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Black kids should study Larkin Decolonising the curriculum is a patronising effort

Who are you trying to decolonise? Credit: Barry Wilkinson/Radio Times via Getty Images

Who are you trying to decolonise? Credit: Barry Wilkinson/Radio Times via Getty Images


June 29, 2022   8 mins

On a Friday morning in March 2020, I entered a secondary school for the first time since I had left for university. I was there for an interview. The opening was for a tutor, not a teacher: instead of handling a class of up to 30 students, I would deal with a small group of five students or tĂȘte-Ă -tĂȘte with just one student. I got the job that Friday afternoon, and would start the following Monday. A week later, Britain went into lockdown.

Schools closed and the summer exams were cancelled, but I kept my new job. It was a comprehensive school, and my brief was to tutor kids who were academically struggling through Google Meet, the fat and ugly cousin of Zoom. Because everything was up in the air, I was given free rein to teach the kids whatever I wanted that could reasonably be considered English Literature. So I decided to teach them about the poets I have enjoyed since I was little, such as Philip Larkin and Seamus Heaney. Those few months constituted one of the best periods of my life.

The OCR, one of the main exam boards in England, will remove the poetry of Heaney and Larkin (among other poets) from its school syllabus this September. Their justification is simple: the syllabus needs to be more inclusive and exciting. Heaney and Larkin are male and stale. They reflect a bygone era that doesn’t speak to an increasingly diverse classroom. They will be replaced by poets from British-Somali, British-Guyanese and Ukrainian backgrounds, and one of the first black women in 19th century America to publish a novel. 14 out of the 15 new writers added to the syllabus will be non-white. Jill Duffy, the chief executive of the OCR, stated: “This is an inspiring set of poems that demonstrates our ongoing commitment to greater diversity.”

This change is part of a wider movement to decolonise the curriculum. For too long, supporters of this movement argue, schools have deliberately excluded people of colour from the English canon and History textbooks. Just as ethnic minority people are discriminated against across society, they are marginalised in the classroom, and the latter injustice reinforces the former. One way to challenge this state of affairs is to decentre white, male authors, replacing them with writers who fall into other categories.

Jeffrey Boakye, the author of the recent book, I Heard What You Said, is a prominent advocate for decolonising the curriculum. Boakye, a black British man of Ghanaian heritage, argues that teachers should engage more vocally with race politics. For him, “being a non-white teacher is an inherently political position”. And the reason why the curriculum is “so unapologetically white is the arrogance of empire”. Our values, he argues, are rooted not in “scientific, political and industrial revolutions” but “in genocide, slavery and colonialism”.

Boakye is an English teacher. And English, according to the movement to decolonise the curriculum, should advance social justice. In his book, Boakye refers to one of his students, a black girl called Gertrude; he writes that after he taught her a poem called “Checking Out Me History”, by the British-Guyanese poet John Agard, she felt seen. “It spoke to her experience of a white education that didn’t speak to her sense of personal history.” The poem mentions figures from history like Toussaint L’Ouverture and Mary Seacole: we are supposed to believe it is great precisely because it celebrates black heroes.

The viewpoint of the curriculum decolonisers is based on the assumption that black students resonate most with poetry written by black poets. That is nonsense. Why should a black African student, for instance, identify at all with a poem written by a West Indian man? Because of their shared race? Race is not the only thing that defines the life and experiences of a person; I used to think only avowed racists believed it does. At a more practical level, why should a poem be taught if it can speak to students only on the basis of their being black: what about the Asian and white and mixed-race students in the classroom? This is not inclusion; it is division.

Decolonising the curriculum takes place at a superficial level, whereas I taught Larkin to my students because his poems move me at a visceral level: they convey the sense that, yes, this is what it is like to be haunted by fear and loneliness and impotence. And they do so with artistic virtuosity, using the right words in the right order to express such feelings. Consider these contrasting descriptions of death in his late masterpiece “Aubade”, both of them spot on but stylistically different from each other: the straightforward description is the “anaesthetic from which none come round”, and the more elegant version is:

The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is not a male or stale sentiment; this is a poem full of versatility and exactness, range and compactness. In other words, it is characterised by stylistic diversity, which should be a more relevant form of diversity in an English Literature classroom than the vagaries of skin pigmentation.

