From Toynbee to TELCO via Chicago.

The evolution of responses to urban poverty and inequality.

Part 1. From settlement to social activism

Living and working in East London, I am interested in how our part of the city has been shaped by its past, how today’s inequality and social relations have grown from yesterday’s and how our history is intimately connected with that of other parts of the world. My interest also stems from having worked with The East London Citizens Organisation (TELCO) while at Tower Hamlets College in the late 1990’s and again more recently with London Citizens and Newham Citizens in Newham.

In early 2009, we ran an ‘Obama Day’ at Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) to celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama as US president. I gave a short presentation to students on ‘Barack Obama – community organiser’ making the links between the East London settlement movement in the 19th century and the development of community organising in Chicago in the 20th century and back to London again via London Citizens.

The settlement movement in East London has played an important role in the development of social action to raise and address issues of poverty and inequality. This has been enriched by a transatlantic dialogue with similar settlements in the United States and both moved well beyond their paternalist and philanthropic roots.

We can trace the development of community action and community organising in East London from the university settlements created in the late 19th century via the urban settlement houses in the US which they inspired, back to East London with the community organising of (TELCO), now part of London Citizens.

Any historical account is partial and selective and this particular one is a narrative which links apparently contrasting responses to social inequality; following the thread from the 19th century through to the 21st.

I am aware that both the settlement movement and community organising have sometimes been critiqued as inadequate or apolitical responses to inequality, addressing symptoms rather than causes. Here I am taking a broad historical overview and touching on the class, gender and power relations which come into play when the better off choose to help the worse off.

This post sets the context and introduces the main characters and organisations. In the second post, I give a chronology of the main developments and some of the debates. I also look at the role of education and educational institutions in mapping and studying poverty, supporting, empowering and bettering people, promoting social change and social mobility and I suggest that a public education system which tries to address the needs of its local community could contribute to genuine urban and civic renewal in the 21st century.


The starting point is the desperate poverty in London and Chicago in the late 19th century; these two major industrial and trading cities both experienced rapid economic and social change leading to a massive concentration of both wealth and poverty, overcrowded, insanitary housing conditions, exploitation, malnutrition, poor health and low life expectancy.

The high levels of poverty in parts of both cities increased the cultural and geographical distance between people of different classes. The settlement movement can be seen as an early effort to bridge the social chasm between rich and poor, building on the philanthropic traditions of ‘visiting’ and charity work. For the well-to-do volunteers, this ‘slumming’ or ‘poverty tourism’ could also be dangerous and regarded as transgressive and subversive of the established order.

Charity and philanthropy are based on an asymmetry of power and privilege, they may also have religious ‘missionary’ roots, but they also involve compassion and genuine feelings of solidarity, often expressed in gendered terms as sisterhood / brotherhood or sometimes as ‘fellowship’.  Women in 19th century England had little power and their desire to make a difference to others were seen by many as undermining or threatening the very unequal ‘givens’ of Victorian society – the status quo in terms of women’s roles, family structure and the bigger social structure. The settlement story is often one of ‘new women’, often single, finding ways to respond to social inequality and testing the limits of the social order.

Key people and organisations:

Some of the key figures in the lineage are Samuel Barnett (1844-1913) and Henrietta Barnett (1851-1936), Jane Addams (1860-1935), Saul Alinsky (1909-1972). Other characters include: Charles Booth (1840-1916), Rebecca Cheetham (1852-1939), George Lansbury (1859-1940), Beatrice Webb (1859-1943), William Beveridge (1879-1963), Clement Attlee (1883-1967) and Barack Obama (b. 1961).

Rather than a sharp change from paternalism and charity to egalitarianism and campaigning, this is a story of a progression from philanthropy to solidarity, from the Barnetts at Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel via Jane Addams at Hull House, Chicago, Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) in the US and back to Britain with Citizens UK.

The aims of Toynbee Hall were described by Henrietta Barnett as: To learn as much as to teach; to receive as much as to give.

The aims of Hull House were: to provide a center for a high civic and social life; to institute and maintain educational and philanthropic enterprises and investigate and improve the conditions in the industrial districts of Chicago. Jane Addams advocated close co-operation with the neighbourhood people, scientific study of the causes of poverty and persistent pressure for reform.

Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation sees community organising as a power struggle to gain rights for marginalised communities.

Citizens UK organises communities to act together for power, social justice and the common good…We develop the leadership capacity of our members so they can hold politicians and other decision-makers to account on the issues that matter to them…Community organising is democracy in action: winning victories that change lives and transform communities.

