1980s >> 1989 >> no-1018-june-1989

Short Story: Economics lesson

Some people think that teachers can exert powerful control over student minds, and that consequently, the only proper path for a teacher to take is that of middle-of-the-road banality. Well, my students are safe from me. Even if I wanted to turn them into agents of corruption I’d never be able to get their attention for long enough. All the debates I’ve organised at my training centre prove that any opinion is valid except the teacher’s. I’m a different age, have a different status and occupy the opposite trench in the daily action of the classroom. So there’s nothing I can say to them, and they have nothing to say to me. That’s ‘education’.

All the more surprising then, what happened last week in class. It was in Economics. I’m always careful not to feed them a line they can use against me later, but sometimes you just get the urge to tell it like it is, come straight out with it, especially in a class whose remarks about blacks would send a scarlet blush through the Ku Klux Klan and who think Margaret Thatcher is a pinko. I was saying that Keynes had one approach to inflation and Friedman had the opposite, and that both approaches had long histories of being tried, sometimes simultaneously, on both sides of the Atlantic. Someone asked “Did they ever work?” and I said, “No. of course not”. They looked at me and I could see them thinking “That’s stupid”. I changed the subject. I said, the way to beat inflation is to buy property or valuables to get rid of your cash and wait for things to calm down, and when you reconvert into cash your savings will have risen with inflation, if not higher. Of course. I added, it only works for rich people who can afford to tie up their savings in long-term investments, whereas ordinary people can’t wait (I’m allowed to say that — it’s in the syllabus).

Then up comes this voice saying “Don’t wages go up then?” It’s the lad at the back with the ‘attitude problem’. Well, I was going to say yes but somebody else said “ Course they do”, so I thought Oh yeah? so I said no. The way you do. No, you see, I said following the syllabus, prices go up steadily because the producer is covering rising costs, but the value of the wage they’re paying workers is going down all the time, and the longer producers can hold their own against the unions the cheaper their labour becomes so the more profit they make. Anyway, I’ve dealt with inflation so I move on.

A Bit of Discovery Learning
Only he’s talking again. He’s saying “They always get everything their own way”, or something like that. I wait, pen in the air, thinking either shut up or criticise but do it right whichever. But he’s not bothering with me, he’s talking to the rest of the class, saying “Snot Fair” and “Snot Right That” and then somebody else nods and says “I reckon everyone should have the same”.

I was a bit startled at first but also intrigued. Alright, I thought, why not, a bit of discovery learning, let’s see if they can be bothered to debunk this old chestnut by themselves. And bugger me, the lad with the attitude came straight back with “Give ’em ten years they’d be right back where they started, rich and poor”. I was impressed, so I didn’t interfere. Somebody said why, so he said it was because if everyone has the same, some would get lucky and get rich and the rest would get unlucky and end up working for them. They had a real ding-dong then, a few of them trundling out the tale that it wasn’t luck it was all hard work, and I was starting to get bored after all, having decided it was all a ruse so they didn’t have to write anything before lunch, and then it happened.

You’ve got to understand who you’re dealing with here. This is a bunch of pleasantly maladjusted ‘youths’ who hate economics (or whatever it is they are being force-fed at the time), despise their parents while echoing their every sentiment and think that giving me a hard time is taking on the establishment. I don’t expect very much, I grind through the lessons and I’m condescending but this is all the right and proper order of things and they would give me a worse time still if I was ‘nice’. Educationalists regard this as unwholesome cynicism, by the way.

“We Should Get Rid of Money”
And then the lad with the attitude says:”l think we should just get rid of money altogether.” It goes quiet. It’s just occurred to him suddenly so he says it. And I stare at him, astonished. He doesn’t know anything about socialist theory and its long embattled pedigree, and he’s not a genius — not in my class anyway. He’s a sixteen-year-old adding two and two and making four, and there’s nothing strange about that. But considering the quantum jump you have to make outside everything you know and have always known in a money-system. there really is something rather awe-inspiring about it. I didn’t work it all out for myself when I was younger — I was told about the idea of abolishing money by other people and by books, and that was hard enough to swallow.

So this sixteen-year-old in my class who knows sod all about economics has just reinvented the Socialist case. Perhaps the fact that I’m amazed just proves that I’m getting very jaded, but when he puts it like that, everyone can see that it’s an obvious solution to the problems of market inequality and poverty that we’ve been talking about in the lesson. After a pause, some of the others say “Yeah, why not?” and an argument starts up.

Well, I’m outside the syllabus now but stuff it, I’m sure I read somewhere teachers are supposed to encourage original thought and besides this is too good to miss. I just sat back and folded my arms and scowled like I didn’t really approve but would grant them some leeway and in front of me, the class had the sort of political debate which you wish Socialist Party meetings were always like. Being a cynic myself, I correctly guessed that if I tried to pooh-pooh the whole notion with the odd cold-water objection they would keep at it all morning. So I played my establishment part like a trouper and didn’t let on I was enjoying every minute of it.

What impressed me as they argued was the range of topics they were obliged to cover just from that one simple remark. Almost immediately they established that if there was no money there could be no wages, which was fine because then people could volunteer to do jobs they liked and were good at and work would be fun and not a drag, and everything people needed could be made or built or grown that way and then given free to whoever wanted it. (Not a word about the ‘human nature is evil’ myth.) Then someone noted that money and property were the same thing in a way, which must mean that there couldn’t be any such thing as robbery or muggings any more, although you’d still get rapes and murders presumably (what for, I thought, since we’re all having such a good time? but I didn’t push my luck with that one, in case I found out something about my students I’d rather not know).

What the Government Can Do
Someone else (they were all at it now) said he thought the government wouldn’t allow it, but the lad with the attitude replied after some thought that the government could just fuck off couldn’t it, which put it fairly succinctly.

His friend was shaking his head, uncertain about this property business, because if you abolished property, what happened to trade? The reply came that ‘we’ wouldn’t trade with foreigners anyway, because they’d want money and we wouldn’t have any. Some people agreed that Britain could be a self-sufficient propertyless state, but it didn’t seem likely that the world’s millionaires would just sit there and let us steal a whole country off them. They’d only have to bomb the oil-rigs . . . They decided that a moneyless state wouldn’t last a year so it would have to be worldwide or not at all.

They probably would have gone on longer than they did but even sedition stops at lunchtime, and they piled out, having successfully avoided any ‘real work’ that morning. I sat there for a while, thinking. There were a lot of things they’d left out, of course, and a lot more that was confused, but they had the basic socialist case right there. They had worked it out, spontaneously, in less time than it takes me to mark their homework. And they’d done a damn sight better job than on the homework too. Well, it cheered me up no end. I’m not a loony, I thought, my students have just proved it. And they also proved what the Socialist Party always said — the system itself throws up these ideas, whether or not there’s a socialist party around to pester everyone.

Next week, of course, I daresay they will have forgotten they ever had this conversation. But it doesn’t half make me feel better, just the same. If you start getting the idea you and your small organisation are the only game in town, it can be an awfully depressing feeling.

Paddy Shannon