Putting class back in the classroom #1
Welcome to the first of what will hopefully be a series of articles examining the educational experience of working class pupils and looking at how class and class consciousness could play an important and beneficial role in the classroom, as well as looking at ways to foster a sense of collective class consciousness, identity and pride amongst pupils. In this article, we will be looking at the total lack of positive identifiable role models and the complete whitewashing of their history faced by working class pupils. Having re-read the article, I could probably have broken it into two distinct subjects, ‘erasing working class history and culture in school’ and ‘school as a tool for supressing future civil unrest’. I will explore these two topics separately in future articles, but for now, closely related as they are, we can look at them together.
It is worth pointing out from the off that I don’t use the word ‘underachievement’ to place any blame or shame on pupils. Nor do I feel that in many respects they have underachieved. I use the term to highlight lack of engagement and academic success within the education system.
Where are our working class heroes?
When I was completing my teacher training, I was asked to complete an academic essay on a subject of my choosing. Influenced both by my anarchist politics and the predominantly white, overwhelmingly working class student body of my placement school, I chose the subject ‘underachievement in white, working class boys’. I chose to include race and gender for several reasons, needless to say, none of them racist. Firstly, from an academic point of view, white working class boys have consistently represented the numerically largest group of ‘underachievers’ in the education system and this is something that needs to be addressed. In another sense, I was playing into the hands of those who wish to boil underachievement down to a race issue. Ultimately, I view educational underachievement as a class, rather than a racial issue, but felt that there were some reasons that justified me focussing on race. At the time I felt that, by highlighting education issues within the white working class specifically, I was doing my bit towards blowing apart the myth that underachievement was a racial, rather than a class based issue.
Looking back, while I don’t think there’s anything inherently racist or wrong in highlighting and questioning underachievement in a certain racial or cultural group, I would have framed the issue in an entirely class, rather than race basis. For example, when you look at the latest statistics highlighting ‘underachieving’ groups in the education system, what unites the disparate skin colours, ethnicities, races and religions is an overwhelmingly working, or economically deprived background.
The questions, whether famed as one of white working class underachievement, or working class underachievement more generally have to be ‘why?’ and ‘what can we do about it?’ This article will explore what I believe are some of the first steps towards allowing working class pupils to engage with the education system and the steps teachers can take to encourage this engagement, which the education system currently throws up barrier after barrier to.
There are literally dozens of legitimate reasons why many working class kids don’t ‘succeed’ in education, from the middle/upper class academic expectations foisted on them to the way they are encouraged to learn, the archaic, unexplained and unexplainable rules forced on them and more. In fact, the whole education (then work) system is stacked against working class pupils from the beginning. I’m not deliberately ignoring these important factors, and will hopefully return to them in later articles, but the focus of this piece will be on the complete whitewash of working class consciousness, history, achievements and culture enforced by the education system.
I’m going to open with a quote from working class teacher and lecturer Phil Beadle. While the quote frames the debate in terms of race, rather than class, we can apply it to class. Phil says
‘I’ve sat through whole rafts of assemblies on Nelson Mandela, Rosa parks and Jesse Owens (My experience has been that Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi receive more prominent attention than the previous two), and yet the only white person mentioned was Adolf Hitler.’
While Beadle may be wrong in drawing a racial conclusion, the quote does highlight a more general class problem with both the history curriculum and the education system’s draw full of ‘acceptable’ freedom fighters. What Beadle is correct in saying, is that the struggles of the figures mentioned above are far away, not directly relevant or immitatable, and have been systematically bastardised and re-written to write out important events and contexts to make them bland, single issue, feel good stories, devoid of the class tensions and militant actions that formed a large part of the realities of these struggles.
To illustrate my point, we will focus on Martin Luther King Jr, a man who has been used as convenient figurehead when re-writing and falsely representing periods in history. The school system, and the system generally, would have you believe that king won a battle for equality by peaceful, democratic means. The message? ‘Sensible’ protest and the occasional peaceful direct action can get you what you want. This line, that is forced on the kids dozens of times throughout their education is a deliberate sanitization of a history of militant class struggle, designed to institutionalise the kids into playing a passive part in the society they are being trained to enter, and to make sure that their dissent, should they enter into it is ultimately ineffectual and based on the false blueprint of dissent as portrayed in history class.
