Set down in black and white

23rd June 2006 at 01:00
A journey that begins in the segregated southern US ends with salutary lessons for 21st-century Britain. Tim Brighouse applauds the enduring brilliance of James A Banks

Race, Culture and Education: the selected works of James A Banks

Routledge World Library of Educationalists pound;22.99

This book made me ashamed of my ignorance in a way that I recall happening only once before. I had just started my second teaching job, in a secondary modern in South Wales at the beginning of the 1960s. My fifth year O-levelCSE group - how sepia-tinted it all appears now - was studying 19th-century British history. I was relieved, as this had been my period of special interest and study at university and I was naturally anxious to pick up quickly from where my predecessor had left off. The syllabus was with the Welsh exam board. The extent to which my youthful confidence was misplaced soon became clear as I learned of and then rapidly taught the shockingly brutal mistreatment of the Welsh by the British during that period. "Why hadn't my education covered that?" I asked myself.

James A Banks was starting his teaching career in the United States at the same time, and asking similar but even more pointed questions. He had been brought up a poor black boy in Arkansas, where the implications of segregation were in his face every day. The opening chapters of Banks's contribution to Routledge's excellent series of key educationists' selected writings graphically illustrate the consequences of hypocrisy and double standards as applied to black Americans.

The 1954 Brown judgment, which provided the stimulus for a reluctant white community to accept the drive for integrated schooling, came too late to affect Banks's own childhood. So his first-hand account of segregation at water fountains, doctors' and dentists' surgeries, churches and, of course, schools is especially powerful.

Banks recalls asking himself during his schooldays: "Why were the slaves pictured in the history books as happy?I The image of happy slaves was inconsistent with everything I knew about the African-American descendants of enslaved people from my segregated community. We had to drink water from the fountains labelled 'colored' and we could not use the city library. But we were not happy about either of these legal requirements. In fact we resisted these laws in powerful and subtle ways each day. As children we savoured the taste of 'white water' when the authorities were preoccupied with more serious infractions against the racial caste system."

He describes, too, the bewilderment of black children when they were splashed by the mud from buses ferrying white children to previously all-black schools when finally action was taken to desegregate education.

And all this at a time when in the UK we were indignant about apartheid in Rhodesia and South Africa but often less interested in the situation across the Atlantic, and at home.

Banks, its founding father, understands why "multicultural" education has sometimes received a bad press. It only needs a gaffe by one of its over-enthusiastic followers to bring a hail of a criticism on its head. So "Baa baa rainbow sheep" stories surface from time to time, leading to derision even from those who perhaps are uncomfortably aware of the continuing individual and institutional racism in our midst. Each time this happens, the latent racism of the man (and it is usually a man) in the street is reinforced. Why else would the BNP prosper?

Banks is more than a founding father: he's a rigorous, pioneering thinker and the pre-eminent black academic of my lifetime. Reading these extracts, meticulously argued with not a hint of unsubstantiated opinion, you can see why his influence has been seminal. His definition of social science is the best and most compelling I have ever read. The opening chapter of the section on "Teaching decision making and citizen action" should be read by every politician and education leader in the country.

His analysis and clarification of the stages of scientific thinking needed for sound decision-making reminds the reader just how irrational our political process has become as politicians increasingly make decisions based on what they think people want to hear. It's timely to remind ourselves that this faulty process is also being applied to our schooling system. How schools are organised, funded and made accountable, what they teach and even how they teach it, who is admitted to which school: all these decisions are being made at a national level where the political-media interface is at its most insidious.

After reading this book it's hard not to be convinced that "critical enquiry" should be part of a much reduced national and international curriculum, and that every teacher in every subject area (but especially history) should be required to teach outside the set curriculum.

Banks's scholarly journey, shaped though it is by the civil rights movement, does not end with multiculturalism and race. It continues through the final section ("Democracy, diversity and citizenship") into what it means to educate citizens in a global age. Here you'll find the reasons why we should be uncomfortable with the current debate about teaching "Britishness".

Finally - a test of a really good book - this work provoked me to think again about two interrelated issues. First, the limitations of the pluralist viewpoint. In a helpful analysis of the assimilationist versus pluralist debate, Banks argues cogently for a middle way and sets out the consequences for policy and practice in the citizenship and refugeeasylum seeker arenas.

Second, and even more important, is the issue of "choice": a word and concept Banks does not explore, although I wish he had. All the courage and effort that brought about desegregation are now, years later, being sacrificed on the altar of the false god of "parental choice". In American and UK cities, schools are once more becoming mono-ethnic (and often single-faith), with all the long-term threat this represents to race relations and social harmony. Covert racists everywhere make their selfish choices.

Indeed, parental choice is arguably a prime example of institutional racism, perhaps the worst consequence of our whirlwind love affair with the application of market principles to the provision of public services. As with the environment, our grandchildren will find it difficult either to understand or to forgive our shortsightedness.

Tim Brighouse is chief adviser to the London Schools Challenge

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