1980s >> 1980 >> no-913-september-1980

The classroom struggle

My schooldays were recent enough to remember and they were not the happiest days of my life. The compulsion to pay attention to pompous lectures about what is “right” and what is “wrong”; the competitive tension of examinations whereby friends become rivals for an advanced position in the employment queue; the deceit and ignorance upon which much of modern learning is based. I learnt three important things while at school how to hide from authority; how to read a good book while pretending to be listening to the teacher; and above all, how to rejoice in the abnormality which is officially scorned by the system of mass education.


The message of the Socialist Party of Great Britain is for all members of the class which owns little more than its ability to work and is therefore forced to sell its labour power to an employer in order to live. We do not discriminate between young members of the working class who are still being trained for wage slavery and those who have graduated from education into full-time exploitation. It is your common class position to which we appeal, not your age or your experience. To become a socialist does not require grey hairs or five “O” levels, but an understanding of the society you live in and a commitment to change it. If you are still at school, you can contribute towards making a better future for yourself no less valuably than any other worker; you will find no discrimination on the basis of age in the socialist movement.


Schools are not there so that young people can freely learn and be turned into informed, mature human beings. Only the liberal educationalists who earn their bread and butter out of the blackboard jungle perpetuate the myth that education is about freedom and fulfilment. Schools exist to train you for your class role. Because the vast majority of people are destined to be wage or salary workers the job of schools is to give us training in working class skills and values. Boys are taught how to make things from wood and repair cars; girls are given a basic training in domestic skills. They teach us to read (good for machine instructions and understanding the lies of the newspapers), to count, add and subtract (necessary for industrial workers), to know about geography (through the nationalist eyes of the British ruling class) and history (where content is selected and, by careful emphasis and omission, the past becomes the story of kings, lords and war victories instead of workers, peasants, strikes and revolutions). They teach us to keep fit in a competitive form of warfare called sport. And they are legally bound to teach us religion (the only compulsory subject) so that we will accept their class morality.


Schools have always been the property of the ruling class and they have always served to inculcate into the mass of people the ideas of the rulers. The first schools in England were in the sixth century and their purpose was to train monks and priests to spread propaganda about those parts of the Bible of use to the feudal ruling class. The Roman Catholic Church, which controlled European education in the Middle Ages, was so fearful that literacy might be used to examine any ideas but its own that it officially supported a policy of mass illiteracy. The following extract from a letter from Pope Gregory to Bishop Desiderina of Gaul illustrates such fear of the power of literacy:

“A circumstance came to our notice which cannot be mentioned without shame, namely that you, our brother, give lessons in [Latin] grammar. This news caused us such annoyance and disgust that all our joy at the good we had heard earlier was turned to sorrow and distress, since’ the same lips cannot sing the praise of Jove as the praise of Christ. Consider yourself how serious and shocking it is that a bishop should pursue an activity unthinkable even for a pious layman. We have already in hand the granting of your request, easy in mind and untroubled by doubts, provided that this information which has come to us shall have been proved manifestly untrue, and you shall not be shown to spend your time on the follies of secular literature.”


The Pope was right to fear the consequences of mass literacy, for it was the invention of the printing press and the growth of literature in the vernacular which contributed greatly to the popular dismissal of Catholicism in the sixteenth century.


The growth of industrial capitalism in the late eighteenth century produced a requirement for a workforce educated in the three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic). At first, the ruling class was slow to perceive its economic needs and some of them had a medieval fear of educating the poor:


“It is doubtless desirable that the poor should be instructed in reading, if it were only for the best of purposes that they may read the Scriptures. As to writing and arithmetic, it may be apprehended that such a degree of knowledge would produce in them a derelish for the laborious occupations of life.”
(Justice of the Peace, 1807. Quoted by R. Williams in The Long Revolution)


Robert Lowe MP, Vice President of the government’s Education Department in the 1860s, was in favour of educating the poor, but not for philanthropic motives:


“The lower classes ought to be educated to discharge the duties cast upon them. They should also be educated that they may appreciate and defer to a higher cultivation when they meet it, and the higher classes ought to be educated in a very different manner, in order that they may exhibit to the lower classes that higher education to which, if it were shown to them, they would bow down. . . .”
(Primary and Classical Education)


The modern comprehensive school fulfils this role admirably. Young workers are taught practical skills to enable us to ‘discharge the duties cast upon’ us. The importance of punctuality (getting to work on time), not talking while working, passive obedience to authority, ability to memorise so-called facts, and repetition of dogma are all part of the preparation for wage slavery. They teach us history, but not our history from our angle. State education is an attempt to nationalise the minds of the working class.


