A political education.

Why political literacy?

liubov_popova-linear_composition-1919-trivium-art-history-1.1600x0 - Copy

Politics is about power and change, how we live our lives and what kind of world we want. The political is not a separate sphere of life, it’s embedded in our everyday experience, as are the ideologies that surround and shapes us. Politics is an essential part of our collective life, even if the way it’s practiced sometimes give us good reason to avoid it or even fear it. If we withdraw from engaging with politics because of cynicism or lack of confidence, we lose a significant part of our agency.

The importance of politics means that political literacy should be an essential aim of everyone’s education. If we are to act as equal citizens in a democracy, with a stake in our collective future, we all need to have some understanding of how power works, how change happens and how to engage and act politically.

Our political education begins as soon as we start to look beyond our immediate concerns and start to acknowledge those of others. Making connections between ‘things and people I know and care about’ and ‘things and people I don’t yet know much about’ is the start. This can then build on a developing understanding of justice, equality and freedom.

From early childhood, we start to learn that there are people we’ve never met who have needs and aspirations similar to ours and that there are people we’ve never met making decisions which affect us. We start to realize that our choices and actions have consequences and can make a difference, and that the combined, interconnected impacts of these actions can be more powerful at the societal level than at the individual level. We also learn that people who have power and privilege don’t often give it up or share it voluntarily but that changes in the distribution of power and privilege are possible and have been achieved, generally through struggle.

Students should be encouraged to think politically, to discuss politics, to be political. This political education has nothing to do with trying to persuade anyone to take a particular view or support a particular cause or even to be politically active.

Some teachers may not have the confidence to talk about political questions with students or they may simply avoid them because they themselves see politics as controversial or divisive, or even worse, boring or irrelevant. And a fear of being seen to be influencing or indoctrinating students can create a vacuum in their education where political literacy should be.

Promoting political literacy requires us to challenge some common assumptions about politics. Here are five for starters:

1. “Politics is conflict” The hostile language and personal animosity of much political discourse implies that the only way to engage is by setting people against each other and channeling their hostility. We need to show how, in Chantal Mouffe’s terms, it is possible to be agonistic, ‘the struggle between adversaries’, rather than antagonistic, ‘the struggle between enemies’. This is not to suggest that we can all agree and achieve universal consensus, transcending the struggle for power. We need to emphasize the importance of listening to others, deliberating in a spirit of openness, thinking critically and being able to collaborate. But we also need to acknowledge that some differences can’t be bridged. This requires neither aggression nor passive submission. Opposing injustice and advocating radical change can be done agonistically.

It’s not surprising if some people are put off by this apparent need to be opinionated and combative and that they would rather avoid politics altogether to reduce the risk of conflict or argument; particularly if they already feel powerless or vulnerable. Our opinions are nuanced, contingent and provisional and will change and evolve through our engagement with others. It is not always appropriate to distil them down to soundbites or use them as battering rams. Some aspects of democracy, such as voting in elections, do require us to make a clear choice and pick a side. But being political is about what we do in the whole of our life not just in the occasional election snapshot moments.

2. “Politics is irrelevant.” Much political debate may well be about things which just don’t seem important to us. If politics is just a game being played by people whose lives are remote from ours about things which mean little to us, then apathy is an understandable response. Urging people not to be apathetic and lecturing them about the suffragettes doesn’t really address this disconnect. The answer is not to dismiss politics, but to work out what does matter to us and take it really seriously.

3. “Politics is abstract” The language of political discourse can seem detached from our day-to-day experience. Terms like ‘society’, ‘democracy’, ‘inequality’, ‘privilege’, ‘power’, ‘growth’, ‘austerity’, ‘climate change’ all relate to broad, large-scale concepts or patterns of events. We need to be able to relate these to our own experience but also to understand how they operate at the social level. These phenomena are not intellectual abstractions, they have real-life consequences. Systemic inequality, poverty, racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia, transphobia… all of these do real harm to real people.

4. “Politics is technical and complicated.” The world is certainly complicated, but that doesn’t mean we can’t grasp its driving forces. Complexity should not be an excuse for doing nothing or relying on others to make key decisions. Leaving it all to the ‘experts’ or the ‘grown-ups in the room’ simply means handing power to those who already have the greatest access to it. Equally disempowering is the view that only a few of us are destined to be leaders, with most of us as followers. Instead, politically literate citizens should all be capable of offering leadership, support and challenge, while maintaining a healthy suspicion of those who are too eager to be seen as great leaders. We don’t have unlimited time to devote to political activity, but we can all benefit from having the necessary knowledge and skill to critically assess and hold others to account for what they say and do.

5. “Politics doesn’t make a difference.” Ideas like “nothing ever changes” or “they’re all the same” are often used as an argument for doing nothing. Dismissing the impact of political organising and action feeds the cynicism and apathy which in turn threatens democracy. Luckily, we know that this is a misreading of reality, and students can learn about how change has been brought about by people working together. And while it’s empowering to know that we can all ‘make a difference’ we need to be cautious about overstating the role of individuals in change-making. Margaret Mead’s “small group of thoughtful committed individuals” who “can change the world” and Mahatma Gandhi’s entreaty to change our own nature in order to “change the attitude of the world towards us” don’t fully explain how personal change can drive societal change. Our actions are only an example for others if they resonate with them and help them see why it might be good to follow our example and join in. Even non-violent direct action is only effective if enough other people agree that it is better than the alternatives, such as doing nothing or using violence.

A political education is about more that understanding how our current democratic structures work or promoting the importance of voting in elections, although these things are important. It means being able to develop a critical understanding of the exercise of power, democratic processes and collective action with all their strengths and limitations. This is best done through regular discussion and practice, building outwards and upwards from people’s experience and understanding of the world.

And without political literacy there can be no real democracy. The enemies of democracy want us to see ourselves as atomized, apolitical individuals with little agency beyond selling our individual labour power and using our purchasing power, plus the occasional opportunity to help select our representatives. But we know from experience that it’s only when we think and act politically that we have any chance of changing the world.

(Illustration: Linear Composition, Liubov Popova)

See also:

Redistribution and recognition should go hand in hand (April 2022)

Freire for today (March 2021)

The mighty pencil (November 2019)

Learning through conflict (November 2017)

Giving young people a stake in their future (July 2017)

The habits of democracy (May 2017)

Voting and the habit of democracy (May 2014)

‘Agonistics, thinking the world politically’ by Chantal Mouffe, Verso (2013)

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Redistribution and recognition should go hand in hand.

Reading Nancy Fraser’s critique of progressive neoliberalism.

‘The old is dying and the new cannot be born’.

The global crisis we are living through is ecological (climate change, habitat and biodiversity loss, water and atmospheric pollution etc.), economic (financialization of everything, unsustainable consumption and growth, increased personal debt etc.) and social (growing inequality, insecurity, pandemic disease, weaker infrastructure of care and social support etc.).

The crisis is also political. More people have stopped accepting the reigning ‘common sense’, or hegemony, of our age, and there has been a dramatic weakening of the authority of established political classes and parties. We need to try to understand the causes of crisis and the potential responses it may elicit if we are to find our way through and transform our society in ways that can help us survive.

The critical theorist, Nancy Fraser, is Professor of Political and Social Science and Philosophy at The New School in New York City. The title of her essay is taken from Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks and her analysis draws on the Gramscian concept of hegemony.

When the particular world view of a dominant group has become the generally accepted ‘common sense’ of society as a whole, this hegemony of ideas can make that group’s dominance appear natural despite being contested. The dominant group can be described as a ‘hegemonic bloc’ and it may well be a coalition or alliance of disparate social groups with some common interests.


In ‘The old is dying and the new cannot be born’ (Verso, 2019) Nancy Fraser analyses the current hegemonic bloc she describes as ‘progressive neoliberalism’ and makes the case for an alternative progressive-populist or eco-socialist counter-hegemonic bloc which would be better placed to address our global crisis in ways which enhance social justice and human flourishing.

Distribution and recognition

Nancy Fraser defines the two essential dimensions of justice and human rights as distribution and recognition. Distribution refers to how income, wealth and social and material goods are shared. Recognition refers to respect and esteem, the expression and acknowledgement of identity, membership and belonging. Both are vital components of a good society.

Based on each of these criteria our current system is clearly failing. It is delivering neither redistribution nor recognition for all and both dimensions are in crisis. The promise of a better life in an ever wealthier and fairer society rings pretty hollow at a time when living standards are falling, inequalities are widening and injustices proliferate. The ‘common-sense’ we’ve lived with for several decades no longer makes sense to most of us, and it is hardly surprising that we are searching for counter-hegemonic ideas that could offer us a better way forward.

The ’old’ hegemony seems to be on its last legs, but the ‘new’ counter hegemony is still under construction.


We’ve lived for some time within a logic of neoliberalism, where the ideas and values which support it are hegemonic and have become the dominant ‘common-sense’ of the age. Economic neoliberalism implies a commitment to the primacy of markets, the exploitation of natural and human resources for private gain and the commodification and financialization of as much planetary resource and human activity as possible. It has created an apparently unstoppable regime of global corporate dominance.

This hegemony goes beyond the purely economic, and ideas of market value, competition and exchange have also shaped our social and cultural landscape. ‘The market’ is regarded as the predominant means of providing goods and services. Citizens are defined mainly as consumers and producers, buying and selling rather than exercising democratic control. The idea of humans choosing to work together for the collective good is redefined as individuals using their human capital to gain some personal advantage as well as to generate some wealth for others.

Competition between corporations to exploit people or plunder the planet’s resources is redefined as an essential freedom. Public services are seen as burdens to be minimised, best provided with a minimum of state intervention or at least in partnership with private corporations. Human and social value is defined in terms of winners and losers, with gross inequality a necessary side-effect. Any serious attempt to redistribute wealth and power and create a more equal society is seen as impractical or counterproductive. The rich persuade themselves that they deserve their wealth and privilege and overlook the self-reproducing nature of their advantages. The poor are encouraged to blame themselves for their lack of enterprise and success, even as the rigged nature of the system is evident.

This is the neoliberal hegemony which is failing us so badly and creating the various connected crises we face and which needs to be challenged before it destroys us.

Neoliberalism’s ‘progressive’ variant

Nancy Fraser describes the current dominant variant of neoliberal hegemony as ‘progressive neoliberalism’ because it is an alliance of economic neoliberalism with some ‘elite’ currents of social movements such as feminism, anti-racism, LGBTQ rights and environmentalism. While this is a distinctive new form of neoliberal hegemony, it is still neoliberal in that it broadly rejects tax and spend solutions, supports deregulation, corporate power and the global free movement of capital. It is still a system which undermines workers’ rights and union organisation and can lead only to greater inequality and insecurity for the majority.