The poetry critic Jeremy Noel-Tod argues in a piece for the New Statesman that someone like Larkin should be replaced by the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka. He writes that, “as a white teenager growing up in rural Norfolk in the Nineties, I wish my teachers had taken the chance to talk about the Soyinka poem in class”, because the Nigerian poet “might have helped us to understand structural racism as the scaffolding of the home country we took for granted”. If Noel-Tod wants to argue Soyinka is as good a poet as Larkin, fair enough, but his argument doesn’t reference art or merit. He is treating poetry as a sub-set of sociology — arguing that we should read non-white poets because they offer us insights into social and political issues.

If English is simply another variant of sociology or politics, why should the study of it be distinguished from these subjects? Sheffield Hallam University has recently been criticised for suspending its English Literature degree and incorporating it into a degree that consists of Literature, Creative Writing and Language. The justification for this proposal is that the study of English should serve a purpose, that it should have tangible benefits, such as enabling students to get a professional job. Many of the people who advocate for decolonising the curriculum might object to this, not recognising that they are also arguing that English should have a purpose — not getting students a job, but making them less racist. Even if they don’t officially want English to be assimilated into other fields of the humanities, like politics, in practice that is what they promote.

This is profoundly patronising to a writer such as Soyinka. He is the first African to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. But a white poetry critic like Noel-Tod doesn’t value him for his artistry, but for his activism.

Suggested reading
Black kids should study Larkin

By Kate Clanchy

Another problem with filtering literature through this rigidly ideological lens is that it disables the fundamental quality of any devoted lover of literature: curiosity. It stops us from reflecting on the particular cultural context of a poet or his poetry, and instead takes a reductive view of writers. Consider the case of Seamus Heaney: why should a poet who grew up in rural Northern Ireland, in a Catholic family, be seen as embodying the white, male British establishment? Ultimately, though, what matters to those who love Heaney and Larkin is not their identities; it is their expert manipulation of language.

I love the firmness of Heaney’s lyricism and his scrupulous eye. In “Blackberry-Picking”, for instance, he writes of both the joy (“You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet / Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it / Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for / Picking”) and the darker side to this endeavour (“But when the bath was filled we found a fur, / A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache. / The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush / The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour”). This is what ultimately distinguishes poetry, not communicating a direct message, but evoking a powerful sensibility.

Of course, a poet’s ability to do this does not depend on their race. The fact that great poets from non-white backgrounds are excluded from study is bad. But it is bad not because the identities of such poets are not being “centred”; it is bad because students are missing out on great poetry. Blindness to the artistic work of ethnic minority people is worthy of criticism, but assessing such writers on a tokenistic or ideological basis is another form of blindness: in both cases, the poetic merits of their work are ignored.

Those who support decolonising the curriculum see the relationship between non-white and white authors only in terms of conflict. They see it as a zero-sum game: we need to decentre white and male writers to empower writers from marginalised communities. But this underestimates the debt that many non-white authors owe to the traditions of Western literature. Writers are always in conversation with each other. Toni Morrison is renewing William Faulkner; Zadie Smith is renewing Dickens; Derek Walcott is renewing Homer. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was written in part as a rejection of Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but the title of Achebe’s novel is taken from a poem by William Butler Yeats and the plot resembles the structure of a Greek tragedy. There is some conflict between white and non-white authors in the canon, but there is also great continuity between these two groups. By ignoring this fact, Boakye is reinforcing an assumption anti-racists ought to dismantle: that to be Western is to be white.

W.E.B. Du Bois was one of the most influential radical black thinkers of the 20th century. But he also loved Richard Wagner. Du Bois proudly affixed himself to Western culture. As he put it, “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the colour line, I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas. From out of the caves of evening that swing between strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.”

C.L.R. James, the Trinidadian Trotskyist, similarly affirmed an attachment to Western civilisation: “I didn’t learn literature from the mango tree,” he once wrote, “or bathing on the shore and getting the sun of colonial countries; I set out to master the literature, philosophy and ideas of Western civilisation. That is where I have come from and I would not pretend to be anything else.” In his dying days, when he was visited by Edward Said, James wanted to talk to Said about classical music rather than colonialism. When he died, James was called the Black Plato by the Times.