This is the first of 2 posts based on a talk given to the East London History Workshop on 19th January 2017.

See also:

Barack Obama community organiser

Jane Addams at Toynbee Hall

Women and the Settlement Movement  by Katharine Bentley Beauman (Radcliffe Press, 1996)

Slumming – Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London by Seth Koven (Princeton, 2006)

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More fictional dystopias

Reading Dystopias offered an introduction to the genre of dystopian fiction through 4 classic dystopian novels. Here are four more which are also well worth reading.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953) [211 pages]

Fahrenheit 451: The temperature at which book-paper catches fire and burns.

It was a pleasure to burn.

It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.

Guy Montag’s job is to burn books. He lives in a world where the word ‘intellectual’ is an insult and printed books are illegal. People are kept under control in ways which give them a sense of motion without moving, through mindless television programming and an education which promotes unquestioning obedience but leads to violent behaviour. Like everyone else, Montag knows that challenging the status-quo is a dangerous thing to do.

When Montag starts to question the foundations of his world he gradually finds out that memory and literature are still being kept alive by a minority of exiled book-lovers who have memorized entire books in preparation for a time when society is ready to rediscover them. This offers the hope that human inquiry and creativity could rebuild a new civilization.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985) [307 pages]

We slept in what had once been a gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted in it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone. A balcony ran round the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in mini-skirts, then pants, then in one earring, spiky green-streaked hair.

In March 2017, Margaret Atwood wrote in the New York Times about What The Handmaid’s Tale means in the age of Trump, when “fears and anxieties proliferate and basic civil liberties are seen as endangered, along with many of the rights for women won over the past decades.”

“Having been born in 1939 and come to consciousness during World War II, I knew that established order could vanish overnight. Change could also be as fast as lighting. ‘It can’t happen here’ could not be depended on…One of my rules was that I would not put any events into the book that had not already happened…nor any technology not already available.”

“Under totalitarianisms, or indeed in any sharply hierarchical society, the ruling class monopolizes valuable things, so the elite of the regime arrange to have fertile females assigned to them as Handmaids…The control of women and babies has been a feature of every repressive regime on the planet…Many totalitarianisms have used clothing, both forbidden and enforced, to identify and control people…and many have ruled behind a religious front.”

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1962) [249 pages]

For a week Mr R. Childan has been anxiously watching the mail. But the valuable shipment from the Rocky Mountain States had not arrived. As he opened up his store on Friday morning and saw only letters on the floor by the mail slot he thought, I’m going to have an angry customer.

…Then the phone rang. He turned to answer it.

‘Yes’, a familiar voice said to his answer. Childan’s heart sank. This is Mr Tagomi. Did my Civil War recruiting poster arrive yet, sir? Please recall; you promised it sometime last week.’ The fussy, brisk voice, barely polite, barely keeping the code.

The story is set in an alternative 1962, 15 years after the Nazis have defeated the Allies in World War II and the former USA is divided into 3 zones: the Japanese-controlled Pacific States of America (P.S.A.), the Nazi-occupied former Eastern United States and the Rocky Mountain States, a neutral buffer zone between the two.

The Nazis have drained the Mediterranean to make room for farmland, developed and used the Hydrogen bomb, and designed rockets for extremely fast travel across the world as well as space, having colonized the Moon, Venus, and Mars.

Robert Childan owns an antiques shop in San Francisco in the Japanese-occupied P.S.A patronised by the wealthy Japanese upper class prepared to pay high prices for American artifacts. Frank Frink is a Jewish-American former soldier making jewellery for the same market. Frink’s ex-wife, Juliana, is a judo instructor in the neutral Mountain States zone, where she meets a mysterious Italian former soldier, Joe Cinnadella. What political intrigue connects these characters? How are they guided by I Ching divinations? And what is the significance of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, the banned alternative history of how the Allies won World War II, which nests within this alternative history of how they lost it?

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (1935) [381 pages]

The handsome dining room of the Hotel Wessex, with its gilded plaster shields and the mural depicting the Green Mountains, had been reserved for the Ladies’ Night Dinner of the Fort Beulah Rotary Club.

…the occasion was essentially serious. All of America was serious now, after the seven years of depression since 1929. It was just long enough after the Great War of 1914-1918 for the young people who had been born in 1917 to be ready to go to college…or to another war, almost any old war that might be handy.

Our hero is newspaper editor Doremus Jessup, who predicts the rise of a ‘real fascist dictatorship’ via the candidacy of the populist Berzelius Windrip for US president. His friends told him: ‘it couldn’t happen here’, but it does.