Neoliberalism has been repackaged and given the veneer of a progressive politics of recognition, but in practice its benefits fail to reach the disempowered or dispossessed majority. In effect we’re being offered more neoliberalism with some crumbs of elite progressivism; limited representation with no widespread redistribution.

Towards a new common-sense?

Nancy Fraser’s view is that to resolve our systemic crises, neoliberalism must be challenged rather than accommodated. This requires a progressive, democratic and egalitarian version of populism – where the interests of the majority are understood as being incompatible with those of the elite. It needs to avoid pitting representation against redistribution or assuming that an alternative politics can only serve one interest group, privileging social class over anti-racism for example – or vice versa. As Nancy Fraser puts it: “the axes of injustice can be attacked in tandem, as they must.” In contrast to a meritocratic progressivism of the elite, it requires, for instance, a ‘feminism of the 99%’ and an ‘anti-racism of the 99%’, and instead of green capitalism it would require an ‘environmentalism of the 99%’.

This counter hegemonic bloc may be under construction, but it’s not yet become the new consensus, and before it does we can expect an unstable interregnum, with many dangers, notably from xenophobic and authoritarian populisms. The recent first round of the French presidential election is illustrative; it has crystallised the options, with the electorate divided into 3 roughly equal blocs: one third ‘progressive neoliberal’, one third ‘progressive populist’ and one third ‘reactionary populist’ – a balance that won’t be easy to resolve given that two thirds have voted to reject the ‘old’ while being fairly evenly split about what the ‘new’ should look like.

According to Nancy Fraser, the progressive populist bloc should focus on the economic and institutional structures as well as the roots of the shared injustices faced by women, black, LGBTQ+ people and working-class people as a whole. It needs to challenge declining living standards, the intolerable insecurity of life under neoliberalism, discrimination and injustices of all kinds, the causes of climate change and environmental degradation, debt, financialization, de-industrialization and corporate globalization. The key is to combine a robustly egalitarian politics of redistribution with an inclusive race, gender and class-sensitive politics of representation. Creating such a counter-hegemonic bloc is not going to be easy but it has the potential to become a political majority and to help us address our crises.

See also:

Owning our crises (March 2022)

Finding our voice in a crisis (January 2022)

An A-Z for a world which has to change (March 2020)

Market madness: condition critical (June 2015)

Market madness #7 What markets do to us (March 2015)

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French presidential election: could Mélenchon make it?

Today’s French presidential election.

Today’s first round of the French presidential election comes at a time of shifting political assumptions, although the line-up of leading candidates looks familiar, with the top 3 candidates this time round all having been in the top 4 last time round, in 2017.

The first round is a ruthless ‘cavalry charge’ where the only thing that matters is coming first or second. Every other candidate, however well they do tomorrow, will be eliminated, leaving them no role in the second round except to offer support for the ‘least worst’ of the top two. Those top two then move into a ‘duel’ campaign where broad coalition-building comes to the fore and which guarantees the winner the legitimacy of an overall majority.

In the days when the system could be relied on to boil the choice down to a broadly left/right one, the first round was seen as a ‘filtering’ process, to establish which party representative had the most support within their various blocks, paving the way for a clear choice between two broad political traditions in the second round. Seven of the ten presidential elections since 1965, under the fifth republic, have delivered this type of left/right choice in the second round. The other three can be seen as untypical – and often the result of very tight margins between the top 3 or 4 candidates. It’s worth noting that in two of those three, it was a Le Pen candidacy that contributed to the ‘upset’.

The 2022 campaign takes place in the context of global crises as well as specific French factors, such as:

  • The realignment of the ‘modernising centre-right’ around President Emmanuel Macron in an alliance of market liberalism and some socially progressive elements. This ‘progressive neoliberalism’ seems to have squeezed out support for the ‘Gaullist’ conservatives who formed the core of Nicolas Sarkozy’s victory in 2007 and are represented this time around by Valerie Pécresse. If Macron can effectively represent corporate interests and promote market reforms to liberalise the French economy, there is little need for another centre-right candidate.
  • The continuing rise of the racist, xenophobic right which has made space for the deeply unsavoury candidacy of Eric Zemmour, who outflanks even Marine Le Pen in his ethno-nationalism, pseudo-intellectual hate-speech, openly Islamophobic ‘great replacement’ narrative and inflammatory talk of France being in a state of ‘civil war’. Despite her efforts to present herself as a more ‘respectable’ statesperson, Le Pen must take a big share of responsibility for paving the way for this even more poisonous brand of racist politics. The frightening bottom-line is that the combined polling for Le Pen and Zemmour during this campaign has accounted for around a third of the electorate, compared to Le Pen’s first round score of 21.3% in 2017.
  • The collapse of the Socialist Party and the realignment of the left. While other left and green candidates have struggled to achieve more than around 5% each, the most coherent challenge has come from Jean-Luc Mélenchon who is standing for the third time and is the candidate of La France Insoumise (which translates loosely as ‘rebellious’ or ‘unbowed’ France), both a political party and a social movement which aims to create a new popular front of the left. The ‘primaire populaire’ primary which aimed to select a single standard-bearer for a united left didn’t yield a candidate who could command wide enough support to ensure other candidates would stand down, but Mélenchon is by far the most likely candidate to be able to rally the left and greens.


Throughout the campaign, the polls have suggested that the most likely outcome of the first round is a Macron / Le Pen second round contest, exactly the same choice as in 2017. British media coverage has barely acknowledged the other candidates, generally writing off Mélenchon as ‘far left’ or ‘hard left’. But any examination of his programme shows it to be a detailed, coherent, ambitious and costed rescue package, rooted in republican values of equality and democracy. Entitled ‘Another World is Possible’, this ‘Programme for a Common Future’ opens by declaring that the current system has run out of steam and offers a message of unity and solidarity, rejecting the politics of racism, islamophobia and antisemitism.

The programme includes 694 propositions, costing 250 billion Euros and funded by 267 billion Euros of income. Key pledges include:

  • Price cuts and price freezes for essential goods. More progressive income tax and corporation tax and limits on dividend payouts. Getting tough on tax evasion, a new wealth tax and revenue from an inheritance tax to be invested in youth training.
  • An increase in the national living wage to 1,400 Euros per month and guaranteed free subsistence provision of water, gas and electricity. Eliminate homelessness, build 200,000 homes for rent per year and renovate and insulate 700,000 homes per year.
  • Aim for full employment and full employment rights, Re-establish the right to retire at 60 on a full pension. Stronger action on discrimination in employment, housing, education and health.
  • Expand public health and social care with 100,000 new health workers and 10,000 more jobs in social care. Reopen the casualty and maternity units which have been closed and build new health centres where they are most needed.
  • Free childcare and free school meals using 100% organic food and average class sizes of 19 by 2027.
  • A green new deal with major investment in addressing sea pollution, the water supply, the railway network and renewable energy generation. Plan to withdraw from dependence on nuclear power and invest in industrial conversion.
  • A ‘green rule’ across all public policy with ambitious carbon reduction targets and an industrial plan. An end to intensive factory farming and low animal welfare standards, a ban on dangerous pesticides and the creation of 300,000 new agricultural jobs.
  • A guarantee of 1% of GDP to be spent on arts and culture. Welcoming refugees and asylum seekers. A foreign policy which promotes climate justice, recognises ecocide and guarantees access to global goods such as vaccines.
  • A constitutional assembly to develop a new political system, the 6th republic, to bring government closer to citizens and ensure they are sovereign.

The impact of these measures would improve the standard of living of 90% of people in France in a highly redistributive and progressive way, with the greatest proportional benefits going to the poorest and the richest 1% contributing the most.

At the end of the campaign, everything suggests that the Macron / Le Pen scenario is the most likely outcome. But Mélenchon’s support has been growing steadily and he has leapt from 5th to 3rd place and has consistently polled well ahead of all the other green or left candidates. If most of the supporters of the 5 lower-ranked Green, Socialist and Communist candidates decide to support him as the most ‘useful’ vote today he could still break through and take the left into the second round. As in 2017, if those voters decide to wait until after the first round before voting tactically they will lose any chance of having a left / right choice in the second round.

Final polling (Saturday 9 April):

  • Macron: 26.0%
  • Le Pen: 25.0%
  • Mélenchon: 17.5%
  • Zemmour: 8.5%
  • Pécresse: 8.0%
  • Arthaud, Hidalgo, Jadot, Poutou, Roussel combined: 10.0%

If he can qualify for the second round, Mélenchon could map a route to the presidency by attracting the large part of the electorate who believe that the current economic system is incapable of delivering for them and don’t trust Macron to stand up for their interests.

Mélenchon, an MP, former MEP, senator and government minister in the Jospin government between 2000-2002, is a serious and experienced campaigner and a brilliant communicator who has effectively debated all his opponents in public, including those of the far right. He has shown a real understanding of the linked crises affecting the world and is able to present a coherent alternative in a inclusive, popular and optimistic way. He is a committed anti-racist and internationalist while also having an evident pride in France. In a second round against Macron, he could realistically create a majority from all those voters who reject policies of austerity for the poor and want serious change without compromising with xenophobia or ethno-nationalism.

This may not seem like the most likely scenario, but it is not impossible. Election day is the moment the possibility of change becomes real and the hope of real change can build its own momentum.

See also:

French elections 2022: Electing a French President (January 2022)

Education and the French presidential election (April 2017)

Educational inequality in France (May 2015)

L’avenir en Commun Mélenchon’s 2022 programme in French

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Owning our crises

Julie Mehretu – Looking back to a bright new future (detail)

The climate emergency and environmental degradation, the Covid-19 pandemic, the injustices of systemic racism, wars and their humanitarian consequences, the sharp rise in the cost of living… As one crisis succeeds another in dominating our thoughts, it’s easy to see them as a series of disasters. We stagger from one to the next, each ‘new’ one demanding our attention before we’ve had time to take in the implications of the previous one.

How are we to deal with this succession of challenges coming at us one after the other with so little time for reflection, learning lessons and longer term resolution? How are we to get any sense of proportion or priority when we are presented with what appear to be separate threats; some closer, others further and more remote in time and space? Should we rank them by urgency, by scale, by impact, by proximity to our own lives or by the degree to which we can do anything about them?

Each of us constructs our own sense of proportion and our own narratives about how we might get through, but it’s hard to hold on the idea that we could exercise any agency over the way things are going. Seeing these challenges as ‘one thing after another’; a series of external events entirely out of our control, can just make us feel hopeless and disempowered. This can lead us to turn our gaze away and inwards towards the small things in life over which we have some limited control.

