The feminism A-level debacle shows how biased we are about ‘best thinkers’

Women have been thinking, campaigning and contributing to politics throughout history, just as men have. It is therefore self-evident that the A-level syllabus should reflect this

You couldn’t make it up. The Department for Education revises the specification for A-level politics, somehow manages to reduce the prominence of women within the new syllabus, triggers an international outcry, and is finally shamed into a u-turn after a petition attracts more than 40,000 signatures. Red faces all round.

Some may ask why this is important. Isn’t it most important that we expose our kids to the “best” thinkers, whoever they happen to be? Couldn’t it be considered tokenistic to insist on the inclusion of women simply because they are women? Is this whole debate just political correctness gone mad?

I couldn’t disagree more. Consider the impact on female students, for example. We often hear the mantra that “you can’t be what you can’t see”. In other words, to succeed we need figureheads and role models that we can relate to. What message does it send to girls when only 1 of the 16 named “key thinkers” on the syllabus is female? How do we encourage a new generation of young women to engage with politics when we imply the “default” politician is male? And what impression of women’s intellect, influence, and political contribution are we giving to male students, when 94 per cent of the thinkers we teach them about are men? If we want women to gain an equal place in society, it is vital that we give their history and perspectives a prominent status in the curriculum.

It’s not as though there’s a deficit of important female political thinkers. Even the government has a list of names

It’s not as though there’s a deficit of important female political thinkers. Funnily enough, when pressed, the government came up with a list of suitable names: Simone de Beauvoir, Rosa Luxemburg, and even Ayn Rand. I struggle to see how the inclusion of these influential figures could be seen as tokenism. As Helen Lewis recently wrote in the New Statesman, “Sucking all the women out of history creates an artificial narrative and leaves the story of literature only half told”. The same is true of politics; women have campaigned and contributed to politics throughout history, just as men have. To my mind, it is self-evident that the A-level syllabus should reflect this.

This whole debacle shows how vital it is to critically examine how we make decisions about who the “best” thinkers are. What unconscious bias shapes our assessments of importance and worth? We need to avoid simply replicating reading lists from previous generations, put together by teachers who themselves were rarely taught about significant minority thinkers. It’s all well and good focusing on core knowledge and cultural literacy – but we should also acknowledge that the canon is a shifting, politically charged concept. Consequently, the curriculum needs to be flexible and responsive enough to reflect changes in society.

Now women are back on the A-level politics agenda, is the problem solved? Not quite. As Dr Rupa Huq pointed out in Monday’s House of Commons debate, sections on nationalism and multiculturalism have also been removed from the new syllabus. Aside from a general subsection on “pressure groups”, there is no consideration of race, disability, or sexual identity in the new core A-level politics curriculum. Given the recent prominence of political movements such as Black Lives Matter, this feels like a huge omission and, frankly, a missed opportunity.

There’s no doubt that it is important for our students to be familiar with conservatism, liberalism and socialism. However, I believe it is equally important for A-level students to be taught about minorities and marginalised groups, resistance and liberation movements, to properly make sense of the modern political world. Let’s not forget that it was June Eric-Udorie – a 16-year-old ethnic minority schoolgirl – who started the petition that led the Department for Education to put women back on the politics curriculum. If we fail to include diverse voices on the syllabus, politically aware young people will take notice, and challenge the gaps in their curriculum. I can’t help but think that’s a good thing.

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