It is not only in Britain and the West that education serves the needs of the ruling class. In Russia, China and the other state capitalist countries young workers are taught the virtues of employment, deference and nationalism, the only difference being that it is all done in the name of socialism. In Russian schools, where the boring memoirs of Tsar Brezhnev are now compulsory reading (like the Bible in Britain), many students have become cynical towards the elite bureaucracy that dictates over them—a cynicism they share with many young members of the working class throughout the world. Even in South Africa, where the racist system of apartheid has tended to blind capitalists to their economic needs, there is growing recognition by the ruling class that their overriding objective must be to produce profitable wage slaves, regardless of colour. Harry Oppenheimer, South Africa’s leading industrialist (he is head of De Beers diamond and Anglo-American gold mining combines) is reported to have urged the Botha government to get rid of apartheid in education:


“. . .  Mr. Botha must bring the electorate to recognise that racial discrimination and free enterprise are basically incompatible . . .  the education issue threatens to prevent the rapid and peaceful development of the country because it creates an ‘acute and growing shortage’ of skilled workers.”
(Guardian, 14th July, 1980)


This is not to say that the existence of schools is a bad thing for the working class. If you use your brain to serve your own material interests, some of what you learn at school can help you. It depends on what you study, what conclusions you draw and how far you are able to sort out the prejudices from the facts. Literacy can be a powerful weapon, opening a path to the study of the world around you, but it can also be a path to a lifetime of Daily Express editorials and Harold Robbins paperbacks.


Capitalist education is unequal and the introduction of comprehensive education has not eradicated that inequality. In the days when male children were divided up at eleven into manual workers-to-be who were sent to secondary modern schools to learn woodwork and arithmetic, and the potential managers and professionals who went to the grammar schools to learn Latin and Chaucer, it was the claim of liberal reformers that comprehensive education would remove such inequality. This idea was based on the popular illusion that education determines class, whereas in fact education tends to reflect class. Inequality still exists in comprehensive schools between the poorest sections of the working class and the less poor (who often imagine themselves to be middle class). In many areas two-level schooling has continued, with the better-off parents sending their children to the better equipped, less rowdy schools near to where they live, while the children of the slums and the council estates end up in the worst schools.


The real division in education is not within the working class, but between the state education provided for the workers and the paid public schools for the sons and daughters of the parasites who own the means of living. Still Crabbe’s dictum applies:


To every class we have a school assign’d;
Rules for all ranks and food for every mind.


We have described the purpose of working class education, but what about the public schools with their spacious grounds, academic excellence and conditioned snobbery? They teach young capitalists the exact opposite to what we learn in the comprehensives: we learn to follow, they learn to lead; we learn to save money, they learn to invest and spend it; we learn how to be brave soldiers, they learn how to be distant Generals; we learn to respect property, they learn to own and control it. The public schools teach people to be superior to those not in their class. Entry to the capitalist class is not determined by competitive examination, by having better minds or working harder or having more initiative than anyone else—it is simply determined by the ownership of inherited wealth. Eton and Harrow contain some of the biggest morons on the face of the earth, but they are morons with fancy clothes, big family homes, posh accents, daddies in the City and, above all, plenty of money to invest in the labour power of the working class.


One in five members of the present Conservative government went to one of three of the top fee-paying schools in Britain. An analysis conducted by C. S. Wilson and T. Lupton in the 1950s showed that Eton alone produced 30 per cent of Conservative Ministers, of the directors of large banks, of the directors of City firms, and of the directors of insurance companies. Eton, Winchester, Harrow, Rugby, Charterhouse and Marlborough between them produced between two-fifths and half of the holders of the above-mentioned posts. Jean Blondel, in his study of Voters, Parties and Leaders, points out that:


“The 25 to 30 per cent of old Etonians whom one finds in a Conservative cabinet, in banks, in the insurance companies, have greater influence than their numbers warrant, because, being old Etonians, they have more contacts. They supply information about other old Etonians who are influential in other walks of life; they are go-betweens, they are instruments of compromises in the sector of British political, social and economic life in which they are numerous.”
(P. 24)


While capitalists spend millions of pounds on getting their children a superior education, the government tells us that it must cut expenditure on schooling because it stands to reason that nuclear bombs must be a higher social priority than school books. In the present economic recession, which is an endemic feature of capitalism, you can expect your standard of schooling to markedly drop. The June 1979 budget cut £55 million from central government spending on education and the November 1979 White Paper on public spending announced a cut in real terms of £240 million for education. This will amount to the loss of 18,000 teachers in England and Wales and increased charges for—or the withdrawal of—school meals, milk and transport. This is happening at a time when, according to the Department of Education, there is a shortage of 4,000 mathematics teachers, 2,000 physical science teachers, 2,000 craft, design and technology teachers and 1,600 language teachers.


