Facing a test of identity

2nd April 2004 at 01:00
With a little more appeal to the lay reader, an academic's work on Muslim boys' relationship with school could be a winner, writes Tim Brighouse

Race, Masculinity and Schooling: Muslim boys and education By Louise Archer Open University Press pound;18.99

Some books have the guilt-inducing effect of making you daydream, so you have to go back and read again the passage you've just read. Sometimes the second attempt ends the same way, especially if you are reading something you have to study rather than something you want to read. Occasionally the author's style and its failure to match the reader's need gets in the way.

When you review books that can happen, too. And it happened to me with this book. But I'm glad I persisted, for I've widened my frame of thinking.

I came to this book full of enthusiasm. A decade in Birmingham had led me to speculate about children - especially boys - from Pakistani or Bangladeshi backgrounds and about the interplay of Islam, geography, masculinity, family traditions, inter-generational rivalries and western culture on them and their behaviour. The east London borough of Tower Hamlets today faces similar conditions, in which the older generation cannot easily acknowledge the behaviour of some - thankfully a few - of their youngsters, who appear to be emulating the worst aspects of the gang culture that is all too familiar in working-class white and poor black communities.

So I expected a book that would tell me what to do. I hungrily tackled the opening and closing chapters, expecting all would be vividly revealed. But it wasn't. Why? Well, the author was locating her arguments for the scholars and researchers who are her principal audience. How could it be otherwise when the book is derived from her doctoral thesis? So that's when I had to do my double reading.

But the chapters in between are a different story, full of fascinating case-study material drawn from conversations between Asian interviewers and Asian boys in four secondary schools. All the boys identify themselves as Muslims. With some helpful commentary from the author, they also reveal their views on masculinity, the role of women, racism, sexuality and culture. We learn of their favourite school subjects, their career aspirations, of what they think of marriage, culture and home habits.

A complex set of shifting identities and pressures emerges that presents daily challenges to the boys' relationship with school and their teachers, who deal with them as best they can. Often teachers are not as well informed or sensitive as they'd like to be, or as Louise Archer undoubtedly is, and they need accessible and immediate help. Initial training does not prepare them adequately for the complex multi-cultural educational reality of so many large towns and cities.

What we need are researchers who can write not only for fellow scholars and university research assessors but for the practitioners in classrooms who are desperately concerned to learn more and to find a way of unlocking the minds and hearts of their pupils to whom religion, race, nationality and family tradition are just a few important strands in their multiple identity.

So my plea to Louise Archer and her colleagues is to write another book in co-operation with practising teachers so schools have a better chance of tackling the complex issues of Asian race and religion - and of course "institutional racism" which hovers as an unwelcoming systemic shadow at all our shoulders.

Tim Brighouse is commissioner for London schools

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