Last night I had a really enjoyable dinner and thought-provoking conversation with Sirkku Nikamaa, her husband Mark, and Dr Mike Martin. We talked about many and varied things, including social reproduction, elite performance, and the current state of the English education system.
On my way home, I saw that my former Mozilla colleague Geoffrey MacDougall had tweeted a question which led to a short exchange:
@dajbelshaw I have zero interest in teaching coding. Would love to teach sales/debate/rhetoric/persuasion/oratory. No idea where to start.
The problems we face in trying to change the education system are at least threefold:
Parents want the best for their kids and they often believe this is through gaining credentials that are the results of high-stakes testing.
Politicians want to impose their worldview on the next generation of the electorate through the education system.
The filters we use (e.g. elite university admissions) to separate out people into social roles are extremely narrow and confining.
I was struck that I didn’t really have an answer to Geoffrey’s question about teaching subjects and skills that I usually equate with a private school education. Nor did I have a response to Mike’s question about how to scale something like the Oxbridge tutorial system.
At the end of the day, it’s difficult to scale almost anything that makes a really profound impact on people’s lives. I’m the person I am today because of supportive parents who are my biggest fans, because of a really interesting History teacher I had growing up, an inspiring university lecturer, a former boss who believed in me. The list goes on.
The purpose of this post isn’t to provide answers, but to point out that I’ve now come across a number of people who have had an elite education who are genuinely interested in how others can receive the same. The problem is, of course, that caring doesn’t scale, and scale doesn’t care.
What would happen if we spent more time on carefully assembling the pool of ‘good enough’ and then randomly picking the 5%?
It’s difficult for the picked, for the pickers and for the institutions to admit, but if you don’t have proof that picking actually works, then let’s announce the randomness and spend our time (and self-esteem) on something worthwhile instead.
Entrance to many professions and walks of life is far from being the result of a strict meritocracy. I think we’d all accept that.
Thinking about this further, I remembered a Twitter conversation I’d had with Mozilla contributor Stefan Bohacek. Over a series of tweets he took issue with a short post I’d written entitled $1 for the X, $9,999 for the expertise. In it, I’d quoted a (probably apocryphal) story about Tesla and Edison.
Well I just totally disagree with what the person is saying. Just because you cashed in on your privilege and spent a few years in college, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should make more than people who didn’t. Salaries need to be completely rethought. Do sports player and actors deserve vastly more money than teachers? If I want to have a comfortable life, I have to become a brain surgeon or start my own company? Who is going to bag our groceries and cut our hair once everyone is a lawyer? I agree — value is hard to measure. But the way it’s usually measured nowadays is completely wrong.
I still have reservations about salaries being centrally controlled via some kind of planned economy. However, the phrase ‘cashing in on your privilege’ has haunted me these past few months.
The phrase has stuck with me and been nagging at the back of my mind as it explains a lot of what I’ve seen as a teacher, as a parent, and as an participant-observer in our society. It’s the reason why, even as a political ‘centrist’ I oppose private schooling and believe that inheritance tax should pretty much be set at 100%. Like the proverbial goldfish noticing ‘water,’ privilege is something that’s not usually observed by those enjoying it.
But the thing is, we’re all privileged in the West / global north. I was struck this week by some research Mozilla has been doing in Africa about mobile phone usage. There’s many excellent (scary) points in that report, but something that stands out is how careful people have to be about their data plans. Yet here I am walking down my local high street, able to get a free wifi connection via around 40% of shops I walk past. I don’t think twice about some of the things that people have to obsess over.
It begs the question: what would it like to do the opposite, to divest oneself of privilege? Would it be a life similar to elf Pavlik, someone (intentionally) moneyless and stateless for the past five years, working for the good of the world (and most certainly not profit)? Would it be to spend as much time as one is able volunteering to help those least fortunate in society? What about reverse-tithing your salary?
I have no answers here, only questions. In my head I’m a lot more radical, consistent in my views, and morally upstanding than I actually must appear to others. Perhaps we’re all like that, I don’t know. What I think we all need to do is to think carefully about what constitutes privilege. We’re always going to be less well off – financially, socially, emotionally – than others, but then to another group of people, we’re the ones who are well off.
Final point: it’s easy to give money. What’s really missing in the world is time, attention and care. There are thousands and thousands of people out there who didn’t have the parents or the education to build networks of people they can rely on and use reciprocally to build cultural capital.* That’s why I was so impressed with Bryan Mathers when I interviewed him recently. He’s providing a bridge for young people to do things they’re good at but otherwise wouldn’t have been able to achieve due to the obstacles unwittingly placed in their way by society.
So I’ve no real conclusion other than I’m going to try and find ways to help others in non-material ways. I’m not sure what that will look like but feel free to ask me in a few weeks/months what I’ve done to further that aim. Please.