The traditions of Western literature and culture belong just as much to black people as white people. It is part of my inheritance. And that is why I loved teaching those kids: I was sharing what belonged just as much to them as to the kids with hundreds of books in their family homes or a private education.

My favourite student was a boy called Peter. I could tell from his surname that his family came from Ghana. He came to every single lesson, while all my other students found an excuse to skip at least a few classes. I never met Peter. I still don’t even know what he looks like; his camera was always turned off. But we cultivated a connection, not through the fact that both of our families come from west Africa, but by familiarising ourselves with the great works of English Literature. We read Larkin and Heaney, but we also read Derek Walcott. We read snippets of prose too — George Orwell and Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. The priority in studying James and Morrison was the elegance of their sentences, the effect of their imagery, and the sophistication of their tone. When we did approach the topic of racism, we had a foundation to build on. And all the time, I never felt the need to “decentre” white, male authors or slap on diverse voices for the sake of it. I was simply guided by what has moved me since I was a boy and continues to move me now: the transcendent beauty of great art.


Tomiwa Owolade is a freelance writer and the author of This is Not America, which is out in paperback in May.

tomowolade

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Lucy Stylianou
Lucy Stylianou
1 year ago

Brilliant and sane and beautiful. Thank you for this.

M. Jamieson
M. Jamieson
1 year ago

The idea that study of school subjects needs to fulfill some sort of other purpose, usually either related to social justice or employment, seem to be completely ubiquitous now. Even school for the very young, as well as story books written for them, are see in that light.
Educators don’t seem to be able to appreciate things like literature or knowledge for its own sake.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
1 year ago
Reply to  M. Jamieson

The commissars of the USSR would understand what’s going on.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
1 year ago
Reply to  Colin Elliott

Would they? The Soviet education system was really quite old school. The New Left never happened there; to the end, it was the Old Left. If your essay was to write a Marxist critique of Anna Karenina, then you had to have read Anna Karenina.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
1 year ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

Bloody marvellous book

Ballantrae
Ballantrae
1 year ago

What strikes me most about the statements from the decolonisers is that they are so stupid. Profoundly stupid.

Richard Stanier
Richard Stanier
1 year ago
Reply to  Ballantrae

And also colonisers themselves – replacing the host culture with one more to their taste.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
1 year ago

Quite so. It just proves that we learn nothing from history

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 year ago

“Race is not the only thing that defines the life and experiences of a person; I used to think only avowed racists believed it does.”

I still do believe that except that the racists would not avow they were racist but claim to be anti-racist.

The author is quite right to criticise the idea that literature is a branch of anti-racist sociology designed to make those children whose skin is darker than many of their paler contemporaries feel better about themselves and know that those with darker skins can write decent literature. This is a piece of condescension that should have no place in school. The quality of the writing should be the only criteria for inclusion the colour of the authors skin should have no place in the choice nor his nationality.

The author demonstrates that he gets great literature while the examination boards demonstrate they are manipulative racists.

Graham Strugnell
Graham Strugnell
1 year ago

Excellent, and long overdue. It is as absurd to say kids of ethnic background get nothing from dead white male writers as to say white kids get nothing from black music and culture. Why is this not being more widely challenged? It is new form of cultural cringe.

John Solomon
John Solomon
1 year ago

What do you mean by “kids of ethnic background” or are you implying that the UK’s majority population have no ethnicity?

Also, would you be kind enough, please, as to define precisely what is “black music and culture”? Is “black music” still black if played by non-black musicians? Can it be written by non-black composers?

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
1 year ago

Take the words of Sun Tzu: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” Then I would say that even a non-westerner determined to defeat colonialism and imperialism and white oppression would want to master the western canon from A to Z before the first battle.
Of course, the danger is that she might fall in love with Wagner and Nietzsche and George Eliot and abandon the whole project.

Andrew Raiment
Andrew Raiment
1 year ago

Excellent piece of writing. When I listen to music, it’s the beauty of it that moves me. I don’t need to know the race or place of birth of the composer or the musician.

In school, we would have listened to mostly classical music (dead, white European males) but I grew up liking jazz instead, in all its various forms.

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew Raiment
Mel Shaw
Mel Shaw
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Raiment

It is notable that Hendrix made his breakthrough when he came to racist Britain. More so in those days, of course, but nothing compared to the US.

