Not long ago I visited Dachau concentration camp. Passing through the entrance gates, the infamous words ‘Arbeit macht frei’ welded into them, was chilling.
Wandering round I thought to myself, every youngster should come here. It raises so many important questions. How can things like this happen? What can we do to prevent such things happening again? How can we avoid being misled by our governments? For me, the answers all pointed towards one thing: the importance of protest.
Being an English teacher, I couldn’t help wondering how I might get across the importance of protest in my lessons. It didn’t take long to come up with William Blake as being an ideal poet to start with.
‘London’ is a familiar favourite, but there are ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ poems from ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ which could work well at key stage 2 or 3 perhaps.
The first describes Tom, a boy sold into chimney sweeping by his father after his mother’s death. Blake brilliantly evokes Tom’s innocence and is scathing of religious authority as the poor, exploited boy is told by a visiting angel ‘if he’d be a good boy, He’d have God for his father and never want joy’. The poem ends on an ostensibly conformist note, ‘if all do their duty, they need not fear harm’. But the irony is obvious.
And Blake’s protests against child labour in ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ poems are as relevant today as they were in the eighteenth century.
A UNICEF estimate states there are 150 million children engaged in child labour worldwide. As an example, a recent Human Rights Watch report states ‘at least a quarter of Afghan children between ages 5 and 14 work for a living or to help their families’.
So after studying Blake’s poems, we would discuss how child labour could be protested against now. This could raise questions about all the different methods of protest. As well as poetry’s value as a means of protest.
Blake expressed his resistance in poetry, but how might others protest? And what about? This might prompt students to engage in all manner of campaigning work on all manner of issues.
When the often noted refrain in the classroom is ‘what difference can I make?’, wouldn’t those protests be tremendously empowering for our students?
Tobias Fish teaches English in the East of England