In the case of the American Civil Rights movement, this distortion takes several forms. Firstly – while I’m not uncritical of Dr King – it is important to remember that class was an important issue for him and the movement to which he belonged, up there with race. As well as advocating for equal rights for black people, he attended numerous rallies, picket lines and protests to support striking workers of all colours and was an advocate of unionization. A number of the marches he attended were ‘poor peoples marches’, protesting economic injustice along class, not race lines. To present the struggle in which King was engaged as solely a race issue is incorrect. The civil rights movement also sat in a context of class solidarity, in which radical and progressive members of the working class were advocating for equal treatment for black people as a part of the wider class struggle. While King himself was never a member of the Communist Party, close enough ties, along with other action mentioned above, exist to demonstrate that, for King, equality was a class, as well as a racial issue.
The fact that radical groups such as the Communist party and the revolutionary IWW union had long been preaching (and practicing) and end to the racially segregated working class, and a unity of all workers to advance their collective class interests, and the support with which huge sections of the black community greeted these ideas is testament to the fact that the civil rights movement, from the start, transcended single issue race politics.
The second lie peddled to the kids is that King and his non-violent followers were the sole movement responsible for the partial victories of the civil rights movement. This is incorrect. Since the end of the American Civil War, groups of black southerners and their allies had been arming themselves in organised groups to resist Jim Crow violence. Martin Luther king himself, argued only for the strategic, not moral benefits of the non-violence adopted by parts of the movement. Indeed, King’s non-violent marches were often defended by armed militants, such as Robert F Williams, a black Korean war veteran, who organised the Monroe Country NAACP, with open ties to the Communist party and other radicals as an armed resistance group. Williams’ NAACP chapter hit the headlines in 1957 as they opened fire on a KKK rally heading towards a black neighbourhood. Williams went on to write a hugely influential book, ‘Negroes with guns’ that played a large part in the tactics employed by thousands of mainly young blacks and allies across the country. Like King himself, Williams refused to rule out any one tactic, himself participating in and organising numerous sit-ins and boycotts. At his 1966 funeral, that other paragon of non-violent protest, Rosa Parks, hailed his courage, commitment and contribution to the cause.
In the early 1960s, finding that non-violent protest in Louisiana won them little but bruises and lynchings, local black people formed a semi-underground armed resistance – the Deacons of Defence and justice. The Deacons, helped by their reputation for self-defence by any means, soon had semi-clandestine chapters in dozens of southern towns and cities and even as far north as Illinois. The Deacons were instrumental in providing armed security for many non-violent civil rights events, such as the 1966 ‘March Against Fear’ through Mississippi and were one of the first groups to begin using the slogan ‘Black power’. As with the Monroe County NAACP, the deacons were supportive of the efforts of their non-violent comrades and were relied upon by them to counter the police and white-supremacist violence that dogged the civil rights movement. There are literally dozens more examples that highlight a diversity and acceptance of violent as well as non-violent struggle within the Civil Rights movement, but as this isn’t a history lesson, the above examples will do for now!
These examples, two amongst hundreds, should be seen as clear evidence that the civil rights movement was not non-violent. While this tactic was sometimes employed for propaganda purposes, the movement always embraced a number of tactics including armed resistance and the frequent and militant race riots that saw numerous Southern cities and towns engulfed in flames through the 1950s and 1960s. What is also evident is that the non-violent figureheads of the movement at least occasionally actively worked with and supported the efforts of these militants, a respect that was returned. In fact, far from being disparate groups, pursuing separate goals and strategies, the evidence points to a tactically and racially diverse civil rights movement that, in response to varying contexts, conditions and threats, embraced both violent and non-violent tactics.
So, when we look black at the history of the civil rights era, we see a diverse group with many figureheads, of which King was only one, employing a range of tactics to achieve a series of goals, many of which had their roots in class, as well as race interest. Why then is the school system so desperate to present a different version of history which shows King, the sole leader of the movement, fighting an entirely non-violent campaign based on the single issue of racial equality? And why have we become institutionally fixated on presenting the watered down and revised histories of far-away movements as our primary examples to the kids of dissent and active citizenship? There are several reasons –
If you’ll indulge me for a second, I’m going to put on my Marxist hat (it doesn’t get worn often) and point out that the primary function of the education system is to prepare pupils to accept their role in society as it currently operates. The purpose of the education system isn’t to breed a generation who wish to questions and shake the very foundations of society, it is to churn out the next generation of workers, leaders, sportsmen or whatever. Sure, pupils are told it’s OK to protest, but only in ways that will have minimal results and only against the worst excesses of racism or injustice. Presenting the civil rights struggle as a solely racial, and entirely non-violent fight seeks to ensure that any dissent entered into by the pupils will be ‘responsible’ (e.g ineffective, capable only of modest reform, and targeted only at single issues). Why else would the school system be so hell bent on distorting history and presenting that bastardised lie to the kids as fact. The reality of the civil rights (and Indian independence etc etc) movement is that militant actions played a key and accepted role in winning its partial victories. An honest school system would take one of two routes – One; Refuse to teach the history of the civil rights movement on the moral basis that the school leader considers violence a morally bankrupt way to change society, or two; teach the history of the movement warts and all, giving the kids an accurate account of the struggle as one which included liberal use of violence both as a defensive and offensive tactic, and one that was waged over economic and material (class) interests as well as race. This will of course never happen, as the system that the schools represent does not want the pupils learning the tools that are necessary to truly oppose and defeat injustice and oppression. This is obviously not the pattern of thought in the head of every teacher who delivers an inaccurate history of the civil rights movement. Most teachers have been as indoctrinated as the pupils into accepting the revised account of our most popular protest myths, while others, hoping to inspire the kids to some kind of action, teach a ‘clean’ version of the history to make it seem nice and accessible, or so as not to get in trouble themselves.
