Everybody knows that school teaches you hordes of useful things and that the people who stay there and get educated are further along the path to freedom than those who dont right? Or maybe, as Quintin Hoare wrote: British education is from a rational point of view grotesque, from a moral one intolerable, and from a human one tragic. 1 This point of view, though not always phrased with such brutality, is evidently shared by many people. Their belief is that the education system is, and has been for a long time, a breeding ground for ignorance rather than enlightenment; a hellish institution in which said inequalities are perpetuated.
So what are these inequalities in the social order? Indeed, what is the social order in the first place? I take the area of socio-economic class as my main example of what is meant here, with gender and race as secondary examples. There are three commonly-acknowledged economically-divided social classes: lower, middle, and upper. They have been subdivided in many ways, they have borne countless different names, and their relative numbers, as well as their attitude towards one another, have varied from age to age: but the essential structure of society has never altered.
The lower two classes each strive to better their situation, to gain more power and control, while the upper class strives to maintain its existing state of power. Maintaining the status quo involves instilling what Karl Marx called a false consciousness3 into those without power, to keep them in ignorance of their position of subordination. There is much change within the personnel of the classes, but the point which these socialist writers fear is that the framework into which the classes fit is not subject to change.
This is how Orwell and many others perceived the world to be, and the education system in all this is little more than a rationalisation of the status quo 4: it tells you that the way things are is the way they should be, and dont you dare try to change that. As Martin Hoyles asks in The History and Politics of Literacy, is education a liberating or repressive activity? 5 It seems blatantly obvious that knowing how to read and write, and familiarity with such core subjects as science and mathematics and literature, is essential; and without it one risks becoming a helpless victim.
Indeed, with the invention of printing in the fifteenth century, and the subsequent popularisation of education, the written word was now being used to intimidate those in power, as well as the other way round6. And this is the way it should be – education should be empowering. However, according to Hoare, teachers are predominantly working-class, yet seven out of ten of them vote Conservative (though it is important to note that this essay was published in 1977). This, he says, represents one of the greatest single successes of the dominant class in subordinating the working-class to its values.
And he has a point. If there is a prevailing political stance among teachers – especially a highly moderate and seemingly inoffensive one – then the education children are subjected to is hardly likely to be impartial or unbiased. I agree with Wayne ONeill that subjects like physics – subjects focusing on what are amazing and inspiring aspects of the universe and life- are taught as if from another world. 8 This applies to history too, which is taught very much in a two-dimensional, linear fashion. Bertolt Brechts poem A Worker Questions History takes this as its subject: Young Alexander conquered India.
On his own? /Caesar beat the Gauls. /Didnt he at least have a cook with him? 9 His point is that a very biased, ideological view of history is being presented: our history books are full of the names of kings and conquerors, but what of the men and women behind it all? Why dont we hear of them? The result of this kind of teaching, and the exams and league tables pupils are bombarded with beside it, is a sense of competitiveness and rivalry: that very rat-race which the upper class, as mentioned before, seek to perpetuate for their own gain. It is not healthy.
It could be said that education celebrates individual exploits and sees the perfecting of the individual as the best social goal. 10 From a Marxist perspective, this celebration of the individual forms the very core of capitalism; it tells you youre special because you meet these very specific goals (good grades at school, high salary in your job, etc. ) which combine with the goals proposed by magazines and television and whatnot (happy marriage, good clothes, even fame, etc. ) and keep you in a constant state of unquestioning consumption.
And, if you dont meet these requirements, perhaps it is implied that youre not special. From here, as Hoyles states, it is a downward spiral, resulting in professional individualism, mutual distrust and isolation. And, if that is the case, its not much of an education at all. The recent film Fight Club continues along Brecht and Hoares line of thinking when the rabble-rousing main character tells his disciples: You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. 11 It is trying to tear down the individual from the pedestal on which our education system puts him, or her.
In terms of gender relations, education does not seem so overtly bad, not any more. Gone are the days when girls are taught how to sew while the boys grapple with complex and important mathematical problems and suchlike. However, thats only in the richer parts of the world. Martin Hoyles cites statistics from third-world countries, stating that in some African countries where 30-40% of the men have learnt to read, only 5% of the women have been given the same opportunity. 12 The imbalance this generation can only read about in history books still exists in faraway places.
But what of our own part of the world? Some would argue that the germ of sexism is still very much in operation today, only it is less brazen, and subtler than that of the old school. As Camilla Nightingale asks, how many male secretaries are there? What she is hinting at is a distinction we seem to subconsciously make, between what is a womans job, and what is a mans job. Why do girls set their sights so low? The answer, she says, can partly be found in the books we read as small children, at school and at home.
The boys in stories climb to the tops of trees, while the little girl stands on the ground, feebly putting one foot on the lowest branch. 13 While I think this view is increasingly becoming outdated, it is far from being eradicated completely. After all, how many male secretaries are there? Though it is incredibly subtle, it is true that Standard English is presented as a superior way of talking, and that inherent in the acceptance of this idea is the dismissal of other, non-Standard dialects in the same language.
George Yule takes Black English Vernacular, the widely-used social dialect used by many African-Americans, as his example. This way of speaking has seeped into the daily experience of people over here as well, with black American music very much a powerful force in popular culture of today. Among other things, Black English Vernacular is characterised by the absence of the copula: You sure ugly, He gone. There is also the frequent use of double negatives: She aint got none. This may be stigmatized as bad speech14, as Yule mildly puts it.
However, the fact is that there are lots of languages (like Arabic and Russian) in which the copula is used with similar infrequency, and the French language typically uses double negatives; and we would not frown on these languages as we might Black English Vernacular. By way of speculation: it is not our way of speaking – it is spoken by people from another culture; and it is thought of as a lesser way of speaking: perhaps subconsciously the pupil in the classroom makes a connection between the two.
Possibly he or she comes to the conclusion that as it is not their own way of doing things, it has to be wrong. While this seems a little extreme, and while this is not the underlying cause of religious/racial/sexual intolerance, it is hardly helping things along. I think, in conclusion, that it is very hard to conclude. I do, however, think that so long as teaching is not considered to be a mere job – that is to say, so long as teachers teach their subjects questioningly and with conviction – then there will be less chance of education being a hindrance.