The Golden Watch

Some years ago, we used to use an exercise called The Golden Watch as an ice-breaker at sixth-form induction. It established a moral dilemma over acting honestly in a workplace situation. There was clearly a ‘right’ solution, but my abiding memory is of the significant numbers of students who failed to choose it. On more than one occasion, the view was voiced that it’s only wrong to cheat if you get caught;  well, I suppose this is an area where many parents work in The City…

But in my naivety, I was repeatedly shocked at the number of (one might hope idealistic) young people whose moral compass appeared so different from my own.

I have worked my entire career in a climate of Thatcherite neo-liberalism – and in close proximity to the national (if not global) hub of it all at that. On turning eighteen, I voted for Thatcher during her first two terms – having grown up during the retrenchment of the Seventies, the bright new ways of the Eighties offered a shiny optimism I hadn’t experienced in Britain before. I also remember on entering the teaching profession, a number of colleagues struggling even to make themselves speak to me once this news was out.

Yet, I find myself this weekend in the somewhat surprising position of being labelled (by proxy) ‘Hard Left’. Yes, I am one of the several hundred-thousand who have affiliated to the Labour Party to support Jeremy Corbyn, the left-winger unexpectedly leading in the leadership contest. Ironically, I suspect that it is now some of my younger colleagues who are going to refuse to speak to me on the outing of this news – and I thought one is supposed to become more conservative as one grows older…

I have always had reservations about teachers being politically active; it is within their personal rights of course, but the conflation of teaching with political indoctrination has always been rather close for comfort. I certainly remember some teachers who did not always stay on the right side of that line.

But I also consider that I have a wider societal responsibility as a supposedly- educated professional. I have seen the changes wrought during decades of free-market doctrine. I’m not suggesting that these were solely caused by specific political policies – but there can be little doubt that this country’s chosen path has made it more possible for certain trends to emerge than might otherwise have been the case. The worrying thing is the self-perpetuating consensus that has taken hold that there is no other way, and which is endlessly repeated by commerce – and all of the mainstream political parties. As impartial educators, we have a duty to encourage the questioning of such claims.

I know other even wealthier countries, and have observed numerous cohorts of their young from close quarters. I know that the values the students expressed in The Golden Watch are by no means equally prevalent everywhere, and while increasing wealth does not inevitably bring greater social responsibility, it does not have to bring greater amorality either. It’s more a matter of the thinking that is encouraged about how that wealth should be made, and how it should be used. As one writer to The Independent put it, it’s about whether we want to become more like Denmark or the U.S.- and this is, to my mind, clearly an educational question.

I no more have an answer than anyone else to the deep philosophical conflict between social solidarity and individual opportunity, but I am certainly not ‘intensely relaxed’ about living in a society where the few are ‘filthy rich’ (to quote New Labour’s Peter Mandelson) – at least while inequality is a great as now. The privatised market-economy simply has not delivered what was claimed – and if anything has decreased opportunity, increased costs and coarsened life for the majority. Utilitarianism – whether from politicians or sixth-formers – may appear to be a practical answer to modern problems until one realises that ‘ends justifying means’ effectively unleashes a race to the bottom in terms of the moral and democratic benchmarks of society.

I find it difficult to support the rampant individualism pedalled by my (as no doubt many) schools, when it leads young people to have no higher principles than those I described earlier; this is a product of an Affluenza mentality that promotes self-interest (even in academic performance) as more important than anything else. But I work in education to further a fair and just society, where honesty, authenticity and the life of the mind are valued – not the kind of debased dog-eat-dog, society-as-market-transaction that has now taken hold. Many of the people currently ringing the alarms about the supposed resurgence of the hard left themselves seem so deeply saturated in market values, that they simply cannot conceive of anything else. And it is just not acceptable for people who dissent from this not to be able either to advance their arguments or to expect to be represented.

Corbyn is simply expressing values that I agree with, and he has a plain-talking sincerity that other glossy, career-politicians clearly just don’t ‘get’. I admire his refusal to engage in negative campaigning – and I would have been attracted to this no matter what party he represented. The crude, false-dichotomy terms in which much debate in British public life is now couched must itself raise concerns for the skewing effect it has on public understanding and debate. More than ever, we need an educated population that can cut through the c**p. It is not true, for instance, that all of Corbyn’s supporters are Militant Tendency cryogenes – some like me are just people who are fed up with a non-choice of self-aggrandising politicians and their unvarying diet of pulp commercialism.

