Education for solidarity

We should work with each other for the common good. Education should develop and support our understanding and consideration of others and our ability to exercise and challenge power collectively.1

Solidarity is a powerful idea but a widely misunderstood word in the English context. The French government has a minister of national solidarity, something difficult to imagine in the United Kingdom. It seems to carry associations of unthinking mass action and perhaps the rather old-fashioned term fellowship communicates the same concept with less baggage. In the UK, the more neutral term cohesion is preferred in the same way that equality and rights are often supplanted by the ‘softer’ equity and fairness. But however atomised our society may seem, people do understand the notion of standing shoulder to shoulder with others, particularly in difficult times. Solidarity means caring about people you don’t know as well as those you do know and being prepared to demonstrate that in practical ways. As Eduardo Galeano points out, solidarity is ‘horizontal’2 and takes place between who regard others as equals in contrast to charity or hierarchical power which are ‘vertical’. Solidarity implies respect for others; recognition of difference, acknowledgment and understanding of diversity and our common humanity. Universal public services such as the National Health Service and the comprehensive school are widely understood expressions of solidarity.

Some will argue that we cannot expect solidarity from others because people act out of self-interest and solidarity is based on too emotional and altruistic an appeal. Nevertheless, genuine solidarity is based on a rational extension of equality. If each of us believes that we have full human value, we understand that this value is only worth something if it recognised by others. By valuing what others think we acknowledge their equal worth. By caring for others, we value them and therefore ourselves. Solidarity is also a practical response to the challenge of the individual’s relative weakness in the face of overwhelming problems. When our interests coincide with others, we can do so much more by working together. Solidaristic behaviour is therefore based on intellectual engagement with others, high expectations of others and of ourselves and a sense of personal responsibility. Far from being a negation of individualism, solidarity with others depends on our own strong sense of self. Our identity is created in dialogue with others and by demonstrating solidarity we show that we can find unity in difference.

Solidarity brings others into our personal learning project and puts the social into education. If we really saw ourselves as atomised individuals purely motivated by personal gain there would be no need to get together with other people to organise an education system with certain entitlements for all. Education is a social process and creates opportunities for people to learn together, whether in schools, colleges, universities, informal or virtual learning communities. This is in contrast to a correspondence course or shopping mall offering a one-to-one transaction or off-the-peg qualification. Learning stems from a commitment to our personal development. Education; organised learning, is an expression of solidarity, respect, hope and love for others – past, present and future. Active two-way solidarity requires respect and understanding of the other. This sense of mutuality and reciprocity creates some of the strongest social bonds and is a good basis for genuinely educational relationships.

In his speech to the 2009 Conservative party conference, the then shadow chancellor George Osborne repeatedly used the phrase ‘we are all in this together’ even as he outlined his proposals for devastating public spending cuts: ‘Tens of billions of pounds will have to be saved….We are all in this together.’ While progressive taxation and genuine shared sacrifice are forms of social solidarity we certainly aren’t ‘all in this together’ if a wealthy minority can continue to protect themselves from the impact of reduced public spending by opting out of collective public services. Imperfect though it may be, publicly funded provision is the most effective tool for building a universal and egalitarian solidarity.

Solidarity needs to be married to universalism and we need to be wary of narrow and specific solidarities. While they can be a local expression of a more general capacity they can also be exclusive and nepotistic; the solidarity of a ruling class or an exclusive club. To be liberating, solidarity needs to be as universal and unconditional as possible. Some have argued that more diverse societies have less potential for solidarity because people are reluctant to help others who are ‘different’. The evidence for this is not convincing and where is the clear boundary between ‘like me’ and ‘unlike me’ on the spectrum of human diversity? Citizens and educators should aim to broaden the general concept of solidarity to all human beings while putting it into practice in the specific situations we find ourselves in.

“Through others we become ourselves.” Lev Vygotsky

“We may become powerful by knowledge but we attain fullness by sympathy.” Rabindranath Tagore


  1. One of my 10 principles to shape education
  2. Eduardo Galeano Upside down: a primer for the looking-glass world (Picador) p.312. ‘I don’t believe in charity, I believe in solidarity. Charity is vertical. It goes from the top to the bottom, humiliating those who receive it and never challenging the implicit power relations. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other person. I have a lot to learn from other people.’

See also:

Education: the universal human right (May 2015)

Aspiration – what’s that all about? (May 2015)

Roberto Unger on school as the ‘voice of the future’ (April 2015)

Learning and xenophilia (October 2014)


About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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1 Response to Education for solidarity

  1. dancingprincesses says:

    Reblogged this on dancing princesses.


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