Relevant schmelevant

Britain’s new “children’s laureate” wants to encourage reading by giving minority students books about people like themselves. “I still remember feeling I was totally invisible in the world of literature,” said Malorie Blackman. “I understand you need to learn about Henry VIII, but when I was young I wanted to learn about something that felt more relevant.”

Relevant, schmelevant, responds Howard Jacobson in The Independent. As a working-class, northern, Jewish boy, he didn’t consider his own visibility when he read books.

“Where are the Jews?” It’s possible that one of the reasons we refrained from asking that question was that when a Jew did pop up in literature we wished he hadn’t. Thanks, Fagin, but no thanks. . . . We didn’t read to self-identify. . . . We read for precisely the opposite reason – in order imaginatively to enjoy the company of others, in order to understand what those who were not ourselves were like, in order to feel the world expand around us, in order to go places we didn’t routinely go to in our neighbourhoods or in our heads, in order to meet the challenge of difference . . . Reading felt like a journey out of self, not into it. And if occasionally we thought we saw something specific to us in Hamlet, or Heathcliff, that was interesting but not obligatory.

. . . Madame Bovary c’est moi, Flaubert declared, invoking the writer’s creed. The reader’s creed is similar. Jane Eyre c’est moi, I felt when I read Charlotte Brontë’s great novel at school, and she was no less moi because she was a girl. . . .  I was not invisible when I read Jane Eyre a) because the best writers make general what’s particular, and b) because I, who had not been taught to go looking for myself missing, honoured the writer/reader compact and found me in characters who weren’t me.

When “relevance” entered the education debate, Jacobson knew knew the outcome, he writes. It has “demeaned those it pretended to help by assuming limits to their curiosity, denied those it offered to empower, cutting off their access to ‘irrelevant’ intellectual pleasure and enlightenment.” It “narrowed the definition of learning to the chance precincts of an individual’s class or upbringing.”

Once education “assumed an equality of eagerness for knowledge, and an equality of right to acquire it,” Jacobson concludes. That’s no longer “relevant.”

As a child I loved reading historical fiction and history, adventure, fantasy . . . Like Jacobson, I didn’t read to find myself. People like me were boring. I wanted to get out of the box of self and see the world.

When Ta-Nehisi Coates talks to black students, he tells them education is “a ticket out into a world so grand and stunning that it defies their imagination.”

About Joanne


  1. Sigh. It used to be a widely-accepted idea that schools should expand kids’ horizons. My teachers regularly quoted “There is no frigate like a book, to take us lands away”, from the classic child’s poem, to encourage reluctant readers to broaden their knowledge of the world. You don’t learn – or teach – much if you concentrate only on what kids already know. This idea is particularly toxic for disadvantaged kids who don’t get enrichment at home or in the community.

    • Actually, “there is no frigate” is an Emily Dickensen poem. Some of my classmates were disappointed to learn that “frigate” is not a dirty word. (But Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales made up for it. Lots of smut!)

      • I didn’t remember the author, but in my day, that was read widely to young children – and I read it to mine.

  2. People, you are piling on too much. I fully support the idea that children should be able to go outside themselves through literature and history. But there are plenty of people of color still alive who, when they were children, never saw books with pictures of children who looked like them or lived in the places they lived. All she is saying is that it’s a good thing if children have that hook for getting into reading and academics.

    • I have no problem with that, as long as the absolute standard is the academic worth of the work, NOT the color or ethnicity of the author. Too many works are included because of that, but the academic work should be judged on its own merits. That was why a close relative was introduced to the poetry of Countee Cullen, in the 1920s, at a military college in a conservative state.

  3. GEORGE LARSON says:

    I am fine with this as long as it works both ways. We don’t make boys read about books with female protagonists. We don’t make white students read about black history, culture and characters.

  4. In my middle school world history class, we basically spend about 3-4 weeks on each part of the world (October is islam, November is Mesoamerica, December is China, etc.). I have a few students every year go, “when are we going to learn about my part of the world?” Some of these students do horribly in the class because they don’t see the relevance of (fill in another group) to them. However, when we get to their history, 90% of those failing students still don’t pay attention. I ask them why did they failed the unit when they will so interested in their own history. Their response is usually a shrug with no answer or “I don’t know.”

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      They’ve been trained. By whom is not a mystery. As to why they should care, possibly they slept through that block of instruction.

  5. I read a lot of science fiction as a young adult. None of the characters were like me*, none of them lived like I lived, none of them had the problems I had and all the action took place in the great undiscovered country: the future.

    That was the part I LIKED about it…

    * before you jump in: there are more non-white, non-male characters in the juvenile science fiction than you think. At least one work I read as a kid involved characters who were both male and female at different times in their lives.

  6. BadaBing says:

    How foolish and condescending. My male students would rather read something interesting than “Mango Street.” Besides, textbook publishers have already embraced this idea with loads of multicultural pabulum, and they’re still not reading.

  7. Elizabeth says:

    I can understand the use of non-fiction works to show people of diverse ethnicity/gender, but good literature is universal- the human condition is the human condition. I support the use of literature written by other than “dead white males” as long as it is good literature and not a whine-fest. And as an adult, I fell in love with sci-fi. Unlike alot of victim or antihero fiction that is churned out today, it emphasizes the heroic.