However, every global crisis we face belongs to all of us, however remote it may seem. We all inhabit our one shared world, we each have our one life to live – and we can make a difference. Because they are happening in the same world and are the result of human action, these crises are connected; they are the consequences of human-made systems. We need to look for these connections and build some kind of world-view which is capable of ‘joining the dots’ and generating long term solutions.

Seeing our various crises as being caused by the way we are currently doing things is also to see that this way of doing things cannot continue. The systems and structures of our current world order – economic, social and political – are the very things that are delivering crisis as opposed to security, development or progress. They are the cause, not the cure.

Joining of the dots of system crisis also means recognising that both the problems and the solutions are political and that the actions needed will be political and therefore collective. This means taking sides and making choices. We have seen states respond to crisis in ways which would have been unthinkable until recently: promoting rapid global vaccine development and mass vaccination programmes, mass behaviour change in the interests of public health, large scale state intervention on a massive scale to prop up the economy and support employment, state support to underwrite popular solidarity towards refugees. Most of these measures are presented as temporary fixes, but the very fact that they were implemented has changed our sense of what is possible. When the activist, enabling state mobilises to tackle some of the challenges we face, it also opens the door to wider change.

What was inconceivable yesterday becomes essential today and we see that it is possible to break with our current system in significant ways. And we look at these interventions and ask “if this can be done in a crisis, why can’t it be done all the time?” or “If this can be done here, why can’t it be done everywhere?”  

We have to question a system which cannot ensure the basic necessities for everyone, which extracts wealth from the poorest and channels it to the wealthiest, which consolidates privilege and injustice of every kind, which is built on an assumption of continuous and unsustainable growth in production, consumption and waste, which marketizes essential goods and services and continues to produces energy by generating dangerously high concentrations of atmospheric CO2 and produces food using intensive, unhealthy methods, which stokes nationalism, xenophobia, insecurity and war. It would be negligent not to be questioning these assumptions.

Just as our economic system is not fit for purpose, our current politics also seems ill-equipped to respond to the challenge. Faced with system failure, we cannot rely on a politics of ‘getting back to normal’ or ‘keeping things broadly as they are with a few tweaks and mitigations’. Trying to solve a crisis with more of the thinking which caused it is starting to look like a dangerous view rather than a moderate one. The narratives which are extreme are surely those which deny the systemic nature of our crises or fail to challenge the reach and use of corporate power to drive and amplify inequality, or the need for superpower war machines that threaten annihilation.

So what’s the alternative? There is no single programme which will solve all the challenges we face, but we need to start from some assumptions about how the global economy and global society could work to meet human needs. We need to ask how we could guarantee everyone a basic living income, decent housing and social care as well as health and education. How could we live well without consuming natural systems faster than they can be regenerated? How could we build a culture of peace and make the world safer while shifting away from military spending, arms production and the organised barbarism of war?

A new common sense will need to be built from these assumptions and will require profound system change. New social and political forces will need to emerge and if existing political parties cannot rise to this challenge, they will find themselves superseded.

Nancy Fraser called her brilliant 2017 analysis of our predicament ‘The old is dying and the new is not yet born’, borrowing the phrase from Antonio Gramsci’s ‘Prison Notebooks’. And this feels like a good description of the dangerous and hopeful period we are now in as a species globally.

The solutions start in our imagination. Can we conceive of a broad global movement based on a commitment to equality, democracy, solidarity, sustainability and peace? Such a movement can build on the traditions and practices of union, community, liberation, resistance, social justice, peace and environmental movements. Translating this into a coherent and powerful progressive force for global change isn’t easy and does not guarantee success, but doing nothing will certainly guarantee disaster.

See also:

Finding our voice in a crisis (January 2022)

Rebecca Solnit on Hope (April 2020)

An A-Z for a world which has to change (March 2020)

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French elections 2022

Electing a French President.

#1 The presidential election system. 

France presidetielles2022 is a big election year in France, with the presidential election in April followed by the parliamentary (National Assembly) elections in June. Each of these elections has two rounds, meaning that most voters can expect to go to the polls on four separate occasions this Spring.

From 1965 to 2002, the President served a 7-year term meaning that their term was out of step with that of the National Assembly. Since 2002, both the President and the National Assembly have a 5-year term and the elections follow each other closely with the aim of providing the new President with a working full-term majority in parliament.

The President is France’s head of state, leads on foreign policy and security and sets the direction of government by choosing or dismissing the prime minister. The prime minister leads the government and needs to be able to command a majority in the National Assembly. The president can initiate or delay legislation, call a referendum or dissolve the National Assembly. So the French presidential election is the first step a chain of events over a period of a few weeks which can initiate a major shift in political power in the country.

The two-round system:

The version of the two-round system used to elect the French President is simple to understand but does fail some of the tests of democracy and can have some unpredictable outcomes.

The election is by universal suffrage with every French voter participating having a single vote in a single process to elect a single person. Each voter chooses one candidate at a time in each of two rounds, two weeks apart. The idea is that to be successful, a candidate needs to achieve an overall majority (over 50%) of all voters, either in the first or second round.

The first round can involve a large number of candidates, often 10 or more, who have received the qualifying level of sponsorship. If any one of them wins an outright majority at this stage, they would be elected and there would be no need for a second round. This has never happened, and the closest any candidate has come to this was the 44.7% achieved by Charles De Gaulle in the first round of the 1965 election, the first of this type under the 5th republic. In recent history, even the highest scoring candidates in the first round seldom gain more than 30% of the vote.

In the second round, the lower scoring candidates have been eliminated, leaving a starker choice and everyone votes again, from a more limited list. The idea is that the first round reveals the electorate’s preferences (‘voting with your heart’) and reveals which candidates might have a realistic chance of winning. The second round requires voters to make a more pragmatic choice between major candidates (‘voting with your head’) who may not have been their original first preference. The gap between the two rounds acts a period of reflection for voters to make the shift from ‘first choice’ to ‘least worst choice’.

However, in this particular version of the system, the second round choice is narrowed down to only the top two highest scoring candidates, everyone else is eliminated, whatever their score. So, the only way to win the second round is to finish first or second in the first round. This has been likened to a wild cavalry charge with many starters but only two making it through.

This two-candidate ‘duel’ does have the benefit of delivering an overall majority for the final winner. By definition, the winner of a two candidate election is going to score over 50% meaning that they can claim a mandate from a majority of the electorate. However, creating this cut-off between the top two candidates and everyone else can lead to some strange outcomes. It can mean that the two final ‘run-off’ candidates did not even command 50% of the vote between them in the first round, potentially alienating more than half of the electorate in the second round. In 2017 for instance, the two run-off candidates, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen received only 45.3% of first-round choices combined, meaning that a clear majority of voters had not voted for either of them. In 2002, front-runners Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen only managed a combined vote of 36.8% in the first round.

This system feels particularly harsh when the first-round scores of some of the eliminated candidates are very close to those of the top two. In 2017, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the highest polling left-wing candidate, scored 19.6% in the first round and was eliminated, while Marine Le Pen who achieved 21.3% got through to the final run-off. In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen managed to qualify for the second round with a score of only 16.9%, while the Socialist Party’s Lionel Jospin was eliminated after achieving 16.2%.

The system worked reasonably well when French political opinion could conceivably be ‘boiled down’ to two broad traditions – left and right – and if each of these traditions could guarantee to have a standard bearer in the second-round run-off. The following elections would be examples of this, with the winner named first in each case:

1965: De Gaulle / Mitterand

1974: Giscard / Mitterand

1981: Mitterand / Giscard

1988: Mitterand / Chirac

1995: Chirac / Jospin

2007: Sarkozy / Royal

2012: Hollande / Sarkozy

Taking the long view, these 7 elections can be seen as the ‘norm’ in the 5th republic, with the other 3 (1969, 2002 and 2017) being exceptions. The 2022 election promises to be another ‘exceptional’ one and the result may call into question the idea of any kind of ‘norm’ for these contests.

The French political context has changed dramatically and it is now much harder to find a single line either side of which two candidates can hope to represent the political choice facing the country. And yet, France needs a President, and that President needs to command a popular majority.

Are there any simple changes to the system which could reduce some of its arbitrary unfairnesses? In another post, I will suggest that introducing an element of transferable voting into the electoral process could help to ensure that each voter’s judgement can contribute to the final choice.

See also:

Education and the French presidential election. (April 2017)

Educational inequality in France (May 2015)

The habits of democracy (May 2017)

Voting and the habit of democracy (May 2014)

The mighty pencil (November 2019)

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Zola’s ‘Money’

Rougon-Macquart #18

A powerful anti-capitalist novel.

L'Argent poster

Emile Zola’s wonderful 1890 novel ‘L’Argent’ (‘Money’) is set in the world of finance and share-speculation in 1860’s Paris. It is still fresh and relevant and should be on any reading list of anti-capitalist fiction.

‘L’Argent’ comes towards the end of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart novel cycle, the 18th in the series of 20 which, taken together, provide a comprehensive fictional panorama of life during the French Second Empire under Napoleon III, who as Louis Napoleon staged a coup d’état in 1851 and consolidated his seizure of power in a plebiscite. It sees the return of Saccard (Aristide Rougon) after the collapse of his property speculation, as recounted in the second novel of the series – ‘La Curée’ (‘The Kill’).

Interviewed in 1890, the year ‘L’Argent’ started its serialization in the newspaper Gil Blas, Zola said:

“It’s very difficult to write a novel about money. It’s cold, icy, lacking in interest…”

Nevertheless, in ‘L’Argent’, Zola succeeds in thawing out and humanizing his theme, depicting capital as dynamic and flowing, with the potential to power growth and change and to be channeled into ambitious projects, such as the novel’s ‘Work Foundation’ for destitute children. Rather than simply polemicising against the excesses of greed and accumulation, Zola wants to communicate a sense of the constructive possibilities of capital and the excitement of controlling it.

The novel shows the power of money to change people’s lives, to liberate and emancipate them and to make superhuman things happen. It also shows the spiral of misery and helplessness which can flow from a lack of money and how greed, corruption and cynicism about both means and ends can take hold.

‘L’Argent’ is set at a time when finance capitalism is taking over from its more land-based ‘aristocratic’ precursor. Capital is increasingly disconnected from land ownership and traditional power structures and flowing towards more dynamic productive capacity and faster returns. Wealth is becoming concentrated in new institutions and can flow rapidly into, and out of, a bewildering range of ventures. The separation of means and ends offers capital’s new masters the ability to speculate and extract colossal value from a range of large-scale initiatives; in property development, transport infrastructure and new forms of colonial exploitation among others.