In It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis imagines what it might look like if fascism came to America. At the time it was written, the fear was of a US version of Hitler. The message of this novel is: ‘actually it could happen here’. Americans have recently experienced some aspects of this scenario: the populist candidate blustering through to the presidency with a set of divisive opinions which call into question many accepted truths and norms as well as the rights of many Americans.

The novel has been described as ‘anticipating Trump’ 80 years before his election. As Beverly Gage says in the New York Times in January 2017, the novel’s president Windrip, like Trump, sells himself as the champion of ‘forgotten men’ determined to bring dignity and prosperity back to America’s white working class. Windrip loves big, passionate rallies and rails against the ‘lies’ of the mainstream press. His supporters embrace this message, lashing out against the ‘highbrow’ editors, professors and policy elites. With Windrip’s encouragement, they also take out their frustrations on vulnerable minorities. Windrip’s team believe in propaganda rather than information, which they feel: ‘is not fair to ordinary folks – it just confuses them.’

The read-across from fiction to truth may not be absolute in this case but, as Gage points out, this novel reminds us that at a time of sudden political change and social disorientation it can be hard to know what to do and to do what is right. In the novel, American values of democracy and pluralism prove unable to resist a descent towards the authoritarianism of labour camps, torture chambers and martial law. We must hope that in the real world, the US system would prove more resilient to any such threat.


In addition to the 5 questions raised in Reading Dystopias, you might want to consider the following:

  1. What aspects of our own society could be considered as oppressive?
  2. What are the dangers of ‘strong’ leaders?
  3. What limits should there be on the power of elected governments and leaders?
  4. What trends could lead us towards a more authoritarian society?
  5. What stops us from moving towards a totalitarian system?

You might also want to use the 20 questions to ask about a book you’ve read to get you started.

Some key words to describe dystopian regimes:

Absolutist: Holding to absolute beliefs at all times with no compromise.

Authoritarian: Requiring strict obedience to authority rather than individual freedom.

Autocratic: Promoting absolute power, taking no account of different views.

Oppressive: Perpetrating the excessive and harsh treatment of people.

Totalitarian: A system of centralized, dictatorial power requiring total subservience from people.

More fictional dystopias:

Reading dystopias

Top 12 dystopian novels

20 best dystopian novels

Gulliver’s levels

Henry Tam’s ‘Dystopia of the Powerful’ novels


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In conversation with Eugenia Cheng

We were delighted to welcome Dr Eugenia Cheng, the author of Beyond Infinity and How to bake pi to Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) last week to talk about her passion for maths and her mission to rid the world of ‘maths phobia’. As well as having written these two very accessible books about maths, Eugenia is a senior lecturer in pure maths at Sheffield University and has worked at the universities of Cambridge, Chicago and Nice. Her brilliant YouTube lectures and videos have been viewed over a million times and she is also a concert pianist and an accomplished cook.

The idea of infinity is one of those mind-boggling paradoxes which fascinate people of all ages; a concept which seems to be beyond Maths and beyond comprehension. Eugenia spoke about how we can use the idea of infinity, which is by definition unquantifiable, to help us solve more concrete problems and how, for instance, it was useful in the development of calculus.

Eugenia also spoke about why there are still too few women working in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) fields and how the culture of these disciplines needs to change in order to attract a broader range of people.

Could Eugenia’s infectious enthusiasm and promotion of Maths as both a logical and creative activity help us address the national challenge of supporting those many students who haven’t yet achieved a GCSE grade C by the age of 16 and are struggling with their GCSE Maths retake?

Eugenia herself was not convinced that we should put so much store by this rather arbitrary measure and advocated deeper learning rather than rushed test-preparation. Our audience of students, teachers and parents were certainly persuaded by her account of turning around the perceptions of her Arts students, including many who had initially worn their ‘maths phobia’ as a badge of pride. She described how people can learn to approach maths problems in a range of different ways and overcome their fear of being absolutely wrong and that is when the barriers to understanding start to come down.

We asked those who attended to describe ‘what I like most about maths’ and the range of answers reveals many positive reasons for enjoying the subject:

It makes sense!

It’s a universal language understood by everyone.

Maths is the language of Science, Music, Computing, Engineering …

I couldn’t be a Physicist without it!

Mechanics is my favourite. What I like about it is that we are able to figure out unknown quantities without explicitly measuring them.

The complexity – where everything has its particular place in a complex whole.