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 year ago

Excellent essay.

Lord Rochester
Lord Rochester
1 year ago

I absolutely agree. This is a teachable text in itself.

Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
1 year ago

Interesting that Heaney is considered a “coloniser”. This language is entirely driven from the US, which is why blackness is the dominant theme here. It isn’t possible for England to decolonise an English curriculum, and any “decolonisation” on the Celtic fringe would – you know – not be in English.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
1 year ago

Don’t forget that the Welsh speak far better English than the English do

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago

“Race is not the only thing that defines the life and experiences of a person; I used to think only avowed racists believed it does.”
And so they do, but they’re all woke, so that’s ok apparently.

Bill Hayden
Bill Hayden
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Exactly. Right to the point. I agree.

Alan Tonkyn
Alan Tonkyn
1 year ago

An excellent, and much-needed article: thank you! Artistic (in this case poetic) merit should be the only criterion on which English literature curricula are based. The thinking behind the decolonisers of the curriculum is shallow and, yes, condescending. Children of all hues should be exposed to the best that has been written in the western tradition, the tradition of those countries in which their families have chosen to come to live. That does not preclude studying Chinua Achebe, or V.S.Naipaul, but to deny children the chance to study Shakespeare, or Keats and Heaney, simply on grounds of race is crass, and reminds us that our education system is partly in the wrong hands. I think fondly of those Indian academics I met in Delhi who loved Spenser and Milton: perhaps we’ll have to import them to teach our culture-starved British children about their own culture when the present decolonising and self-loathing mania has been shown for what it is.

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
1 year ago

Mary Seacole was a great supporter of the British Empire . She’s a good example of how integration made it possible for people like her to thrive.Pretty sure she would have been repelled by black activism / decolonising etc

Last edited 1 year ago by Alan Osband
Sue Whorton
Sue Whorton
1 year ago
Reply to  Alan Osband

I admire her greatly. She is a shining example of practical engagement with the problem in front of her. Florence Nightingale however, revolutionised medical statistics, helped establish professional ways of working, helped show the value of sanitation to solve health problems and brought women to the fore. The world owes her much. To concentrate on their colour and their sex again denigrates ( can I still use that word) what they achieved.

Rory Hoipkemier
Rory Hoipkemier
1 year ago

Fabulous, thoughtful and highly therapeutic in this insane world.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
1 year ago

The great challenge for teachers of English literature is to instil a lifelong love of reading. In this, most are failing. The ultimate consequence will be that English exams degenerate to a question whether a book should receive approbation despite never being read or should it be burnt.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago

If black British people are indeed British – as I consider them to be – then they should learn about the British cultural heritage at school. If a black kid wants to write an essay about e.g. a prominent Nigerian poet writing sonnets in English, fair enough. But booting out Larkin and Heaney, and indeed the whole decolonisation initiative, smacks of a sort of Maoism du bureau, an elite for some inexplicable reason bent on wholesale cultural deracination. What has got into these people?

Last edited 1 year ago by Richard Craven
Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago

Like cancelling a Russian orchestra’s scheduled performance because they were nothing other than Russian.

Peter Popham
Peter Popham
1 year ago

What a brilliant piece. We come to Un Herd for sanity like this.

Rick Lawrence
Rick Lawrence
1 year ago

Beautifully written piece, Tomiwa.

Ruud van Man
Ruud van Man
1 year ago

A lovely essay. We really need to eliminate this poisonous culture of (largely) manufactured victimhood which seems to pervade the educational system at the moment.  If we fail to do so, then I fear that things will not end well for anyone. I hope sane voices such as Mr Owolade’s prevail.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

The rise of the self made Victorian entrepreneurs, including so many quakers and Jews, and their creation of British industry, commerce and finance, and in so many cases, elevation to the peerage and baronetcies has been completely airbrushed out of school history curricula over countless years: I suspect that the truth of the story just got in the way of the standard ” narrative” that Britain was class ridden and controlled by the ancient and landed families? The later socio demographic and anthropological mixing by marriage of newly poor landed with newly rich financial and industrial is in itself a fascinating and important part of British history, and our avoidance of any revolution of the hue that affected the rest of Europe

Robert Pullman
Robert Pullman
1 year ago

Those who develop an appetite for literature will continue to read and possibly discover Larkin on their own. For the rest it matters little which literature they forget.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
1 year ago

Assailed everyday by the current stupidity engulfing what should be the leading intellectual institutions of this nation and others, my faith in humankind was somewhat restored by reading this.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
1 year ago

Google Meet tells me he is very upset at being described as fat and ugly.

