Recently Ken Livingstone commissioned a report into the poor performance of black kids at school. Basically the problem is this: 70 per cent of male African/Caribbean pupils leave school with fewer than five GCSEs at the 'top' grades of A to C. Considering you practically need a post-grad qualification to get a job collecting supermarket trolleys these days, this cannot be good.
Unsurprisingly, the report's findings were couched in extremely uncontroversial terms. The state system had failed to 'engage' black boys for a variety of reasons: black kids believed they'd been the victims of racism and stereotyping (note the noncommittal 'believed'), black history is being ignored, there aren't enough black teachers, there should be better mechanisms to report racism by teachers, etc.
Something's obviously going wrong, but some of these conclusions are rather questionable. When the report says that the system fails to engage with pupils, surely it means that (some) male black pupils have failed to engage with the system? Giving black history its proper place in the curriculum is the right thing to do, but it's only one subject. Most pupils - including academically successful ones - don't really 'engage' in the sense that they have a passion for learning. They're just better at getting their heads down and churning through the work. Hands up who likes quadratic equations... the processes causing drumlins to form... the saturation point of copper sulphate solution?
It's also hard to imagine that many teachers are racist. They may well have lower expectations of male black pupils, but do teachers ignore pupils who are reasonably willing to learn? Let's not forget about who we're talking about here: children. If you cast your mind back to being a child, you'll remember that you
were probably quite devious. Children are, by definition, immature, and will find any excuse for not doing what they should. If you're white, it's pretty hard to argue that racism made you fail GCSE French, but you may well claim that the teacher always 'hated' you - something that too many parents are only too happy to hear.
No shortage of pundits (black and white) were on hand to discuss the report. Most came to the shocking conclusions that Racism is Bad and Something Should Be Done. Several blamed 'rap' music, with the same solemnity as Lord Rees Mogg discussing Young People with Mick Jagger back in the 60s.
God, not this again. What quite a few commentators - black as well as white - appeared to be trying to say was:
A significant number of black youngsters have bought into an extremely negative urban culture based on machismo, glamorising criminality and being 'streetwise' rather than, um, 'bookwise'.
But the real culprit isn't So Solid Crew, it's earnestness. It's being so earnest that you think teaching black history is going to ignite a passion for learning in academically challenged pupils. And when it comes to 'rap' music, too many people, black and white, are too earnest to take it with a pinch of salt.
It pains us to say this, but Motley Crue are a good band, at least in their function as entertainers of people of certain (stunted) musical tastes. However, the strippers'n'Harleys fantasy concocted by Motley Crue is not real, unless you're Motley Crue (and even they're starting to look as though they might prefer a night in watching Heartbeat). Ditto punk and anarchy, Goth and death, Led Zep and Aleister Crowley and faeries and dragons and whatever other hippy/satanic twaddle they were into.
It's exactly the same with rap music and its variants - So Solid Crew reflect a sort of reality, but take it too seriously at your own peril. Unfortunately, right-wingers take acts like So Solid far too seriously, while too many liberals are loathe to criticise anyone who claims to be a voice of the underprivileged.
Perhaps what's oddest about the report and the pundits is the way they see everything in terms of black pupils being victims: victims of institutional racism (a very flexible concept), victims of not having enough role models, victims of the music they listen to.
We wouldn't for a second downplay the real racism that exists, or social problems like poverty that, overall, affect ethnic minorities more than the white population as a whole. But it seems that earnestness is getting in the way of just saying 'Look, the education system is flawed. But get what you can out of it. Get some decent qualifications or you could regret it later. And stop pretending to be 50 Cent, Colin.'
Earnestness is entirely appropriate if you're chatting to Maya Angelou about black cultural identity, but if some of the recommendations of the report are acted on, black teenage boys can look forward to their school lives becoming a nightmarish world of bland positivity. In fact, why not go the whole hog and try these measures...
- KRS-1 commissioned to replace gangsta rap with earnest tunes about the value of education: Fuck Da Last Minute Revision, Fear of a Place at Your Second Choice University, She Watch Channel Open University, etc.
- Black history relentlessly hammered home to black pupils. Black pupils suddenly realise that the Nubian empire, the Tuskegee airmen and Martin Luther King are just as dull as the Chartists, the Gold Standard and Winston Churchill when it comes to actually sitting down and writing essays.
- More black teachers drafted in as role models. Unfortunately, black pupils' motivation takes a further knock when teachers say things like: 'You think you've got it bad? In my day I had to do my homework while the SPG were kicking the door in!'