Dead White Dudes

According to the modern day indicators, I was ‘deprived’ as a child, although I never really felt that way.

I am from a single parent family and I got free school meals. We weren’t dirt poor, but we didn’t get the child support we were meant to and life was a bit of a struggle for my mum. We were your classic ‘latchkey kids’ because my mum had to work and there was no other adult present. I wore second hand uniforms and went to a state comprehensive in White City. This last bit means I have something in common with Michael Gove, in that I also support QPR. Perhaps this is why we both live in a state of permanent optimism. Not much can get you down when your team is as bad as that.

Further signs of my deprivation could be the fact that I left school at sixteen, that I never made it to a Russell Group University, and that I have a deficit of Dead White Dudes in my education. Especially English ones (we don’t hear so much about the Welsh or Scottish or Irish ones …)

I can remember studying Animal Farm, and Lord of the Flies, and Macbeth, but I definitely wasn’t taught Chaucer, or Dickens, or Homer. My fondest memory is of doing a long, self directed writing project with Miss Ladd. The books that I associate with my childhood are those that I read myself at home, not at school. Our school was in ILEA, so we got free music lessons, and a local authority grant (the last of its kind) gave me the chance to train as a dancer. My school was fine: some great teachers, some not so great.

When I did ‘A’ level Β at evening classes we studied great women novelists – Austen and Eliot and Charlotte Bronte. At university (an ex-poly) I found modern writers: Toni Morrison and John Steinbeck were happy discoveries. We read Dickens, and I can see the brilliance, but he didn’t really strike a chord with me. Sorry. That’s fiction for you: not everyone likes the same stories.

Have I suffered from a deficit of Dead White Dudes? If I was the equivalent of the ‘deprived but intelligent child’ that people want to save, would life have worked out better for me if someone had swooped in with a spoonful of Dickens at just the right time?

The problem with the notion of an ‘elite’ is that it elevates some kinds of lives above others. If your purpose in life is to be as clever as you can get, then that’s one possibility and very good luck to you. But others choose to be as creative, or as caring, or as kind, or as helpful, or as adventurous as they can get instead. And there’s nothing wrong with that, is there?

I couldn’t possibly put it better than Robert Frost (not so long dead and an American, but hey ho):

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less travelled by,
and that has made all the difference.”

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12 Responses to Dead White Dudes

  1. Harry Webb says:

    I grew up in a working class area and went to a comprehensive school. My first term at school we studied no subjects; instead we did “The Planet Project”. You see, we had landed on an alien planet so we had to map it, learn the language, filter water to drink etc. It was dismal. How I would have loved for someone to try to make me clever!

    I too lived in a single parent household and my Dad is really what made the difference. He always had lots of books around and I used to read. I ended up going to a sixth form college that was far better than my secondary school. One day, in the lower sixth, my chemistry teacher suggested that I go on a visit to Cambridge University with the students who were thinking of applying – it had never occurred to me but what harm could it do? I ended up studying at Cambridge and I believe that my life has been greatly enriched by this experience.

    You won’t like me suggesting this, but your argument sounds to me like a paternalistic old-fashioned Tory argument,”Some people enjoy being footmen. They are happy knowing they have a place in the world. We can’t all be running the country. Owning a large estate is a great burden.” I’ve never been convinced that we should discourage state school kids from studying at ‘elite’ universities. I have actually heard a well meaning colleague say to a child who had expressed an interest in Oxford that, “you might not like it there – it can be hard to fit in.” Such attitudes that entrench social division and keep the working class down.


  2. suecowley says:

    I guess it all depends on whether your view of ‘success’ in life has to involve going to Oxford or Cambridge. I certainly wouldn’t discourage anyone from doing so, but equally I wouldn’t suggest that it is the be all and end all of life. It’s like saying that going to a private school is somehow superior to going to a state one, and I don’t buy into that attitude at all.

    I don’t think I was making an argument that people shouldn’t have access to knowledge, that would be silly. I was just explaining that I don’t feel terribly deprived by the fact that I didn’t study lots of dead white male writers at school. I definitely would have been deprived if I hadn’t had access to a local library where I could read the books that I wanted to read. I would hope that you and anyone else who pushes the argument about ‘core knowledge’ and deprivation is fighting tooth and nail to keep their local libraries open, alongside those of us who simply love to connect children with books.

    Is the only type of culture you approve of ‘high art’ (which usually translates as male, white, dead?) or do you see any value in other kinds of culture? I would love to hear an actual definition of the ‘cultural inheritance’ that you mentioned previously. Is ‘culture’ something that lies in the hands of the elite, or do we all contribute to and create it?


    • Harry Webb says:

      E D Hirsch suggests that all children should be given the background knowledge that is assumed by the writers of the New York Times. He then analyses this. You may be familiar with the argument; writers do not define all of the terms that they use – such prose would be inpenetrable – and so they make assumptions. He analysed what these assumptions would require a reader of the New York Times to know and this started the process of the Core Knowledge curriculum.

