A matter of perspective

This post is a response to a slightly tetchy discussion that occurred on Quirky Teacher’s blog yesterday. It concerned the perceived lack of work ethic and general ‘backbone’ amongst today’s young, but the discussion quickly moved towards political attitudes. Be prepared for a long read!

Despite the best efforts of the education system, each generation has to make sense of the world for itself. Its primary source of information is what (and who) it finds, and it tends to ignore the fact that the world may have been a very different place in even the recent past. The other source is the media of the day, but the coverage is not the same everywhere. It is also subject to distortion from as many vested interests as can be imagined, the more so in an era of deregulation.

I’m not claiming that ‘everything was better in the past’ – but it is increasingly clear to me that the longer one lives, the longer a perspective one gains. There is a huge difference between knowing something as ‘history’ and having lived through it. The continuity of the years casts light on what is transient and what is not, and allows one to identify cause and effect in a way difficult in shorter lives.

We take for granted what we find. I was surprised to read recently that some houses in the U.K. even in the 1950s did not have piped running water. For me, television (B&W) has always existed, and likewise cars – even though my parents had bought their first only a few years before I was born, and none of my grandparents ever learned to drive.

I remember getting our first landline telephone. What must life be like for those who never known a time before the iPhone?

Born in 1964, I suppose I was a child of the Welfare State, which had existed for less than twenty years, and was just getting into its stride. That is the world I found, where a generally benign state supported its people. There is nothing inherently less valid about it than today’s.

The greatest error is to assume that there is no alternative to life as it currently is – yet that is precisely what so many of those currently objecting to the resurgence of the Left claim; what a defensive argument! Many of those claiming it are too young not only to remember life pre-Thatcher, but even pre-Blair. They will not remember Labour’s lurch to the Right, and while I was no Labour voter, I remember being concerned that there was no longer a clear alternative to right-wing free-marketism.

Those people may not realise that those now returning to Labour have always been there, but have had no political voice for the past two decades. They have as much right to representation as anyone else, and I object to their demonisation, even though I rarely agree with them. Their behaviour is not always perfect, but is no more insidious than that seen elsewhere across the political spectrum.

How can it be claimed that these people do not deserve a voice in anything that even purports to be democracy? Or are we even prepared to throw this great cornerstone of Western society on the adulatory pyre to me-first-ism? But many of Corbyn’s supporters are young. I heard one make an impassioned speech about how the Educational Maintenance Allowance had allowed her to pursue an education she would have otherwise been denied. Is she any more deluded than those who believe that the Market is the answer to everything, Santa Claus made real?

Even as a teenager, I remember being concerned about the privatisation of state assets – whereas today many people have never known otherwise. I see a distinction between areas where the free market can reasonably operate – where consumers can exercise straightforward choice and where the option to refrain is present. It is quite reasonable for people to make a fair profit from such transactions.

But the situation changes when we consider basic needs such as food, shelter, healthcare, mobility – and perhaps (since it is compulsory) education. There is no option but to consume these things, which means people effectively constitute a captive market. I believe it is wrong to profit from such situations, particularly as the profit motive tends to push prices higher than the non-profit State could provide. Why else have train fares, energy prices etc. risen so much?

In many cases, real choice does not, or cannot exist – and given the nature of those intangible and many-faceted amenities, very little way of assessing quality either. I cannot see that it is ethically acceptable for society to devolve provision of such things where the scope is so great for people to be exploited for private gain. This is where the benign State should step in and provide such things universally and affordably – and raise revenues accordingly.

This is the flaw in the private model. For all the efficiency of the ad. men, The Customer is not at the centre of commerce – the owner and shareholder are. It is of course true that some businesses look after their customers better than others, but they do it because it is good for business. Customers are, fundamentally, just the cash-cows needed to keep companies in business. Bigger companies are generally worse than smaller ones where personal loyalties become more important, but it should come as no surprise that companies bend or break the Law when they feel they can get away with it – or treat their employees badly if that is what higher profits appear to demand.

Many basic needs cannot easily be supplied though the profit motive – they are too labour or capital intensive for a start. Even the heartily capitalist Swiss accept that their transport system will always need subsidy; in the U.K. we pretend otherwise – but the railways are receiving far higher state support than they ever did under British Rail – and fares are higher too. Why? Because there is the profit motive to satisfy. The notion that public services should be self-supporting or be allowed to wither is not a part of natural law: it is a piece of doctrine that has been so strongly propagated for the past thirty years that many British can no longer conceive otherwise.

The State is different. Fundamentally, it is the coming together of the people of a given territory for their mutual advantage and security – and the resolution of the inevitable conflicts between them. It is called the Social Contract – a concept that seems of little interest to many people today. Indeed, the rejection of the public sector can be read as increasing numbers of people turning their backs on the society that supports them – which may be their right, except that they often still expect it to pick up the pieces when things go wrong.

