2013: Lindsay Johns
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I’d like to start with a question. What do the Renaissance Florentine polymath Michelangelo, the classic, 1983 Hollywood comedy Trading Places, starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Ackroyd, and the Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove all have in common? Have a think and I’ll tell you in a minute.
I’m a writer and broadcaster, but for the last 9 years in my spare time, I have also been a volunteer mentor with Leaders of Tomorrow, a trail-blazing, one-of-a-kind, leadership scheme for young people in Peckham, South London, which was founded by a bona fide, old-school, Jamaican saint and venerable demi-god called Vallin Miller - a man who has tirelessly and selflessly dedicated his life to helping kids from the wrong side of the tracks make something of themselves.
Now when you hear the words “youth scheme” and “Peckham” in the same sentence, you could be forgiven for thinking we’re all about ping-pong, basketball and
DJing workshops, all baggy jeans, baseball caps and Ya get mi, blud? street talk. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. With all due respect to the many great DJs and sportsmen who hail from Peckham, we have enough rappers and athletes already.
Leaders of Tomorrow is essentially an “anti-MTV Base” scheme, which means that we are unashamedly anti “ghetto grammar” (street slang that makes you sound as if you’ve had a frontal lobotomy), anti- “pimp roll” (when the young guys bop down the street with a belligerent, faux-macho swagger, looking like they’ve dislocated their pelvis), anti-baggy jeans, hoodies, baseball caps and any other pernicious accoutrements of bling culture which you see in those execrable music videos, and which we feel are retarding our young people’s development and hindering their progress in the wider world. Our aim is for young people to confound, not conform to stereotypes.
Our mission is very simple: to help young people achieve their academic and social potential, to broaden their cultural horizons beyond the geographically and mentally limiting confines of SE15 and to try and help them develop a fully-functioning moral compass - in short, for them to have what it takes to be a good person and to make a tangible and positive impact upon society.
With a weekly vocab slot (because language is power), inspirational guest speakers from all walks of life, regular trips to the National and the Young Vic theatres, the British Museum, the Tate and other top cultural arenas, along with visits to Oxford and Cambridge and to leadership conferences in America, we aim to get our young people out of the debilitating spiral of the poverty of aspiration which can afflict so many in inner-city environments.
We seek to empower our young people by equipping them with the requisite tools that they will need for success in modern Britain, be it excellent literacy and communication skills, an unwavering ethos of hard work, determination and, perhaps most importantly of all, personal responsibility coupled with an outright rejection of the perennial narrative of victimhood.
We are about cultivating human potential and transforming lives, not grammatical pedantry or an aversion to baggy jeans for the sakes of it. We see the bigger picture, and we see how much elocution, deportment and sartorial statements all crucially affect the way our young people are perceived by those with the power to give them university places and jobs in an often hostile and unforgiving world.
To date, we have had many great successes, including young people winning scholarships to some of the country’s best private schools, such as Westminster and Winchester, students applying to Oxford and Cambridge, graduating from Warwick and Sussex universities and winning prestigious and highly competitive City internships.
So what have I learnt in my time mentoring young people in Peckham? Well, I have learnt three things which I’d like to share with you today – things I have gleaned at the coal face of one of the most challenging of inner-city environments – things that, if they can work in Peckham, can work anywhere.
1) IN PRAISE OF DEAD WHITE MEN
Firstly, young people need more, not fewer, dead white men. By dead white men, I mean the Western literary canon, the body of classic books which we should be getting our kids to read. We’re passionately proud of our young people’s African, Caribbean or mixed-race heritage, but we’re also massive fans of dead, white, European males.
You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to realize that there is thankfully no implicit contradiction between the two. You can of course be fiercely proud of your Jamaican, Ghanaian or Black British roots and ardently love Horace, Boccaccio and Milton. The two are in no way mutually exclusive and they certainly don’t make you any “less black” or “less brown” by reading them. Only an intellectual amoeba would assert that studying the canon is tantamount to selling out, to being a “coconut” or an “Uncle Tom.”
Why am I such a big fan of the Dead White Men? Because these canonical authors - be it Ovid, Dante or Shakespeare - articulate the eternal verities at the heart of the human condition and transcend the vagaries of time, race, class and creed. What’s more, they do so in words of immense beauty and in great stories. They teach us about ourselves, about our humanity and help us to make sense of this thing called life and our terrestrial sojourn. In so doing, they help us to connect with something far bigger and far greater than ourselves.
That’s why I’m so tired of the vacuous pc educationalists and the hand-wringing liberals who take great offence at Michael Gove’s championing of a bunch of “dead white men” and what they perceive to be arcane, difficult books – books which they claim have no relevance whatsoever to modern, multicultural Britain and to the lives of Tommy, Dwayne, Abdul or Nadine in the inner-cities.
As any sane, sentient and intelligent person knows, those doing the carping are speaking utter nonsense. Of course the sonnets of Shakespeare or the novels of Austen and Dickens are relevant to all young people in this country today, irrespective of their class, colour or creed.
These great authors are the young people’s intellectual and literary birthrights, just as much as anyone else’s. To deny kids in the inner cities access to such mind-expanding, life-affirming and potentially life-changing authors is not only undeniably selfish and wrong, but is actually positively nefarious.
That there is a positive correlation between an academically rigorous, canonical curriculum and enabling young people – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds - to truly achieve their potential in a highly competitive modern world is frankly so blindingly obvious that even Stevie Wonder could see it.