      I assume that he focused on one paper in order to make the task manageable. I would want to broaden it to include all the broadsheet press and literature (online or paper) aim at the general reader. As E D Hirsch points out; this does not require knowing anything at a great deal of depth. For instance, it is interesting to contemplate what background knowledge is assumed by the writers of this story on the BBC website Some of it might be accessible with use of a dictionary (although this would make reading the article a little annoying) but a sense of the geopolitical interplay between Russia, China and the US, and which is essential to understanding the story, would not. And how would we interpret the following?

      “Tuesday saw the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party praise Mr Snowden for ‘tearing off Washington’s sanctimonious mask’.”

      Who is Washington?
      Why is Washington wearing a mask?
      Why is it relevant that this statement comes from the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist party?
      etc. etc.

      To be engaged in civil society then people need to be able to access the information that is relevant to civil society. If we don’t teach children a coherent body of knowledge then we fail them and condemn them to a lesser place in society.


  3. suecowley says:

    Thank you for taking the time to respond in such detail, Harry. It’s very useful to hear someone actually articulate what the knowledge argument is.

    I think what you are essentially talking about is the ability to interpret what a writer says, and to understand layers of meaning in language. To me, this would be more important in understanding that article than a ‘body of core knowledge’. For instance, with the article you quote, I need to understand that Washington is being personified, that the mask is a metaphor and what the word ‘sanctimonious’ means. It also helps to have some sense of the political divide between the US and China. I think a good writer could help me to understand the political and historical context through what they chose to include in the article. Where it gets tricky for children is in the understanding of how language works to produce (or obscure) meaning, which is why we write in a slightly simplified way for them.

    One of my fears with the notion of ‘core knowledge’ is that a small group of people are likely to be involved in deciding what it is (unless you are suggesting that teachers in separate schools would decide on their own ‘core body’ – which I don’t think you are because then it wouldn’t be a ‘common’ core). And I do strongly suspect that there will be a powerful male, white, dead dude bias in what is chosen, because if your average journalist/politician is anything to go by it will be mostly white privately educated men making the choice. This worries me generally, and also particularly in my subject (English) and in other ‘creative’ subject areas, which is the point I was trying to make in this blog post.

    Personally I think one of the biggest dangers that schools run into is the possibility of putting children OFF reading and making language feel less pleasurable for them. I’ve just done an assembly at my children’s school, and it was worrying for me as a parent and a teacher that I didn’t see every single hand go up when I asked if they all read every night for pleasure. If my children meet thousands of words a day, in the books they read each night, this body of knowledge will build up gradually over time (my role being to input the right kind of books at the right moments). If they don’t read avidly, I don’t see that specifying what they should ‘know’ is going to solve the problem because they won’t remember or retain it, or see its significance.

    You can input knowledge and information all you like, but if a child is not interested and receptive (or if you are not brilliant at helping them become interested and receptive) then you are basically wasting your time. If they don’t understand and retain it, we are fooling ourselves that it has any value at all. However, if a child loves reading and learning, then they can come to the knowledge and understanding both with the help of school and also with the help of their parents. Just because I didn’t ‘dig’ Dickens, doesn’t mean I am somehow lacking in intellectual capacity. Just because I don’t have an in depth appreciation of the historical background to his novels, doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy his stories and the characters he creates. It might add to my pleasure, like knowing the history and politics behind To Kill a Mockingbird does, but my pleasure is not spoilt without it.

    I suspect that we may just have to agree to disagree on this one, as I’m clearly not going to convince you, and vice versa. However, it has been very interesting for me discussing these ideas with you. Thank you.


  4. Harry Webb says:

    No. I am afraid that you cannot use transferable inference skills to understand the article that I linked to. They do not exist and the science is clear on this. You might want to read ‘The knowledge deficit’ by E D Hirsch for a thorough explanation. However, one simple example is that students would need to know that Washington is the capital of the USA and that in this article it is representing the US government. If you run from knowledge then, just as you outline, children need to pick it up elsewhere i.e. at home. This then favours middle class students and perpetuates social division.


    • suecowley says:

      Well, I just did use my transferable skills, because I’m not an expert on Chinese or American politics, but I was able to use my brain and figure out what the personification/metaphor meant. If I hadn’t I might have done something like ask my partner who much prefers to read newspapers than books or even have a look on the internet. And quite frankly when people say things like ‘the science is clear on this’ I think this:

      Do you honestly believe that not knowing that Washington is the capital of America = deprivation? And that if these children did know this that they would no longer be deprived? To be honest, there were probably huge gaps in my knowledge when I left school, but because I can read and I enjoy learning, I have plugged those gaps myself. For many years I didn’t know much about the geography of the UK, even though we studied it at school. But the way I have learned it is through travelling the UK for work and needing to know where places are. (Learning does NOT start when you start school and finish when you leave school, and secondary is only a tiny portion of it, I’m going to blog shortly about that subject).

      Rather than saying we should run from knowledge, my argument is that we shouldn’t leave it solely up to middle class white dudes to decide what it is, because I suspect they will tell us that the ‘canon’ is middle class (right wing?) white dudes. (For instance, in the UK do you choose the Telegraph, or the Guardian, as your ‘touchstone’? It would make a big difference, wouldn’t it?)

