“The little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom,” says John Proctor as fear and vengeance stalk the village of Salem in The Crucible. This is an idea that often haunts me in my life as a school teacher in rural Somerset. Not so much in reference to any particular class or child I teach, but in reference to the ways in which the educational establishment is beginning to kowtow to the needs of the young.
It goes without saying that the welfare of and concern for our pupils is paramount in any school, but it should not be contentious for me to suggest that in most cases the adults’ judgment should override the child’s perception of what is needed.
This became particularly clear in the recent exam season. The AQA board used an extract from a short story by HE Bates in the English language paper. Later in the story (“The Mill”) the protagonist is raped by her employer and then sacked when she becomes pregnant. Now let us be clear: the extract made no reference to rape, sexual exploitation or abandonment. It was entirely anodyne. Some students went home, looked up the story, read it (and well done them for being that interested) – and then the complaints began. AQA was forced into making an apology (although it did it in that backhanded way which really means shut up and go away – it was sorry that some thought the extract was inappropriate) and the little crazy children laughed in glee.
They were less fortunate in 2016 when a range of “personally offended” students complained about a biology exam in which data was used concerning teenagers and alcohol. On this occasion AQA smartly responded that “exams aren’t meant to be easy” and there was nothing wrong with the paper. How things change in three short years.
In my day (an annoying phrase, I know) we sweated over whether Peter the Great was going to appear on the exam paper or not. He did, and I was too stupid or panic-stricken to turn the page and find him. Then, I swore; now I would write a letter of complaint claiming that I had a phobia of turning pages and have my grade bumped up.
The list goes on – another apology (from a different board, Edexcel in this case) came this year because a maths question concerned calories. This, it was claimed, was an unfair trigger for anyone with a current or historic eating disorder. The board apologised and asked anyone who was affected to write to them for extra consideration.
I am fearful we are in danger of breeding a generation of namby-pambies. Namby- pambies which we not only kowtow to, but also enable. How will these young people face the outside world if they are apologised to every other second? They will not be able to veto conversation overheard on the bus or train. They will not be able to storm out of their place of work every time they are faced with something they do not like.
I am told that in some universities, history students are told that if they find the content of a lecture “upsetting” they are free to leave. I can’t hear about the Black Hole of Calcutta because I am claustrophobic. I shan’t study the Holocaust because genocide makes me queasy. I don’t like blood so want history without wars. Is this not crazy? Do we not learn history precisely so we don’t commit the mistakes of our forebears, visit the cruelties of our ancestors on our descendants?
And as for literature – I have in the past had a child withdrawn from my lessons because the parents disapproved of witchcraft so would not allow him to study Macbeth. (I think Harry Potter was also proscribed reading for him.) Another child demanded to be removed from my class when we were studying Cat on a Hot Tin Roof because she had recently had a relative suffer from cancer. So what are we to study? If you ask me, Peter Rabbit is terrifying – Mr McGregor’s large foot coming after Peter haunted my childhood, yet I loved it. My mother puts her phobia of rats down to Samuel Whiskers and Anna Maria trying to turn Tom Kitten into suet pudding. Thing One and Thing Two from Dr Seuss’s Cat in the Hat could be looked at as monstrous beings if you were in a sensitive frame of mind. Do we stop reading to our children in case they cannot deal with the pain of Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden being an orphan? Can we not allow the fact that the Harry Potter books may be about witchcraft but are, in their own way, as much about the battle between good and evil as Paradise Lost?
The joy of literature lies not just in the story telling, but also in the ways it can make you think. Stories can reflect our own experience, or make us question the world at large. How can children think, wonder, question, if they are given nothing to think about? If they are not challenged and put into uncomfortable places how can they develop as rounded human beings?
Please, let us stop the little crazy children jangling the keys; we are there to give them them the keys. Let us use them wisely.