We are witnessing a transition from concrete inherited assets as the basis for wealth, to the more liquid and transferable intermediary of money itself. This ‘new money’ is less tangible, intangible even, as it passes via scraps of paper through the hands of a new class of bankers, dealers and speculators, each skimming what they regard as their share where the game is played; the Bourse (Stock Exchange) and its side-markets. We also see the associated dispossession and humiliation of some of the decaying landed gentry who symbolise ‘old money’.

Saccard, who is as scheming and amoral as ever, creates a new bank, the Banque Universelle, which Zola based on a number of genuine institutions of the period which swung from boom to bust, such as the scandal-ridden Credit Mobilier. Rather than investing in the concrete projects whose promise inspires many of its investors, the Banque Universelle is revealed as a mechanism for the creation of more ‘paper value’ by any means, legal and illegal. But Saccard himself is not exclusively motivated by the promise of riches. He thrives on the chase, and it is the torrential flow of money rather than its accumulation which keeps him going.

The other principal character, Caroline Hamelin, provides the moral compass. Her relationship with Saccard creates the central tension which powers the story. Caroline admires the vision, energy and creativity which Saccard displays for money’s constructive potential. But Saccard is hopelessly compromised, addicted to the game, refusing to play by the rules. His overreach is what leads to his second collapse. His energy is transient and liquid; flowing rapidly and carelessly through whatever vessel-project happens to be at hand.

In contrast, what enthuses Caroline is the actual promise of the overseas ‘civilizing’ projects which Saccard claims to believe in:

“The vast maps and watercolours which so often made her dream of those far-off lands… a land that science was about to waken from its filth and ignorance. What fine, great things were waiting to be achieved! Gradually she began to visualize new generations and a stronger, happier humanity springing from the ancient soil, once more beneath the plough of progress.”

But she also knows enough about the rules to understand that there are legal requirements to protect investors, and she confronts Saccard with her reasoning:

“I would like it if, instead of these shares … that you’re launching, you only issued bonds… I now know that one cannot speculate in bonds, and that a bondholder is simply a lender who earns a certain percentage on his loan without having any part of the profits.”

Caroline would prefer capital to be tamed, but Saccard replies with his version of ‘greed is good’:

“Bonds, bonds! Never! At the devil do you want with bonds, I ask you? That’s just dead stuff… What you have to understand is the speculation, playing the market, is the central motor, the very heart of an affair such as ours. Yes! It brings new blood into the system, it takes small streams of it from all over the place then collects it together and sends it out in rivers, in all directions, creating an enormous circulation of money which is the very lifeblood of great enterprises. Without it major movements of capital, and the great civilizing works that result, are fundamentally impossible…”

Saccard regards his insatiable appetite for high returns as the justification for every kind of abuse of the system: illegal insider dealing and buying your own stock without paying for it. He portrays all this as necessary corner-cutting, borne from an impatience with the rules of ‘normal’ investment which only serve to slow down wealth creation.

‘L’Argent’ also takes us deep into the Paris slums, providing an insight into the living conditions of the poorest which ‘La Curée’ did not. We get a glimpse of the sordid Cité de Naples district with its open sewers and overcrowded hovels. Zola does not spare us any graphic detail of destitution and degradation; the flip side of the luxury and wealth of a minority. It is here that we discover the result of Saccard’s sexual assault of Rosaline Chavaille, providing further evidence of his moral turpitude. And his son Victor seems to have inherited all of Saccard’s least attractive traits.

We get a foretaste of Zola’s celebrated championing of the Alfred Dreyfus case; the miscarriage of justice which took place a few years after the publication of ‘L’Argent’ and exposed systemic antisemitism in French society. ‘L’Argent’ doesn’t shy away from representing this antisemitism which was often linked to criticism of Jewish bankers. Once again, it is Caroline who provides the moral counterbalance to Saccard, cutting through his poisonous prejudice with her simple statement:

“For me, the Jews are just men like any others.”

Another contrast in the novel is the ideological one, between Saccard and Sigismund Busch, the visionary Socialist and former journalist colleague of Marx who now lives as an invalid with his money-lender brother, an associate of Saccard. Sigismund is producing schemes for a world without money or private ownership, reminding us a little of Florent in ‘Le Ventre de Paris’ (‘The Belly of Paris’) and other Zola ‘idealists’.

Sigismund makes a cogent case:

“…the transformation of private capital… into social capital created by the work of all… Imagine a society in which the instruments of production are the property of all, in which everyone works according to their intelligence and strength and the products of this social co-operation are distributed to each and all…No more competition, no more private capital, no markets, no stock exchange…”

Saccard is appalled by the prospect, but doesn’t entirely dismiss it:

“What if this dreamer was right after all? What if he had correctly divined the future? He explained things in a way that seemed very clear and sensible.”

Sigismund goes on to outline how the concentration of capital could makes its future socialization easier:

“You’re working for us without realizing it… There you are, a few usurpers, dispossessing the masses, and once you are gorged, we, in turn, will only have to dispossess you… Every kind of monopolizing, every centralization, leads to collectivism… moving towards the new social order… We are waiting for it all to break down, waiting for the current mode of production to end in the intolerable disorder of its final consequences.”

In his recent novel of post-capitalism, ‘Another Now’ (2020), Yanis Varoufakis has one of his characters reflect on the dominance of speculation over investment:

“…it bewildered him that people truly believed capitalism to be about making things or providing services at a profit. He found it extraordinary how most people disliked speculators but thought of them as peripheral, as harmless bubbles on a steady stream of enterprise… (but) the very opposite is true… that enterprise long ago became a bubble on a whirlpool of speculation… in reality, workers, inventors and managers resemble driftwood buffeted hither and thither on a manic torrent of runaway finance.”

130 years after ‘L’Argent’, turbo-charged exploitation and profiteering persist, and gross inequalities continue to scar our society. We still live in a world where speculation, asset stripping, debt restructuring and the whole array of financial ‘instruments’ can syphon off value to benefit the few, while trying to distance itself from real-world consequences.

‘L’Argent’ is Zola at his best; powerful story telling which carries us along while also speaking to many of our contemporary concerns.

All the quotations from ‘L’Argent’ are from Valerie Minogue’s brilliant 2014 translation for Oxford World’s Classics and I have also drawn on her Introduction to this edition.

See also:

Zola’s ‘La Curée’ and the corruption of desire RM#2 (April 2021)

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Overcoming the barriers to learning

Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at WorldSkills November 2021

barriers 2

These are a few thoughts about how teachers can help learners overcome some of the barriers to their learning. This is not a comprehensive ‘how-to’ guide or a list of tips to be followed, it’s just a starting point for thinking about some of the things that can stand between students and their successful learning.

These reflections are grouped into 5 themes:

1. Understanding the barriers

2. Knowing our students

3. Building relationships

4. Motivating and engaging

5. Making the path by walking

In order to set the context, it’s worth reminding ourselves about what we are educating for. The world is a complex, difficult and unpredictable place, but it is also full of opportunities for flourishing, joy and fulfillment. Similarly, teaching is a complex, difficult and unpredictable activity which is also full of opportunities for flourishing, joy and fulfillment.

Teaching is both a difficult and a wonderful task. We are educating for lifelong learning, citizenship, caring and working, as part of a long-term investment in our community and our shared future.

We can’t make anyone learn; students have to be ready to learn and to want to learn. We can only create the conditions where learning is possible and likely. As teachers, we can’t control or change everything, but our work is important and we can make a difference.

It’s important to be clear about our aims, how we want to achieve them in practice and how we can tell if things worked. This can be seen as part of a continuous cycle of action and reflection which can map across to Ofsted’s three I’s: Intent, Implementation and Impact.

1. Understanding the barriers

What are some of the barriers to our students’ learning?

‘Internal’ barriers can include previous experience of ‘failure’, rejection, boredom, poor relationships with teachers, people in authority or other people generally.

‘External’ barriers can include the assumptions and prejudices of others about students’ abilities or capacities, lived experience of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia or the results of unmet physical or emotional needs or traumatic experiences of various kinds. These can clearly become ‘internal’.

Also, good learning is unlikely to take place if a student doesn’t have a sense of purpose or ownership of the learning process and no satisfactory answer to the question “why are we doing this?” If they start with negative feelings about the subject, the content or the context of their learning they are much less likely to be receptive.

Students may also have a sense of isolation or alienation from the group they are in, feeling they don’t ‘belong’. They may also lack confidence, have a strong fear of failure or of getting things ‘wrong’ and a resulting aversion to risk-taking of any kind.

We need to find ways to help students feel positive about the purpose, context and content of what they are doing. We also need to create the opportunity to have good learning experiences as well as to learn to deal positively with setbacks.

2. Knowing our students

We need to understand and value where students are coming from; their experience, their identity as a person and as a learner as well as their values and aspirations. This takes time, and we can’t know everything about them, but it does mean listening attentively to what they say, tuning in to their behaviours and reactions and avoiding preconceptions or unfounded assumptions.

Through our actions and reactions we need to show that we are taking them seriously and that we are ‘on their side’ and ‘walking alongside’ them in the process of engaging with learning. We also need to recognise that there are many different ways of being, belonging and engaging.

“If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.” Maya Angelou.

3. Building relationships

Education is both a very personal and a very social process. It’s not a 1-way transaction or something we ‘deliver’ to our students. It’s interactive, requiring plenty of ‘give and take’ between people who share some kind of connection. There needs to be confidence, trust and rapport, between teacher and student. All of this also takes time to build.

We need to communicate the possibility of success, model how it’s achieved and allow students to experience it for themselves. We also need to avoid creating ‘learned dependence’ on the teacher and plan for ‘letting go’ by providing opportunities for students to become increasingly independent from us through their growing experience of autonomy.

“The cultivation of learning is not only a cognitive activity, it is also an emotional and social activity”. Knud Illeris.

4. Motivating and engaging

Students are partners in the education process and must be treated as such. We need to try to create and nurture a culture of partnership and engage with them at every level, build on their current knowledge, skills, experience and aspirations. This engagement needs to be authentic and meaningful and that also takes time to develop.

This will be achieved in many different ways and no single approach is ‘best’. A successful learning environment will, in turn, be rich in: talk, quiet, enthusiasm, challenge, joy and disappointment. It needs to be a place of questioning and dialogue which is safe and calm but also stimulating and challenging. We need to show students how to learn from ‘failure’ and build on their experience of success, confidence and autonomy.

We must praise what is praiseworthy and remind students of their progress and how they’ve achieved it, without going overboard with extravagant or unjustified compliments.

“Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it…” Hannah Arendt.

5. Making the path by walking

The learning journey is not laid out like a marked road, it is about making your own path, with each learning step breaking new ground. We can get better at it through practice and we can also model learning and chart progress. If we break things down and build them up again we can help students to grasp more of the parts and more of the whole of what they are studying.

Think of yourself as an expert helper or guide rather than a performer or a benefactor.

“There is no path, we make the road by walking.” Antonio Machado.

This post is based on my presentation in the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion strand of the online WorldSkills Professional Development event for post-16 educators November 2021. All the sessions can be accessed here.

See also:

The outstanding lesson (October 2015)

The skilled learner DOES (June 2015)

Learning through conflict (November 2017)

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Finding our voice in a crisis.

Blogging in the 2020s.

It can be hard to write in a time of crisis. What can we possibly say that could be of any use to anyone? But when things are this bad, it’s also hard not to write. What good is saying nothing?

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 2020s.pngWe are trashing our home planet, people are suffering and dying from avoidable causes, systemic inequalities are widening, injustice, exploitation and conflict of all sorts proliferate and we continue to make choices we know are unsustainable. The consequences of our failures are more evident than ever but it feels like we haven’t fully developed the ideas, the dialogue and the politics to deal with the situation in we find ourselves. We may just be coming to a collective realisation that our current ways of doing things will not get us out of this and that there needs to be sustained structural change.

There’s plenty of cynicism, despair and disempowerment around. If we are to get through safely we need to understand and interpret what’s going on, sharpen our critical faculties and find the voice to try to say something useful which can nurture positive change. We need to recognise the scale, depth and severity of all our various crises and to rigorously critique the way we think and the way we do things.  We have to search for signs of hope, new ways of thinking and workable solutions. We need to extend the practice of equality, democracy and solidarity when they are under attack.

This isn’t just a difficult moment to get through before returning to ‘normal’ by finding ‘fixes’ for each separate problem. We need to see the internal connections and ‘join the dots’. Systemic crises require systemic solutions and we have to confront ours as a whole as well as in their connected parts. Our crises are structural and they share their roots in the extreme inequalities of access to power and wealth among humans on our planet. The sensible, workable, common-sense solutions are going to be radical ones developed by people working together locally and globally, thinking outside the models which gave us the crises.

I’ve posted less in 2020 and 2021, reflecting the challenge of finding useful things to say. But I have looked for some of the ideas which can help us understand the nature of our crisis, its roots in our actions and some of the tools we need to address it:

An A-Z for a world which has to change (Mar 2020) offers a short overview of the challenges which confront us.

Rebecca Solnit on Hope (April 2020) Rebecca Solnit offers some of the most clear-eyed and inspirational advice for our times.

Resisting classification (Dec 2021) makes the case for a more careful use of categories in trying to understand the complex social world.

I want to continue to write about the interconnected and structural crises we are living with and to argue for a more democratic, and participatory politics and more egalitarian solutions.

This blog has always had a strong focus on education for all, for equality and social justice:

Decarbonising education (Mar 2020) looks at young people’s efforts to ensure that the climate emergency is properly covered in their curriculum.

Starting to rethink education (Jun 2020) makes the case against going back to normal after the crisis.

A manifesto to end educational inequality? (Sep 2021) is a critique of proposals which are not ambitious enough.

Knowledge and education for the future (May 2020) outlines Edgar Morin’s ‘seven lessons for the future’ – useful principles for curriculum design.

Reading bell hooks. (Apr 2021) is a brief response to reading the luminous ‘Teaching to Transgress’.

Freire for today (Mar 2021) is a re-reading of ‘Pedagogy of Hope’ reminding us that education is not neutral and that learning is not banking.

Seven ways to avoid a Frankenstein education. (Feb 2021) returns to the work of French educationalist Philippe Meirieu.

Learning, earning and the death of human capital. (Feb 2021) is a critique of human capital theory and the influence it still has on public policy.

Why the comprehensive college? (Sep 2020) makes the case for an inclusive, non-selective post-16 education system.

The turnaround in public exam policy in England as a result of the pandemic is described in two posts from 2020, reminding us that rapid, radical change in apparently stable systems is perfectly possible, but requires new thinking:

England’s unexpected exam revolution (May 2020)

Exam results – what just happened? (Aug 2020)

I want to continue to show how the way education is organised entrenches social divides and is not as emancipatory as we would like to think. In England, the case for a National Education Service is as strong as ever and it needs to be fleshed out and popularized.

Cultural experiences move us and change us. Over the last 2 years I’ve shared my reflections on some of the reading which I felt was insightful or influential:

‘The Ministry for the Future’ by Kim Stanley Robinson (Dec 2020) is an visionary future narrative of humans surviving the climate emergency.

Tsitsi Dangerembga’s ‘Nervous Conditions’. (May 2020) is a brilliant account of personal and political awakening.

‘Bewilderment’ by Richard Powers (Nov 2021) is a beautiful exploration of the contradictions of living in difficult and bewildering times.

‘Light Perpetual’ by Francis Spufford (May 2021) is a wonderful celebration of life and love.

In praise of lightness – Calvino’s ‘Legerezza’ (Mar 2020) from his ‘Six memos for the next millenium’ is a rich essay on the balance between freedom and attachment.

Utopian thinking and both its real-world and fictional manifestations are an important source of ideas for us.  Learning from Utopia (Dec 2021) draws on Ursula Le Guin’s classic novel of contrasting social orders ‘The Dispossessed’.

I will continue to select and recommend fiction which has the potential to clarify or transform our understanding of the situation we are in.

I started on a journey of musical discovery in 2021, guided by Clemency Burton-Hill’s ‘Year of Wonder’ which offers a different piece to listen to for each  day of the year. Readers might like to join this journey via a monthly post in 2022. ‘Listen to this’. (Feb 2021)

The solutions to our crises will emerge from collective action and reflection, so in times like these we need to be reading, thinking and writing more than ever.  Writing a blog is a good way to organize and sharing your thinking, and reading blogs is a good way to sharpen and challenge that thinking through regular interaction with others.

In 2022 I will aim to be positive while trying to do justice to the scale of what we face. As always, it’s a work in progress! My New Year wish for 2022 would be that we collectively start taking the bold steps needed to address our multiple crises and to plan for survival rather than accept catastrophe.

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Stupid gene.

Simplex and Sapiens are discussing human stupidity.

Simplex: We agree that people can do some pretty stupid things, yes?

Sapiens: Of course.

Simplex: And that some people have a tendency to do stupid things more often…

Sapiens: I guess…

Simplex: Well, it turns out we can measure this tendency experimentally and establish a Stupidity Quotient for each person.

Sapiens: That implies that stupidity is a fixed quality…

Simplex: Maybe not entirely fixed but we do think it has an inherited component.

Sapiens: You mean there’s a gene for stupidity?

Simplex: Sort of, we think we’ve identified a gene complex linked to the Stupidity Quotient.

Sapiens: Really? A set of genes which make people stupid?

Simplex: The correlation is significant, so – yes. Now we want to use the presence of these genes to work out which children might be at greater risk of becoming stupid so we can then help them. Because we’d all prefer it if people acted less stupid overall.

Sapiens: Well, yes, but isn’t that just a way of saying we should educate everyone well to help them avoid doing stupid things? Or create the conditions where people are less likely to be stupid?

Simplex: No that’s far too general. Genetics can help us tailor the right de-stupidifying strategies for those who need them most.

Sapiens: Surely we don’t need to look for genes to tell us that. It’s probably a lot to do with good teaching and social factors isn’t it?

Simplex: So we’re also going to ask teachers to help us explain why a high Stupidity Quotient correlates to doing less well in certain subjects at school. What’s fascinating is that the heritability of stupidity varies by subject and also changes over time.

Sapiens: Isn’t this all a bit tenuous? First you create a measure designed to correlate with a whole bunch of different behaviours you’ve labelled ‘stupid’ and then claim that something several levels removed is at the root of all those behaviours. It then turns out that the degree of correlation isn’t fixed anyway…

Simplex: But don’t you see how this could transform the science of teaching?

Sapiens: Not really. It all seems rather… stupid.

See also:

Challenging IQ (August 2017)

Challenging neurosexism (January 2016)

Sapiens and Simplex have also discussed:

Your dogma, my principles

Exam success boost to the economy


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Learning from Utopia

‘The Dispossessed’ by Ursula Le Guin

Anarres and Urras

What is the function of alternative political and economic systems, whether actually existing or imaginary? Is it to offer hope that change is possible, or at least to provide some perspective on our own way of life?

For instance, what would it be like to live in a society organized in a radically egalitarian way – one with a more equal distribution of power, or with no competitive markets or organized or coercive exercise of power at all?

Actually existing alternatives can be examined and critiqued in real time. The test of a credible fictional utopia is in the details of the experience of everyday life, living and working arrangements, housing, eating, personal relationships, health care, decision-making, dispute resolution, transport, cultural production and consumption, and of course social care, childrearing and education.

How might learning be organized in such a society? The whole purpose and content of education would be very different in a genuinely egalitarian society. In the absence of competition for status and jobs and the valuing of a fuller range of human capabilities, new forms of learning and educational processes would be possible.

In Ursula le Guin’s ‘The Dispossessed’ (1974), the author imagines two close planets whose inhabitants have hardly any contact with each other and live with very different social orders. Urras is rich in resources and has a number of states run under different political systems and power structures. Its neighbour Anarres is poorer and was populated generations previously by people escaping Urras to create a more egalitarian society. Anarres allows no private ownership or accumulation of power and runs broadly on anarcho-syndicalist lines.

The novel was written before the digital revolution took off and personal computing does not feature, but some of the aspects of democratic economic planning, allocation of labour and resources seem to be facilitated by computer systems and essential decisions are taken following deliberation in committees.

The story of Shevek, our main protagonist, introduces us to life on both Anarres and Urras. He has a unique opportunity to compare the systems first-hand as well as to meet the underground opposition on Urras.

In this future universe, our Earth still exists, but it is a distant and marginal presence. As if to remind us of the risks of messing things up, we hear that it is now overheated, deforested and grey – just about habitable for half a billion people making a kind of life in the ruins. Shevek meets the Terran ambassador who tells him:

“My world, my Earth is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species…We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt. We destroyed ourselves. But we destroyed the world first… We failed as a species, as a social species.”

We get a few insights into education on Anarres through some of the episodes of Shevek’s life. Walking through Abbenay, the main city on Anarres, Shevek finds it ‘charged with vitality and activity’, passing open doors of workshops and factories, laundries, repair-shops, distributories, a theatre… The city’s activity is visible to all, and this transparency contributes to the sense of shared collective endeavour which includes young people.

