Critiques, cricket and chips

3rd September 2004 at 01:00
Despite the presence of one famous big hitter, Tim Brighouse is not bowled over by a selection of writings on race

The RoutledgeFalmer Reader in Multicultural Education: critical perspectives on race, racism and education

Edited by Gloria Ladson-Billings and David Gillborn

RoutledgeFalmer pound;22.50

Richie Benaud, the Australian former cricket all-rounder turned commentator, has been indulged this summer. As every cricket supporter will know - the game has nothing so plebeian as fans, despite its not-so-loveable "barmy army" - he's been assembling his greatest XI during the lunch intervals of Channel 4's coverage of the Test matches.

What, you may ask, has this got to do with the RoutledgeFalmer Readers series and, in particular, this one on multicultural education? The answer is quite a lot. Just as Benaud has to select from a vast field of potential candidates, so the editors have to decide which writings to include and which to overlook. Also, unlike Benaud, who at least has a convention of classification (opening batsman, middle order, wicketkeeper and bowlers), editors have to invent their own.

At least part of the judgment of this book depends on the coherence of the classification and the quality of the selection. Gloria Ladson-Billings and David Gillborn attempt a transatlantic analysis and collection of writings in a field narrower than the publisher presumably intended. They admit the choice for possible inclusion is vast - as it is for any editor, or for Benaud - and the multicultural field is wide. So they acknowledge that they can't find room for anything on bilingualism. That's like Benaud saying he has no room for spin bowlers. But they also don't cover issues of faith and religion, even in the section on identities. Nor do they acknowledge the omission. This is like forgetting the wicketkeeper.

The main focus of the Reader, then, is on issues of "race", anti-racism theory and practice, and race equality. The first of four parts covers theories and includes a piece by Ladson-Billings on the comparatively new field of "critical race theory". It's in this section that Gillborn includes his contribution: a comprehensive analysis of the history of anti-racism, including a succinct passage, "Murder in the Playground", which puts the 1986 killing of Ahmed Iqbal Allah at Burnage school, Manchester, into a perspective it never achieved at the time. James Banks provides a parallel account of the history of race and education in the United States. The book would be better for more in-depth comparative analysis of the UK and US experiences.

The second section, covering identities and the interplay across race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality, has an excellent chapter by Tony Sewell on the myth of the "black macho lad". Sewell has done much to connect theory and research to school practices in a way that teachers, parents and the community can understand and use. His voice is always calm, critical, balanced and persuasive in an arena where feelings arising from real and perceived injustice run high. Crucially, he helps practitioners see how we can acknowledge the prejudices we have inherited down many generations and begin to change the environment so that it's fairer for this and future generations of black children.

A chapter from the next section, on life in school, returns painfully to the same theme that Ghazala Bhatti vividly illustrates: the distress caused, albeit mostly unwittingly, by teachers' reactions to incidents in mixed-race classrooms. As the editors put it, some of the book's contributors are "especially challenging for readers who self-identify as 'white' and never have realised how their routine actions and assumptions can be deeply implicated in a racial structuring of power and opportunity".

The final section, on methods (doing critical research), I expected to enjoy least until I saw the name of Michael Apple, a giant among the contributors. His career as teacher, campaigner, researcher and compelling writer is enviably distinguished and his piece does not disappoint. His chapter ranges critically across research methods, practice and values and is the only one to provide insights into the similarities and subtle differences across the US, the UK and other countries.

Like all good teachers, he can't resist the use of story, and here he tells a compelling one: the account of his visit to an unnamed developing country where a former student drives him on a long journey through the countryside to meet some teachers. The roadside is regularly punctuated with small billboards advertising the fact that the country's potato farmers, aided by the latest labour-saving machines, are in thrall to an internationally known US-based fast food chain. Apple makes the connections. He outlines the tax breaks which persuade the restaurant chain to transfer abroad the production of its potato crop - tax breaks which in turn mean a lack of public funds in the developing country to address the problems of the urban slums swollen by the flight of peasants from the countryside to the city.

His erstwhile student driver concludes: "Michael, these fields are the reason there's no schools in my city. There's no schools because so many folks like cheap French fries."

Apple's contribution is followed by another seminal piece, "The Silenced Dialogue", written almost 20 years ago by Lisa Delpit in the Harvard Educational Review. It dissects the crucial importance of language, habits of speech, dialect and accent in the chances of black youngsters in a white society and illustrates how, until these are addressed, the odds are weighted against them.

These two chapters are the high points in a volume which includes many other sharply focused critiques of issues to do with being black, Asian or white, and the consequences for power and equity.

So although the book isn't what it appears to be, and although even within its narrowly defined field it fails to touch on racism among African-American, Caribbean and Asian peoples, or on the growing issue of mixed-race identity, it deserves sympathy. After all, you have to feel sympathetic towards a pair of editors who have taken no royalties.

In any case, this book is worth reading for Michael Apple alone. Let's finish with his words: "The denial of basic human rights, the destruction of the environment, the deadly conditions under which people (barely) survive, the lack of a meaningful future for thousands of childrenI is a reality that millions of people experience every day. Educational work that is not connected to a powerful understanding of these realities is in danger of losing its soul. The lives of our children demand more."

Powerful stuff. And I've bought my last portion of cheap French fries.

Tim Brighouse is commissioner for London schools

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