Just when you thought your teenager couldn’t get any more self-obsessed, up pops the ‘Who Do We Think We Are?’ week and website to get them really navel-gazing: ‘Have you ever asked yourself questions like: What makes me who I am? What is my identity? What makes me, unique? These questions are about IDENTITY’.
‘Who Do We Think We Are?’ week (WDWTWA) is coming to a school near you NOW. It is a ‘national educational programme’ initiated by Sir Keith Ajegbo’s 2007 Curriculum Review on Diversity and Citizenship
and it ‘engages primary and secondary teachers in the exploration of identity, diversity and citizenship with children and young people’. This year it takes place between 22 – 27 June.
All well and good and what’s wrong with a bit of diversity and tolerance, you might well ask. Nothing, is the short answer. But this is a diversity that – however well intentioned – divides. Despite the very loud banging of the diversity drum, much of WDWTWA ethos seems to be headed for accidental sectarianism in the classroom. The idea that we all need to root around in ‘our personal and family journeys’ is not compatible with the ideas that a child can leave their personal circumstances at the door of the classroom, that knowledge is universal and for everyone, whoever they are. Education should be about widening the horizons of young people, taking them by the shoulders and turning them to face the often daunting – but exciting - world of knowledge and ideas out there. Instead, WDWTWA week is all about me, me, me, ‘designed to get young people talking about themselves... all young people can have something to say about who they think they are’.
But education is NOT about ‘who we think we are’. It is about the gasp of breath when you first encounter Hamlet’s soliloquy or the nail-bitten-down-in-awe when you first appreciate the elegance of Einstein’s equations. It’s about those moments, in a nutshell, when you realise the world is a bigger, more wonderful place than you alone.
Education that gives us such moments doesn’t have to worry about diversity. It is diverse simply in what it teaches and what it does – it blows apart the pigeonholes. In contrast, WDWTWA seems all too keen to scurry towards those pigeonholes and dig out those stereotypes. The WDWTWA website promotes the case study of a ‘largely white school’ in Cheshire which had devised ‘an exciting conceptual curriculum’, emphasising ‘the importance of developing cultural empathy and critical thinking to prepare pupils for a diverse world’. I am sure all of this is done and said with the very best of intentions. But this made me despair more than anything else I have read recently. The implication seems to be that in the 21st century we are now devising curriculums based on racial profiling of the pupils. No good can come of such a thing.
But we shouldn’t despair. Because our young people are smart and tough and open to the world. In all of this we need to remember that kids are not racists in embryo. Nor are they stupid. At the Institute of Ideas
we run a challenging national debating competition
for 16 – 18 year olds, which launched in India earlier this year.
But whether in the UK or India, we have never cared who you are or where you come from. We care about your arguments. And our experience over five years is that so do the young people: rather than looking back and dilly-dallying with identity politics, they want to grab hold of the word and the ideas shaping it right here and now. It is not a case of ‘Who Do We Think We Are?’ with these kids, but a case of ‘How are we going to shape the world?’ And in this they simply defy being pigeon-holed. The Indian champions are coming to London next week to compete against the UK winners and debate ‘Protecting the public from terrorism should come before civil liberties’. I would not dare to second guess what the arguments will be. But I look forward to engaging with those who will have to find answers to these real political questions in the future. ‘Who do you think you are?’ seems like a very small question in comparison.