      I think also you’re a Physics teacher (is that right?) rather than an English/Drama teacher like me, so obviously in your subject there may be a different emphasis on knowledge than in mine. Although that doesn’t stop people in my field from making a case for those dead old white dudes I was talking about in my post.

      It’s always lovely to argue though, I do like a good debate!


  5. Emma says:

    Sue, I think you have just voiced my own concerns about the dead white dude canon of literature. I think you and I also come at it from the early days of the National Curriculum, where the canon was seemingly decided by live-white-dudes-over-lunch methods. It worries me immensely that intertextuality seems to be the only main reason for a knowledged-based curriculum, whereby you can only understand Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” for example if a) you have read Genesis and the parables and Aesop’s Fables b) you have read “East of Eden” and you have read Robert Burns poems, as well as a plethora of others, notably Whitman and Thoreau. It’s also very problematic because say, for instance, you tackle “Frankenstein”, then you might want to cover some Milton and some other Old Testament stuff, and likewise with many, many other texts. Books aren’t just about what they contribute to what comes after, and intertextuality isn’t the only way of reading a book.

    And then, how do you go about teaching everything you’d need to know to unlock a text to the nth depth?

    Ironically, I advise all students reading “Of Mice and Men” to read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Stephen King’s “The Green Mile” – neither of which influenced the novel and neither of which came before it. Having said that, there’s a whole lot to be said for reading for the sheer pleasure of it.

    Living and teaching in France has given me a very jaded view of knowledge-based curriculum, where ‘facts’ are the be-all and end-all, and 9 year olds have to parse sentences in terms of nominal group, verbal group, direct complement of the object and indirect complement of the object, circumstantial complements – the whole nine yards. It’s also opened up a world of literature which has made me see just how limited my reading of English literature is, given how much of it seems to have been directly stolen from the French, who in turn stole it from the Italians.

    Being able to read has given me the ability to make intertextual connections myself; my library gave me those skills. Having access to books was the vital thing. In school, we ploughed through worthy white men texts and it was very helpful in becoming an English teacher. I’m not sure how my other school friends view it for their careers, their reading pleasure or their current lives. The danger, for me, of going back to a knowledge-based curriculum are two-fold: who decides on the knowledge, and how do they do so? The other danger is that we English teachers go back to ‘teaching books’ rather than ‘teaching English’ or ‘teaching literature’.

    I apologise for the epic rant, but I wanted to let you know just how glad I am that somebody out there seems to be talking sense. Long may you type!


    • suecowley says:

      Thanks for your reply Emma, I love the description of ‘live-white-dudes-over-lunch’ deciding the national curriculum.

      I have spent this morning doing an assembly on ‘reading for pleasure’ at my son’s school. I’m going to blog about it shortly, but suffice to say it was interesting to see how schools run the risk of putting children off books and a love of reading as they grow older. And where does knowledge live? Oh in books of course πŸ™‚

      The access to books, alongside the development of an early love of reading, are surely the point that many people are missing here? A knowledge sandwich eaten at age 14 is not going to fix the problems of a child who is totally disaffected with education or who has never learned how to use language.

      It was interesting for me to think back on my own education (a very long time ago) and to see which books I remembered having studied. The ones that stuck did so not because of the knowledge that surrounded them but because they were BRILLIANT BOOKS.


  6. Harry Webb says:

    I am not going to respond to ad hominem arguments. Clearly, in the article that I linked to, there is a requirement to understand that Washington is the capital of the USA and that journalists often refer to a countries capital as a personification of the country’s views e.g. “Bejing stated that…”. Otherwise, you cannot comprehend that part of the text and no transferable skill is going to help you with that.

    I would bet that many primary and even secondary school students would not know either fact. Learning capital cities is a classic example cited by those who are against “rote” learning. Of course, middle class students who sit down with their parents to watch the news will pick this up anyway. But those from deprived backgrounds will not and that is why your preferred form of teaching cements social division.

    The idea that you can teach children to be “learners” is not supported by any scientific evidence although many educationalists espouse it.

    You seem more interested in introducing politics than I am. I was very clear at the start that an educated adult should be able to read all of the broadsheets so I don’t see why you now want me to choose between the Guardian and the Telegraph. The argument about “Dead White Dudes” goes nowhere: If you are a minority that is oppressed in a society does it advantage you to not be able to access the key sources of information in that society? No.

    You may be interested in this.


    • suecowley says:

      So I looked up ‘ad hominem’ (although you could have just written it in a way that didn’t exclude those of us who didn’t learn Latin). I could write this response in Portuguese because I’m fluent in it, but then you might not be so I won’t.

      I would love to know what your subject is (or was if you did teach). Because I’m not convinced that there is a ‘common core’ in my subject (English Lit), not because of anything personal towards you πŸ™‚ Physics, geography, history, they all have facts (a.k.a. knowledge). That was the whole point of this blog – that story books don’t!


  7. Pingback: The Great Knowledge vs Skills (Non?)Debate? | Creative Teacher Support

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