I wrote this for another website with a mainly US-centric audience. They felt (quite rightly) that the following was a bit too ‘political’ to go on their site. Although there’s much in it I’ve said before about the riots and social justice, I didn’t want to let it go to waste…
For four nights between the 6th and the 10th of August this year riots broke out across England. Now that the dust has settled on the violence and looting which spread from London to other major English cities many have been asking the question why did rioting break out?
BBC News magazine ran an useful article on the various explanations that were given for the rioting. The ten they listed were:
Lack of fathers
Gangsta rap and culture
Technology and social networking
The trouble with these explanations is that they place most of the burden of responsibility and blame upon the rioters rather than understanding people as being (at least partly) the product of their environment.
As a Philosophy graduate, a former History teacher and a researcher into Digital and New Literacies the riots interested me greatly. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment behind this article in the Economist, for example, that we should “avoid moral panic and a rush to historically-illiterate judgement” as concern about the ‘youth of today’ is far from a (post)modern phenomenon.
But there is something wrong with England. As a friend confided, “people who are happy tend not to riot”. He has a point and I’d like to explain why, from where I stand, the riots broke out. The ten explanations highlighted by the BBC are, of course, all factors but I believe there to be one, underlying, cause: systemic injustice. Let me explain.
England is part of the United Kingdom, a constitutional monarchy making the entire population subjects of the Royal Family. Executive power is exercised by the government on behalf of Her Majesty the Queen with politicians elected through the First Past the Post system. This means, historically-speaking, that governments are more likely to gain a clear majority but also means that they (for a variety of reasons) are more likely to be formed from centre or centre-right parties.
This background is important when it comes to understanding the systemic injustice engrained in the political system. As subjects of the Royal Family we have no US-style fourth amendment rights, although we do have recourse through the Human Rights Act to the European Court of Human Rights (apart from Protocol 12 on discrimination). Interestingly (and worryingly) Prime Minister David Cameron has blamed such human rights for the riots, claiming that they “fly in the face of common sense, offend our sense of right and wrong, and undermine responsibility.”
The problem with England is not too much democracy or Human Rights, it’s not enough. The implicit social contract between the government and its people has been broken: young people can be imprisoned for up to four years for starting a Facebook group, whilst bankers in state-owned, bailed-out banks who precipitated the financial mess we find ourselves in still receive bonuses.
So, do I condemn the rioters? I condemn their actions, certainly, but I would ask just how an increasingly marginalised populace, young people who have seen the failure of peaceful, intelligently-run protests against the rise in university fees, can and should respond. The government wouldn’t take notice of them before. They’re certainly taking notice now.
What we have to guard against, after the opportunism of some rioters, is the opportunism of a right-wing government intent on pushing through reforms likely to increase structural inequality of our country. Evicting marginalised people from their council houses who were embroiled in the rioting, for example, may exact retribution but it is not in the long-term interests of the individuals themselves (or of communities and taxpayers, for that matter).
This is not a broken country, but it is sick. The way towards a cure it is not through reactionary, top-down measures that increase structural inequality and prevent social cohesion. The cure is through investing in people, by reducing the gap between the richest and the poorest in society, and in encouraging grassroots, horizontal ownership of communities. Only by doing this will we prevent another outbreak of what we saw earlier this month.
As a nation England is pretty good at raising money for things it deems worthwhile. So donating time and money in aid of people affected by the tsunami that hit islands in the Pacific ocean in 2004 or the earthquake and tidal wave that hit Japan earlier this year are OK. After all, goes the reasoning, that wasn’t their fault.
What we’re not so good at is rallying round when people are in need because of human agency. So fighting in Darfur or the Congo? Best avoid donating towards that. It could end up prolonging the conflict, couldn’t it? We struggle to separate the results of tragedies from their causes.
Last week’s riots in English cities were a wake-up call to middle England. There are people in this country who need our help. And not just on the level of donating a couple of pounds to homeless people, but on a systemic level. Don’t see it? Open your eyes:
I said elsewhere that I’d often wondered what happened to the 13 to 20% of kids who walk away from school with no qualifications and very limited numeracy and literacy skills. many of you assumed those are precisly the kids I used to teach, but I taught the ones who scraped through with low grades and went on to vocational courses, or who were resitting their GCSEs in the hope of doing better. Each year’s 13 to 20% largely end up on benefits or in jail or in the grey area between the two, claiming what benefits they can and supplementing that income with criminal activity. This is not a recent development; those kids at the bottom have always been there. I know the stats for the last thirteen years only because I’ve been a teacher for the last thirteen years. These kids often have virtually no social skills. By that I mean they literally cannot sit in a room and hold a conversation with someone other than those in their peer group. That doesn’t matter. They don’t have the skills to fill in a job application form, they have nothing to put on it if they did, so no one is going to sit them in a room and give them an interview, unless that someone is in a blue uniform, and they are recording the interview.
