This month marks the 400th anniversary of the first printed edition of Shakespeare’s plays. Thanks to the First Folio, the Bard’s work continues to be performed all around the world and his words, that so often perfectly encapsulate the human condition, endure.
It seems unlikely that the same will be said for This Book Is Anti-Racist, a polemic by American author Tiffany Jewell. Yet, as the Telegraph has uncovered, this book is being promoted in Scottish schools through ‘Read Woke’, a scheme designed to ‘enlighten’ pupils about racial issues. Read Woke provides books for school libraries as well as reading lists and resources for teachers. As the name makes clear, the focus is neither beautiful writing nor diverse viewpoints but political messaging.
Based on a movement of the same name that began in America, Read Woke is being piloted by South Ayrshire Council with financial help from a Scottish government grant. Alongside work by Jewell, the Read Woke scheme recommends the picture book My Skin Your Skin by Laura Henry-Allain; Stamped: Racism, Anti Racism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Imbram X. Kendi, and Black and British: A Short, Essential History by David Olusoga. Books for primary school children claim racism was invented by white people while those for secondary-aged pupils assert that it is impossible to be racist against white people.
One of the many peculiarities of our times is that the people and organisations that are most woke often vehemently deny that this is the case. ‘There’s no such thing as woke,’ activists and EDI officers alike intone, ‘just being a decent person’. Meanwhile, an identikit agenda that privileges identity over social class, changing words over the real conditions of people’s lives, and the pet-preoccupations of a tiny band of elite activists over the concerns of the majority, prevails.
So the reading scheme adopted by schools in South Ayrshire at least has the benefit of honesty: Read Woke takes proud ownership of the opinions it seeks to promote. Yet the issues its chosen authors raise, about a ‘dominant culture of white supremacy’ and ‘the trap of labelling ourselves in ways that centre whiteness’ are racially divisive and steeped in a highly contested idea of critical racial theory.
Sadly, Read Woke is not the first attempt at using books to coerce children into accepting a particular political agenda. A school in Scotland removed To Kill A Mockingbird from reading lists following a move to decolonize the curriculum. Publishers have ordered politically correct re-writes of books by much-loved authors such as Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton. Newer books, even those for the very youngest children, are written with messages about race, gender and sexuality, front and centre.
These books are about politics, not literature. Read Woke is about promoting a way of thinking steeped in crass understandings of identity, victimhood and social justice, not introducing children to beautiful language, aspirational characters and morally complex situations. When such books are promoted by schools, as is the case in Scotland, this is indoctrination, not education.
As Dr Alka Sehgal Cuthbert, director of the campaign group Don’t Divide Us, told the Telegraph: ‘This initiative is normalising politically radical and partisan beliefs. It will do nothing to help teachers teach pupils how to read, and has little to do with education more generally.’ She went on to advise schools to put Read Woke’s guidance ‘in the bin’.
So there we have it. A scheme funded by the Scottish government is rightly criticised for using biased children’s books in a crude attempt at politically indoctrinating a captive audience of school pupils. This should be the end of my article.
But, this being 2023, it is not the end of the matter. The Times also featured a piece on Read Woke, drawing heavily upon the Telegraph’s coverage, including its comment from Dr Sehgal Cuthbert. But, according to the Times, the story is not that education – and children – are being exploited at the behest of a small number of activists. No, for the Times, the real story here is that this is being challenged: ‘Call for ‘woke’ books to be withdrawn from South Ayrshire schools’ is the headline the paper runs with.
For the Times, then, what counts as news is not Read Woke but that in ‘a move echoing the conservative culture wars’ and criticism of libraries in the United States’ uppity parents, questioning journalists and anti-racist campaigners have had the temerity to challenge the politicized reading material being provided to children.
This provides valuable insight into the ways that discussion about culture wars plays out today. Politicising schooling is absolutely fine, it seems, when commentators agree with the views being espoused. Removing old books from the curriculum and rewriting family favourites is, apparently, a perfectly acceptable and politically neutral exercise: it is only when this practice is questioned that culture war salvos are fired.
With critics now embroiled in defending themselves against charges of waging a culture war, South Ayrshire Council is planning to expand Read Woke to more schools. Shakespeare, meanwhile, is no doubt turning in his grave.
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