Making learning uncool

The establishment disses education as much as hip-hop ‘playas’.

In recent years, there has been concern over the underachievement of black boys in UK schools. Compared to a national average of 59 per cent, only 34 per cent of African-Caribbean boys attain five or more GCSE passes. Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), seems to think that black boys’ cultural outlook is partly to blame. ‘There is an anti-learning culture whereby learning isn’t seen to be cool.’ (1) For Phillips, black kids just don’t want to learn.

Phillips is right to blame ‘an anti-learning culture’. But this has little to do with hip-hop ‘playas’ and everything to do with the government and the cultural elites. Blaming the gormless bravado of street culture for hostility to education suggests that Phillips is more in awe of 50 Cent and Eminem than the black kids I teach. Urban entertainers may loom large in the popular imagination, but they’re hardly able to dictate the agenda on education, learning and culture. After all, it wasn’t Jay-Z who grabbed headlines by declaring that ‘learning history is a bit dodgy’. That was the former education secretary, Charles Clarke.

Yet this wasn’t just a rash comment by Clarke. Instead, hostility to learning for learning’s sake currently informs every aspect of the education system. For example, the government has long attempted to put vocational learning ‘on a parity of esteem’ with academic subjects. The drive to vocationalise education won’t necessarily bolster the status of NVQ’s in Hair & Beauty, but it has cast academic courses in a negative light. When Clarke suggests that academic subjects are dodgy, he really means that they are not ‘accessible’ enough. Middle managers in further education colleges are following suit. At one inner London college at which I have taught, the Sixth Form Centre was constantly threatened with closure by the management, which deemed teaching A-levels as elitist.

Such an anti-learning culture is also prevalent in today’s classrooms. Teachers are discouraged from extended their students’ vocabulary in case it ‘alienates’ them. And if students are having trouble participating in classroom discussion, teachers are recommended to introduce kindergarten-style games to pass the time. In the past, educationalists would seek to overcome the barriers to learning. Today learning is seen as a barrier to developing that all-important self-esteem. Indeed, the current teaching adverts suggest that learning is an alien concept for most schools. Classrooms are represented as similar to ‘crazy’ youth centres where teachers simply turn up, arrange the chairs and distribute soft drinks. The apparent upside is that adults ‘get to hang out with Raj’ and, in a spectacular reversal of roles, get to learn a ‘new language’.

This isn’t merely the outcome of a daft advertising agency. In PGCE courses, student teachers are encouraged to incorporate as many hip-hop tracks and videos into lessons as possible. But such tricks are more likely to irritate students than bring them onside. Nothing is more grating for clued-up students than teachers getting down with ‘the kids’. My authority would be seriously undermined if I scribbled ‘blood, this is the shiznit!’ on their work, or delivered sociology in a series of raps. Compared to Trevor Phillips, most of the black students I teach don’t take hip-hop’s ludicrous postures seriously.

The underachievement of black boys is a concern for educationalists and wider society. But the causes of the problem are varied and complex, and can’t just be reduced to students’ listening habits. Because there is an obsession with interpreting social groups purely in cultural terms, it is rarely acknowledged that African-Caribbean students are predominately from poorer working-class backgrounds. This isn’t to suggest that social class is the only factor in determining their educational performance. But it is an important explanation for why a significant proportion of white and Bangladeshi boys also fall behind the national average.

Nevertheless, softening the education system can’t compensate for the negative effects of social and racial inequalities. In fact, the government’s measures are likely to make them worse. If learning appears alien and ‘uncool’ to some African-Caribbean students, Trevor Phillips should look less at ‘the street’ and a lot closer to home.

Neil Davenport is a sociology lecturer and freelance writer.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Education

(1) Metro, 7 March 2005

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