Pretty much every time I’ve been served a coffee or a sandwich or walked past someone cleaning the streets and noted they were a recent immigrant, I’ve wondered about the 13 to 20% leaving school each year and going straight onto the dole. The last government, with its bold claims of ‘an end to boom or bust’ boasted of our growing economy needing all these extra workers from abroad. Many were coming in to fill gaps in the UK labour market. We kick up to twenty percent of our kids out of school illiterate, innumerate and socially dysfunctional, then we import people to the lowgrade jobs those kids cannot do, so the immigrants can pay taxes to pay the benefits that just about keep that underclass quiet. The last government merely consolidated the neglect of the previous ones. All governments of all hues since the seventies have failed to address this problem; the only difference between them is the narrative they have fed their respective voters about it.
Unemployed people are being sent to work without pay in multinational corporations, including Tesco, Asda, Primark and Hilton Hotels, by Jobcentres and companies administering the government’s welfare reforms. Some are working for up to six months while receiving unemployment benefit of £67.50 a week or less.
The government says that unpaid work placements, which are also given in small businesses, voluntary organisations and public sector bodies, help people gain vital experience and prepare them for the workplace, but campaigners say they provide companies with free labour, undercut existing jobs and that people are “bullied” into them.
A spokesperson for the Boycott Workfare campaign said: “These placements are not designed to help people into full-time paid work but they serve to increase organisations’ profits. They provide a constant stream of free labour and suppress wages by replacing paid workers with unpaid workers. People are coerced, bullied and sanctioned into taking the placements. Placements in the public sector and charities are no better and are making volunteering compulsory. This is taking away the right of a person to sell their own labour and their free will to choose who they volunteer their time for.”
It’s too late to put the genie back in the bottle, but it’s not too late to talk about, campaign for, and act on reasonable, sustainable approaches to the disaffection and marginalisation of our young people.
Let’s open our eyes so that we can see.
The answer isn’t to respond in a reactionary way and threaten to evict the families of those involved in the rioting. That cannot help but make people more desperate and the overall situation worse. What’s needed is restorative justice to put right the wrongs that have happened recently and then to re-establish the social contract that successive governments have managed to rip to shreds.
I’ve been taken aback by the irrational and heavy-handed response of people I (used to) respect in relation to the recent outbreak of rioting across English cities. Over at Doug’s FAQ I wrote a couple of posts to follow-up what I’d mentioned on Twitter and Google+. The first, What do you mean by structural inequality? is my attempt to quickly outline the fact things should not be taken at face value. In the second, So you don’t condemn the rioters? I try to show how people are a product of their environment and call for a more just society.
I had an interesting exchange via Twitter recently with Ian Yorston (Director of Digital Strategy at Radley College) about the difference between ‘élite’ and ‘élitist’. He argued that you don’t get élite performers without being élitist. He (and others, to be fair) used the example of élite performers in sport: they need to be treated well and compete against the best to be ‘élite’. He called this approach ‘élitism’. I argued, contrary to this, that the terms élite and élitist refer to very different concepts. You can read our conversation on Storify here. The 140-character limit soon became frustrating, so I decided to write about what I consider to be the difference here and how it applies to education.
Elitism is the belief or attitude that some individuals, who form an elite — a select group of people with intellect, wealth, specialized training or experience, or other distinctive attributes — are those whose views on a matter are to be taken the most seriously or carry the most weight; whose views and/or actions are most likely to be constructive to society as a whole; or whose extraordinary skills, abilities or wisdom render them especially fit to govern.
I’ve got no problem with supporting and developing talent. My beef is with the important difference between élite (which is a status) and élitism (which is an attitude). It’s simply unacceptable, for example, that private school pupils dominate entry into the best universities because of the cultural capital of their parents and teachers. It’s a scandal of epic proportions that privately-educated politicians harp on about the importance of narrowly-focused league tables for state schools whilst private schools are left (by and large) to carry on activities that perpetuate hegemonic power. It’s not just about the goalposts, it’s about how level the playing field is to begin with.
As far as I’m concerned, we’ve moved on in the last 2,500 years from Plato’s idea of ‘philosopher kings’. There is no particular race or class of people who are better or worse to govern and lead society than others: there are just people who are better or worse educated and or well-connected at any given time (the latter is never measured in any league tables I’ve ever seen). During my recent trips to the United Arab Emirates I’ve witnessed an extremely economically and socially stratified society held together by a benign dictatorship and oil dollars. How far is the UK away from massive social stratification?
It’s easy to justify those things in which you’re deeply involved; it’s a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc. I just wonder how many of those who work within institutions that perpetuate a stratified and unfair society have actually reflected upon the change they want to see in the world? Perhaps, as a start, they should read some John Rawls, and reflect on how much they recognise of themselves in the theory of Cognitive Dissonance and get involved with Purpos/ed.