“It was all there, all the work, all the life of the city, open to the eye and to the hand.”

“The activity going on in each place was fascinating, and mostly out in full view. Children were around, some involved in the work with the adults, some underfoot making mudpies, some busy with games in the street, one sitting perched on the roof of the learning centre with her nose deep in a book.”

Dedicated learning centres seem to be tasked with a degree of knowledge organising and sharing, teaching young people and transferring skills. They seem to use investigative and project-based learning. We’re told little about the adults who work there; their expertise and their specific responsibilities, but we do get a sense of purposeful and motivated student activity:

“He went by the learning centre late in the afternoon and watched Sadik and the other children on the playgrounds, or got involved, as adults often did, in one of the children’s projects – a group of mad seven-year-old carpenters or a pair of sober twelve-year-old surveyors having trouble with triangulation.”

Letting ‘mad seven year old carpenters’ loose with their tools sounds a little dangerous and this description prompts questions about adult accountability for the welfare and safeguarding of the children. Neglect or exploitation may be less likely in such a transparent system but risk cannot be entirely eliminated – how would it be minimised? If all adults are teachers, how is their effectiveness ensured?

There do seem to be some agreed curriculum priorities based on the Anarresti values:

“Learning centres taught all the skills that prepare for the practice of art: training in singing, metrics, dance, the use of brush, chisel, knife, lathe and so on. It was all pragmatic: the children learned to see, speak, hear, move, handle. No distinction was drawn between the arts and the crafts; art was not considered as having a place in life, but as being a basic technique of life, like speech.”

The curriculum also appears to be co-constructed as much as possible, with learners shaping their priorities together with their teachers:

“This was how courses were organised in Anarresti learning centres: by student demand, or on the teacher’s initiative, or by students and teachers together.”

The imaginary ‘uninventing’ of institutions we have come to regard as indispensable can provoke fruitful thinking about how we might invent something different and better. This is the great value of the utopian imagination.

Another way to read ‘The Dispossessed’, is as a case for a multipolar world which can accommodate alternative ways of living and ordering society. Maedda, of the rebel underground tells Shevek of the importance to people on Urras of having the really existing alternative society of Anarres to look to:

“Do you know what your society has meant, here, to us, these last hundred and fifty years? …To know that it exists – to know that there is a society without government, without police, without economic exploitation, that they can never say again that it’s just a mirage, an idealist’s dream!”

For the rebels on Urras, eager for change, the existence of Anarres demonstrates that History has not ended, another world is possible and radically different systems may be able to co-exist in close proximity.

Alternative ways of living and meeting human needs, whether real or fictional are useful challenges to our concept of the natural order. They raise important questions about power, inequality, work, leisure and shared human rights and values as well as everyday questions about how we live our lives. They show us what might be possible and how things might change.

Whether we seek to transform our own system or would prefer a plurality of systems in friendly competition, we can surely agree with Shevek’s insights that:

“Human solidarity is our only resource.”

“When you are on the bottom, you must organise from the bottom up!”

See also:

‘You either bend the arc or it bends you’, ‘Attack Surface’ by Cory Doctorow (September 2021)

‘The Ministry of the Future ‘ by Kim Stanley Robinson (December 2020)

An A-Z for a world which has to change (March 2020)

‘What if?’, dystopias in fiction. (December 2017)

More fictional dystopias. (March 2017)

Utopia as the education of our desires. (August 2015)

Reading dystopias. (July 2015)

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Resisting classification

from ‘Unflattening’
by Nick Sousanis

“Reality is infinitely diverse, compared with even the subtlest conclusions of abstract thought, and does not allow of clear-cut and sweeping distinctions. Reality resists classification.” (Fyodor Dostoyevsky ‘The House of the Dead’)

Trying to describe the world in words or numbers is a challenge. We struggle to find the language and models to represent reality and they can only offer an imperfect representation of our experience of it. To name and describe things is to classify them and to impose one perspective rather than another on our understanding of things.

We’re constantly invited to understand our social world by breaking it up into categories. People are Remainers, Brexiters, millennials, Northern, Southern, disadvantaged, privileged… From baby boomers to gen. Z, these broad-brush classifications frame much of our public debate about people’s aspirations and behaviours.

The use of these categories is often linked to a type of reification, where complex dynamic social phenomena are elevated into an organising principle (eg: ‘intelligence’ or ‘knife crime’). It’s often combined with agglomeration which takes things further by lumping together many different reified interactions and describing them as examples of the same thing. So, this ‘lump and label’ involves deciding what matters, naming it and framing it, then play it back to confirm pre-existing assumptions.

But viewing people’s characteristics and behaviours through the lens of a single category is more likely to obscure than to shine a light on reality. It can substitute for genuine debate by narrowing the range of what is considered or acceptable. Do we really believe, for instance, that ‘red wall voters’ have some unique common perspective? Or that ‘disadvantaged’ people all have the same aspirations?

We know that people are complex and have a range of views on different things and that these are changeable. We can see that these categories are crude, and yet we allow them to enter our consciousness and limit our thinking. Useful discussion is shut down and prejudices reinforced and what is presented as a fresh new idea can turn out to be a lazy old stereotype.

That said, we can’t do without categories. Naming and identifying things based on their differences or similarities can help us understand them better. At the group or population level, we need to aggregate large amounts of data about individuals in a range of ways. Social science would struggle to draw any conclusions about patterns of behaviour or social trends without being able to classify people using characteristics such as age, sex, ethnicity, income or class and the use of ‘protected characteristics’ plays an important part in helping us understand patterns of structural inequality.

We know that classifying people requires simplification and loss of detail. We need to understand the limitations and we accept them because of the benefits of being able to group things easily and to try to establish some broad general rules about them.

The process of simplifying a complex world by viewing it through a particular lens is never a neutral one. The decisions about which categories matter are loaded with assumptions and values. Defining and foregrounding particular characteristics is being done by someone, usually with power, with some purpose in mind, usually the maintenance of that power, and the choice to ignore or downplay other characteristics is just as significant.

Whether we’re dealing with heavily value-laden descriptors such as ‘dysfunctional families’, ‘unskilled workers’ and ‘deprived areas’ or less ambiguous ones such as ‘benefit claimants’, ‘non-graduates’ and ‘coastal towns’, they are selected, connected and interpreted in ways which reinforce a particular narrative or power structure. The simplistic judgements made can reinforce existing prejudices and essentialist beliefs about ‘human nature’ or ‘how things are’, correlations can slide towards half-baked explanations and definitions of ‘how things should be’.

When a single category becomes an organizing principle for policy it’s in danger of being stretched beyond its usefulness. Information about a large number of people has been split into categories and aggregated ‘upwards’ to build up broad judgements at the social level. If this high-level approach is then played back ‘downwards’ to the individual level, there is a massive loss of definition and focus and the complex blend of characteristics of real people is reduced to caricature, with the potential to mislead.

When emotive or charged language is overlaid on top of ‘established facts’, real damage can be done. For example, the poet Caleb Femi has spoken about how the racialised use of the term ‘notorious’ to refer to the North Peckham estate labelled the people who lived there, in effect blaming them for the estate’s structural and design problems.

In education too, we fall easily into the same habits. So, for example, wildly general descriptions which sum students up as ‘academic’, ‘bright’ or ‘motivated’ are routinely used to make distinctions which can influence what is offered to them and what is expected of them. When these judgements have a metric attached this can provide a veneer of validity, even if all the numbers tell us is that for a variable characteristic x there is a smooth distribution within the population from a to z with a mean somewhere around m.

So, once we have invented a measure of achievement or even ‘ability’ based on a test, there will inevitably be high and low scorers who can then be the subjects of targeted interventions and attempts at ‘levelling up’ or promoting ‘social mobility’.

The courses being taken by students can also be labelled, and these can  become attached the students themselves. So, we find ourselves describing students as ‘vocational’ or ‘academic’ as if these types of course represent inherently different types of student with distinct interests and aspirations.

Too often, definitions of ‘ability’ or ‘aptitude’ are used to support exclusionary or selective practices. Institutional decisions to keep certain students out are justified by extrapolating back from what are presented as essential categories, such as ‘academic students’, although they are based on fairly arbitrary measures, such as a test score at a particular age. The selective structures themselves can then become the justification for the selective practices, ie: ‘we select for this type of student therefore this makes us the right kind of provider for them.’

The type of provider students attend can also be used to define the students themselves. Is an undergraduate attending a more selective ‘high tariff’ university necessarily more capable than another who doesn’t? Is a school ‘sixth former’ different from a ‘college student’ or a ‘grammar school student’ different from a ‘comprehensive student’ if they are studying the same course? What do these descriptions really tell us about the students themselves and their experience of education?

Data on achievement and progression can provide us with insights into the many layers of inequality in our society. Measures of social class or income can provide a clear sense of the differential benefits which students get from the education system. Using Free School Meal (FSM) eligibility as a measure provides a binary categorisation; you’re either eligible or not, and FSM students are more disadvantaged in every respect. Using IDACI or POLAR quintiles provides a clearer picture of the disadvantage gradient across 5 categories, charting the clear educational benefits of being better off. So, for example, the poorest 20% have the lowest rate of progression to university and the richest have the highest rate.

None of this seems very surprising; these data are revealing the patterns of disadvantage rather than explaining them. The figures themselves tell us little about the mechanisms which perpetuate these inequalities. But it’s clear that the use of categories to classify people can provide the means to discriminate, segregate and oppress them.

When different categories are used together, the choice of association carries with it all sorts of assumptions about which dimensions to combine and which intersectionalities are of interest. In doing so, we risk a kind of multiplication of selective judgements leading to an algebra of confusion. For instance, to what extent is the experience of ‘white working-class boys’ associated with their ethnicity, their class, their sex, some relationship between any of these factors, or something else? What is the category ‘white’ adding to the mix? Is it simply a way of ignoring the experience of black working-class boys, denying white privilege or downplaying the impact of racism on life chances?

The way we define the challenges we face will shape the kinds of debates we have and the kinds of solutions we might want to advocate. The way we use categories doesn’t do justice to the multi-layered complexity of the world and it’s often a short cut to sweeping assumptions and flawed policy.

In some cases, we may just need to see the use of categories as a helpful first stage which suggests clues but begs many questions which need further research. In many cases, the answer may be to look at things in another way, to reframe the question or start with different assumptions; for instance, is it the social structure of privilege that is the problem rather than something inherent to those who lose out because of that structure? Could what appears to be a group ‘deficit’ be seen instead as an opportunity to rethink what we’re measuring?

