Diversity beats adversity

16th January 2004 at 00:00
THE MONKEY'S MASK: Identity, Memory, Narrative and Voice. By Chris Kearney Trentham Books pound;17.99

Tim Brighouse reads a case for celebrating pupils' cultures in the curriculum, to atone for past failure to value them

This book is about identities. As it's the aim of all good teachers to make every child they teach feel special, the book should be of great interest to schools. But its target readership seems more one of researchers interested in theory, and policy-makers trying to implement national or local programmes.

There's a wealth of literature on the interlocking fields of culture and identity. Little is based on the sort of sound research that led to this book, so most is characterised by over-simplistic generalisation. Chris Kearney avoids this, as you would expect from someone with a distinguished career as a primary teacher in the inner city followed by some years in initial teacher education at Goldsmiths College.

The book is based on sensitively conducted interviews with six successful adults in their thirties - still young enough to remember their childhood, adolescence and schooling clearly, yet with the bulk of their careers in front of them. What the six have in common is that they all come from countries and cultures other than the British mainstream: three were born here; three arrived during childhood.

Some of their stories are spellbinding, such as that of My, daughter of a Chinese settler in Vietnam who was forced to flee as the Vietnamese tried to establish the supremacy of their own language and culture by force in the late 1970s. Kearney's case notes tell the story: "On one occasion they had to cross a rope bridge spanning a deep ravine. A pebble, or anything, dropped by accident would fall through the darkness for at least a minute before it reached the bottom. Her baby sister was being carried by her older brother. Midway across the bridge the baby began to cry. The soldiers ordered the family to throw her over the edge for fear that they all would be discovered and killed by enemy soldiers. Thinking quickly, My's mother took the baby and fed her. Her brother filled the baby carriage with a heavy object and let it drop into the ravine."

My's story also reveals the issue of multiple identity: "I have three strands to my identity: my Chinese strand, my Vietnamese strand and my English strand. If you take one away, there is no My."

I read this book while I was in the middle of preparing a speech on "education in a pluralist society" for a conference in Belfast and was immediately struck by the remarkable similarity between My's comments and those of the Irish writer John Hewitt: "I am an Ulsterman, of planter stock. I was born in the island of Ireland, so secondarily I am an Irishman. I was born in the British archipelago and English is my native tongue, so I am British. The British archipelago consists of offshore islands to the continent of Europe, so I am European. This is my hierarchy of values and, so far as I am concerned, anyone who omits one step in that sequence of values is falsifying the situation."

Both are concerned with identity of nationality, and Hewitt also refers to language. Yet we all have other identities that are important to how we see ourselves, such as religion (or the lack of it), music, art and culture, and, of course, race. As adults we also belong to a growing array of professional and interest-led communities. This multiplicity of identity is aided by what the director of the London School of Economics, Anthony Giddens, has dubbed our "runaway world". I couldn't help wishing the author had devoted rather more time to this and less to justifying research methods and outlining the precise contribution the book makes to our widening knowledge of identity and culture. But that's personal preference.

Towards the end of the book, Kearney's arguments become compelling as he turns to constructing a case against the recently revised national curriculum in the light of research evidence and our increasingly diverse pupil populations. So Nick Tate's 1999 paper in English in Education, "What is Education For?", and the QCA's Review of the National Curriculum: consultation papers (1999) are fairly challenged for their Euro-centric and Judaeo-Christian dominating assumptions. Ken Robinson's much neglected 1999 report, All our Futures: creativity, culture and education, is revealed correctly as much more appropriate to our times, with its emphasis on individual identity and on the provisional, contingent and subtly shifting nature of values and culture.

The book draws to a conclusion, therefore, by arguing for a curriculum that prepares pupils for all aspects of their life, not merely the world of work. Self-narrative should be at the centre of such a curriculum and there's a plea that we should stop burying our differences and work instead towards resolving difficulties and enjoying diversity. So why do I still feel dissatisfied?

The evidence from the six case study subjects is alarming. With one exception, they feel that school neither acknowledged their identity nor exploited the rich diversity of culture in their multicultural classrooms.

The exception is My, who refers to positive experiences that do not relate to being brought up in the inner city, but to a year she spent in a Cornish school. There, her teacher worked to connect with her ChineseVietnamese culture, preparing work that was relevant to her background and showing an interest, curiosity and respect about her life and culture. But more than this, she encouraged her to share her experiences with the Cornish children so that all gained understanding. By contrast, the other five tell of having to struggle, if not with language, then to have their heritage valued or even recognised at school.

So I content myself with the thought that these six witnesses are all in their thirties and that the current practice I see in some of the inner-city schools I visit is so different and better. That's why I hope Kearney will write a follow-up focusing on the practice in schools that is making a difference.

Tim Brighouse is commissioner for London schools

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