This sculpture is going with us to ‘Potfest’ (yes, it is really called that. There may well be some customers who are dissappointed!) It began with a firing failure, but there was something about her that I could not throw away…
I am trying to write a poem a day at the moment- a return to an old discipline that I have found useful. I may post some of them on here… inevitably the quality will be somewhat variable- although I have long tried to stop measuring poetry in terms of whether it is ‘good’ ir not – even my own. Rather I try to decide whether it is meaningful.
I have been thinking about the stories that hold our society together. A few of us watched a video clip and discussed it via Zoom on Sunday, and it occurred to me (not for the first time) that in order for things to get better, we have to find better stories, and we have to come to see the old ones as flawed.
The process begun by the Enlightenment was, by and large, a positive development at least for Europe. But this process has been interrupted not so much by religion – the antithesis of the Enlightenment – but by a faith-based secular ideology that says the pursuit by individuals of their own private material gain is good for all.
To dissent against this faith-based secular religion is to be consigned to Purgatory and Hell by the Upholders of the Faith. When the upholders of such a system see a dissenting opposition that is so threatening it must be condemned, it is probably worth asking, “So what’s the threat?” This is what makes a study of the writings of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and other dissenters from the secular faith so fascinating. Before “Marxism” was codified into a tool of repression by state capitalists, (Soviet Union, China – regimes that used Marxist rhetoric to repress their own people), it was and still can be a useful critique of the secular religion of capitalism and very revealing in its analysis. Some have helped bring this nineteenth-century dissent up to date on the basis of a critical scientific analysis of the evolution of the capitalist system, (Paul Sweezy, Howard Parsons, David Harvey, John Bellamy Foster, et al.).
The most valuable critique is the questioning of the “enlightened self-interest as public good” assumption. This assumption is based on the false premise that humans are separate from their environment; that somehow, we are “above” the normal consequences of action in the field of the life-death continuum of Planet Earth. A brief perusal of the consequences of this false premise should be sobering to any thinking person. The pursuit of resources and markets to feed a system that MUST grow to survive has made the planet and all of its inhabitants commodities. In capitalist mythology, EVERYTHING has a monetary value, including and perhaps especially, people. The fact that humans are dependent on a healthy environment is not a central consideration – capitalists who acquire financial independence can BUY a healthy environment as one of their private acquisitions, it is assumed. Everyone else must either enter into the field of competition and buy their own “healthy environment,” or be consigned to a life that Thomas Hobbes called “nasty, brutish, and short” – a self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one.
We have been watching this. It has thrilled me and it has made me weep.
About half way in, a band called ‘The Breath’ stole mine.
They were familiar songs to me- I love their albums. But watching them come together after lock down in order to sing again… sublime words, brilliant guitar playing and her voice…well, listen yourself.
My late sister would have loved it. We would have cried together, instead of me crying alone, wishing I could share it with her.
Which is kind of the point of this post. What is it that allows us to be human? The lock down has confronted us with this question in a way that we would be foolish to waste or ignore. What are we missing most? What (of the things we used to do) now seems so pointless?
What carries us?
I know myself better now. That is not to say that I am ‘sorted’, or that the brokenness is all mended. I am not sure I even aspire to those kind of solutions. Rather, let me remain tender, open to failure as much as hard success.
Today I was searching through some old poems, looking for one that might work as part of a commission, and I found this one. That will do, I thought. Not for the commission- but that will do, nevertheless.
I choose goodness
I caught a glimpse today
Of my capacity for goodness.
I thought it gone away
But there it lay
Like a laughing flapping fish
Wet mouth wide open, saying
That (despite being the epicentre of my own unfolding event)
I still know what it means to love.
That (despite all my callow grasping)
I know what it means to give.
That (despite my tendency to measure myself and find you wanting)
Regular readers of this blog will know that, along with my wife Michaela, I make a living through a small business called seatree. We call it our on-going experiement in trying to live creatively and sustainably. We make art from ceramics and other stuff, run workshops and poetry things, and somehow it has worked – the adventure continues. We feel so blessed to be able to make our lives from thee ingredients, in this beautiful place.