So, before we draw policy conclusions based on the use of simple categories, perhaps we should ask:

  • What is the underlying issue and why are we defining it in these particular terms?
  • Why choose these categories, or combinations of categories, and not others?
  • How do the people most concerned by this issue define it themselves?
  • What underlying assumptions and definitions might we want to question?
  • What multiple perspectives could we take to add depth to our analysis?
  • What more do we need to understand before drawing any conclusions which might shape policy?
  • How will we evaluate the impact of a policy, both on individuals and systemically?

It’s not so much the use of categories which is the problem, but the choices we make, the range we choose from, the relative emphasis we give them and the social impact of the conclusions we draw from them.

It must be possible to use categories in ways which do justice to the complexity of the social world but this means being more open-minded and critical, considering alternative perspectives, including those of the people most affected, being more tentative about drawing conclusions and more careful in implementing any solutions.

Illustration: p.13 of the brilliant ‘Unflattening’ by Nick Sousanis

See also:

Edgar Morin on ‘Thinking Global’ (August 2017)

Challenging IQ (August 2017)

Reducing culture to memes (August 2015)

Education as a whole and in its parts (November 2014)

Maxine Greene, resisting one-dimensionality (June 2014)

Blob and anti-blob (May 2014)

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‘Bewilderment’ by Richard Powers

BewildermentBewilderment is an entirely rational response to what we are collectively doing to our planet. Confronted by the injustices, dysfunction and unsustainability of the world we’ve created, how can we not react with bewilderment?

This wonderful novel is both an exploration of our sense of being overwhelmed by our condition and also a potential antidote to it. In a near future only slightly more bewildering than the present, the many threats to rationality and life itself are seen through the close relationship of a father and son, Theo and Robin. Their response is also shaped by the recent loss of a third key character, Alyssa, whose memory and thought patterns are still very much present in the narrative.

Astrobiologist Theo and his neurodivergent son Robin share a lot, including Alyssa’s belief system and the mantra ‘may all sentient beings be free from needless suffering’. It’s hard to disagree with their world view, and also hard to reconcile it with the overwhelming evidence that the one ‘sentient being’ who could live up to this aspiration is doing a very thorough job of messing things up.

The parent-child relationship and its tension with the developing world-child relationship is central to the book. Robin’s difficult journey is perfectly paced, including a detour via his successful use of a neurofeedback therapy which transforms his consciousness and perception.

The story is punctuated by short planetary biographies, jointly imagined by father and son. Dvau, Falasha, Pelagos, Geminus, Isola, Tedia, Chromat, Mios, Nithar, Similis… each is a thought-experiment, an exploration of the many possible ways life might emerge and thrive in different conditions and different parts the universe. The overall effect of our exposure to these other worlds is to help us view our home planet and its inhabitants from a different perspective and a little more clearly each time round.

Stasis, for instance, is a planet very much like Earth but whose axis has little tilt meaning there is one monotone season at each latitude and the boundaries between biomes run like property lines. As a result, Stasis has no intelligent life because

“nothing needs to remember or predict much further out than now… there was no great call to adjust or improvise or second-guess or model much of anything.”

Reflecting on this, Robin asks:“Trouble is what causes intelligence?”

Theo responds:

“…yes. Crisis and change and upheaval.

His voice turned sad and wondrous. Then we’ll never find anyone smarter than us.

The specific issues raised carry universal messages. The threats to defund the very promising ‘Decoded Neuro Feedback’ therapy which is helping Robin so mcuh, of to cancel Theo’s belowed ‘next gen’ telescope and ‘Seeker’ projects searching for life beyond Earth, the risks associated with industrialised farming and the self-defeating attack on biodiversity. These are particular concerns, but they all relate to the central question: how can a species capable of such creativity also be so carelessly destructive and narcissistic?

The novel deals with the ‘planetary’ uniqueness of every human being, the meeting of inner and outer space, the finite and the infinite and the vastness of both the universe and the human mind. In effect it is an inquiry into the possibility of intelligent life on Earth let alone anywhere else in the cosmos.

Every novel communicates ideas of some kind and has the potential to change its readers’ perception of reality. We think of the ‘novel of ideas’ as having a particular ability to shift our understanding of the world and of our condition, with the possibility also of spurring us to action.

Richard Powers is a genius of the ‘novel of ideas’, combining a profound understanding of scientific concepts with the ability to weave them into very human stories. In his work, the ideas are always deeply rooted and thoroughly explored, and this is pared-down Powers; the perfect distillation of meaning, narrative and emotion with not a word out of place.

See also:

‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers (March 2019)

‘The Ministry for The Future’ by Kim Stanley Robinson (December 2020)

‘Unsheltered’ by Barbara Kingsolver (August 2019)

‘You either bend the arc or it bends you’ – ‘Attack Surface’ by Cory Doctorow (September 2021)

Edgar Morin on ‘Thinking Global’ (August 2017)

An A-Z for a world which has to change (March 2020)

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“You either bend the arc or it bends you”

‘Attack Surface’ by Cory Doctorow.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is attack-surface.jpg

Attack Surface‘ (2020) is a gripping action-packed story of oppression and resistance with plenty of insights into the potential of new technologies and big data. It is also a powerful manifesto for the necessity of activism.

The central character, Masha, is a nomadic surveillance consultant employed by some very dodgy corporations to advise oppressive regimes – and she also uses her skills to help the very campaigning groups targeted by her technologies. Unsurprisingly she is highly conflicted and alienated; disconnected from both her amoral employers and from her activist friends:

“The people around me belonged where they were…They actually lived lives…They carried phones, they talked on those phones, messaged and hopped from tower to tower. They were each data-streams, converted from analog humans doing things to data that could be quantified and analyzed, by people like me, who didn’t belong anywhere.” (p.270)

Masha is challenged by her friend Tanisha (‘Neesh’) to explain how it is that the struggle for justice has achieved any progress:

“Do you have a theory of change?

I shrugged. “The arc of history is long but it bends towards justice?”…

”You know what makes it bend, Masha? People hauling on that mother, with all their strength, with all their lives. We pull and pull and pull, and then, bit by bit, it bends. People hear Dr King’s quote and they think, oh, well, if the arc of history is going to bend towards justice then all we have to do is sit back and wait for it. But the truth is, it bends because we make it bend, and the instant we let up, even a little, it snaps back.” (p.275)

When Bayard Wilkins, a veteran campaigner addresses a protest meeting in Oakland, California (‘I was there with Bobby Seale in sixty-seven’), he makes a similar point:

“I’ve been standing my ground… right here, waiting for the arc of history to bend towards justice. That arc doesn’t seem to want to bend. It wiggles and it shakes, but hard as I pull on it, hard as we all pull on it, it just hasn’t flexed…

I’m just one man and I am not going to stop hauling on that arc until it starts to move. Because there is not alternative. You either bend the arc or it bends you: you stand up, or you surrender. There’s no middle ground, friends.” (p.325)

The novel charts Masha’s long crisis of conscience; one which mirrors on a larger scale the daily choices we all face between accepting or resisting each of the aggressions and injustices we see – whether large or small. Her rationalisations feel familiar:

“Vast historic forces had brought this world into being, and I had to live in it with everyone else. If I took vows of poverty or swore myself to revolution, it wouldn’t overturn the order…We were born as individuals, and we died on our own, and even the tightest, best co-ordinated group was just a bunch of singular individuals choosing to work together for a while.

All of this was self-serving…but self-serving wasn’t the same as wrong.” (p.403)

Ange, like Tanisha, speaks for the activist with a well worked out theory of change which places humans at the centre:

“…information doesn’t want to be free …People do. People use technology to make themselves free, by using it to share and organize and connect. Freedom isn’t something technology gives you, technology is something you use to get freedom.” (p.431).

Masha is able to bring her experience of the psychology of both sides of a struggle to their discussion of tactics and understands how those in power rely on apathy and inertia whereas advocates of change need serious momentum.

“Your enemies don’t need people to disagree with you, they just need people not to care.” (p.438).

In the afterword to the novel, IT security expert Runa Sandvik, who helped develop the Tor anonymity network, helps to locate the heart of the story in its hopeful humanity rather than its dystopian technology, and advises us to:

“Make sure you understand the negative impacts – the cost – that new solutions have on our lives. Only then can we start to make better choices for ourselves and our collective future…This book is a powerful reminder that you, like Masha, can choose how you live your life. How you use your skills, knowledge and time.” (p,499).

In his author’s note, Cory Doctorow takes a clear political view of the relationship between activism and technology:

“Technology can be a force multiplier, for the powerful and powerless alike. But the use of technology by the powerless is more salient than when it is wielded by the powerful, because giving power to the powerless is a change in kind, while increasing the power of the already powerful is merely a change in degree. But that temporary power boost will be denatured by the powerful as quickly as they can manage it, so the advantage is not enough to make lasting structural changes. To make lasting structural changes, you need to use technology to change politics.” (p.501)

While the book’s main themes can be seen as technology and surveillance, it should also be read as advocating for social movements, activism and struggle and how we decide between whether to say and do nothing or engage and resist; whether to bend the arc or let it bend us.

See also:

Interview with Cory Doctorow from the LA Review of Books (January 2021)

The Ministry for the Future’ by Kim Stanley Robinson (December 2020)

What if?’ Dystopias in fiction (December 2017)

Reading dystopias (July 2015)

More fictional dystopias (March 2017)

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A manifesto to end educational inequality?

The challenge

We urgently need to address inequality and the human damage it causes, in education and across society. So, any programme with the aim of ‘eliminating educational inequality’ merits serious consideration.

The eleven proposals in the Teach First ‘manifesto to end educational inequality’ aim to go well beyond COVID-19 recovery and it’s clear that simply returning to a pre-pandemic situation is nowhere near enough. Addressing widening inequalities certainly requires an ambitious and radical long-term programme and these proposals are a positive contribution to the debate. But are they ambitious enough to make a real impact and can they help to achieve the fundamental system-wide changes which are needed?

The manifesto starts by framing its aims in terms of giving every child a ‘fighting chance’ to ‘reach their potential’. This notion of finite potential suggests an inherent cap on each student’s capabilities; how is it defined and how much of a shift in power, wealth and influence would constitute a ‘fighting chance’?

Educational activity and systems are not neutral, they can promote greater equality or inequality and they operate in a context of constant change. While we can’t fully ‘compensate for society’ that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do those things that can help to overcome the effects of pre-existing inequalities rather than do those which reinforce them.

