Children should learn about 'dead white men' – including saints and theologians
From Father Silas:
You may be among those who were “moved” by Lindsay Johns’s speech at the Conservative Party Conference. If so, that may not be a bad thing: such movement is rare enough in such contexts, and I rather like the idea of his solid middle-England audience experiencing just a hint of moistness about the eye. Myself, I was impressed rather than moved. Impressed, firstly, by a “black” man (his online biography describes him as being of "Coloured Cape Townian and English" descent) having the courage to speak at such an event. We can but imagine how this will have gone down in Peckham where he is a volunteer mentor, and where I’m guessing that committed Tories are a bit thin on the ground.
To be fair, he seems already to have been a bit of an outsider: the quickest of Google searches leads you to a 2011 blogpost by a black Lib Dem local councillor which declares that Johns “does not represent the (black) community and his views have little or no credibility outside Middle England. He is willingly being used by the Right as a tool with which to stifle demands for racial justice.” So perhaps he feels he has little credibility to lose in that quarter.
But what impressed me more was what he said. In a phrase that may well echo down the arches of the years, he stressed the importance of young black people studying the works and words of “dead white men” (like Shakespeare and Dickens) – writers and thinkers who were formative of our culture and society, and whose work enlightens and enriches the minds of those who encounter them. This, rather than an emphasis on street culture elevated to an art form, was the surest route to true equality.
This bravely counter-cultural claim gave this poetically and historically-minded priest a lovely warm feeling – although I did reflect that it applies equally to young white people. That is why God has given us Michael Gove, who, according to Mr Johns (and me), “passionately believe(s) in the valiant liberation of human potential from the constraining shackles of circumstance”.
But “dead white men” (we may assume this to include non-men, such as Austen and Eliot) are, in this context, not just British authors and scientists, pre-eminent though they be. They should include saints and theologians. They should include Lancelot Andrewes and (saving his presence) Thomas Cranmer, whose holy poetry formed the English understanding of God and our response to His call. They should include the Catholic saints of the Middle Ages: Aquinas, Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola. They should include the early Christian writers, especially Saint Paul. And they should include Jesus of Nazareth – though only white-ish and still living – whose life and teaching and purpose are the foundation of our entire civilisation.
This need not involve indoctrinating or “persuading” young people of the Christian claim to truth. Yet it cannot fail to teach them who we are, and what we can become.
Father Silas is an undistinguished (he says) priest and deacon of the Church of England who loves it in spite of everything.