Then along came the pandemic.
At first, particularly for Michaela (who is the one who does the organising) we panicked. Our outgoings are small, but overnight, all the galleries we work with closed, and we had to cancel our workshops. Like many others we faced the real posibility that everything we had worked for was going to fall apart. I even started to think about going back into social work, which was a terrifying prospect from my ‘escaped’ perspective.
But then we started to get creative. We spent hours setting up our website shop. We developed things like our workshops in a tin. Like the rest of the world, we started doing things via zoom. We discovered that the new normal could still be creative, and the veg in the garden grows just as well in lockdown- better in fact as we have had more time to develop our growing spaces. It is quite possible that things will never go back to how they were, and for us, that is OK. We need change- both as individuals and as a wider society.
However, some changes need investment that is beyond our financial reach.
In order to continue to run workshops, we need to create more workspace. This means re-purposing our large shed, clearing out a lot of the things we have in there at the moment and making some socialy distanced work stations.
We need to sell more things direct, and this means creating a better display area for things we make here, as well as a way to manage stock better.
Put simply. we need a new shed! A beautiful. hand crafted seatree hut. Even doing all the work ourselves, we think this will cost in the region of £5K, which is a lot of money for us.
We have taken a plunge into the unknown, otherwise known as crowd funding.
Can we ever move forwards without looking backwards?
I am sick to death of politicians and policy makers talking about education as if it is the ultimate social leveller; as if it offers a level playing field through which achievement is available to all.
From our recent history we have Tony Blair, with his ‘Education, education, education’ mantra. New labour sunk huge amounts of money into our education system at all levels- from increased nursery programmes right through to a huge expansion of university places. Even though austerity has wound back a lot of this largesse, we have to ask who benefitted most from these educational programmes? Did Blair manage to achieve his stated goal of ‘breaking the link between home background and educational achievement’?
Consider this most recent quote by (of all people) Michael Gove, during his disasterous term of office as education secretary;
“rich, thick kids do better educationally than poor, clever children before they even get to school… unfortunately, despite the best efforts of our society, the situation is getting worse”
If even Gove can see that education is not ‘levelling up’ then why do we continue to pretend otherwise? (Gove appeared to have given up trying, given his other policy ideas!)
For educationalists this is first and foremost a technical problem; how to create the right school environment; how to engage kids in learning; how to motivate teachers and increase expectations all round. Regulation and testing regimes became ever more complex and ‘failing’ schools were pounced upon by hit squads of super-teachers, as if the answer lay in super-leaders who weild both carrot and axe. Of course- these efforts are far from futile. A good school is always better than a bad school. A good teacher is alway better than a bad one. We all remember our experience of both for the rest of our lives. The problem is that no matter how good the school is, Gove’s words remain true. Middle class white kids benefit most. Black poor kids the least.
It is perhaps worth mentioning at this point that I am talking about state education. Private education systems make this inequality of attainment so much greater. Private schools operate as hothouses for A and A star qualification. They absorb 27% of all money spent on education within the UK for 7% of the pupils. Our judicuary, our top university places, our houses of parliament, our doctors, our lawyers, even our pop stars – all of the elite positions in society in fact – are loaded from these elites. Who can blame middle class parents for wanting to give their own kids a chance to join the elite? Many have argued that until state-funded (through grants, tax breaks and direct funding) private schooling is removed (or at least dethroned) all other efforts to create equality of attainment are pointless, but that is not my point here. Private schooling works becuase it preserves inequality for the elite. It makes success and advantage hereditory, rolling down the generations, but these schools never pretended to be anything else. They never aspired towards any kind of social engineering other than the preservation of privilege.
Let’s look back again to those great educational efforts to bridge the class divide. Here is a (very) brief summary;
18th and 19th C education in the UK was mostly charity based, organised sporadically at parish level. There were efforts to ‘education the workforce’, by mill owners for example, and a thriving Sunday school movement, but no systematic education system for poor kids, despite some public money being used to aid voluntary schools
Elementary Education Act, 1870. Made elementary education compulsory from ages of 5-13, in state funded schools (England and Wales- Scotland more or less followed on in 1872)
Balfor Act, 1902. Brought church schools under same standards and requirements as state schools.
