It would be tremendously enriching for students to add more non-white, non-male perspectives to the curriculum, insists Bansi Kara
At the inaugural BAMEed conference, I spoke to a room full of teaching and non-teaching professionals about a few of the arguments used to justify a white, male curriculum.
I argued the national curriculum is inherently tied to the prevailing social mores, trends and values of its day. It is a reflection of the power structures within society itself. Declaring what knowledge deserves attention and recall is a silent marker of what is seen as intellectual and what is not.
There are many reasons to applaud ED Hirsch’s assertions that students require knowledge to be able to function in the culture in which they live. I do not believe he is entirely wrong. However, I recognise the inescapable consequence of his theory: a drive towards cultural hegemony. By dictating what knowledge is valid and what is not – as exemplified by Govian changes to exam requirements and syllabuses – we signal the cultural superiority of one people over another.
Between 1997 and 2010, huge steps were taken towards recognising the need for schools to reflect, in terms of personnel and curriculum, the ethnic make-up of students. I raised the possibility that there might be a correlation between the political and racial ideology of our current government and the content of the curriculum. After all, it was only due to public pressure from academics on Gove that Mary Seacole found her way back into the primary curriculum in 2013.
I am fully aware of the arguments as to why our primary and secondary curriculum might be dominated by white men. In my BAMEed session, I presented nine statements justifying the status quo, collated from a range of sources – from online articles and blogs I had read defending Hirsch, to responses to the NUS campaign scrutinising university syllabuses.
What if this is not about what you take away from a curriculum, but what you add?
I started with the statement “the purpose of education is to transcend one’s limitations”, and it was agreed that “limitations” was a problematic term. Are students from non-white backgrounds “limited” in their scope?
So what if this debate is not about what you take away from a curriculum, but what you add? I used examples from literature. If textual complexity and length of time in publication is a marker of a canonical work, then why not study the memoir of Sake Dean Mahomet? In all readability measures, he is far more intellectually and, perhaps culturally, challenging than Dickens.
I challenged the idea that students are asking for the removal of white knowledge by referencing ways in which we can make space in the current curriculum: using the etymology of the word “moor” to expand Othello’s racial profile and intellectual history; informing students of the advanced nature of African astronomy by explaining the contribution of the Dogon people of Mali to the discovery of Sirius A and B, well before the invention of a telescope; linking the concepts of nature as a reflection of God and child mysticism to its potential origins in the Vedas and Upanishads of Hindu scripture.
In short, my argument was for the inclusion of more knowledge, not less, for the sole purpose that our students deserve to be able to do more than fit into the culture of one country. They might, if we find space to colour in the black and white, learn the interconnectness of the world they live in.
This is not about diversity for the sake of audits or political correctness. It helps students to be part of the narrative of now – not just the narrative of the colonial past.
When I was a teenager, I had a moment of realisation. I didn’t fit into the narrative of England, the country I was born in. I couldn’t find myself in any of the stories; as a student of literature, I was desperate to feel like I had a place. I sought it out many years later, but I recognise my privilege in being able to. Perhaps that is what we owe our students: including knowledge in the curriculum that exists outside of the narrow lens of colonial history. The understanding that they are one small diamond on Indra’s net.
That reference may not be something you are culturally familiar with. Look it up. Colour in your own knowledge.
Bansi Kara is an assistant headteacher in London