For the state at least, the other beauty of the American Civil rights struggle is that is happened far away, long ago in a place and time that the vast majority of pupils will be unable to relate to or emulate. Also, the problems been solved now, right? Presenting the struggle as a complete victory, sanctioned and approved by an eventually benevolent state peddles the idea that the pupils needn’t take up the fight – it’s already been won. Not only has it already been won, but it’s been waged in a time and place that give the kids no direct lineage to the struggle. The state is no longer racist, right? Segregation, racial or economic no longer exists, right? The cops treat ethnic minority youths respectfully now, right? Don’t worry, it’s all fine now that King and his non-violent supporters sorted it all out for us! While these issues are still very much a part of BME and working class life, they are contrasted against the brutality of 1950s and 60s America to present an appealing, yet mostly incorrect picture of us as more evolved, civil society, in which the problems faced are no longer the huge problem they once were. All in all, the version of the civil rights movement presented to our kids may be interesting, it may even be inspirational, but emulatable, or relatable, it ain’t.
This brings us to the next point – the terror within the education system of making the pupils aware of their collective class identity or history. The fact that pupils learn about far away struggles, with the class element removed ensures that they don’t connect any of the oppression faced by the movement in question with their own, very real and in many ways similar oppression. The history of struggle, as presented by the school system is presented in such a way that it could never be applied to the life of a working class British Kid.
While I’m not a massive fan of the bloke, I’ve argued in my school that we should teach the history of the miners’ strike and Scargill, (as one obvious example of a movement of and for the defence of an oppressed British group) but there are, of course, many reasons why this history would not be accepted in its true form, despite the many genuine parallels between the struggle of the miners with any other historical struggle against oppression and injustice. Firstly, it highlights recent, class based oppression and resistance in this country – and god forbid that one of the kids makes the connection between the oppression faced by the miners with his dad’s latest round of redundancies at the factory, or mums latest humiliation and benefit reduction in the dole queue. Secondly, while many people support the miners, they used direct action, some of it violent against police, scabs and employers. This muddies the comfortable ‘good protestors are always non-violent’ discourse encouraged within the school system. Thirdly, it gives a clear insight into the oppressive nature of the state and employers in this country in recent memory. To encourage the kids to learn impartially about the miners strikes, or to hold up its key figures as fighters against tyranny is to provide the kids with a direct insight into the bloody knuckled class war that was, and still is, being fought in their own country, by people who look and act like them against very similar oppressors (police, politicians, bosses, bailiffs) faced by them and their parents. To create a comfortable distance between the struggle being taught about and the kids it is being taught to ensures they won’t go getting any funny ideas about challenging, or even articulating a recognition of the structures that oppress them. Even if they do, creating a purposefully distorted image of the way in which these far off struggles were fought will ensure that the next generation of workers are not armed with the powerful tool that is their collective history of struggle, or a knowledge of the tactics that ensured the partial success of previous struggles.
