British Values · Education and Culture

On Nadiya and “how it is that an 87 year old retired professor …….”

Nadiya Hussain hailed an “inspiration” to British Muslims after popular win

A question was recently posed in a blog:

How is it that an 87 year old retired professor from the University of Virginia has had such an influence on the English curriculum?

I do not want to address the points raised in that blog it was addressing a different issue. I do want to offer a viewpoint on the general question.

Every teacher has had an Ed Hirsch moment. It is the point where you realise that the young person in front of you has no idea about some treasured icon of the past.  “You mean to say you’ve never heard of Bananarama?”.

In the case of Hirsch, it was the American civil war:

While teaching at the University of Virginia he was carrying out research on reading with young people at local community colleges. He discovered that those from poorer backgrounds struggled to read a passage on the surrender of General Robert E Lee near their home town of Richmond. He realised they lacked the necessary background knowledge of the American Civil War

There is another circumstance where this can happen and it is when a teacher encounters young people from a very different social, or cultural, background. It is the realisation that there is, in society, groups of people that do not value what we think ought to be valued whether it be the traditional working classes, recent migrants or some other group.

It can be sobering to learn that there is a competing cultural history that is working very hard to teach young people an alternative narrative to the defining culture accepted by society. Possibly one that is regarded as extremist, or is simply ignored by the mainstream. Islam springs to mind.

The upshot of Hirsch’s thinking is:

‘Cultural Literacy: what every American needs to know’, published in 1984 (and) was the result of this insight.  Hirsch argued that all American children needed a body of ‘core knowledge’ which would allow them to function as fully rounded citizens – and that, as some were not absorbing this knowledge at home, they needed to be taught it at school.

Problematically Hirsch conflates culture with knowledge:

From this he argues that domain knowledge is important because it gives meaning to otherwise confusing sentences. He gives the example of someone hearing Einstein lecture and who came out saying: ‘Well I understood all the words, I just didn’t understand what they meant.’ He goes on to argue that irony, metaphor and other literary devices need background information in order to make sense of them. The Core Knowledge Curriculum was the result of this thinking about the essential content of a sensible curriculum.

Einstein’s work being complex, domain specific as well as having entered the everyday albeit in a superficial way. It is a convenient example. Whatever the truth of Hirsch’s work the discourse he has created in England is a mix of cultural conservatism with a focus on traditional values. It is little wonder that the last education secretary was so active in promoting Hirschian discourse. Michael Gove also introduced the concept of British values. I see a great similarity between the two.

OFSTED say this about British values:

... acceptance and engagement with the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs; the pupils develop and demonstrate skills and attitudes that will allow them to participate fully in and contribute positively to life in modern Britain.

I had no idea that democracy, or the rule of law, was a uniquely British value but nonetheless you need background knowledge of being British to be British presumably. The problem is that what it means to be British is changing. In fact , as often as not, it is students from other cultures that do the best at our schools. Ironically the question of  British values, or core knowledge,  is not used to explain the success of students from a Chinese heritage background. Quite the opposite.

Nadiya as a British cultural icon

British Muslims are currently establishing a cultural identity against a backdrop of global conflict. Nadiya, a popular winner of the Great British Bake Off, was immediately hailed as a cultural  icon to young Muslims. The different interpretations of her success are interesting. Here are two articles from the same newspaper: here and here. Establishment figures see a Muslim cultural icon, whereas young Muslims just see a young mum who has just won a baking competition. The difference is stark.

Let us be clear Nadiya is a British cultural icon. Often the most insidious institutional racism is not the discourse of the UKIP’s et al but in the way Muslims are seen as something “other” and not “one of us”. The discourse of the “alien within” is powerfully re-enforced as institutions and the establishment fail to normalise the diversity of British culture. There is an inbuilt tension between institutions protecting minority interests using brands such as BME and at the same time, consciously or otherwise, using those brands to “other” those groups.

Hirschian discourse marries seamlessly with a populist view about British values. The good citizen needs British values and core knowledge. I think Hirschian discourse says much about a cultural panic that is beginning to grip this country as the cultural identities of recent migrants begin to assert themselves upon the mainstream media. It may well have made sense 50 years ago when there was 3 television channels and a only a handful of print media outlets but British society has changed beyond all recognition.


I’m not sure young people who are born and bred in Britain need a lecture on British values. Probably the opposite they need to understand the shared liberal traditions that relate to their own cultural heritage. Scholars such as Abū l-Walīd Muḥammad Ibn ʾAḥmad Ibn Rušhd have contributed greatly to Western ideas. It sends a powerful message to young Muslims that in fact some of the greatest thinkers of Islam were also European and helped to create Western philosophical perspectives. It also undermines the view that the West is one thing and they are “the other”.

