My schooling was largely mono-cultural. It wasn’t that I didn’t have friends whose families were from different cultural backgrounds. In fact had a number of friends whose families had originally come to England from India, Pakistan, Jamaica, Poland and other countries. It was more a case of what I was taught at school being firmly rooted in English heritage. The dominance of English literature, geography, history and art in English schools is, of course, what you might expect. Indeed I think it very important that children are taught about their own background, history and traditions in schools and that this should provide a firm foundation for learning about the wider world.
By the time I left school at the age of eighteen I had explored a reasonable breadth of English literature. Some of the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Lawrence, Dickens and other literary giants were familiar and similarly in history I was relatively well versed in the industrial revolution, the English civil war, and life in early medieval Britain. I had a reasonable knowledge of the physical and social geography of the British Isles and I was fairly confident in navigating my way around local government, the legal system and democratic processes through a subject called “civics”. I suppose if there was one subject in which British culture didn’t dominate in my school days it was music. Whilst composers such as Vaughan Williams, Elgar and Britten did receive honourable mentions, it was Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart and other mainland European composers who were instilled upon us as the greats.
It was not until I left school and started my higher education that I began to encounter the wealth of literature and the significance of history from around the world. I remember having been introduced to Camus, Voltaire, Mann and Dostoyevsky early in my studies and greedily devouring all of their works. A greater appreciation of history brought me briefly in touch with Alexander the Great, Garibaldi and Simon Bolivar and gave me a greater appreciation of how borders were formed and countries reshaped. My reading around the Moghul Empire and the tragedy of post-independence partition provided my first introduction to Indian history and also encouraged me to explore the music of Ravi Shankar, Zakir Hussain and Ustad Bismillah Khan. Having acquired the learning bug I have ever since been trying to catch up lost time in understanding more about the world in which I live. It is, of course a frantic race and one that none of us is destined to win, but that is half of the fun in trying.
Schools in England today have changed and reflect the multicultural society in which we live. A visit to any English school will demonstrate a celebration of diversity and the efforts made by teachers to ensure that their pupils have a greater understanding of the diverse communities in which they are growing up. This morning I visited a secondary school in Birmingham, around the walls were many illustrations of the endeavours made to reflect the rich cultural mix of the local neighbourhood. Alongside English script on children’s work and displays I found text in Urdu, Polish and Punjabi. There were examples of school activities for the celebration of Eid and accounts of visits made to a local church and a Gudwara.
I find it refreshing to see teachers assisting children to understand the cultural traditions of both their own and other countries, and to celebrate the art, music, dance and scientific achievements of different peoples. I am particularly pleased to see the emphasis upon respect and understanding that is given during these lessons, which has replaced a formerly more jingoistic approach to teaching.
At this time of year Sara’s year group at school celebrate all things Indian. They work with a teacher of traditional Indian dance, learn Indian stories, consider aspects of Indian religions, hear music, and learn about Mahatama Gandhi. They create art work based upon that created by Adivasi peoples and even cook an Indian meal (though they go lightly with the spices). Sara’s classroom is filled with artefacts brought home from visits to India providing a colourful backdrop to the full range of activities.
I wonder, if children in England and other European countries in the nineteenth century had been encouraged to develop an understanding and respect for cultural diversity, might the history of the twentieth century have been different? I am sure that a greater emphasis on teaching world geography and history in American schools could ultimately have benefits for foreign policy. I am equally convinced that encouraging greater links between children and schools across cultures could influence the ways in which we all regard our neighbours. With modern technology perhaps this will become a little easier.
I have posted on today’s blog a display of some of the work from Sara’s class in celebration of India.