Ronald Fairfax
Ronald Fairfax
1 year ago

A superlative piece of writing. Larkin lived only one hundred yards from where I am writing.

He was arrogant and a social and political blockhead viz “I would like to see them starving, this so-called working class, with their wages weekly halfing and their women stewing grass.” with more than a touch of colour prejudice. However his poetry is just that, poetry.

Dawn Muir
Dawn Muir
1 year ago

Beautifully said, well argued. I would like to carry this in my back pocket for when I encounter decolonizers in my school division.

John Solomon
John Solomon
1 year ago

I know this is probably an inappropriate question, but were any of the students you tutored not from an ethnic minority background? Personally, I think all kids should be encouraged to study Larkin, but I would not like to think that the support was targetted to one profie.

Primary Teacher
Primary Teacher
1 year ago

Fantastic! I wish I had your eloquence when I had to attend a ‘ decolonising the curriculum’ meeting with a ‘professor of race’.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
1 year ago

The brain is grey. The heart is red. The mind has only the color we give it, from soul, heart, and spirit. This comes from what we say, and what others have said.

don bruce
don bruce
1 year ago

Thank you for this piece, your love of the art of writing and to beg for a more transcendent view of humanity is much needed…

Davy Humerme
Davy Humerme
1 year ago

Tomiwa. The lucidity and power of your writing stands in clear contrast to the leaden and lumpen prose of race focused ideologues like Kehinde Andrews and Judith Butler. These people never saw beauty or art except in the ludicrous circularity and logic defying obtuseness of their “writing”. I was privileged enough to be at a Scottish enlightenment Russell Group university to study English Lit in first year and Scottish lit and Shakespeare in second. I had to attend extra lectures but it was worth it.. So, though I specialised in economics, politics with a lovely side dish of philosophy, my mind was filled with the best writing. As a white working class mature student I had my eyes opened to so much beauty and thought. Some of it was western cannon like Conrad and Faulkner but a lot was what was then called “commonwealth and orientalist canon ” people like Soyinka, Athol Fugardcahd Ngugi Wa Thiongo.. We had to read about three novels a week but it’s a brilliant and bracing journey. I dare say now I would have to read a plutonium heavy Butleresque critique of Conrad or Thomas Mann. Or an analysis arguing that Baldwin was not trans aware enough. In any case the enjoyment would have been sucked out of it for student and teacher alike.

B Davis
B Davis
1 year ago

Yes, but it is much simpler than all that. The dancing and acrobatics are not necessary. The parsing, the balancing, the ‘see, I read this too’ stuff that seeks to balance what is indeed the fundamental truth (herein a bit obscured) with the ‘progressive’ assertions that the demographics of the poet/author make his or her work somehow worthy — all that is pointless.
Rather let us shout it from the rooftops: “the transcendent beauty of great art” is IT. It is all that matters…yesterday, today, tomorrow. Quality trumps everything. Genius outshines the average, the middling, the ‘not too bad’, the ‘pretty good’. It transcends! That is why, age after age, generation after generation we read it, ponder it, respond to it, are moved by it: life changing in its brilliance. What other reasons could we possibly need to place a work atop the curriculum?
And that is why we read Shakespeare & Yeats & Larkin & Donne & Eliot & Shelley & Keats & Milton & Hopkins. It’s why we read Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Bronte, Austen, Steinbeck, and on. And if you have a writer, a poet, an artist that you believe stands in those same ranks, speak-up! Make a case! Show us the work; let its excellence dazzle! But let us not begin that effort by telling us, first, a skin color or an accent or whether or not the individual in question has ovaries. Equally let us not put forth an argument based on hair color or weight or shoe size or appetite. These things are meaningless.
They are as meaningless, in fact, as the fatally flawed elevation of Diversity as some sort of magic qualifier. We must be ‘diverse’…we must celebrate ‘diversity’ — meaning, of course, not diversity at all but some pasted together amalgam of skin color, genital configuration, and sexual preference….as though that simplistic collage of demographic qualities is somehow blessed.
We need more poetry created by Fat Redheads! We need more novels written by the Freckled who have Large Feet!
It’s hard to imagine anything more ridiculous.
And the Bureau of We Know Best What’s Best for You has decreed: Quality is not Progressive, ‘out, out, darned Quality!’
Leaving us to envision that when those Bureau’d Betters someday find themselves in a Cardiac Center, awaiting potentially life-saving surgery… that the nurse enters to tell them, “Good news, Madame OCR, your cardiac team today is comprised of a very Large White Guy, Two Hispanic Lesbians, 2 Indigenous Peoples, and three more Black Social Justice Majors, one of whom is bisexual. It is indeed the Most Diverse Team we’ve ever assembled!
I’m guessing they’d be overjoyed!

