Recently I flew from Casablanca to London, and high over Spain listened on my i-pod to the last of Melvyn Bragg’s excellent BBC radio discussions on The Value of Culture. At some point in it Matt Ridley quoted John Maynard Keynes calling Poverty of Aspiration the fifth horseman of the apocalypse – the biggest block of all to development, personal and social. Culture opens horizons, allowing people to imagine unfamiliar possibilities, and it equips them to look to a broader, better future. Poverty of Aspiration, on the other hand (which correlates with the absence of these cultural tools) cuts them off from the future by stunting their ability to imagine anything different from what is now. Or at least to imagine that anything different has any relevance to them at all.
There’s a good deal of it about in Morocco. Children need the energy of aspiration to break out of the lives they lead, and that energy comes from education, from reading, from imaginative literature, film and music. That’s not easy to get your hands on in a country that is for the most part functionally illiterate, has a tiny (though often splendid) cinema and a woefully low rate of social mobility. How do you set out along a road whose direction you cannot really imagine, whose destination is the dimmest of hearsay, on a journey which requires patience and endurance that you do not see around you?
This took me back to a conversation a few days ago with a young friend who has been working in Taroudannt on a project for street children run by the Moroccan Children’s Trust. It’s a wonderful project, providing a place where orphans and very deprived children can supplement their often meagre education, make friends, play football and get their papers in order, under the eyes of Moroccan teachers and social workers and British volunteers. But what really struck me was hearing that the youngest, pre-scolaire, group has an hour-long session every morning, called al-Mustaqbal, the Future. These very young children spend that hour each day groping towards an image in their minds of their own future, establishing – if they are lucky – the bones of a road map away from the Quartier Noir of Taroudannt to somewhere better. Learning, if you like to think of it this way, to use the future tense in the first person.
Bringing up our own children in Europe, we try to teach them to think, to imagine, to aspire. They tell us what they want to be when they grow up – engine-driver, nurse, pop-singer, astronaut. They imagine being older, being in different places. “I want to go there,” they say, seeing in a film an image of somewhere half a world away, dimly aware that one day they might really do so. “I’m going to marry her,” a four-year old boy says of his pony-tailed classmate. “I want to play the trumpet,” says another. None of these statements are true in a predictive sense, but they are a flexing of the imaginative muscles, a learning that the future is full of possibilities that they can influence and even sometimes control.
That’s what’s missing when poverty is extreme, education inadequate and above all when the cultural tools for imagining your way out of the unyielding, confining present are not there. And it’s why the persuasive offering of culture and imagination to children without aspirations is one of the greatest of all tasks. It is, really, what being a teacher is all about: awakening young minds to curiosity, self-awareness and the ambition to do better.