Revolution in the Classroom: Part 1

Gareth Stevens discusses the interplay between modern education, neo-liberalism, meritocracy and democracy. He argues for a more participatory and authentic approach to the teaching of democracy and civic engagement.

In Part One he introduces the longer piece and discusses whether the term ‘working class’ has any validity within educational and political discourse anymore.


“For more than just a day
They keep us from the game of life
And waste our lives away
Always demanding
You fit into the script
Have you ever heard
You’ll even, scream and scream
And scream”

  • Revolution in the classroom – The Sex Pistols

“Public education does not serve a public. It creates a public.”

“The question is not, Does or doesn’t public schooling create a public? The question is, What kind of public does it create? A conglomerate of self-indulgent consumers? Angry, soulless, directionless masses? Indifferent, confused citizens? Or a public imbued with confidence, a sense of purpose, a respect for learning, and tolerance? The answer to this question has nothing whatever to do with computers, with testing, with teacher accountability, with class size, and with the other details of managing schools. The right answer depends on two things, and two things alone: the existence of shared narratives and the capacity of such narratives to provide an inspired reason for schooling.”

“If you are at the mercy of your wages, or you’re a benefit claimant or you’ve got an illness, you’re fucked. Unskilled workers, they’re fucked. And you can see the insecurity on people’s faces. You’re on your own. No one gives a flying fuck anymore. It’s every man for himself.”

  • Jason Williamson of the Sleaford Mods

Of late there have been two key moments when I really began to question the moral purpose of the international school system that I was working for in Hong Kong. The first came when a rather over-excited and inebriated alumnus thanked me so much for everything my school had done for him. “If it wasn’t for alI I learned and the skills I developed there” he slurred, “I wouldn’t be able to manage the multi-million dollar hedge funds that I do today”. I was really sideswiped by this. Is this what we are doing? Nothing more than creating the next generation of overpaid financiers who busy themselves with helping those with money accumulate their advantage?

The second instance was when I realised that there was a very high proportion of our students who neither knew anything, nor cared about the “Umbrella Revolution” that was unfolding not ten minutes walk from our school site.

In my school the curriculum culminates in the majority of students taking the IB diploma, a qualification that openly prides itself on producing principled global citizens that couldn’t help but go on to make a positive difference. A high bar for any curricular experience that, in reality, overburdens every student with a dense and stressful assessment timeline and ends with a traditional set of high stakes terminal examinations. That our students always found the energy and drive to get involved in a vast array of enrichment experiences was always impressive. The fact that we gave them neither time nor reason to understand or get involved with local political issues was a glaring failure for me. Our students were encouraged, in a nebulous way, to think globally, but were not acting locally.

So where am I going with this? Well initially I will discuss some concerns I have about how the central ideas around which this book has been formed are articulated. Then I will go on to argue that our shared understanding of social mobility and the way we accept that this naturally underpins the purpose of education is reductive and inhibiting. I will make the claim that issues to do with class, mobility and meritocracy are locked with each other in such a way that confounds any real creative growth in educational thinking. And finally that we ignore politics in our classrooms at our peril, before suggesting a different set of emphases for the curriculum that embrace the processes of civic engagement, authentic action and a preoccupation with social (and economic ) justice. I will draw on my experiences as a vice principal in a school system in Hong Kong that has drifted from being part of the pantheon of government funded schools targeted at expatriate families prior to the handover, to being a set of more independent international schools. I hope that I can strengthen my case by referring back to my 20 years working in design and technology education in the UK and to the current state of play of schooling in old blighty.

I will aim to show that in order to support students to go beyond the shadow boundaries of the class system, to achieve ‘real’ success and indeed to play a participatory part in the democratic process, we need to …..

  • Actively engage students in defining what success means, offer alternatives to prevailing models and actively engage them in reaching their own definitions of the same.
  • Encourage them to reflect on the realities and myths of perceived social order.
  • Involve them in a much more gritty and authentic civic engagement programme which emphasises effective and sustainable action.
  • Teach politics and democracy as core. In other words plan an education that ‘creates the public’.

You may think that my recent experience neither disposes nor qualifies me to contribute to a discussion on the working class – but please hear me out.

The Working Class – a Reality or Just an Archaic Term?

Firstly I would like to outline several health warnings about the key terms around which this book is formed. The term working class is overused and reified. The map is not the territory. Language has a reciprocal relationship with objective reality. Language changes people’s reality, and reality changes and nudges the evolution of language. The idea of what constitutes a working class has not only fragmented, but its ‘brand position’ has been manipulated to support emerging ideological views perpetuated by reactionary media and those in power. Globalization and the stealthy bedding down of neoliberalism has had a pernicious impact on public life, the individual experiences and life chances of common people, and has led to the evaporation of an anachronistic social order. Within this context the majority of teachers unwittingly promote an oppressive hegemony whilst wittingly trying to empower their disadvantaged students and to do the right thing by them.

The way that neoliberalism drives, and at the same time impedes, educational reform, has led to the push you pull me situation in which larger forces define a set of priorities in the classroom that the majority of teachers do not subscribe to. This is insane.

Currently we are in a situation where those who hold power are invested in perpetuating an educational system that supports their position and secures their wealth. It works for them that the ‘working class’ are not cured of their ‘ills’ nor given greater levels of self determination or mobility. Curricula are crafted and recrafted to service economic productivity and international rankings, irrespective of what school level mission statements might say. Headteachers are hogtied and conflicted day to day and are routinely tasked to meet performance targets that they might philosophically disagree with. And so the insanity continues.