The simplicity – finding explanations for complex phenomena.

The indisputable objective beauty in its structure – everything is connected.

It opens up a world of the imagination where any problem can be understood and solved.

The fact that there isn’t only one way to solve a problem and there are different methods to suit everyone.

Getting the answer right!

Solving problems.

Getting stuck!

…and finding a way out.

All of it!

Eugenia’s own description of why she loves maths:

It’s not just about getting to a destination…it’s about the fun, the mental exertion, communing with mathematical nature and seeing the mathematical sights.

This is a long way from the drudgery of being repeatedly asked to solve uninteresting problems, in fact it’s:

…mind-boggling, breathtaking and sometimes unbelievable.

Beyond Infinity is highly recommended for everyone who already loves maths as well as for everyone who doesn’t yet know they love maths.


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A global crisis requires a global politics

A few days ago, on 10 March, Stephen O’Brien, the United Nations Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs reported to the UN Security Council on the largest humanitarian crisis facing humanity since 1945. Many global challenges vie for our attention, but this one is of such enormity and urgency that it should surely be the headline on every news bulletin and at the top of every media agenda day after day. The question ‘what are we doing about it?’ should surely be the first thing we ask all our leaders at every opportunity…and keep asking until we are confident that everything is being done that can be done.

Reporting on countries facing famine or at risk of famine: Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, Northern Kenya and North Eastern Nigeria, the Under-Secretary General said:

“We stand at a critical point in history. Already at the beginning of the year we are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations. Now, more than 20 million people across four countries face starvation and famine. Without collective and coordinated global efforts, people will simply starve to death. Many more will suffer and die from disease. Children stunted and out of school. Livelihoods, futures and hope will be lost. Communities’ resilience rapidly wilting away. Development gains reversed. Many will be displaced and will continue to move in search for survival, creating ever more instability across entire regions. The warning call and appeal for action by the Secretary-General can thus not be understated. It was right to take the risk and sound the alarm early, not wait for the pictures of emaciated dying children or the world’s TV screens to mobilise a reaction and the funds.”

He was referring to the fact that in Yemen, 18.8 million need assistance and more than 7 million are hungry and do not know where their next meal will come from. In Kenya, 2.7 million people are now food insecure, a number likely to reach 4 million by April. In South Sudan the man-made famine is worse than it has ever been; over 7.5 million people need assistance, 3.4 million people are displaced and more than 1 million children are estimated to be acutely malnourished across the country; including 270,000 children who face the imminent risk of death should they not be reached in time with assistance and the cholera outbreak that began in June 2016 has spread to more locations. In Somalia, 6.2 million people need humanitarian and protection assistance, including 2.9 million who are at risk of famine and require immediate assistance to save or sustain their lives, close to 1 million children under the age of 5 will be acutely malnourished this year. In the last two months alone, nearly 160,000 people have been displaced due to severe drought conditions, adding to the already 1.1 million people who live in appalling conditions around the country. In North-Eastern Nigeria and the Lake Chad region. 10.7 million people need humanitarian assistance and protection, including 7.1 million people who are severely food insecure.

Much is already being done:

“The UN and humanitarian partners are responding. We have strategic, coordinated and prioritised plans in every country. We have the right leadership and heroic, dedicated teams on the ground. We are working hand-in-hand with development partners to marry the immediate life-saving with longer term sustainable development. We are ready to scale up. This is frankly not the time to ask for more detail or use that postponing phrase, what would you prioritize? Every life on the edge of famine and death is equally worth saving.”

But much more needs to be done, the international community needs:

  1. to tackle the precipitating factors of famine; preserving and restoring normal access to food and ensuring compliance with international humanitarian law.
  2. to provide sufficient and timely financial support, humanitarians can still help to prevent the worst-case scenario. To do this, we require safe, full and unimpeded access to people in need. Parties to the conflict must respect this fundamental tenet of international humanitarian law and those with influence over the parties must exert that influence now.
  3. to stop the fighting. To continue on the path of war and military conquest is to guarantee failure, humiliation and moral turpitude and the responsibility for the millions who face hunger and deprivation on an incalculable scale because of it.

The warning couldn’t be clearer, this is not some unavoidable natural disaster:

“All these countries have one thing in common: conflict. This means we have the possibility to prevent, and end, further misery and suffering. The UN and its partners are ready to scale up. But we need the access and the funds to do more. It is all preventable. It is possible to avert this crisis, to avert these famines, to avert these looming human catastrophes. For 2017, the humanitarian community requires US$ 2.1 billion to reach 12 million people with life-saving assistance and protection in Yemen. Only 6 per cent of that funding has been received thus far.”

