A teacher once told me that he couldn’t stand Pakistanis ‘because of the smell’. I was 13 at the time and it was during a classroom debate about immigration: he was very much agin, I was for. It struck me, suddenly, that he was very stupid – an astonishing realisation, as I was accustomed to believing teachers to be full of wisdom, a delusion inculcated in me by my parents.
This all took place in a very large comprehensive school in the north-east of England – a good school by and large, but almost entirely white. Of the 1,800 pupils only one was not: a quiet lad of Chinese Malay extraction, I think, who was known to all the pupils and a good few of the teachers as ‘Fu Manchu’. In fact, there was another non-white face in the crowd, but we didn’t know it at the time. It was only 20 years later that I realised my friend Jim was half Indian. He kept that pretty quiet.
All of this dates me fairly precisely. Such racist attitudes would today be front-page news and there would be government inquiries. Just as dated is my parents’ deference, and the deference shown by society in general, towards teachers. Over the intervening 50 years, society has become more diverse and so necessarily more tolerant and accepting – and, by some sort of strange inversion, teachers have become far more stupid. They had their stupidities then, of course, but not on a par with the sort of stuff we see today. That is one reason why parents are disinclined to show them deference. Another is that deference is pretty much dead meat – gone the way of similarly despised qualities such as discipline, respect, obedience etc.