Last edited 1 year ago by B Davis
Oluwatosin Animashawun
Oluwatosin Animashawun
1 year ago

Golly, I am so glad you wrote this. As Lucy said brilliant, sane and beautiful. And for the record, I’m black.

Liran An
Liran An
1 year ago

This essay would be good if it wasn’t responding to a caricatured version of the decolonisation movement. Unlike what Owolade alleges, ‘decolonisation’ is not about force feeding social justice content into disciplinary curricula (incidentally, though, that is what the extreme right and the current Tory government’s culture war advocates would have us think). It is about foregrounding the ways in which the fundamental frameworks and categories of thought in social science and humanities subjects are warped in colonial legacies; and introducing students to modes of analysis and works of art that do not reflect this legacy. To be fair, if the only reason a non-white male author is introduced into the English literature curriculum is that their work touches on social/racial justice themes, then yes, I agree with Owolade that this is not a proper way of doing ‘decolonisation’. Rather, the aim should be to expose students to different, non-western approaches to literature, poetry and literary analysis, and in so doing broaden their disciplinary borders. Is there no merit in broadening how we understand a poem, a novella, or a literary genre? Should we not understand how colonial assumptions seeped into the way that we understand what constitutes a great work of literature?

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 year ago
Reply to  Liran An

Can you clarify what these colonial assumptions are that have seeped into the way we understand what constitutes a great work of literature? What is involved in “foregrounding the ways in which fundamental frameworks and categories of thought 
.in humanities subjects ( in particular poetry) are warped in colonial legacies”? I am afraid unlike Owolade’s article that I understand I don’t understand what you mean, which may explain the negative votes you received.

Aaron S.D
Aaron S.D
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

It’s hardly fair to hold a brief comment to the same scrutiny as the original article. The main point of the commenter was that the version presented of the decolonisers was simplistic. I would add that this problem detracts from the author’s point. I think that one should always argue with the strongest possible version of ones opponents. Otherwise, you rush writing a polemic rather than a true contribution to thought.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 year ago
Reply to  Aaron S.D

I don’t look for the same scrutiny as the article. I merely want to understand what the commentator means as the claim is that decolonising means something other than what is presented in the article. The brief explanation simply gives me no idea what decolonising actually means and the purpose of it. If the commentator has anything to do with education to ask for a clear understandable explanation is hardly unreasonable. I just want something that might be comprehensible to a 6th form pupil.

Aaron S.D
Aaron S.D
1 year ago
Reply to  Liran An

Yes. Although the article is interesting and not groundless, I fear that the author is not truly engaging with those who wish to decolonise the curriculum. He provides the least charitable interpretations of snippets of their work. There is a dialogue to be had, which the author discards for the easier option of dismissing his interlocutors.