But we need to recognise how many of our current education processes help to create and reproduce inequalities. There are so many aspects of our current approach which are anti-egalitarian: our high stakes and age-related grading systems, the existence of selective and private providers and the quasi-markets which pit providers against each other. The obsession with labelling, sorting, ranking, segregating and rationing of various kinds, the creation of hierarchies of providers segregated by class, wealth and type of provision; all of these contribute to counteract efforts to promote greater equality.

The Teach First manifesto makes some good points, but there is no analysis of how inequalities are socially created and consolidated and the many ways class privilege, white privilege, male privilege and economic privilege operate throughout society to tip the scales against particular groups of children and young people. The scale of social and economic change needed to reverse the tendency for power, wealth and influence to flow towards the most privileged is seriously underestimated.

The proposals are set within the current system, implicitly accepting its logic. The problem of disadvantage is described in terms of deficits faced by individuals, schools and teachers, deficits which can be reversed through more support. Disadvantage is seen as a category which is characteristic of certain individuals and schools, which can be chipped away at through compensatory measures rather than looking at the society and the systems which have created inequalities and considering how we might tackle root causes.

The truth is, in tackling inequality, education faces a problem it can’t fully solve, however much extra support schools get and however hard teachers work. Addressing inequality in education only really makes sense as part of a social, political and economic project to address it across society.

The proposals

The proposals are organised under three themes: funding, inclusivity and support:

1. Funding

The stated goal of ‘an education system that is fairly and fully funded’ is a good soundbite but it begs the question about what is meant by ‘fair’ and ‘full’. How would we know when that ‘full and fair’ level of funding has been achieved?

Education’s crisis of funding is well documented and there is undoubtedly a desperate need for investment across the system. Education, youth, family and children’s services are suffering from chronic underfunding; a legacy of the austerity which has affected all public services. More resources would certainly make things better, but they won’t guarantee greater equality if the system being invested in is itself generating inequality.

The 4 proposals in this section recommend increasing resources in ways which target schools serving disadvantaged communities, providing more pastoral, family and wider support services and a pilot reduction in teacher’s timetables in 1% of disadvantaged secondary schools in England. There is also a welcome proposal to boost the Covid-19 education recovery package which echoes the recent joint call by several organisations including the Association of Colleges (AoC) and Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) for a 3-year £5.8billion education recovery programme across all sectors.

While better funding is essential, we know that the current distribution of educational resources and opportunities is highly unequal and probably moving in the wrong direction. Any new investment programme must guard against simply boosting the processes that drive inequality. Are we clear what kind of support addresses inequality? Would the targeting suggested be enough to shift the engines of inequality into reverse?

2. Inclusivity

The proposals in this section are aimed at achieving an education system that is inclusive and founded on the belief in ‘the power of a broad, ambitious, and knowledge-rich curriculum’ and that what is taught in schools should represent the full breadth of the modern British experience.

A curriculum which does justice to the challenges we face and helps prepare students to face them will necessarily be rich in knowledge. But a ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum is simply not rich enough. It needs to be based on more than knowledge accumulation. It should speak to students’ needs and interests, develop their capacity to make sense of the world, to make different connections and to use skills and knowledge effectively for purposes of their choosing, including building their capacity to flourish as individuals, citizens and workers.

That ‘modern British experience’ also has to be set in a wider context. A more equal education in our country has to be understood as part of the global community, global challenges and the inequalities they expose. There are no references to the planetary crises we face and the collective global intelligence and solidarity which are required if we are to address these injustices and crises head-on – not in order to scare learners into apathy but to spur them to action.

There are some good proposals for positive action to achieve a more representative workforce at all levels, a very necessary aim. But these don’t challenge the structures of privilege; a society where the workforce is more representative can still be highly unequal.

This section of the manifesto does contain an exciting and genuinely radical idea which has real transformative potential: the proposal for ‘Curriculum Forums’ to support a national debate about what is taught. The idea is that these would involve a broad range of teachers, young people and others coming together to find common ground about what a rich and diverse curriculum might look like.

Such forums could bring a democratic, participatory element to the debate about the purpose of education and support a critique of current curricula and an exploration of alternatives, giving students and teachers more agency in curriculum development. This proposal offers the possibility of a dynamic, bottom-up process of deliberation and consensus-building about what the content of education should be.

3. Support

The broad aim here is ‘an education system that prepares young people for their future’ and this section includes proposals for ‘high-quality support’ to help young people leave school better prepared for employment.

These interventions are all welcome, but they don’t in themselves create new opportunities for young people in the labour market. Even if all students achieve higher levels of qualification, obtain good work placements and excellent careers education, their access to ‘good’ jobs will continue to be limited and rationed unless employment opportunities improve. In that ‘uncertain jobs market’ being ‘better prepared for employment’ won’t make the jobs market more welcoming or less unequal overall.

The final proposal to ‘give every household access to the internet, and every young person in education access to a working digital device’ is also clearly worthwhile. The digital divide is another driver of inequality and needs to be addressed with universal entitlements at a societal level.


A major blind-spot of the manifesto is its total silence about the role of colleges, universities or adult education in either challenging or consolidating inequalities. By focusing on schools only, the document misses key parts of the system. The college sector in particular can be a powerful egalitarian leveller because of its role in supporting so many learners of all ages to make up for their earlier lack of educational success by the age of 16.

We certainly need an egalitarian manifesto for social and economic change, and this requires a commitment to a lifelong education system which places equality, democracy, solidarity and sustainability at the centre. The proposals in this Teach First manifesto, as they stand, don’t amount to such a programme. Calls for more resources and more targeted support are welcome but they are unlikely to challenge the existing profound structural inequalities which shape the context for education.

If we are to imagine a different and more equal system and set about creating it, we will need a road map which is far more ambitious.

See also:

Learning, earning and the death of human capital (February 2021)

Starting to rethink education (June 2020)

An A-Z for a world which has to change (March 2020)

Knowledge and education for the future (May 2020)

The promise of a national education service (January 2019)


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‘Light Perpetual’ by Francis Spufford

light-perpetual‘Light Perpetual’ is a wonderful celebration of life and love. It opens with some extraordinary time-stretching to describe the impact of a split-second destructive event in wartime. Then time is shrunk and stretched repeatedly in order to follow the ‘lost’ potential lives of five of the victims with a lightness and warmth; zooming in to the detail of a day and zooming out to take regular leaps forward in time.

Michael Apted’s ‘Up’ TV films revisited their subjects at seven year intervals, observing the ways in which they were both changed and the same. ‘Light Perpetual’ jumps more than twice as far, skipping many significant events with its fifteen-year gap while somehow also doing justice to all that has happened in between.

The lives of Jo, Val, Alec, Vern and Ben are told in just a few episodes resisting the temptation to pack in emblematic, representative incidents each time. There is no neat coming-together of all the storylines showing how everyone is connected and no satisfying tying-up of loose ends. Just like real life in fact. These are not archetypes and their lives are not made to represent anything other than the mystery and joy of life itself.

The five central characters are all white working-class South Londoners born before the second world war and experiencing post-war social transformation as adults. This isn’t a book ‘about’ class, race or gender but these dimensions are woven into the various narratives. All five are constrained by the opportunities available to their working class ‘pre-boomer’ generation: too old to have grown up in a more culturally diverse community or to benefit from the expansion of higher education as eighteen-year-olds. The impact of ‘everyday’ sexism and classism as well as racism in both its systemic and its more violent forms is very real and present.

These ‘ordinary’ lives are told through ‘ordinary’ moments without placing ‘ordinariness’ on a pedestal. There is no clunking message about nature and nurture, social change or lessons learned. There is, however, plenty of learning going on, as in all lives, and despite their own uninspiring experience of school, two of the five become schoolteachers later in life, giving rise to some interesting reflections on education.

Jo has become a secondary music teacher when we catch up with her in 1994:

“…when she first taught anybody anything, the hardest thing was learning to isolate, from out of the mass of things she knew how to do with music, one thing at a time to pass on. One thing at a time, separated, is not how you yourself possess a skill you are sure of. Everything interconnects with everything else, and the natural impulse is to try and impart it like that, pouring it out in a useless torrent. Only bit by bit do you master the unnatural act of taking your own knowledge apart again, and being able to see what needs to come in what order, to build that knowledge in other minds… One thing, done thoroughly: that’s all you need. So long as it’s the right thing.”

This is a great description of the challenge teachers face to make sense of what they teach; how to find the balance between the particular new thing that needs to be understood and its connection with other things, which it what will make it all more useful. This passage is followed by a wonderful description of the class Jo teaches where she manages to get every student focused on what they are doing with their voices while also experiencing the excitement of contributing to an ensemble.

Like the others, Alec didn’t go to university as a young person, but he does study with the Open University and trains as a teacher after his typesetting skills are made obsolete by technological change. We meet him just before his first day as a working teacher in 1994, and also again at the end of his time as a primary head in 2009, under pressure to academise his school.

“You can do your best to make them laugh, and to see they eat breakfast, and to lead them through the British Museum unintimidated, but who are you to say what’s going on inside, which of them privately inhabit a hive of busy misery, impossible to communicate? You’re only a teacher, not a magician.”

Alec understands the struggles his students face and as a socialist he is not enthusiastic about the prospect of academy conversion:

“The ideological wrappings around the idea, he straightforwardly detests. All that magic-of-the-market crap; and there’s nothing wrong, either, with having one authority for the borough, answerable to voters, making decisions about schools. Yet it’s also clear that, in order to cajole schools to academise, the powers-that-be have consented to hang out one more fat fruit on the magic money tree.”

The piercing rotating lighthouse beam of ‘Perpetual Light’ shines brilliantly on these characters’ lives. With a light touch, each episode illuminates their various efforts to understand themselves, to learn to love and to try find ways to apply whatever they’ve learnt through being alive.

This has been described as a ‘what if…?’ novel because it’s framed by the device that these are the lives that never were; destroyed by a wartime bomb when they’d only just begun. But these adult lives that might have been can just as well be read as actual lives that were not cut short. All fiction is a ‘what if…?’ exercise and, bomb or no bomb, every life is framed by the absence of life. As Alec’s former wife, Sandra, says: “Everything ends. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t good.”

This is a beautifully written radiant and life-affirming novel.

See also:

Zola’s ‘La Curée’ and the corruption of desire. April 2021

The Ministry of the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. December 2020

Tsitsi Dangarembga’s ‘Nervous Conditions’. March 2020

‘Unsheltered’ by Barbara Kingsolver. August 2019

‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers. March 2019

‘Carthage’ by Joyce Carol Oates. February 2016

Hadrian, the enlightened pre-enlightenment leader? December 2015

Gulliver’s levels. May 2015

Grosse Fugue’ by Ian Phillips. September 2014

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