Thursday, 28 June 2012

Time the 'scum' rose to the top

Tories and other reactionaries often speak of attempts to get working-class students into education as 'social engineering' (private schooling, the imposition of £9000 fees and the panoply of elitist-friendly education policies apparently aren't 'social engineering')

Let's remind ourselves of the first time a decent education was made available to some lower-middle and working-class children. From them came the 'Angry Young Men': Wain, Braine, Kingsley Amis, Osborne and friends.

Stephen Spender:
a rebellion of the Lower Middle Brows
Evelyn Waugh:
the new wave of philistinism… grim young people… coming off the assembly lines.
Somerset Maugham on grant-funded students:
They have no manners and are woefully unable to deal with any social predicament… They are scum.

In contrast, here's what Jimmy has to say about his posh wife's brother in Look Back in Anger. Remind you of a certain Conservative/Liberal cabinet?
He'll end up in the Cabinet one day, make no mistake. But somewhere at the back of his mind is the vague knowledge that he and his pals have been plundering and fooling everybody for generations. Now Nigel is just about as vague as you can get without actually being invisible. And invisible politicians aren't much use to anyone - not even to his supporters! And nothing is more vague about Nigel than his knowledge. His knowledge of life and ordinary human beings is so hazy, he really deserves some sort of decoration for it - a medal inscribed "For Vaguery in the field". But it wouldn't do for him to be troubled by any stabs of conscience, however vague. Besides, he is a patriot and an Englishman, and he doesn't like the idea that he may have been selling out his countrymen all these years, so what does he do? The only thing he can do - seek sanctuary in his own stupidity. The only way to keep things as much like they have always been as possible, is to make any alternative too much for our tiny, poor brain to grasp. It takes some doing nowadays. It really does. But they knew all about character building at Nigel's school, and he'll make it all right. Don't you worry, he'll make it. And, what's more, he'll do it better than anybody else! 
The Hegemon, for all its faults, exists to provide a high standard of education to local students, working-class students and those who for one reason or another have slipped through the educational net. We believe that education is liberation. It's a hard task sometimes: I tell my students about their Oxbridge colleagues, swimming in resources, encouraged to believe that they will be the masters of the universe in business, the arts, politics, science and economics, and working as hard as possible to make sure of it. Here's how Room at the Top's Joe Lampton sees the élite universities: not as centres of academic excellence (which they now are, at least in certain fields), but as machines for maintaining social hegemony:

I had a mental picture of port wine, boating, leisurely discussions over long tables gleaming with silver and cut glass. And over it all the atmosphere of power, power speaking impeccable Standard English, power which was power because it was born of the right family, always knew the right people: if you were going to run the country you couldn’t do without a University education

My students, in large classes, working long hours to sustain themselves and their families, struggling to find the time and money, face huge odds - but it's worth it. They are probably lower down the social scale than the 'scum' Maugham fears so much.  They probably can't tell an Oloroso from a fino, nor what to do with a runcible spoon. Their parents do not figure in Who's Who, live on Consols nor summer (a verb only in upper-class lingo) in Cannes - but it's time they ran the country rather than an Establishment which goes to the same schools, studies PPE in the same two universities and then moves seamlessly into the commanding heights of our society (and then cheats and lies). That's why I'm a teacher, that's why I'm a socialist.

This doesn't mean feather-bedding or dumbing-down. We need to push them to achieve, and inculcate the determination required. It works: the best English students this year gained stunning First class degrees while working and looking after children. We need to have high and demanding expectations of our students: recognise their disadvantages while refusing to accept a 'will this do' attitude. Not all of them will be judges, politicians or CEOs - but they can all decide to use their talents for social good, and that takes application. What's hard is inculcating the passion required. We've got some interesting plans in hand (some dreamed up in the Volebrain) to kickstart enthusiasm and a sense of belonging to an intellectual community. Watch this space.

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