At this point, I’m sure some will be preparing to level the argument that teaching the kids an unashamedly pro-worker history of the miners’ strike constitutes little more than propaganda. Maybe, but surely less propagandistic than teaching the hugely distorted history of the civil rights or Indian independence movements in which history has literally been re-written to suit the agenda of the ruling elites. In fact, all history is propaganda and none more so than the current school curriculum in which working class kids are routinely taught of the great and important deeds of kings, queens, lords and ladies, while their own history is trivialised to voyeuristically peeking into the hovels and workhouses, with scant attention paid to the momentous achievements of working class individuals, or the organised working class as a whole. The version of history crammed down the kids throats reinforces the logic of the society in which they live. The powerful make the decisions, while the poor grovel in the dirt, passive objects, rather than active participants in the shaping of society. Even on the odd occasion when a group such as the Chartists are mentioned in a history class, the same rose tinted glasses applied to the civil rights struggle are shoved on the kids faces. We see groups of workers (or more often individuals working on their behalf) handing in petitions and producing pamphlets, which benevolent leaders eventually accept – democracy working as we are taught it does. No attention is paid the physical force chartists, the machine breakers, the workers militias, the arsonist suffragettes (although we are free to learn about the one who peacefully rolled under the hooves of the kings horse) and the many similar groups who forced the issue of class and sectional oppression into the limelight. The history of society has been the history of class struggle, yet to flip through a school history text book, you could be mistaken for thinking that every important reform or decision has been made by a lord or king of their own accord, with the docile working class making an occasional cameo. Even where this history is covered, it is covered as a stand-alone event, rather than viewed as part of a lineage of struggle that began with (or before) the industrial revolution and continues with the kids in the classroom as an integral part. The rich fabric of working class life, struggle and culture has been cleansed from the curriculum, precisely because of a contemporary political agenda that seeks, the dismantling of the class to which the majority of students belong and the separation of them from their collective history and identity.
So, we have seen that working class history, especially British working class history is largely ignored in the modern curriculum. Where it does make a brief appearance, ‘suitable’ episodes, or figureheads from the era are usually cherry-picked to present a distorted reality of the historical situation. But is the total lack of identifiable and relatable historical working class heroes and momentous events a bad thing, other than the obvious inaccuracies that occur through such a distorted curriculum? I would argue ‘yes’ for several reasons revolving around the fact that, as well as acting as a barrier to future dissent and collective identity from within the working class, the distortion and ignoring of genuine working class history fits into a wider general pattern of ignoring and belittling working class pupils and values within the education system.
A working class pupil, even surrounded by other working class pupils finds themselves in a foreign territory when entering a school. In keeping with the class make-up of many teachers, and all of those who actually control the education system, the moral, social and academic code is overwhelmingly middle class. Kids are increasingly made to feel like failures for not aspiring to academic professions or further education. A Victorian code of behaviour is upheld for the sake of it and a kid who has had bad experiences with the police, a bailiff or an employer of a parent is labelled naughty for their feelings and silenced when making criticisms and observations about perceived or actual oppressive institutions – even when these observations are based on nothing more than the life experience of the pupil (Police visiting my school gloat about deliberately responding slowly to calls on our estate and are well known for stopping young people almost at random, yet school still preaches a state of reverence towards them that does not match with the lived experience of a sizeable group of pupils). My academy is twinned with a prestigious private school, to which our kids are periodically bussed as part of an ‘aspiration raising’ exercise. What must the kids take from all this? That they should aspire to be something that they cannot be, and less, have very little interest in being and that failure to adhere to a middle class standard of academic achievement, behaviour and aspirations necessarily makes you a failure. This is just one example among many – some conscious, other not so – of working class kids being taught to gaze upwards in slack jawed awe at the superiority of their ‘social betters’ rather than celebrating heir own collective power, historic and potential achievements. What is lacking from the education system is the message that it is OK to be working class, to stay on your estate, to work a normal job, to hold normal aspirations, provided you are a socially and emotionally well rounded human. The fervour with which the education system pushes kids to ‘escape’ their estates, coupled with a complete whitewash of any history, recent or otherwise that might give the kids pride in their place in society, or their collective history must leave many feeling worthless – as if their current status, that of those around them and that of their ancestors is something to be ashamed of, rather than celebrated. We periodically have motivational speakers at our school. They are often from privileged backgrounds, including one private school girl, who confidently told the kids that all they needed in order to replicate her record breaking rowing attempt was determination! The faces of the kids, and the conversations held afterwards showed that the kids perceived this as little more than a demoralising lie. Again, a figure with considerable economic and social advantages over the kids was haranguing them to achieve something that she had only been able to achieve through the fluke of her birth into privilege. How the kids were to finance the years and years of solid training, the expensive equipment and the travelling to appropriate locations for the challenge was the elephant in the room. Yet still, despite the economic barriers that make her achievement a near impossibility for working class kids, they are still taught to view it as what they should be aspiring towards – the sort of thing that makes a person ‘great’. On occasion, the motivational speakers have been from a working class background. Certainly the kids relate to these figures more than the posh speakers – after all, the working class speakers are able to talk of their previous life on the estate, getting in trouble with the police, lack of engagement in the education system and other stories the kids will relate to. However, what the speakers have in common is that, if they were ever there in the first place, they have escaped the estate. Why are they inspirational figures? Not just because of their feats of intelligence or athleticism, but because they are now rich – far away from the estate. They, along with the other speakers are happy to peddle the statistical lie that ‘work hard and it will be you’. Without detracting from the achievements of these figures, I wonder how many kids leave the talks with the notion (already heavily pushed on them by school in general) that success equates to leaving the estate behind. To leave school and find yourself still on the estate, after being told so often, in subtle and less subtle ways that you should aspire to leave must be a demoralising experience that does little but reinforce the young person’s view of themselves as being powerless, and at the bottom of society. Just once, it would be great for the inspirational speaker to be someone from the estate. The older sister, parent, carer, community volunteer – a chance for the kids to celebrate the million worthwhile things ordinary people spend their whole lives doing without getting rich for it, or only being able to do it due to being posh in the first place.