“I continue to reiterate the same message: it is only a political solution that will ultimately end human suffering and bring stability to the region…The situation for people in each country is dire and without a major international response, the situation will get worse.”

Whatever else we are, we are citizens of the world. Whatever we may disagree about, we can all see that these human conflicts threaten the survival of 20 million of our fellow human beings and jeopardise our collective security and our common humanity.

Challenges on this scale cannot be addressed by a politics which looks only inwards and puts domestic interests first. To rise to such challenges we need a global politics and global leadership.

The UN has set out the nature of this global crisis very clearly. We now need to respond as global citizens and demand the necessary global action.

See also:

The global economy of care (May 2016)

Instinct, heart and reason – the refugee crisis (August 2016)

Giving peace a voice (August 2015)

Democratic emotions in the face of barbarism (April 2015)


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Sixth form resolutions for 2017

2017Like its predecessor, this year will no doubt be full of challenges and opportunities for colleges and sixth forms. 16-19 year-olds remain the worst funded full-time students in England while rapid qualification and assessment reform continues to affect almost every course we offer.

On the positive side, the work of the area reviews is coming to a close and both our membership organisations, AoC and SFCA, have confident new voices to advocate for our sector.

A year ago, I made 4 New Year’s wishes. In this age of austerity it seems appropriate to reduce the number to 3, but also to upgrade the wishes to resolutions because we can all play a part in shaping our future.

So here are my sixth form resolutions for 2017:

This year, let’s…

  1. …ask ourselves what we mean by an educated adult and try to describe our educational aspirations for all 16-19 year-olds, rather than allowing ourselves to be limited by the ‘skills’ agenda and our students to be characterised as either ‘vocational or ‘academic’.
  2.  …try to find common ground between all 16-19 providers on funding and curriculum issues and make a strong case for the properly resourced, high quality sixth form education that all young people deserve and which is essential to our country’s future.
  3.  …build on the area reviews, working with school sixth forms, local and regional authorities and commissioners to start to plan provision and share good practice across their areas. This could lay the groundwork for a coherent, comprehensive 16-19 system capable of providing every young person in every part of the country with choice and entitlement to a broad and challenging education.

See also:

Going beyond (December 2016)

Education: what’s it all for? ( January 2016)

Imagining a better future is the first step (August 2015)

What’s at stake in the new post-16 Area-based reviews? (July 2015)

No austerity of the imagination (July 2015)

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A 2016 guide to this blog.

2016I’ve continued to blog in 2016 and this eclectic collection of posts now numbers around 300; not all of which will interest everyone. To remain useful, such a resource needs to be well catalogued so I’ve tried to use categories and tags which help readers find what might interest them and I usually add a ‘see also’ section at the bottom of each post to provide some guidance. Here are a few strands, each of which offers a way in to a number of posts:

1. Most popular posts of 2016 (based on views after they move off the home page): Only one of the top 5 was actually published in 2016. It seems the vintage material is the most popular. Starting with the most read:

(i) What is powerful knowledge? (from 2015) about Michael Young’s book Knowledge and the Future School.

(ii) 20 questions to ask about a book you’ve read (from 2015) a resource for teachers and students.

(iii) Lessons without words: 10 things music teaches us about life (from 2014) a philosophical enquiry into the ineffable…

(iv) Let us be midwives! Sadako Kurihara (from 2015) a deeply affecting poem from the famous Hiroshima survivor.

(v) W.E.B. DuBois, black liberation and liberal education for all. The only post from 2016 to make the top 5.

2. Post-16 education: As a resource for the area review process, I published several posts on the uneven availability of ‘minority’ courses in our current sixth form environment, particularly in London: Dance, music, drama, philosophy, languages, the IB, research projects and classical studies. I also produced a sixth form profile for our East London sub-region and London as a whole. I have continued to argue for area collaboration and an adequate level of investment in our phase of education. I believe we should offer all students a broad, inclusive and challenging curriculum which values knowledge, skill and student research and it seems to me that the proposed National Bacc is a positive step in this direction. Other curriculum posts can be found here including Going beyond and Citizenship education and British values.

3. Education policyFollowing the Market Madness series of 7 posts critiquing market approaches to education, I have also argued against selection here and here. I am encouraged by the idea of a National Education Service and have suggested how to flesh it out and make it popular.