Fisher Act 1918. Beginning of secondary schools. Established grammar schools for those who were thought more able. Still only compulsory up to age of 14.
Spens and Norwood report, 1938. Recommended use of intelligence testing to guide levels and kinds of education made available to kids.
SECOND WORLD WAR disruption
Butler education Act 1944. The establishment of tripartite educaion system, based on an intelligence test. Children to be streamed into Grammar (high achievers) Technical (vocational learners) and Secondary modern (the rest).
Rising disquiet and conflict around schooling model- concerns about testing kids at 11, and how poor kids were vastly unrepresented at grammar schools
Circular 10/65, 1965. The Labour government required all councils to move away from testing at aged 11 and to replace the tripartite system (in practice it was largly a bipartite system as the technical schools were rarely developed) towards a comprehensive model.
The change towards comprehensive education was controversial and politicized. Many councils dragged their heels and in some parts of the country the tripartite system was still in place in the 1980’s.
Conservative government- 1979-1997. A swing back towards ‘traditional’ education. Vocational emphasis. National corriculum emphasising the classics. ‘Formula funding’ to pay schools by how many children it could attract, in an attempt to introduce free market ideas into education. Schools allowed to opt out of local government control. Section 28 forbade any ‘support for homosexuality’
Labour gov, 1997- 2010 Education, education, education… which meant ‘tayloring education to each childs ability’ and continuning with some of the direction set by the Conservatives by alowin schools to select their pupils.Class sizes were capped at 30 and there was a huge expansion in regularion, testing and even performance related pay for teachers.
Conservative gov 2010 onwards. Foundation schools were introduced, further extending school autonomy away from local government.
I attended a school established as an educational experiment. When data showed that the comprehensive schools of the late sixties and seventies were not significantly closing the gap between middle class kids and those from poorer backgrounds, educationalists asked a lot of questions. The same questions that are being asked by many today, even if they are being ignored by our politicians.
Why does poverty almost always produce low educational achievement?
Why does race/gender have such profound effects also?
Is it about home environment? How can we motivate parents to value their childrens education more?
How can we place schooling at the heart of communities, so that everyone buys in to learning and values it at all ages?
How can teaching styles/classroom layouts facillitate learning?
In repsonse to these questions, the powers that be produced something called a ‘community school’. After all, in the 1970’s we had no fear of big urban planning solutions. Sadly, most of them ended badly. Our school was built in 1974, as part of redevelopment of the town centre. It included a wide range of community resources; an ice skating rink, indoor bowls, youth club, day centre for older people, sports halls, a cinema/theatre and a restraunt. The schooling ethos was deliberately informal – no school uniforms, teachers called by first names and all class rooms were open plan. Lessons were open to parent and members of the community as well as children.
By the time I attended (1976) the school was already under harsh media scrutiny. The Sun newspaper ran headlines about how we were being taught swearwords in our classes and the open plan classrooms were predictably impractical. Meanwhile, at lunchtime we had nowhere to go but out into the shopping precinct which the school was connected to, and there was the inevitable trouble, which further affected the reputation of the school. All of this was a shame, because much of what was being attempted was brilliant. The teaching staff, in the early days at least, before the powers that be tried to bring everyone back in line, were motivated and committed. even our caretaker was an Oxbridge graduate.
Despite all of this, the important question is this one; did the school level our opportunity for kids from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds, like me?
On a personal level, I went to university. I was the first in my family to do so, even if only by the skin of my teeth. But I was the exception, not the rule. I have tried to find evaluation of success rates on line, but the whole community school experiment seems to be a forgotten footnote. My instinct is that my school was no more successful than any other comprehensive of its time, but I do not know for sure.
In 1970, Basil Bernstein (above) wrote a highly influential paper called ‘Education cannot compensate for society’. He was a British sociologist, whose early work had been around understanding the social impact of education, particularly how language development is affected by social class. In one reading, the 1970 paper might be understood as a repudation of all his earlier work, almost as if he was saying ‘forget all your efforts to bring about social change through education because the forces in wider society will always dictate outcomes’. Certainly this is the way that his paper has often been used in later years. The very concept of social engineering is in itself dated, right? These days we focus on individual achievments and measurable individual outcomes.