Revolution is a mysterious term. Most of us are taught at school to understand it in relation to the capitalist revolutions of the past. The French Revolution of 1789 is most people’s idea of what revolution is all about: barricades, bayonets, blood, slogans, heroic leaders and a new regime, not much different from the old one. That is not what socialists mean by revolution.


By social revolution we mean a conscious change in social relationships from those based upon private or state ownership of the means of wealth production and distribution to common ownership and democratic control of the world around us. The socialist revolution will mean the instant abolition of class divisions, the wages system, private property, and the need for money. It is a big aim, but it presents the only alternative to the present world system of capitalism.


The Socialist Party of Great Britain states as a matter of principle that the establishment of the new social order can only be possible when a majority of the world’s workers consciously understand and want it. Once majority consciousness arises, nothing can stop the conquest of power by the working class.


The tensions and contradictions of working class life under capitalism tend to lead more and more workers to question the status quo. This critical thought is essential, for once you start to formulate questions, you are half way to knowing the answers. But capitalism has an immense capacity for accommodating working class discontent and dissent and it is often able to convert challenging resistance into sterile rebelliousness.


The Labour Party Young Socialists, the left wing romanticists and campaigns for reforms have wasted the political energies of millions of working class youths. They have grown weary trying to do what none has done before them—to make the slaughter house fit for the cattle. In their late twenties the participants in the reformist movement grow tired and drop their radical poses, claiming to have grown out of such youthful fancies as wishing for a better world to live in. The system has converted them into regular channels of dissent and they end up as conservative, acquiescent workers.


It is not only into overtly political blind allies that young workers can be led. The so-called ‘alternative culture’ is, on the whole, just another capitalist rip-off. You drop out of one oppressive way of life and into another. Escape via rock music or art is often at best merely pretentious and at worst an excuse for someone to get rich quick. Escape through drugs or alcohol is a boost to those who profit from human self-destruction, but ultimately serves to stupify workers and blind them to their condition. Youth cults have been used to make money out of despair, while regimenting youths into easily identifiable mass fashions: while the hippies sang of peace and love, the drug pushers dreamed of dollars; skinhead culture, with its frustrated racism and know-nothing nationalism, did its recruits little good in the dole queue; and as for the punk ‘New Wave’—what’s the use of walking around with a safety pin up your nose if you still face all the poverty and degradation of being a wage slave? Some young workers still turn in frustration to the empty skies and the empty churches for an answer, often ending up on the wrong end of the exploitation game in the Moonies, the scientologists or in a temple devoted to a guru. To really challenge the conservatism of this system, it’s not new cults we need, but liberated minds.


Mind liberation is not the same as women’s liberation (women wage slaves being exploited on the same terms as men). It means thinking about what is in your own material interest and joining with those in a common social position to do something about it. Punks, junkies and lefties can be well accommodated within the capitalist system. Socialist consciousness cannot be accommodated within capitalism: not until we have a system of society run in the human interest will socialists be content.


What, then, will be the position of young people in a socialist society? Of course, the social revolution will not alter human biology and make young humans look the same as older ones. Neither will it remove the need for those who are young to learn certain skills and acquire certain information as part of their development into adulthood. The difference in socialism will be that the young will no longer be conditioned from birth for class roles; no longer will those who are old have power over those who are young because they pay for them; no longer will education be only for the young, but instead will be seen as a lifelong process for all to enjoy the constant quest for knowledge; no longer will authoritarian discipline exist in schools, for the basis of socialism will be cooperative self-discipline; no longer will those being educated be forced to accept dogma in an uncritical fashion, for the need to inculcate norms into children will have disappeared.


Socialism will open up one new possibility which has hitherto been denied to the sons and daughters of the wealth-producing class: the right to be different, to assert individuality, to be eccentric and to be visionaries.


Steve Coleman