4. Challenging assumptions: I’ve tried to do this in an informed way: Is vocational education in England really ‘inadequate’? (January) The limits of social mobility (March) and Life in the qualification market (May) join previous posts such as: Do qualifications create wealth? Russell group university progression: dispelling the myths, Russell group numbers soar in Newham, and Is social mobility enough?

5. Philosophy: Amongst other things, I’ve been interested in levels of analysis, emergence, reductionism and the social origins of human thinking. I’ve continued with the series called the Economy of Ideas with posts such as  Capital as methaphorWhat is Social capital?  and The global economy of care. I’ve also shared ideas from: Gina Rippon, Theodore Zeldin and Jean Jaures.

6. Culture: Reviews of the work of: Joyce Carol Oates, Primo Levi and poetry by Rabindranath Tagore and Abdellatif Laabi. The specific challenges and joys of London, including its history, inequality, educational needs and achievements remains a regular theme. There are now also quite a few posts with historical themes.

7. France, Corsica and posts in French: I’ve drawn on the work of French educators such as Philippe Meirieu (often via the excellent Café Pedagogique) to show how our colleagues in a very different system are addressing some of the challenges we also face. I continue to write the occasional post in French in a vain attempt to remain functional in my ‘mother’ tongue.

8. Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc): I can’t resist some promotion of the work we do and the success and progression of NewVIc students, for example Young people debate free speech in the House of Lords. Some of our wonderful alumni continue to contribute to the ‘My NewVIc story’ series and there is a series of parent guides to post-16 progression.

9. Politics: My general commitment is to policies which promote equality, democracy, solidarity, peace and sustainability and I have commented occasionally on issues such as the EU referendum,  xenophobia and the refugee crisis.

10. More personal pieces: such as Remembering John Playfair (April) and Four young men and one war (December).

I do hope you find something here that provokes or delights you. My overview of posts from 2015 can be read here and delving further back, this is what I blogged about in 2014.

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Abdellatif Laâbi: attesting against barbarism.

abdellatif-labi_285x0_264_290_90The brilliant Moroccan poet, novelist and playwright Abdellatif Laâbi is the epitome of the engaged writer. Born in Fez in 1942, he studied at the University of Rabat and was one of the founders of the literary magazine Souffles in 1966 which advocated social and political renewal in Morocco as well as cultural commentary and was banned in 1972. His political activity brought him into conflict with the authoritarian regime under King Hassan II in the so-called ‘years of lead’ and from 1972 to 1980 he was imprisoned and subjected to torture for ‘crimes of opinion’.

He has lived in France since 1985 and was awarded the Prix Goncourt de la Poésie in 2009 and the Académie Française’s Grand Prix de la Francophonie in 2011. His work is a lifelong confrontation with the barbarism humans are capable of:

“I think I know well miseries and luminosities, pettinesses and grandeurs, barbarism and refinement.” Le livre imprévu (2010)

Selections of Laâbi’s poems have been translated into English by André Naffis-Sahely, the latest is Beyond the Barbed Wire, published by Carcanet with support from English PEN.

In his 2013 interview with Christopher Schaefer he offers a critique of the divided Moroccan education system and says:

“School is where we form citizens, where we form democrats, individuals attached to democracy, to human rights, to humanist values that guard them against intolerance and extremism. That’s what I propose. But for me today, the political class as it exists is no longer capable of leading the fight for genuine democracy…We need the youth of today to take on that responsibility…”

In January 2015, in the wake of the terrorist killings in Paris, Abdellatif Laâbi offered the following poem as a “humble prayer that barbarism may not kill even hope”. This reminder of the necessity to draw a clear line between humanity and barbarism was taken up by many in France and across the world as a resource for hope and solidarity (this translation is mine).

I attest

I attest there that there is no human being

other than one whose heart trembles with love

for all their fellows in humanity

One who ardently desires

more for others than for themselves

freedom, peace, dignity

One who considers life

even more sacred

than their beliefs and deities

I attest there is no human being

other than one who struggles unrelentingly

against the hatred within themselves and all around

One who,

on opening their eyes in the morning

asks themselves

what will I do today

to not lose my quality and my pride

in being human ?

Abdellatif Laâbi, January 10th 2015

See also:

Early poems in The Rule of Barbarism (translated by André Naffis-Sahely)

Abdellatif Laâbi’s website – with a section in English.

Educating after the November 13th attacks (December 2015)

Giving peace a voice (August 2016)

Democratic emotions in the face of barbarism – Philippe Meirieu (April 2015)

Nazim Hikmet: Hiroshima and Strontium 90 (April 2015)

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