In C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, the elderly Professor wonders with disgust, “I wonder what they do teach children in these schools!”
I found myself wondering that myself over the past few weeks.
It started a few weeks ago, when I heard that some American books were being removed from British curriculum. (I didn’t follow the story very closely, and I know very little about British schooling, so I don’t have much of an opinion on that.) However, there was an article written by a Yale professor discussing what American books British children should read. In his article, he said that the book Huckleberry Finn is unteachable. His reasoning? It includes the n-word. In his defense, it’s not just once or twice. It’s a lot. However, I studied Huckleberry Finn when I was a junior in high school, not a tremendously long time ago. (I’m 30.) We were old enough to have heard that word, and to learn about the shameful history (and present) of racism in the US. Plus, the book also questions that racial divide. (There have been schools in the South who have challenged the book because it involves an interracial friendship.)
Is Huckleberry Finn unteachable? What does unteachable mean? What makes a book unteachable?
Of course, it’s worth pointing out that the context for the book would be different. I am an American, and I read the book in an American high school. I knew the history, and (sort of) knew the culture. (I say sort of because I come from the North. There’s plenty of racism in the racism in the North, but the culture of the North is very different from the South.) I may be somewhat removed from the South, but I am far closer to the South culturally than anyone in Britain. A British student may lack the historical and cultural context to understand Huckleberry Finn.
This brings me to my next point.
After watching 12 Years a Slave, I looked up videos of Chiwetel Ejiofor on Youtube. The actor is British, not American. The interviewer pointed out that slavery is broader than simply the American south and asked the actor what he had learned about slavery in school. Chiwetel Ejiofor replied that he didn’t remember learning about slavery in school.
Now, there are two possibilities in his statement. One would be that he never learned about the history of American slavery in school, which would make sense.
The other possibility would be that he never learned about the British involvement in the slave trade and slavery in British colonies. If this is what he meant, I only have one thing to say. What the fuck?!?!?
Britain’s involvement in the slave trade is one of the most important historical events in the past few centuries. It had a huge impact on the world’s demographics and economics, and Britain earned a tremendous amount of money from it, money they could use for empire building.
True, the slave trade is not one of Britain’s finest moments, though I would argue that the abolition of the slave trade is one.
Now, I still believe that British students study Britain’s role in the slave trade and its subsequent abolition. However, just in case they’re not, I have a simple request.
To all British history teachers, please, I beg you, spend one day next year teaching students about the slave trade. It won’t kill them to spend one less day chanting the Litany of Henry VIII’s six wives.