Neither is it true that there is no alternative to the market society – it exists quite comfortably just across the Channel; is it a coincidence that those more ‘socialist’ societies are in many cases more stable, tolerant and outward-looking than our own? As a teacher, these are issues that deeply inform my professional purpose.

I do have concerns that the far-left would reassert progressive education, but hopefully the traditionalist genie is too firmly out of the bottle now to be put back. And this is certainly no more concerning than the deep damage that has been done to education by the imposition of market principles on what should be an impartial provider of social capital.

Corbyn’s actual electability is, in a sense, beside the point: what is important now is to create a wider choice within the British political system. The obsession with election-winning is understandable, but it also shows how far politics has moved away from the principle of democratic representation towards the sheer exercise of power. But people cannot vote for an alternative if one does not exist – and the overwhelming sense at the last election was that it would make no difference in the end who won…

In fact this surge of interest is precisely what good politics should be about – a genuine movement of the electorate wishing to express their views. The fact that the Party and the media are united in telling people that they are ‘thinking the wrong thoughts’ demonstrates the degree to which the tail of what is left of our democracy now wags the dog; as an educator, that is also something that I need to take seriously. On a more personal level, I am simply seizing the opportunity to express a preference that our broken electoral system denies, by virtue of my living in a ‘safe’ constituency.

I don’t apologise for being political here – it is a truism that politics affects education, and not just at a policy level. Both are fundamental forces that shape how we live, and the society of which we form part. This issue also shows how we need more complex insights than a simple Left/Right shouting-match. I see no conflict between my conservative-traditionalist teaching and my more liberal social views; I am certainly not ‘hard-left’ and even the label ‘Socialist’ does not sit easily. It is more complicated than that – for a start, old-school conservatism actually shares this sense of social responsibility.

The irony is not lost on me that in the process I seem to have ‘gone native’ as a teacher more fully than I ever expected. But how can one do this job without some sense of social idealism? And how can that square with a view of life as being just one long commercial transaction?

Education has an essential role to play in developing more complex insights in people, and at times like this, these are sorely needed. In other ways, we are witnessing the political system struggling to cope with the more complex motives and loyalties of ‘thinking people’.

I used to play a fuller part in this by teaching ‘A’ Level European Studies and Critical Thinking. But both courses have been scrapped or downgraded – you guessed it – thanks to (privatised) exam-board ‘market forces’.

No alternative to cheating unless you get caught? I don’t think so. Principles are important.

5 thoughts on “The Golden Watch

  1. Hey there. Thanks for the post and for discussing your political views. I think this is important. A while ago a trainee teacher from Germany was staying with my parents during the Scottish referendum and he ran a survey of his students who’d be allowed to vote for the first time to find (unsurprisingly) that they were all away to vote for their parent’s choice. My conclusion is that it’s important students hear their teachers honest views of politics more. How else are we to break free from the viewpoint of our parents, if other adults we spend time with won’t share? I’m building up a virtual space for teens who are up for “raising themselves by their own cognitive boot straps” as Roger Titcombe author of ‘Learning Matters’ put it. In there I’m saying that one of the best ways to find your own truth is to seek out and hear conflicting views from people you admire. This forces deep thinking like I never experienced in formal education.

    • Hello Leah, thanks for your comment. There’s a tricky balance to be struck here – I agree with your thoughts but there’s also a lot of deep water to be got into… When I taught European Studies, it was very difficult *not* to be political on occasions – so I dealt with the issue of bias head-on at the start of the course, always looked for balancing views and also made it very clear to the students what was opinion and what was not.

      A good technique for students is to get them to construct their own arguments for views that directly oppose their own – a good way of seeing the strengths and weaknesses of the opposite side.

      In my classroom even today, I tell my pupils that it is acceptable to express any view (after all, if difficult issues can’t be covered in the classroom, then where?) But they must be prepared to give a thoughtful defence of that view and also to listen respectfully to those who disagree. This is more powerful as education and more effective as ‘management’ than banning certain topics – which only reinforces the view that certain things can’t be discussed.

      • Love the approach. It’s amazing how many people on-line shut down conversation by a few words thrown together criticising a comment (or post) that someone has clearly spent time composing. It’s a shame because I really do love talking with others who see things differently. There’s no downside for anyone willing to involve themselves in real conversations; even and especially when they are difficult.

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