But – and this is of the utmost importance - young people also need to read the great post-colonial writers and thinkers - intellectual behemoths like Cape Townian novelist Alex La Guma, St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott, the African-American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois and Martinican playwright Aimé Césaire. These are who our young people need to be reading, not third-raters who lack real literary talent, artistic ability or intellectual prowess, but who have the right amount of melanin or an ethnic-sounding surname.
In so doing, please let’s eloquently put pay once and for all to the old lie that has been propagated for centuries, that white has the monopoly on the cerebral, whilst black is solely physical. But equally, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There’s a reason why these dead white men have stood the test of time – in some cases over two and a half thousand years – and it’s very simple. Because they’re very, very good and we can all enjoy them and learn something of immense value from them.
2) THE RUSH TO RELEVANCE
Next up, we urgently need to re-think out attitudes to the way we teach young people. I abhor the pernicious rush to relevance currently pervading our classrooms. We need to put an end with alacrity to this craven rush to try and make everything "relevant" to kids through inane, "yoof-centric," pedagogic methods and the inevitable dumbing down which accompanies it. In short, we urgently need to stop slavishly genuflecting at the high altar of youth.
Floundering as we are now under the Sisyphean burden of political correctness, teachers are hell bent on making everything achingly "cool" and "hip", as they think that this is the only way young people will engage and learn. This obsession with relevance is not only massively condescending, but is also shooting the very people it is ostensibly setting out to help in the foot.
The truth is, Hamlet doesn't need a hip-hop sound track for young people to enjoy it or understand it. It's been doing just fine for the last 400 years. It’s not only incredibly patronizing, but also viciously racist to think that black and brown kids in the inner cities will only “get Shakespeare” if it’s set to a hip-hop beat and presented in 3 minute, MTV Base style chunks.
It is positively evil to deny inner-city kids access to the manifold joys of hearing their national poet’s true voice - in essence, their birthright, simply because of a culture of low expectations.
With absolutely staggering levels of hypocrisy, the overwhelming majority of those who denigrate the canon and piously advocate a “more inclusive, easier, down wiv da kidz” curriculum are often metropolitan liberals who have themselves enjoyed the massive intellectual and social benefits of a Rolls-Royce, Oxbridge humanities education, with, what’s more I’ll wager, absolutely no hip-hop whatsoever!
3) POVERTY OF ASPIRATION
Thirdly, we need to eradicate the poverty of aspiration which has handicapped so many young people and has up till now kept them in their self-prescribed geographical, but even more alarmingly, mental ghettos. This comes directly from constantly being talked down to at school and not being sufficiently intellectually challenged.
The truth is, as the American Civil Rights leader Jesse Jackson once famously said, “No one has ever suffered from being talked up to.” If you consciously raise the bar, more often than not, young people will raise their game too and will invariably bring their aspiration up to meet the higher level.
And for goodness sakes, bien pensant liberals, I beseech you: can you please stop telling us how institutionally racist and innately prejudiced Oxford and Cambridge are, and in so doing, actually putting off ferociously bright, black, brown, and white, working class kids from applying. Maybe, just maybe, if you didn’t keep on discouraging them from applying in the first place with your duplicitous horror stories of how terrible life is there, then levels of representation would actually get better.
Personally, I find your rank hypocrisy both astounding and morally repugnant, as you practically all went to Oxbridge yourselves and made sure that you benefited from the wonderful education on offer there. Can’t you see that it’s precisely because you went to Oxbridge that you now have the platforms to say such things? So how dare you put off my bright kids from applying, by saying that they would not be welcome there!
THIS ABOVE ALL:
This above all: young people need to be taught manners, values and respect, both for themselves and for others. They should be taught what it means to be good, kind, decent, loving, caring human beings and be given the skills and the knowledge to lead happy, healthy and productive lives.
Young people should be taught to appreciate the beauty, joy and sadness of the human condition and of this thing called life, in all its majesty, splendour and meaninglessness. They should be taught humanity, compassion, a desire to eradicate human suffering and the intrinsic dignity of all mankind.
So, what do Renaissance Florentine polymath Michelangelo, the classic 1983, Hollywood comedy Trading Places and the Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove all have in common? The answer, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, is simple. They all passionately believe in the valiant liberation of human potential from the constraining shackles of circumstance.
Be it a statue of coruscating beauty emerging from a rough-hewn block of Carrara marble, Eddie Murphy as street hustler Billy Ray Valentine getting out of the Philadelphia ghetto and making it rich on Wall Street by dint of a social experiment, or a poor kid in Peckham being challenged by an academically rigorous curriculum and inspired by reading great literature to apply to a top university – all three are about caring enough to assist those who are trapped by the harsh exigencies of circumstance and thus enabling them to blossom, flourish and achieve their true potential – arguably the very point of education.
If you really want to liberate the wealth of talent and potential inside the Tommys, Dwaynes, Abduls and Nadines in Peckham - and in all the other kids around the country who, by dint of their postcodes, their colour or their class have been marginalized or disenfranchised; if you really want to empower them and boost their self-esteem, let alone drastically improve their life chances, then give them the priceless intellectual and cultural tools which will enable them to compete on a level playing field with the Quentins, Harrys, Olivias and Natashas - their richer, infinitely more privileged, Home Counties peers.
Frederick Douglass, the 19th century, African-American tireless anti-slavery campaigner and educator gets the last word this afternoon, with an adage which it would do us all well to hold at the forefront of our minds. As Douglass says, with an almost tragically prescient insight, and one which thankfully the Secretary of State for Education understands and has taken to heart:
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
Just like Michael Gove, I for one would rather put the time and effort in now to building strong children, than end up living in a world of broken men. I trust you would too.
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