In fact, Bernstein’s paper was not fatalistic in this way. Rather it was written in response to another educational experiment- this one on a rather grander scale, known as ‘compensatory education’. In the USA, huge effort had been put in to educating kids from the inner cities, for example with Project Head Start, part of President Johnsons ‘Great Society’ campaign. The idea was to identify kids in need and blitz them with after school clubs, extra classes and raise their expectations. Bernstein thought that it would not work, and indeed he was right. He thought that compensatory education would be plagued by these problems;
He sought to show that the idea of compensatory education as advocated in these programmes was based on assumptions that were based more on social prejudice than evidence. The first objection that he offers is that the compensatory education theorists and programmes failed to regard as a central problem that most children from deprived backgrounds also attended schools which did not offer an “adequate educational environment”. He pointed out that the Newsom report showed that “79 per cent of all secondary modern schools in slum and problem areas were materially grossly inadequate …”.
But, essential though decent material conditions for school are, Bernstein went on to criticise the ideology of these programmes. He argued that the labelling of children as “culturally deprived” set in train a whole series of negative consequences, however laudable the intention may have been. Among these were: (1) an unthinking downgrading of the children’s own experience; (2) an unconscious assumption that middle-class use of language is the only valid one; (3) to lower teacher expectations of the children concerned; (4) to exclude parents who became regarded as part of the problem rather than essential to its solution.
Sixty years ago, Bernstein was speaking to a world that was still actively looking for ways to become more equal. We gave that up in 1979, but paradoxically, the efforts to ‘rescue’ poor kids through education continue.
In case you missed it, here is my conclusion. Education is a noble human enterprise. It can set many of us free, but it does not do so evenly or fairly. In fact, mostly education operates according to the prejudices and priorites of the society it is embedded in. In part this is sustained deliberately by the power of elites, but it is more than that.
Consider how teachers bring unconscious bias into the classroom. Check out this article that reveals how teachers react in different ways to black kids even as early as nursery education. They are not doing this because they are bad people, but because they are just like us.
To change education, we have to change society. It does not work the other way round- we have proved this. It is all about inequality, stupid.
Readers of this blog will know that I am interested in how ideas shape us, for good and ill. I am particularly interested in ideas that shape us in ways that we may not even notice; ideas that sit in our subconscious and dictate what thoughts are possible, almost like the soil quality dictating what kind of trees can grow.
There is no doubt that one such idea that has dominating our thinking throughout the late 20th C and into the 21st is this one;
the habit or principle of being independent and self-reliant.
a social theory favouring freedom of action for individuals over collective or state control.”encouragement has been given to individualism, free enterprise, and the pursuit of profit”
It is a word that has many good associations, you could say that it is the hallmark of our democracy, the peak of what we aspire to as citizens.
It is an idea that is also at the centre of almost all the other ways we think about ourselves and our culture;
ECONOMICS. The dominant economic model for the western world is still Neoliberal economics, which is based around the idea of individual autonomous consumer units
POLITICS. ‘There is no such thing as society’ said Margaret Thatcher, and successive governments on the left and right have tried to prove her correct. Instead we have strivers/skyvers. There are those who are contributing to society and those who are ‘excluded’. The latter need only individual solutions.
RELIGION. We offer only a personal Jesus, who seeks to save the world one sinner at a time. The Hebrew God, who refused even to be given an individual name, and was collectively engaged with a whole nation, has been forgottten.
THERAPY. It is not just because of swiftness and convenience that ‘self-help’ has become such a huge seller and gained such traction within the world of mental health. We can only see individual solutions to what are mostly collective problems.
HEALTH. Positive thinking is offered as the cure all for everything from depression to cancer. Your healing comes from the power of your individualism.
You get my point, I am sure. In some parts of the western world, individualism seems like an unassailable ideal. Any percieved threats to ‘individual rights’ are greeted with howls and threats. Think about the USA and guns. Think about the UK obsession with home ownership and consumer protection.