Patrick Turner
Patrick Turner
1 year ago
Reply to  Liran An

This is a beautifully argued, well-evidenced and admirably temperate engagement with ‘decolonisation’ in secondary schooling. It is true that the decoloniality movement is far broader than that and has offered up a more elaborate historical sociology of Western cultural institutions, chiefly universities, museums and art-galleries. But – leaving aside the intellectual merits of the academic theory – in practice the mediating effects of activism and the inevitable requirement to simplify for the purposes of policy does often lead to a kind of curatorial virtue signalling stamped by tokenism, moralism and a crudely reductive hermeneutics. (See the recent Hogarth exhibition at Tate Britain as a laughably tragic example). Indeed, the appeal to ‘non-Western approaches’ immediately invites a host of potential objections. If this is a not unreasonable argument for pluralism, are you suggesting, however, that entire modes of thought are discrete? Wasn’t that one of the racialising shibboleths Owolade wished to dispatch? As he argued, there was no contradiction between the antiracist and left-wing political activism of the non-white authors he cited and the canonical Western culture each had imbibed. If the point is more normative, that Eurocentrism vitiates all canonical thought and art, irrespective of complexities of form, content and context, are ‘non-Western approaches’ somehow free of bias-frames because, epistemologically, subaltern? Were Du-Bois, Morrison, James and Baldwin all labouring under some kind of false consciousness, each an epistemic captive of the West? And, more importantly, do we think such intellectuals incapable of acknowledging a particular thinker’s blind spots whilst seeking to make good on what is best in their thought? Isn’t this what CLR James and Franz Fanon sought to do with Marx? You are being disingenuous if you deny that there are not some unresolved tensions in the actually existing decoloniality Owolade sketches for us that derive from infirmities in the theory. That is, between, on the one hand, reasonable appeals to cultural pluralism and a desire to enlarge our historical consciousness and, on the other, a tendency to reductiveness and essentialism. This is an unavoidable concomitant of bending culture to propagandistic and affirmatory ends and Owolade has elegantly skewered it. Indeed, he does us a real service by reminding us how poorly this regressive tendency, that erroneously styles itself radical and left-wing, serves the very thinkers and artists it would ‘centre’. 

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago

I do not think that Larkin should even be inflicted on white kids

Nigel Rodgers
Nigel Rodgers
1 year ago

Larkin confronts in poignantly lyrical poetry age-old human dilemmas that afflict us all at some stage. There is no need to accept any of his racist or reactionary private views because they do not intrude into his published works. He was no Ezra Pound, whose notorious anti-semitism mars his later poetry.

Last edited 1 year ago by Nigel Rodgers
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Nigel Rodgers

I’m shocked that UnHerd should allow peladophobia to be expressed on this site. I’m just going to have a lie-down now.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago
Reply to  Nigel Rodgers

Geoffrey Hill was a talented poet, but a tad Remainer-y for my taste.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago

When I was younger I would have agreed with you heartily, but as I grew older I came to love his work. This is always a problem, I could have abandoned Larkin because I didn’t connect with him at school, but I decided to revisit all the poets I disliked and found that, as an adult, I enjoyed most of them. , Perhaps some would just be turned off forever, however, if one is not introduced to such poets at school one wouldn’t even know to re-read them – a dilemma. I generally think that kids need to be introduced to all sorts of works of art whilst at school in the hope that something ‘sticks’ (so to speak), and the only criterion for a work’s inclusion should be quality.

Joanna Tegnerowicz
Joanna Tegnerowicz
1 year ago

What about Larkin’s racism? Should Black kids be made to study an openly racist poet? Philip Larkin, racist, bigot and poet – Socialist Worker

SIMON WOLF
SIMON WOLF
1 year ago

Larkins published poetry is not racist.He did make racist comments in his private diaries and correspondence.Many of the most acclaimed Black Male Artists have not only made terrible public comments about females (Read Miles Davis autobio) many of them have violently assaulted females.James Brown was a serial puncher of females.Marvin Gayes father a Reverend shot his own son dead because he considered him a satanist.Are you suggesting that Brown, Gaye and Miles 3 of the most innovative figures in black music should be removed from music curriculums?

Alan Tonkyn
Alan Tonkyn
1 year ago
Reply to  SIMON WOLF

Excellent points, Simon! We need to separate the art from the artist. Fallible human beings can transcend their limitations when inspired to write, compose or paint. Think of Mozart and Beethoven, for a start, along with the cases you mention.

John Solomon
John Solomon
1 year ago
Reply to  Alan Tonkyn

What about Wagner? Was his music evil because he was antisemitic – or more importantly because Hitler liked his music? (I hope this is not an example of Godwin’s law! I couldn’t think of any other examples of composers being evil by association …)

Philip Crowley
Philip Crowley
1 year ago
Reply to  John Solomon

That is not invoking Godwin’s Law, John. I enjoy Wagner purely for his opera and give no thought to Wagner himself. It is irrelevant to my enjoyment of the music.