Thanks to the internet and social media it is no longer possible to contextualise culture within homogenised traditions and knowledge canons. Extremist discourses have developed suggesting that British values are at odds with those of  other cultures. It is time to find shared relations with the culture of others and to equip young people with critical thinking tools. It is not enough simply to rely on telling young people what to think when there are so many competing voices telling them something else. Having the loudest voice only works when those you want to be listening are actually doing so.

One of the great laments of Islamic scholars is that often Islamic exegesis is conflated with national identities and cultures. Everything that is claimed to be knowledge is not necessarily so. The anything goes relativism of multi culturalism created an uncritical view of knowledge and cultures. In its own way Hirschian discourse is in danger of doing the same. Knowledge becomes the unchallengeable preserve of expert domains. It can be as true of extremist discourses as it is of biology, physics etc.

The greatest weapon of the extremist is to construct “them and us” narratives. British values and a view that knowledge can only be understood within expert domains creates the perfect “them” against which a powerful “us” discourse can be constructed. Nadiya’s victory in the great bake off is a victory for Nadiya but it won’t say much about cultural relations until establishment figures start seeing the person rather than the hijab.



And to prove a point here are the views of various politicians regarding British values: 

Following the announcement of the requirement, politicians were asked about what they think are fundamental British values.

The prime minister, David Cameron, said:

… respect for the rule of law, belief in personal and social responsibility and respect for British institutions

I would say freedom, tolerance, respect for the rule of law, belief in personal and social responsibility and respect for British institutions.

Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, said:

… there’s some basic things everyone can agree on: democracy. Gender equality. Equality before the law.

Michael Gove, secretary of state for education, said:

One strength of the United Kingdom is that it has provided a safe and warm home for people of every faith over hundreds of years…

It is critical that we ensure that our traditions of liberty and tolerance are protected so that everyone, whatever their background, can feel that sense of pride in this nation and allegiance to other citizens, which all of us would want to celebrate as the best of British.

… the four nations of the UK cannot build their future unity around a kind of ethnic nationalism, nor primarily around pride in institutions such as the House of Commons, whose fortunes ebb and flow.

Instead, in the absence of the glue that once came from imperial success, economic pre-eminence and military conquest, unity is best built around shared values, British ideas of liberty, fairness and social responsibility, the themes of Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony.

They come alive, as Boyle showed, in the NHS and in our guarantee of equal social and economic rights to all citizens irrespective of nationality.


2 thoughts on “On Nadiya and “how it is that an 87 year old retired professor …….”

  1. Hiya, a great read and much that I agree with – one of the things that worries me about Hirsch is the ‘common sense’ way that his curriculum is drawn up, and the way that the sensible gloss on these curricular decisions hide the influence of other factors.

    I’m not sure I quite follow your argument that Hirsch conflates knowledge with culture. In my reading in essence he’s saying “we need enough knowledge of the following list of things in order to be able to take part in the dominant culture”. Actually there’s something very attractive about that idea, and as Hirsch himself points out, radical emancipatory movements have needed knowledge of the dominant culture in order to be able to change it.

    1. Thank you for your interesting comment. Yes there is something Gramsciesque about the view that by participating in the dominant culture you can change it. The problem I have with that view is that it suggests that we live external to culture, and knowledge, able to judge it dispassionately. Whereas in reality our beliefs are somewhat constructed from that culture. It just seems to me to be a way of replicating the dominant culture as opposed to a radical emancipatory movement. The proof of the pudding is how attractive the idea is to people who are traditionalists and resistant to change. I see little in the Core Knowledge movement that is radical.

      Secondly it also turns society on its head. In a traditionalist socialist ideology (my interpretation) society imposes upon the individual. In the Hirsch model the individual becomes responsible for becoming culturally literate. The individual that isn’t culturally literate is therefore culpable for the illiteracy. This is how it will pan out under the current conservative government. Power and hierarchy is collapsed. The conduit to power is simply to read Dickens or whoever. Whereas culture is designed to be exclusive. Often it isn’t what you know that is important but who you know.

      Thirdly it pre-supposes that the knowledge of the dominant culture has some pre-eminence, which is fine as far as it goes but the dominant culture was racist and homophobic not that long ago. Re-producing those views hardly make anyone culturally literate.

      Finally I’m jusr not convinced there is a knowledge base out there that allows an individual to engage with the common discourse of the dominant culture. I doubt whether a degree in Physics or an interest in Aristotle would cut much ice at a Bullingdon club dinner party.

      I can see Gramsci’s point that by labelling the Working classes the “working classes” it is something of a self fulfilling prophecy equally I agree you need some knowledge of the dominant culture but I think you also need some concept of progress.

      So, even though I can see the point I see Core Knowledge as being more about cultural elitism and assimilating other cultures as anything tangibly emancipatory. I could be wrong.

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