We are at a tipping point in our culture, and typically when one epoch shifts into another, then underlying ideas that are intermingled with the old paradigm tend to be challenged too. There is a danger of pendulum swing, in which we lose the good along with the bad, but I would suggest that it is essential that our concept of individualism is examined again.
Take a look at this quote and think about how you respond to it. Is it ‘true’? Does it make you feel inspired, or does it make you feel inadequate? Does it even apply to you, or is it more relevant to other people- those that need it more than you do?
It might be helpful to think about the quote in the context of your personal success.
Then in the context of your personal failure.
The thing is that anyone who has ever made even the most cursory study of social science will tell you that Henry Ford (who was after all not the most sympathetic individual) is talking absolute nonsense. Let me say more;
Psychologists can demonstrate in a hundred way that relative success in life (measured any way you like) is pre-loaded at birth, then shaped further by formative experience.
Sociologists can demonstrate in a thousand ways that success and failure is generational and ebbs and flows on a population wide level. Detailed studies of the effects of poverty have shown that there was never a level playing field. Poverty brutalises, hinders our cognition, makes us ill and die young, and we pass these things on to our childrens children.
Social historians can reveal to us how these arguments are not new. They can tell us the story of how the sweep of history has not primarily about famous individuals, but rather about mass collective action. They can show us how other generations have failed to the learn the lessons that we are grappling with now.
Even economists (and I mean even) know that Haydek’s individual autonomous economic unit is just a simplistic canard. They know that, no matter how much you try to ‘just leave it to the market to decide’, interventions will be necessary. They know that free market economics always leads to boom and bust, in which individuals are victimised.
So why, in the face of so much opposition, do ideas about individualism still hold such a grip over our culture? I am no conspiracy theorist, but here we have to consider whose interests are being served most by this narrative, and how the mythology around it is sustained. It is totally unsurprising that those in power tend to believe that their success came as a result of their own merit; of decisions they made and individual positive attributes that they posess.
But when we think about it, we know already that there was never a level playing field. Individual success was always dependent on your place in the collective.
One very topical way that we can demonstrate how this works is in relalation to how racism works.
The standard individualist response to the Black Lives Matter movement has been to say “NO- ALL lives matter.” This is one of those classic tautologies, in which a truth is used to hide and obscure a deeper truth. Of course all lives matter, but the point here is that pervasive, institutional, hidden racism has meant that black lives have never been lived with an equality of opportunity.
The other standard individualist response to a collective challenge is to choose individual examples that buck the trend or prove the stereotype; the high achievers from poor backgrounds, Obama becoming president, the benefits cheats who never wanted to work in the first place. Of course individuals can trancend their circumstances, and of course some people who are poor make bad decisions, but by choosing to focus on these examples (as we see the mainstream media doing time after time) we perpetuate a myth and fail to engage with the realities of iving in complex community.
Individualism has quite simply made it harder to see collective difference. If we can blame individual black people for their lack of success, we do not need to confront the benefits of our own privilege. If poor people are poor because of individual failures and unwillingness to use the power of politive thinking then efforts towards equality in society are pointless.
Our politics has essentially sold us a set of lies about how humanity interacts in the western world. We have always known it was not true, but this has not stripped the idea of any of its power.
Why does this matter?
It matters because most of the problems this world is facing right now can not be solved at an individual level alone. Even those problems (like homelessness and rough sleeping) that seem almost hyper-individualistic in their nature have to have collective solutions in the form of home building, sensitive support and benefit systems, etc.
The bigger ones, such as poverty, racism and inequality generally- we have to stop pretending that these could ever be addressed at an individual level. We have to call out those politician on the political right (and even the left) who ignore the huge body of research that tells us about how collective behaviours shape individual choices.
There are two other things happening in the world that also reveal the limits of individualism.
The first is COVID-19. What we do as individuals affects those around us. Some are affected more than others because of vulnerabilities over which they had little control.
The other one is climate change. Individual action is not even a drop in the (warming) ocean. Only by releasing the power of the collective can we hope to save what we have left.