Teaching Boss Slams School Reading Lists: Not Interested in ‘Conservative’ Shakespeare, ‘Dead White Men’

William Shakespeare/National Education Union (NEU) joint general secretary Mary Bousted
Creative Commons

The head of the UK’s largest teaching union has warned that plans to move towards a ‘knowledge-based’ curriculum risks “hurtling” England into the past.

Dismissing plans for a traditional, academic curriculum as outdated, National Education Union (NEU) joint general secretary Mary Bousted argued the importance of including “identity”-focused figures to inspire people from minority groups.

Delivering a speech at Bryanston Education Summit, she said: “As an English teacher, I have no problem with Shakespeare, with Pope, with Dryden, with Shelley.

“But I knew in a school where there are 38 first languages taught other than English that I had to have Afro-Caribbean writers in that curriculum, I had to have Indian writers, I had to have Chinese writers to enable pupils to foreshadow their lives in the curriculum.”

According to Bousted, whose union represents more than 500,000 education workers, teachers should be focused on developing skills like “resilience” in pupils rather than engaging them with great works of literature, because the literary canon is conservative and too white.

“If a powerful knowledge curriculum means recreating the best that has been thought by dead, white men — then I’m not very interested in it,” the Times Educational Supplement reported her saying.

While 2014 curriculum reforms ensure that pupils must study at least one Shakespeare play before they finish school, as well as a 19th-century novel, Bousted suggested that canonical texts should come packaged with warnings they are out-of-date, privilege-tainted and inherently oppressive.

“It is important for students to know some of ‘the best that has been thought and said’ but it is also important for them to know that it was a choice that was made and a choice made by the powerful.

“So you can have an uncomplicated reading of Shakespeare which is ‘it’s just about society’. Actually, Shakespeare was an intensely conservative writer who wrote a lot of time to bolster the divine right of kings – so you need different voices in that.”

Moving to emphasise content and knowledge in schools was creating a curriculum “not fit for the world in 2018”, Bousted told the event, insisting that “skills need to be fostered, nurtured and evaluated”.

Colleges and universities in Britain have increasingly come under attack in recent years as supposedly “white spaces, in which whiteness – and white privilege – dominates”, with left-wing academics and students demanding educational institutions “address the toxic Eurocentricity entrenched in every nook, cranny and crease”.

Seeking to replace writers, scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians in university curriculums with thinkers from the global South — with growing success — the movement’s advocates claim they are “decolonising” British institutions, despite the fact that white people are indigenous to the British Isles.


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