Poor person. We’re here to make you just like us.) I have avoided copying comments from one blog into a new post in the past, not least because I find the idea of ‘open letters’ a little unpleasant, but I guess the beauty of blogs is there is nearly always right of reply, which I would certainly grant to Debra in the comments here, though she may well have responded on her own blog.
A conversation between me and you is as conversation between two successful middle-class people about what we think is best for those in society who are less fortunate than we. We can both appeal to our individual backgrounds and to difficulties we had in our own upbringing, but in doing so we just end up sounding like Monty Python’s Yorkshiremen (http://bit.ly/1kxZCSb), trying to outdo one another on the depths from which we have risen. The fact of the matter is that you know very little indeed about my background and I yours, and, though it might well affect the emotional tone of our arguments, it adds nothing to the quality of what we say. Let us, therefore, take our arguments on their own merits, and not suggest that our arguments have any more or less validity because of our social status, past or present.
When stripped of this, your argument is less one about curriculum – or even education at all – but one about society, and I would here share your concerns, fears and desires. I too find it terrible that children grow up in the conditions that you have highlighted, and I too think we need to show some intellectual humility and common humanity in recognising that a child’s social experiences will far outweigh anything you or I might do in schools, try as hard as we nevertheless will. It seems that, in the end, we agree that the curriculum one receives ought not to depend on one’s social background; instead we both think that if something is good enough for one child, then it is good enough for another, regardless of the circumstances whence they come. Our disagreement is, as such, not one about who ought to receive the things we value, but rather what the things we value are. This is not about ‘poor people’ having things done to them, but rather a discussion about what all people should be entitled to receive.
The problem here is that there are many things that you and I would value that, historically, have been the preserve of the affluent and fortunate. The idea that children should have the opportunity to read books for leisure – as both you and I did – is a recent innovation, an opening up of something that was once the preserve of the wealthy to all children from all backgrounds. Instrumental lessons – which both you and I had in our youth – were until quite recently (and still in some quarters) inaccessible to those from less affluent families. The chance to travel beyond one’s own city or parish, to see the wider world including the strange lands overseas, was once an opportunity open only to those whose independent wealth allowed them the luxury of a grand tour: today, schools do what they can – and charities even more – to help children from poorer families go on trips and visits. If one were to write an upbeat and optimistic history of English education in the late twentieth century, then it might well be one which tells the story of how possibilities available only to the elites had been brought within the reach of all.
The academic disciplines, which were indeed the preserve of the wealthy elites for millennia, have however not been treated in the same way. Whereas few would question opening up other aspects of elite culture – reading for leisure, instrumental lessons, travel – to children of all backgrounds, many seem uneasy about the idea that these disciplines are something which is the entitlement of all. Time and again I have seen and heard of children from poorer families being told history (and indeed other traditional subjects such as separate sciences or a second foreign language) are ‘not for them’. The disciplines have evolved over time as the best means we have as humans for making sense of the world we all share. The fact that these disciplines were driven by and owned by the elites in the past is an accident of history: only those who had the luxury of leisure brought about by independent wealth could invest this time in the study of the world. Yet now we live in a society where such knowledge need not remain the possession of the rich and affluent: we now live in a society where, through universal and comprehensive education, we can bring this former preserve of the wealthy – a sophisticated collection of forms of knowledge that make sense of our world – and we can open this up to all.
In the present, however, this has not happened. The shadow of the tripartite system runs deep in which it was assumed that the bottom 75% of the social spectrum had no need of academic disciplines. Comprehensive education should have resolved this, but it did not. In part, this was because the old assumptions of the tripartite system continued to flow as steady currents under the comprehensive veneer. Our system is riddled with the notion that knowledge of the world, captured best through the academic disciplines, is the preserve of the affluent. This is something I want to challenge, and this is why I shall fight – and always fight – against a child being told that ‘history is not for them’.