Battle lines have been drawn

It was bound to happen at some point.  While there is no official version of events yet, various statements and media reports suggest that, after months of ongoing, disgusting abuse, teacher Peter Harvey snapped and attacked a pupil, Jack Waterhouse.  What is interesting is the polarisation of reaction to the event.  As now seems customary, rival Facebook groups have been established, with the energetic deletion of dissenting views.

In a few groups, there is great sympathy for Peter Harvey.  This seems to be replicated on the online forums of the Times Educational Supplement, and in the reaction of many current and former pupils of All Saints’ Roman Catholic School, who intend to leaflet the school in support of Harvey at 3.30pm today.

On the other hand, there is outright condemnation to be found where the focus is on Jack Waterhouse.

I don’t wish to get involved in debating the minutiae of an event (or the events that preceded it), except to wish Jack Waterhouse a full recovery, and for the relevant authorities to be humane and merciful in their treatment of Peter Harvey, who by all accounts was a popular teacher pushed to the edge by stress, ill-health and the appalling behaviour of the pupils in his class.

I do wish to focus on what this incident, and the consequent reaction, means for the Left.  The reaction has not polarised in a teachers/adults vs pupils manner.  Rather it seems to be only a sub-group of pupils that is condemning outright Peter Harvey.  Judging by some of the attitudes on display, the view of good teaching is not dedication and the committment and ability to expand horizons and help fulfil potential.  No, “nice teachers dont assault pupils nice teachers hand out sweets and make you watch films insted of work..[sic]”.

It doesn’t do the left any good to pretend that the attitudes of a significant section of the school population stink.  The constant invokation of ‘rights’ and selfish disregard for anyone else (be they other pupils or teachers) is prevalent in many classrooms.  As is the baiting of teachers, who have little real power over pupils.

A few weeks ago, the excellent Left Luggage website drew attention to an interesting document produced by the IWCA.  In it, they analyse the rise, as a consequence of neo-liberalism, of the lumpen element, often described in the bourgeois press as the ‘underclass’.  The IWCA document identifies this group as a “new -and growing- social formation that has willingly embraced a non-work ethic… that is quite separate from, and actively hostile to, the interests and well-being of the working class proper.”

I make no apologies for quoting extensively the following:

“Why this is important politically is that once a lumpen mentality is allowed to take root over a generation or more, a pattern is set seemingly for other socio/ political relationships too. In place of civic pride, community spirit, or basic empathy and solidarity (none of which have any place in their world) there is instead an over-developed sense of individual entitlement combined with a perverse pride in subverting a core socialist tenet: ‘you only take out exactly what you’ve put in’.

It follows that outside of what affects them directly as individuals or maybe immediate family there is a malign indifference. After all what is society to them, or they to society?

All told, the corrupting consequences of the no-work ethic appear to be numerous and hardwired. A knock-on consequence is that many ordinary working class communities become blighted by a not dissimilar contagion…

…Consequently with the arrival of each new generation previously identifiable working class ideals are eroded or displaced, while ‘lumpen’ characteristics typified by a venal and brazen opportunism seem to become ever more pronounced. In some areas it already appears to be the natural condition.”

The lumpen attitude, as identified by the IWCA, of ‘venal and brazen opportunism’ and the decline of working class ideals, is undoubtedly as a result of the atomisation and decline in traditional working class organisations and institutions.  This has in turn led to a decline in the working class values identified in the quote above, to which I would add the spirit of self and collective improvement.  This does seem to have been a significant factor behind the escalation of problems in the classroom over the last 30 years.

I do have some problems with the IWCA’s analysis, which I hope to analyse in more detail in a future post, and I believe the Government’s focus on exam results as the main measurement of the quality of education and consequent policies has also had an incredibly damaging part to play.  But for now, I think the part of the IWCA analysis I have quoted enlightens and informs the debate.

Teachers face rising problems, and schools by themselves do not have the ability to deal with the social conditions breeding them.  They do try to accommodate and deal with them though, a sticking plaster which simply leaves teachers unable to teach as effectively as they would wish and pupils subjected to the selfish, destructive behaviour of some of their peers.

I don’t write this as a middle-aged, middle-class reactionary, but as a young working class man who believes that the left cannot work to emancipate humanity from capitalism if it cannot emancipate itself of blinkers.  The solution to social problems manifesting themselves in classroom problems is not necessarily to call for the expelling or disciplining of pupils (and parents) more difficult.  This is an understandable, but counter-productive response to the realisation that it may not be the ‘fault’ of the individual trouble maker that they are so troublesome, with the fault lying with the vague ‘society’.

The solution is to acknowledge that these problems cannot be dealt with in schools, but only by a fundamental change in society involving a radicalisation of the working class.  There is no solution under capitalism.  What seems most effective is a twin-track approach of building opposition to capitalism while pursuing policies within a classroom or school that ensure that the needs of the majority are not hampered or denied by the behaviour and actions of a minority.

It needs to be acknowledged that workers and their families demand fairness, the cause of which doesn’t seem to be furthered by doing little to sort out problems in the classroom (and the problem’s parents) or be seen to be actively rewarding bad behaviour with trips and one-to-one attention.  Defending this makes the Left look ridiculous, and can only benefit the Right.

