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Notes from Nowhere

I think I was 14. It was an English lesson, as I recall. And the words were delivered with the hint of a smirk.

‘Well of course, the Sun has a reading age of eight.’

Innocuous enough. And I didn’t know if it was true, nor much care. The truth was less important than the implication, to be honest, veracity less important than meaning. I knew what was going on, what was really being said: ‘here are people who are not like us, we clever ones, we sophisticated ones, we who can see through the ruse to the ignorance of folk. We, children, know better, are better.’

I wanted to be part of the in-group. I wanted to have real status and authority, too. To be like you, Sir, all knowledgeable and self-assured and authoritative. I didn’t want to be one of Them, so subtly scorned with a barbed comment and the raise of an eyebrow. So it seeped in. It became true. Those stupid Sun readers – thickos, bigots all.

Only, my Dad was a Sun reader. And many of my family. And most of the folk on the council estate where I grew up. I knew this because I delivered their morning papers seven days a week. And it was nearly always the Sun, occasionally the Star, the odd Daily Mirror. Except on Sundays, when it was usually the News of the World, and occasionally the Sunday People.

I was, to use an unfashionable term, something of a ‘chav’ at school, though I can chart a change in self-image from around this time onward, from Kappa and Ellesse to Officers’ Club and a whole different section of the Littlewoods catalogue. Perhaps this was just normal teenage rebellion. Either way, I had decided that I wanted something different, that I was cut from different cloth, that the world held better in store for me than it did for those whose love and support had brought me to this point. I distinctly remember being in a GCSE class, reading aloud Heaney’s Follower, a poem superficially about a boy helping his father with jobs around the farm, and the words of the final stanza hitting like thunder – ‘I was a nuisance, tripping, falling/Yapping always. But today/It is my father who keeps stumbling/Behind me, and will not go away.’

My father, no academic but a bloody good soldier, and in many ways our salvation (I need not go into details), with all his coarse dependability, became an awkward moment, to be transcended, to be left behind.

Or when I graduated from my degree course. My gramps, an Irishman who came looking for work in the chemical factories in the North East before finding work driving wagons and settling in Stockton, proud enough of my achievement that he had tears in his eyes. I’ll never forget the hug he gave me. It might have even been my first, aged 22 – you didn’t really do that kind of thing in the Merrick family.

The whole tribe came up to Lancaster, and we went for a meal in a little village called Heysham, which was awkward to get to but classier than the Brewers’ Fayre some had suggested and enabled me to show that I was now a bit more upmarket than that. Whilst we were waiting, Gramps and I went for a stroll, settling just along from a rock with graves carved into it, looking out over the sands of Morecambe Bay. I was in heaven. I’ve always idolised my Gramps – he was different, from somewhere else, with stories to tell. And so when we talked, and he began to give his sage advice, I lapped it up. And then he said, without hint of humour or irony, ‘Michael, you’re a bright boy – have you ever thought about running a pub?’ As my memory tells it, I guffawed, and assured him I had my sights set on greater things. He fell quiet and, after five minutes or so looking out to sea, we made our way back for the meal.

His Dad, it turns out, my great-grandad, ran a pub. In Dublin. And his Dad, my great-grandad, was a great man, a source of pride.

I had just guffawed.

Or with my other Grandad, a bluff Yorkshireman from Wakefield who drove wagons his whole life. We sat in his front room, a three-bedroomed former council house in Pendlebury, Salford. He enjoyed films, did my Grandad. And so when I asked, he started telling me about the ones he liked best. Pretty soon I launched into a monologue about my favourites, all of them foreign language films, airily pronouncing on their artistic qualities, the more obscure and niche the better; Satantango, Russian Ark, Yojimbo, Roma città aperta, Dekalog. I asked him if he’d seen them, and when he said he hadn’t I suggested he lend them (I’d just been to the Trafford Centre and bought a load from HMV), and was mystified when he said no. In the end, with a smile, he gently assured me ‘I’m not into all that,’ and gazed back at the television screen, flicking through what was on and settling for CSI Miami.

I don’t know if these were my favourite films. Maybe they were at the time, though to be honest I doubt it. Looking back, this was about status. Me, the smart-arse, the graduate, the one who went to university, lording it over my Grandad, in his own sitting room. I asked my Dad about this other day, suggesting I was perhaps unbearable after university. He smiled, a sympathetic, loving smile: ‘well, sometimes maybe.’

I had been the first to go to university in my family, on both sides, save for my grandmother’s brother, an outlier whose name was spoken in hushed tones, and whom I had never met because like all clever people he had moved away and was different from us now. And I thought that could be me. It came with a fight – I had had to quit professional football to go to university, much to the incomprehension of various family members, especially when it became clear I was studying Theology (‘do you want to be a priest or what?). In the end, I think I enjoyed the mystique. I was being just like my ‘uncle’ Tony.

