The gloomy conclusion of Cedric Cullingford's thought-provoking book is that prejudice begins at about the age of eight. Based on 160 interviews with children aged between six and 11, this study explores the ways in which children make sense of their world, and how attitudes are formed through experiences in the family, at school, and through contact with the media.
Cullingford begins by asking: Is hatred part of the human condition? Do all people have the capacity for hatred? Why are people as they are? The answer is that prejudice is learned alarmingly young.
The family itself is the source of much of this destructive early learning. The family, according to Cullingford, provides some of the earliest indications of suspicion, envy, jealousy and superiority. There may be envy of new siblings, and quarrels between siblings over space or unfair treatment. Envy, jealousy and competition for space are the manifestations of prejudice.
In school, children are aware by the age of eight that hard work and success are not necessarily closely related because some are more gifted than others. Prejudice can develop when children become aware of their limitations and compare themselves to their more successful peers. Such pressures lead many children to search for a middle way, in which they want to be seen as not too clever and not too stupid, as either exteme could lead to them being picked on.
Then there are the media. Cullingford shows how television bombards children with images. People quarrel and hate each other, kill each other and starve to death, and there are wars and disasters.
Images, of course, are often misunderstood as children try to make sense of what they see. But the book demonstrates that they draw some broad conclusions. America is seen as a land of riches; Australia is friendly (white people, warm sea and exotic animals), but an undifferentiated Africa is a land of the starving, with houses made of sticks and cowpats. The book's strength lies in the weight of evidence used to illustrate these points. The pupil voice has been diligently researched and is sensitively analysed. The quotations are well chosen and a delight to read. But Cullingford remains oddly silent on the remedies for the ills he has diagnosed. The implications for policy are "profound and practical" he states, but although the prognosis is hopeful, the prescription is lacking, Indeed, Cullingford dismisses tinkering with the curriculum as a remedy. But to those of us for whom curriculum reform is an integral part of whole-school development, challenging the images and prejudices that children bring with them to school must remain at the heart of the educational process.
Paul Goalen is director of studies in history at Homerton College, Cambridge. Citizenship curriculum reviews on pages 22 and 23