I accept that The State can be corrupted, not least by the self-promotion of those within society most intent on gaining power and privilege. It’s no different from any other form of management! But we should not confuse this with its basic role, nor think that it can only ever be bad. It is true that the more we neglect it, the worse it will be. The past three decades are proof of that; countries that maintain their civic sector well tend to have good ones.

The State also fulfils the role as arbitrator through the legal system and collects and spends pooled income in the form of taxation. And because the market has another deep-seated flaw – the assumption that all people have equal ability to express their consumer preferences (which they clearly don’t) – it intervenes so that even the least advantaged can still access a civilised standard of living. It is in everyone’s interests that they do so, as otherwise they tend to be a source of crime, disease and revolution.

In market society, the best can be given to those with the means to pay, while the rest are treated like cattle to minimise costs. Look at what has happened to seat space in standard class British trains since profit became a consideration! The same template can be applied to virtually any other aspect of British society over the past thirty years, which is why it is no surprise to me that our nation has the greatest inequality of any in Europe. Once one’s status becomes solely defined by one’s ability to access wealth, then those who can do so will fight hard to retain it – hence the venomous response to Corbyn.

The workings of democracy are being thrown to the wind not by Corbyn but by those who are using all their considerable power to ensure he never wins. Corbyn should expect to make his case before the electorate as any other politician would – but he is being prevented. This is not democracy as the electorate is being deprived of objective reporting.

There is little doubt in my mind that the political centre has been moved to the right by thirty years of unremitting market doctrine. People haven’t voted for the Left – but that may be because there was no Left to vote for! I have always voted out of civic duty, but in recent election have struggled to find anyone to support; that is not good for democracy.

This argument has little to do with one’s choice of teaching styles – but it certainly has a huge effect on the climate within which we teach – and the value and nature of the work we are required to do. Perceptions influence the ways we are treated by the system, and it is clear to me that the average teacher’s lot has deteriorated as quasi-commercial influences have been introduced. Those countries that have not done this tend to have much more measured educational environments, and fewer problems with pupil complacency, since education tends not to be viewed as just another consumer service.

Many of the problems which Quirky Teacher’s original post discussed seem to have got worse over the past decades. I’m not claiming this is purely because of commercialism, but the trend has certainly not been the opposite. As society has become richer, it has also become more materialistic, more selfish and more short-sighted. Money has replaced just about every other measure of worth, even in education.

People’s listlessness is largely the result of their having been persuaded that as customers all they have to do is pay and their every wish will be provided for them. No matter than some things can’t be bought in this way, or that personal responsibility is still needed. The effect has been to narrow people’s horizons, their sense of self-agency and their empathy with others. Hence we see the growth of uncompassionate attitudes towards the disadvantaged; even charitable giving has been diluted into a sentimentalised form of feel-good.

The fact that education is seen as an economic tool is the reason why its scope is being narrowed, why learning for its own sake has been downgraded – and why pupils seem to understand the process even less than ever.

I have found myself drawn into several similar discussions with younger colleagues. Corbyn keeps being mentioned in very negative tones. The State is viewed as an insidious, self-serving entity only fit for diminution vis a vis those virtuous operators of the private sector. I find myself talking to people who seem to be living in an entirely different country from the one I inhabit. They accuse me of being naive – as though the world can only be the harsh, dog-eat-dog kind of place that is all they have known.

People – and the market – do not always know best. Americans seem to think that the right to bear arms will keep them safe in their own country despite the evidence; they also pay more for health care no better than that in Europe –because it feeds corporate profits first – and yet oppose state healthcare at every turn.

To return to Quirky Teacher’s complaints: it is precisely the trends outlined above that coarsen people, generation on generation. They cannot be blamed for reacting to what they find – but many of the problems of narrowness, selfishness and complacency seem directly connected to the harsh and manipulated society we have created in Britain. It is exactly that that is creating the little bubbles of me-firstism that enclose people – their sole focus in life is their own gratification, encouraged by self-interested high commerce.

I work in a very wealthy town; the views expressed by many of my pupils regularly attest to this reading. The loss of social solidarity makes for a more aggressive and uncaring society, while ironically leaving the market to kid people into believing that their every want and need will be met for the wave of a friendly credit card.

Most fundamentally of all, replacing the state with the profit-motive changes the nature of social transactions. If you remove altruism, all that is left is selfishness.  Education above all should be a matter of academic disinterest, and turning it into a tool of vested interest perverts the very impartiality on which it is based. Unfortunately, this is all too evident from the arguments being put forward in some of those blog posts.

In my mind, there was a clear watershed in British life in the late Eighties. The new doctrine was starting to become established – but it is only now that the long-term effects on society are becoming clear. People born since then have known nothing else – and it is unsurprising if they therefore can’t see the problems and dysfunction within. They have been taught by vested interests to distrust anything else. The sad thing is they would rather clamour for more of what they know – even though it may be precisely the cause of the effects they dislike – than support an outsider who argues for a “gentler, more caring society”. Such is the power of the market mentality.

Read Affluenza and I Spend therefore I Am!

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