THE Qualifications and Curriculum Authority recently reported that some teachers felt that a passage on the Loch Ness monster in the key stage 3 English test was "unsuitable for inner-city pupils".
Are these teachers saying that inner-city children can't understand or enjoy stories about the Loch Ness monster? But why not? Because they are unfamiliar with such things? How many children from rural areas or leafy suburbs, I wonder, have seen monsters (or been to Loch Ness)? Are these teachers really saying that inner-city children can relate only to things they have experienced, to fact, not fiction? The claim is either ridiculous or patronising.
On one reading the claim is based on the belief that human beings generally can't understand or enjoy stories about unfamiliar things. This is ridiculous. On the other reading the claim is based on the belief that inner-city children in particular can't understand or enjoy stories about unfamiliar things. This is patronising.
Human beings are unique in their ability to spin fantasy, to daydream, to create fictions. Young people can spend hours lost in a world of their own, in the bosom of a made-up family (because when they look at their own family it is clear they are foundlings), or in a life where homage is paid to them as astronauts, supermodels, gangland heroes or dot.com millionaires. Such day dreams are important. Not only do they enhance self-esteem by representing the secret desires and aspirations that make us the individuals we are, they can also be the start, as they say, of something big.
Some people do actually make their dreams come true. Many more spend their lives wishing they could make them true. And, of course, they are fun, whether drawn from our own imagination or stimulated by stories read. Didn't you enjoy The Hobbit? The Chronicles of Narnia? Alice in Wonderland? Star Trek or Doctor Who?
And there is a deeper philosophical point here. Our ability to fantasise, to imagine the world as other than it is, enables us to entertain possibilities, to ask ourselves "What if?" This leads us to ask how we might bring these possibilities about, to the creative planning of strategies by which to make them happen. If we couldn't imaginatively picture our achievement of short and long-term goals, or plan trategies by which to achieve them, we would be like animals, tied to the world as we experience it. The human ability to change the world, to make it a better (or different) place, is wholly dependent on our ability to understand and enjoy thinking about things we haven't experienced.
So the idea that human beings in general can't understand or enjoy thinking about the unfamiliar is absurd and shows a complete misunderstanding of human nature.
But if we acquit the teachers concerned of the charge of being ridiculous, we shall have to accuse them of being patronising, of saying that inner-city children can't understand or enjoy thinking about unfamiliar things.
But why not? What distinguishes inner-city children from rural children or children from the leafy suburbs? It couldn't be that they're (often) lower class or ethnic minorities could it? If so, the claim, in effect, is that lower-class or ethnic minority children have something wrong with them that prevents them exercising their imagination. Are these teachers really saying that imagination is a white, middle-class prerogative?
This is wicked nonsense. Why should any human being, whose birthright is imagination, remain trapped in the here and now? How can the fact that the here and now is depressing so trap them? Arguably, (some) lower-class children have an advantage over middle-class children when it comes to exercising imagination.
They have more time, opportunity and motivation. Instead of being ferried from ballet practice to clarinet lessons, from cricket matches and on to swimming sessions, they are left to their own devices. Instead of their future being mapped out by ambitious parents, it is left entirely up to them. And instead of experiencing the world as just as it should be, they experience it as other than it should be.
Nothing, other than the low expectations of some teachers, prevents inner-city children from exercising as much imagination as other children who live elsewhere. But you can bet that if their teachers give them the impression that they can't do it, that their poor start in life traps them in the here and now, they'll never do it. Whose failure of imagination are we talking about here?
Marianne Talbot teaches philosophy at Brasenose College, Oxford.