Civilisation is a race between education and catastrophe. It is up to you…to determine the winner of that race.H.G. Wells
It is easy sometimes when seeing stories from the U.S. like that of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers to see yourself as a spectator of racism. Something in Briton’s collective thinking see’s these stories as ‘over there’, ‘across the pond’ and such. It is an ode to the British education system that we try and excise ourselves from any accusation of systemic racism. ‘Black History’, that categorisation itself being problematic, in school was slavery being abolished by William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. Rosa Parks or Mary Seacole might have made an appearance if you were lucky.
If everything else is boiled down, this is the base-level problem we have in the UK. We are not taught our own history. Or should I say, history that is immediately relevant to the lives we live in 2020. So much time is spent in school learning about people, theories, complex mathematics and the like, that are not relevant to our daily lived experience, and our understanding of the complex machination of social forces at work in Capitalist society and within our democratic existence. Be honest, when will you ever need to know the ‘circle theorems’ or use them in daily life?
I’m not saying they are not important in a general sense of education. What I’m saying is that the ‘circle theorem’ example is typical of something that some people will find interesting and might need if they were to pursue certain career choices, but is not at all relevant to the majority of young adults who are discovering the realities of life on the outside.
I often found that school is a good incubator for students. Whilst at school, and whilst living with your parents, you remain in a state where you don’t necessarily have to think about the outside world or how to live and survive when you have to leave. Until you do.
Adult life shouldn’t hit you when you leave school. Your schooling should be the place where you are prepared, where your understanding of politics, history, geography, personal finances, basic economics is coupled with job interview training, CV-writing, thorough sex and relationships education and mental and physical health education.
And of course, one of the things that goes desperately and criminally untaught in our schooling is our own history, and especially the UK’s history of empire, slavery, abolition, and the history of racism and the black experience in modern Britain. Those topics are brushed over. Are they not important? Well that’s certainly the impression given to students by their teachers and by extension, society-at-large.
As a white male student, that’s a deeply uncomfortable and aggravating thought so I can only imagine what that must be like for students whose lived experience, whose parents, grandparents, great-grandparents lived experience is deeply ingrained within that history of white racism, white supremacy and white genocide.
As much as Henry VIII’s six wives and their respective fates are interesting, they are not important to understanding the modern world.
For a long time, there have been campaigns to decolonise our curriculums. What would that look like? Well to start with, I’d say, it would remove the false dichotomy that has been struck up between ‘black history’ and ‘history’. I would love to conduct a psychological study to see what kind of affect ‘black history month’ has on students. To me, what it does is consign what is crudely termed ‘black history’ to one month, separate from ‘actual history’ which I assume is synonymous with ‘white history’.
This is the first issue. What we are instilling within the minds of impressionable young students is that there is ‘white history’ and there is ‘black history’, and these categorisations exist in isolation of each other rather than imbed ‘black history’ as ‘our history’. It plants the idea in students mind’s that ‘white history’ is kings and queens, great inventions and winning world wars; ‘black history’ is slavery, Martin Luther King Jr and President Barack Obama. I know this to be true because it left that impression in me, that is the image of history I had in my head for a long time. I had to actively seek out history by choosing it at GCSE and A level, and by doing my own extra-curricular reading. As much as that is a positive thing that must be promoted, students shouldn’t have to seek it out.
In her lecture entitled ‘We should all be Feminists’, Nigerian-American writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie notes that “we are all social beings. We internalise ideas from our socialisation”. This really stood out to me despite being a statement of the obvious. It is the mantra by which we should see our education system, especially when it comes to learning, understanding, confronting the UK’s history.
In the current climate, I think it is unarguable that history should be compulsory until at least the age of 16, maybe even until you leave school. I cannot think of a subject more important than history to students understanding of the world – of where we have come from, where we’re at and where we’re heading.
The history of these isles is a history of empire, slavery, genocide, white supremacy, oppression, exploitation and racism. Our cities, our institutions, our infrastructure and our body politic were built on the backs of slaves. That is a history we can no longer afford to ignore, a history we should have never been allowed to forget.
So yes, let’s tear down the statues of murderous slavers, of notorious racists, fascists and white supremacists and remember them in the right environments for what they were. Let’s have those conversations about racism, prisons and police abolition. Let’s confront and deconstruct our history, and use that knowledge and understanding to lay the foundations for a better society and a better world.
That struggle starts with our education system. Last year, I read the ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ by Brazilian educator and social critic, Paulo Freire. He talks about education as revolutionary. He denounces the methods used by the oppressor – conquest, manipulation, divide and rule and cultural invasion, and argues for the liberation of humanity through new methods of education that raise the consciousness of society.
These are the principles we should apply to our education system. At this moment, it has never been more apparent that education is revolutionary. White people must use this moment to educate ourselves. The first part of this struggle is understanding, analysing and deconstructing our privilege, our context, our history. It is not okay to be passive or ‘neutral’. There is no such thing as ‘neutral’; you’re a racist or you’re an anti-racist. As the great Audre Lorde states, it is not enough to be a ‘non-racist’, you must be an ‘anti-racist’ in the struggle for basic human rights. Reading and knowledge is not passive, books are not passive – they are the deadliest of weapons, to be used to fight and struggle for a better world.
I will also take this opportunity to celebrate the fact that this week is the 33-year anniversary of the election of the first black and Asian Labour MP’s pictured above. From left to right, they are Paul Boateng, Bernie Grant, Keith Vaz and Diane Abbott all elected in 1987. Abbott became the first black female MP. They paved the way, and their extraordinary achievements must be celebrated. Solidarity to them! Rest in peace and power Bernie Grant.