So, when we look at the whitewashing, re-writing and ignoring of relatable working class history in the context of a wider assault by the education system on the ideals, culture and values of many working class children, the effect is one of huge demoralisation and disengagement from the majority of pupils. This is obviously problematic in the here and now, but also stores up all manner of problems for the child as they enter adulthood, remembering the lessons of school – only reinforced by the world of work and unemployment – that their interests, history, culture and values are things to be ashamed of or, more likely, totally ignored and what makes a truly great person is for the majority of them, unachievable.
So, what can we do about it? There are answers, which although fairly simple will meet inevitable barriers thrown up by an education system hell bent on teaching a sanitized, ‘responsible’ history. To ask how to engage working class pupils with the education system is asking the wrong question, with the wrong emphasis. The question we should be asking, which a class biased education system, a desperation to cling to the status-quo and middle class assumptions of superiority have prevented being asked in any meaningful way is ‘what can the education system do to engage with working class pupils?’ In future articles, I hope to explore different aspects of this question in greater depth, but for now, we will look at how the history we teach our children could go a long way towards empowering and engaging working class pupils.
The exact answer to engaging working class pupils through history will vary from school to school, depending on local circumstances, but in general terms, the kids would benefit from learning their own history – the swing rioters, the events leading to Peterloo, the bloody war waged for emancipation by slaves and their allies, the ‘poaching wars’, resistance to land enclosure, the army and naval mutinies of WW1, the mass squatting of army bases by disaffected servicemen after WW2, the international brigades, Cable street, the 43 group – the list goes on. But the kids should not just be learning about momentous moments of struggle and achievement, they should be learning about all aspects of their history in a meaningful, sensitive way. Not just the poverty, but the culture, the solidarity, the songs, poems, folklore – everything that allows the pupils to see their class ancestors as living, breathing, interesting and empowered people. Such a curriculum would require a massive effort on the part of interested teachers, and would probably require the teaching profession being more open to working class people, but it is possible. Below is one small example from my school.
Down the road from my school is the estates cemetery. All the kids know it, and most of them will have been there to visit various deceased relatives. Tucked away in that cemetery is a small stone commemorating a young man who left the estate in 1936 to fight for Spain, where he was mortally wounded. After speaking with the international brigadiers distant relatives, we managed to cobble together enough information to put together a scheme of work on his life and achievements. What captivated the kids along with his heroic deeds was the fact that his life was so much like the one lived by their parents in the modern age. He was totally relatable, having worked a number of factory and manual jobs before getting laid off from the railway works (now replaced by various car manufacturing plants) when he qualified as a machinist so the company could avoid paying him a qualified workers wage. He walked the same streets as them, lived near them – I’m sure they imagined he had the same interests, friendships groups etc. as them- yet still, he went on to be an undeniable hero. After a couple of weeks research, using resources created by me and others based on what the International Brigadiers family had told us, the kids wrote a project about him, and it much of it was really heartfelt, showing a true affection for the man they were writing about.
Of course, in a history curriculum dominated by Kings, Queens and other powerful celebrities, the kids didn’t walk out of the session ready to collectively advance their class interests, but they did enjoy and benefit from the experience of studying a relatable character and even took a little bit of pride in knowing that someone from their way did such a selfless and brave thing. The experience convinced me that a working class history curriculum full of similar experiences, obviously with a focus on national and international history as well as local would be capable of providing a genuine boost to the kids – in terms of engagement not only with the curriculum, but also with their class history and pride.
Being taught a politically biased History is only one of the many problems facing working class pupils in the education system. As we have seen, and will explore in more detail in future articles, working class pupils find in education a structure that is weighed heavily against them in many respects. While teaching a history that acknowledges the contributions and achievements of working class people is only a small step towards creating an inclusive and empowering educational experience for working class kids, it is an important one. To quote Rage Against the Machine (or George Orwell, whatever) ‘Who controls the past controls the future’, and it’s about time that working class kids were given some control over history – their own collective past as a step towards preparing them to control their own future.