Battle lines have been drawn

July 10, 2009

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.