And yet, for all I was quietly rejecting them, they never rejected me. I was one of them, even if I increasingly gave the impression of not wanting to be. I was ‘our Mike’, and forever would be. And as time has gone by, I realise how intensely proud I am of them, and of the great fortune it is to have been raised as a working-class kid, as one of them. This background was not an obstacle to be overcome, which is what arguments for social mobility nearly always collapse into, but a fertile soil in which to plant the seeds of future success. It is only with passing years, and the challenges that come with raising your own children, that such issues find a way back to the now, to be chewed over and answered once again, ugly truths and all.

All of this might, of course, hold no greater lesson than my own deficiencies as a human being. I’m happy to acknowledge I have plenty of them. And maybe this post would have been more accurately entitled ‘Gentle Regrets’ or ‘Confessions of an Arrogant Fool.’ But if this is the case, I suspect I share the platform with plenty of others. And this whole thought process was kicked off by the following series of tweets, by Mike Tyler, tweets that resonated with me.

See, that was me. I was those graduates. Much to my shame, I thought that was the character of being educated. And maybe, at times, I still do. Blood is thicker than water, but professional and social respectability is a powerful confounding variable. My own kids have a different childhood from the one I had –so am I rejecting it, or building on it? I can’t honestly say I know the answer to that question. And when you dwell on that loss of identity, of simple surety, it can cut deep. When others tread all over it, it stings.

 

Neither Here nor There

It is a long established truth that graduates tend to be much more liberal than their non-graduate compatriots. Indeed, since the referendum, plenty on the Remain have been quick to point out the education gap between Leave voters and themselves. The observation is innocent enough, though it too often contains all the smirk and subtext of that teacher from my youth.

Thus the graduate professions take on a particular character, with norms of outlook, of worldview, indeed of morality. The moral compass of the liberal outlook is distinct from the conservative, and these things split broadly over class, which correlates with level of education; these tribes value different things, draw lines in different places. But when the deck is stacked so heavily toward one over the other, the chances of any effort to comprehend the difference diminish whilst self-certainty proliferates. And liberals, contrary to assumption, tend to be as intolerant as conservatives, who have a broader moral outlook, though less understanding of the conservative viewpoint than the other way round. In a profession which is graduate dominated, and with graduate-level education so tightly correlated with liberal outlook, so we might see the roots of an important disconnect. Conformity to the norms of the in-group becomes the mark of the sophisticated, the cultured, the educated. And transgression comes at a cost.

As such, if you arrive from a working-class background shaped by these subversive norms, the graduate professions are not always a comfortable place to be. You must grow accustomed to the objects of derision and mockery being people like your family, those you grew up with, those you know and love. Whilst the derision might be delivered in the abstract – against a general viewpoint or unidentified Other – the barbs are felt personally. The word bigot, or any of its linguistic manifestations, is chucked about casually, but it hits specific targets, especially when it addresses a common viewpoint amongst those who comprise your upbringing. Those ‘xenophobes’ and ‘racists’ who voted Leave, for example, are not disembodied, theoretical people, but those who you know to be nothing of the sort, such as grandparents, who were always so loving and kind, and parents, who have lived a life of service to others, friends, who are decent and hardworking, the folks who live next door, the lady who you see at Church each week, the priest who baptised your kids. It becomes personal, and it jars.

But with public affirmation of in-group norms comes prestige –  in the echo chamber of social media, there is status to be acquired through the sassy, the rude, the downright spiteful to working-class folk with more conservative views, on immigration, perhaps, or crime, or Brexit. An army of followers giddily RT and ‘Like’ such comments, as if their articulacy were evidence of their truth and justification for their prejudice. Thus the motes are plucked out whilst the beams remain – the cultured despisers find in their intellectual superiority a justification of their presumed existential superiority, too.

They say in comedy that you should never punch down because it makes you look a bully, though this does not seem to be a moderating influence when there is a witty observation to be delivered highlighting deficiencies of the ‘deplorables.’ I remember attending a Diversity course as a GTP trainee, delivered through a series of dramas and roleplays. It was a good day and I learned plenty, particularly about the importance and power of language – something I grappled with here – though it was noticeable that each time a bigot was portrayed in a drama, they had a strong regional accent and performed a manual trade, with uniform and props to match. When I asked about the apparent incongruity I was told, in a stuttering response, that this simply reflected real life. Prejudice, indeed.

There is nothing particularly new in this, and since most culture-forming and socially prestigious professions are graduate dominated, so the outlooks and assumptions are reflected back and reinforced, presenting a wall of affirmation through which any dissent is proof that someone is Not Like Us, and thus wrong. And from this, the belief that it is a duty to help future generations avoid such a fate, and become more Like Us, and thus right.