Joanna Tegnerowicz
Joanna Tegnerowicz
1 year ago
Reply to  John Solomon

I did not suggest that Larkin’s poetry is “evil”. I pointed out that he was an openly racist man – this is an important fact which goes unmentioned in this essay.

Joanna Tegnerowicz
Joanna Tegnerowicz
1 year ago
Reply to  Alan Tonkyn

Can we really separate the art from the artist? In Larkin’s case these were not merely “limitations”, this was very overt racism. I am not saying that no one should read Larkin’s poems – I am saying that no one should be made to read them and that his racism should be openly discussed.

Joanna Tegnerowicz
Joanna Tegnerowicz
1 year ago
Reply to  SIMON WOLF

First of all, I did not suggest that Larkin’s poetry should be completely removed from curriculums. I simply found it very strange that his very overt racism was not mentioned in this essay.
Secondly, I don’t think that one can neatly separate someone’s published poetry from the person’s “private” views. Young Black people should be aware how Larkin perceived them. They should not be forced to study Larkin’s poetry.
Thirdly, it is thought-provoking that in order to defend Larkin you have decided to focus on the misdeeds of Black men (why? weren’t there many famous white men who were misogynistic and/or domestic abusers?). You say that “many” Black male artists made “terrible public comments about females” and have “violently assaulted females”, but you actually mention only two examples and you don’t quote any of the “terrible public comments”…
Obviously the misogyny of some famous people (whatever their skin colour) should be discussed. However, in the case of Larkin we have evidence of how he perceived Black people, how he thought about them. He saw them as “n…s”, he thought that there were too many Black people in Britain.
As far as I know, Miles Davis did not reject and despise women to this extent. As to James Brown, in one of his most famous songs (“It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”) he actually states that this world would be nothing “without a woman or a girl”. Larkin did not celebrate Black people in this way.
Anyway I am bemused by the fact that you have chosen to focus on Black male artists – and not any other group or groups – in your reply to my comment on Larkin’s anti-Black racism. Isn’t it perhaps some kind of defense mechanism?

Last edited 1 year ago by Joanna Tegnerowicz
Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
1 year ago

Poor old Largs. Yes he was a flawed man with some distasteful habits and prejudices, but read Whitsun Weddings to understand how deeply he loved other, ordinary people.

Joanna Tegnerowicz
Joanna Tegnerowicz
1 year ago
Reply to  Jonathan Nash

But did he like or love Black people, too? Some people limit their “love” to people of their own “race”… Anyway of course I am aware that many people are deeply flawed, but it is quite surprising that Larkin’s racism is not mentioned in a piece titled “Black kids should study Larkin”. In fact, the belief that “Black kids should study Larkin” can be questioned because of Larkin’s anti-Black racism.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 year ago

I am not sure why you have received negative votes for your perfectly reasonable question. Clearly they should not be made to study the poems quoted in the Socialist Worker article but I would be somewhat surprised if they are. His politically unobjectionable poems are another matter. Plenty of writers of the past had private views that many would find objectionable today but what counts is the quality of their published work.
In any case to what extent are children forced to study any poetry today? My sons usually had a raft of poems to chose from and didn’t have to engage with the poems they had no feeling for. My wife was amused to see that one of the poems selected for GCSE was a poem of Wordsworth that not only had she studied as a girl but her 80 year old mother had studied and analysed the same poem as a girl. It could be said as a northern girl a poem On Westminster Bridge was not relevant to her lived experience but she was more than happy to discuss it with my sons.

Joanna Tegnerowicz
Joanna Tegnerowicz
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Yes, I was also struck by the number of negative votes, but not really surprised… Larkin’s racism should not be hidden from schoolchildren or university students. They should be able to decide on their own if they appreciate his poetry despite his racism, they should have the right to form their own judgement. Hiding Larkin’s racism from Black children and young people is highly ethically questionable.
I fully agree with you that forcing children to study ANY poetry is not a good idea. This may actually cause a revulsion to poetry in many people. However, I also think that there is a crucial difference between making children study poetry and making Black children study poetry written by someone who thought that there were too many “n…s” in Britain.