In this new context ‘The Working Class’ is a contested term. We all think we know what the term means, but I would argue that, like so much language, particularly in the Human Sciences, it is path dependent. By that I mean that the term endures and still has currency and yet that which it denotes, arguably does not. The qwerty keyboard was designed to slow typists down so that the hammers of a typewriter were less likely to jam. Like the term working class, it is still used today even though the original conditions that originated its existence are gone.

But let’s consider what the term connotes and how that has changed. There was a time when the prevalent meaning stood for defiance in the face of oppression, grit in the face of adversity, resilience, and solidarity. It denoted a social group that took pride in the strength of its community and shared dignity in its identity. In more visual terms it signified blue boiler suit, flat cap and capstan cigarettes. Less positively, it also defined a group of people that were downtrodden, powerless and intractably stuck at the bottom of the pile.

Language always judges and by its very nature categorizes. A taxonomy of different classes inevitably invites prejudice and promotes the formation of stereotypes. The term ‘working class’ seeks to circumscribe a distinct social and economic group that increasingly does not exist. There is an implication that the taxonomy is digitally accurate and not just a blunt tool for making sense of a continuum. If such a process is digital where is the divide? What signals the change of one’s social position? When can someone be said to move from working to middle class? Is it when they opt for Proust over Grisham in the airport lounge? When you forego a pint of mild and sup Liebfraumilch? Or when cabbage is ignored in favour of kale? When you go from being waged to being salaried? Or is it when you swap overalls for a shirt and tie? Who knows and who decides?

What we can conclude is that we are trying to use a clumsy tool on a nuanced and dynamic social and economic system over time. If complexity theory teaches us anything it tells us of the folly of using simple solutions and categorizations to map our thinking about highly complex systems. As the world becomes more complicated the more language and labels let us down. Words increasingly lack indivisibility.

Marxists (Is there such a thing as a marxist anymore?) might argue that it is quite simple. That it is merely the development of capitalism itself which creates the working class. Wherever capitalism resides, they might say, and wherever it goes, it creates a body of people that are wage labourers. And that this group is inherently subject to exploitation and precluded from having power to control, improve or guide the development of power relations within the process of driving economic growth. They would argue that this is the bottom line when it comes to defining who the working class are.

An emerging and polarized view of the ‘working class’ is one of fecklessness, sloth, unsophistication and vulgarity. Unfortunately this attitude has been crudely promoted by TV based comedy shows from the 90s onwards. Where are the likely lads? The cheeky chappies who inhabited a much more positive position and promoted a more positive representation of the so called working class? Even Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch, whilst seeming to ridicule the working class men it portrays, clearly celebrates their ‘success’ by traditional criteria. They warmly look back to the halcyon days when they were happy despite being poor (“no because we were poor”) and even though they dreamed of living in ‘ole int’ road. Sadly the last decade of the 20th century left us with the likes of Shameless and Vickie Pollard to form a more disparaging and negative narrative. It may seem glib to plot the changing status of the Working Class by an analysis of British TV comedy. I would argue that popular cultural outcomes do indeed give us a hotline into the change in prevailing attitudes and values.

Some would say that the ‘traditional’ working class are in decline particularly in the UK. Others would argue that the global population of working class has grown exponentially with globalization and the decline of manufacturing in the northern hemisphere. Another line is taken by those that have made it their business to rewrite the taxonomy of class.

In 2013 Manchester University concluded that a new classification of class was required. After surveying over 161,000 people they concluded there were now 7 social classes. This new definition included a new strata, that is Guy Standing’s ‘precariat’. Writing on the WEF website he says of the precariat “Those in it are reduced to being supplicants. The Latin root of precariousness is “to obtain by prayer”. The precariat must ask for favours, for charity, to show obsequiousness, to plead with figures of authority. The precariat have unstable and precarious access to employment, are thus less powerful and more vulnerable. They are preoccupied with finding an occupation and suffer all the concomitant health and psychological risks that this position threatens. This emerging global class is the progeny of the uncaring parent of neoliberal capitalism. Again such a label is like a lamp post to a drunk, it provides support rather than illumination. I don’t want to talk about the working class nor the precariat. I don’t think these terms are helpful. To use them is to imply that they are axiomatic and any attempt to further categorize, to make the map more equivalent to the territory, futile.

Also what is the purpose of such a classification. Is it a rubric by which one can measure one’s progress up the ladder? Or is it a way of judging and reassuring ourselves? Does it help in the purer aim of knowing one’s position and forging an identity? Surely any process that classifies and compartmentalizes people, divides people and is, of itself, a force for inequality?

And so I want to move away from using the moniker ‘The Working Class’. I am reminded that educating ‘gifted and talented’ and ‘EAL’ students (in the mainstream) well, is the same as educating ALL students well. Thus I want to frame my discussion in those terms. An effective education for the disprivileged or powerless is the same as an effective education for all.

The great Kurt Hahn who valiantly stood up against the rise of fascism in Weimar Germany in the 1930s, had this as one of his seven tenets of the curriculum experience he offered at Salem school near Bodensee at that time. He said that a principle aim of education was to “Free the sons of the wealthy and powerful from the enervating sense of privilege”. And so with this in mind I want to argue that the way in which the dispriviledged suffer from enervation then so do all if they accept their lot as predetermined. Whilst we should be wary of perpetuating the view that our students should accept their social and economic predisposition, we should also be sceptical of a more meritocratic perspective.

And so I wish to change aim and focus on the notion of developing a political consciousness for all.

Next in Part 2…meritocracy and ‘social mobility’…

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