The teaching unions should see the unsavoury incident in a classroom in Mansfield as a rallying call to take more militant action to defend teachers, and defend the rights of less troublemaking children to an unhindered education.  The left should see it as a way to make the arguments about why capitalism (particularly of the neoliberal variety) breeds the kind of unacceptable behaviour growing in classrooms and the streets, and why democratic socialism can deal with that.

It is a chance to put clear red water between socialists, with a realistic analysis of social trends and the real solutions to real problems, and liberals who try to deny the problem, or fob off those who want to deal with it.


11 Responses to Battle lines have been drawn

  1. nae what is wider says:

    I totally agree with you about the problems we have in our schools but of course it is a much wider problem starting at home and the way in which children are treated by their parents. The trouble with society now is mainly from the thatcher years is selfishness and out to get what you want regardless of any other.I only hope the answer is out there we know how it can be rectified. If a child isn’t given any worth and respect this is going to follow them through life and they do not respect anyone in school and work. I cant understand people not wanting to learn and understand things in our life and education is there for all of us, but of course if there is no self respect for themselves let alone others why should they let others benefit from this. I only hope we can all stop and think and not be out for ourselves as we are now reaping the consequences of the me my self I Thatcher Years,

    Keep up the good work

    • vengeanceandfashion says:

      Thank you Nae, I agree with you that upbringing is critical, and it is perhaps the children of Thatcher’s children we are now seeing causing trouble in schools. I personally don’t see an answer for this under capitalism, I think the attitudes brought about by the Thatcher years will only be swept away in the radical changes of ideas and attitudes that will come about from a serious challenge to the capitalist system.

  2. Left Luggage says:

    Good post. I have mixed feelings on the IWCA analysis. It certainly makes sense to speak of a “lumpen mentality”, but I’d argue that the values of Thatcherism have taken hold (to an extent) among working class young people generally – not just among the “lumpen”.

    • vengeanceandfashion says:

      Thank you LL. I think the point made in the IWCA analysis was that these lumpen values, which are entirely in accordance with Thatcherism had seeped into the working class, and working class youth in particular. I agree though that Thatcherite ‘values’ are broader than this, and that they do seem to be ingrained amongst large sections of youth.

      I share your mixed feelings on the analysis, though I believe it’s the sort of provocative thinking that is needed. I hope that you are planning to look into it in more depth over at Left Luggage, as I will at some point.

  3. Renegade Eye says:

    I thought you provided a balanced, sensible post.

  4. Straus says:

    I agree with much of what you say about the breakdown of discipline in the classroom. I agree in particular that there has to be more collectivist, and less liberal and individualist approach to the problem. A related one is the rise in the number of lawsuits brought against schools and teachers over injuries suffered by children in the normal rough and tumble of school life. I accept that one of the effects of the policies of the Conservative government of the 1980s was an erosion of social cohesion and the respect for traditional authority, including teachers. However, a more immediate problem in this context is human rights legislation, which every time puts the interests and rights of an individual before the well-being of the group, and the associated culture of entitlement that you rightly identify as part of the problem. This is also at the heart of the no-work ethic, which the ICWA talks about. Members of the so-called underclass have been encouraged to believe that the state owes them a living whether they work or not. By the way, this is not ”hardwired” as the ICWA says. It is simply the result of the perverse incentives offered by the bastardized form of the welfare state that has been allowed to develop in the past three or four decades. This has had just as corrosive an effect on working-class morale and dignity as any of the evils of Thatcherism.

  5. BigDave says:

    I was probably active as a socialist before you were born. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way, quite the opposite. Your ability to separate class issues from bleeding-heart sentimentality is quite refreshing.

    I don’t necessarily agree with what Straus says about Human Rights? What about Peter Harvey’s Human Rights? What about the rights of people who want to change society and are breaking no laws, so go about their business without interference from the state?

    However, what he says about the bastardised form of the welfare state is partly true, mainly due to public services being under-resourced. This has brought about a system where nothing is checked properly, thus rewarding people who wish to lie and cheat their way through their lives. Although this is a drop in the ocean compared to what corporations avoid in tax, it does undermine working class solidarity and a collective fightback. Rebuilding real communities could lead to parents getting together and saying “no you can’t have expensive branded trainers”, thus starting to undermine the something-for-nothing mentality, and at the same time just beginning to loosen the grip of these parasitic firms on our lives.

    But this isn’t going to come from any Government, it’s cheaper for them to be able to hold up their hands in hypocritical horror when incidents like that occur, and blame individuals, be it the child or the teacher. Rebuilding communities and society risks people standing together against the big capitalist corporations. And we can’t have that, now, can we? ….

  6. vengeanceandfashion says:

    Thanks for your comments Straus and BigDave. I would agree with your ideas concerning solutions BigDave.

    I think that collective local administration of any welfare provision would lead to a more effective system that would be seen as fairer, rather than the current remote bureaucratic provision which does seem calculated to undermine working class solidarity as you say.

  7. […] the political wilderness to centre stage. Blogger Vengeance and Fashion took up these issues in an excellent post that furthered this debate. Generalising from the case of teacher Peter Harvey, who was charged […]

  8. […] Vengeance and Fashion has an interesting post about a schoolteacher who was abused by his students and snapped. There are Facebook groups supporting both sides. It is unusual for socialists to write about such a subject so close to home. […]

  9. […] the political wilderness to centre stage. Blogger Vengeance and Fashion took up these issues in an excellent post that furthered this debate. Generalising from the case of teacher Peter Harvey, who was charged […]

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