In our schools, this has real consequences – as I have explored here and here – creating a representation vacuum as a class of Anywheres seek to educate a generation of Somewheres, Pioneers against Settlers, with the former holding all the power and believing professional success consists in educating the latter out of the values and culture of their upbringing. Pupils from a socially conservative background, which often (not always) overlaps with a working-class (or religious) background, will at times find themselves at odds with the ethical and moral paradigms of those who educate them, a culture chasm always framed as simply a matter of education (or the absence of it). And so the cycle starts over, an abiding tension between home and school, since in this case to be educated is to leave behind what you hear and are taught at home.

But some do choose home. Not because of a lack of learning but because of a refusal to shed heritage and home as the participation fee. If we want to talk about why working-class kids are alienated from education, we could do worse than start a conversation there. That those who agitate so fiercely for social justice, and write and speak so piously about the disenfranchisement of the working class, should choose to studiously ignore this particular deficit, and indeed locate their own virtue in the perpetuation of it, tells us a lot about the intractability of the culture clash we accommodate.

Of course, it follows that the same is true with teachers, though perhaps more acutely, since the heresies of those within are more serious than the ignorance of those without – the latter is tragedy, the former is malice. During Brexit, half a dozen teachers confessed to me that they voted Leave, all by DM, and all saying they did not dare say so publicly. To date, I’m only aware of one having since revealed their vote. And yesterday, in response to a question about one thing that Twitter had changed your mind on, one person DMed and said abortion, but they could never admit this publicly.

I’m not sure such conformism can be described as an evident good, nor the surest sign of a good education. The current creation myth of the teaching profession is one of a virtuous battle against intolerance, bigotry and demonization of the Other – yet those who pursue such accounts of virtue do not always realise, or do not care, that these are precisely the sins they commit in the eyes of those on the receiving end of their evangelism.

And yet… it is more complex than a simple to-and-fro between two competing accounts of the good life, a power play with only one plausible winner. Neither side are entirely wrong, even if heart battles fiercely with head in trying to work out the worst of the two. If you join the affray from a working-class background, you inevitably have a foot in both camps. One may get defensive when those whom you know and love are targets of censure, but you also carry the knowledge that, in some sense, you also chose to leave this tribe behind. And, uncomfortable as it might be, one can also see the validity of some of the analysis, even if its descent into moral judgement and lack of charity becomes sufficient motivation for fighting it. Some might call this contrarianism, but maybe it is something more primal than that. We often see the faults in those we love, but we naturally get defensive if somebody from the outside decides to make it an object of their own crusade. Maybe the same applies here.

Needless to say, this high-minded detachment does not solve the feeling of disconnect. For a working-class kid in a graduate profession, having a foot in both camps mean not really belonging in either, an outsider to each, wishing it did not have to be either-or but finding it difficult to see how it might be otherwise. The norms of one are the enemy of the other. One might mourn the perceived conflict of heritage or professional flourishing, but it is difficult to deny. The world that formed you, that helped you fly, can be the world that holds you back, a world which you both reject(ed) and embrace at the same time. And it is always the rejection that each side of this conflict remembers, never the embrace.

And so you crash along, feeling like an imposter wherever you stand, looking for allies in the cause. But it can be a lonely place. And who wants to be lonely?

Forming the Curriculum

Curriculum (re-)design is again in fashion, as inspectors and inspected alike recognise what should have always been obvious: that what we teach is equally as fundamental, likely more so, than how we teach.

Cue a flurry of activity from leaders and middle-leaders, getting back to fundamentals and looking once again at neglected and tired schemes of work, asking how we might be more ambitious, more attentive, and indeed more inspired by the subjects we love, or at least once loved, when we were still allowed to do so.

And what a wonderful development that is.

But as we tread the path to curriculum excellence, a central truth must be upheld: the curriculum is not just an academic matter, and the writing of it even less so.

Knowing What to Value

What we teach is a distillation of that which we deem worthy for future transmission. And not all those choices are strictly utilitarian – or at least they ought not to be. Populating the curriculum necessarily involves value judgements on the part of those tasked with constructing it; those judgements reveal something of the person creating it, the world they inhabit, or the world they wish to inhabit.

And this is important. Those tasked with fashioning a curriculum bear the heavy responsibility of creating the intellectual landscape of a domain we wish our pupils to experience, even if they choose to ultimately reject it. Its aesthetic, its values, its very temperament – a world pupils might not otherwise choose to aspire toward, or at very least might not otherwise fully appreciate. In a very real sense, designing a curriculum is therefore as much a spiritual reflection as an academic one.

This brings controversy, of course, since it cannot avoid value judgment, and one can well understand the challenge of those who argue that the move toward core knowledge can be exclusionary, or that it privileges particular kinds of knowledge over others, or that its aesthetic can be of a marginalising hue – from a particular perspective, there is a valid argument to be met here (see my previous post on one potential perspective here).

Anthea Hamilton’s infamous Turner Prize nominated sculpture – cultural literacy?

After all, if one deems a core knowledge curriculum to consist of art and culture beyond the parochial boundaries of place, or deems cultural literacy to consist primarily in knowledgeable articulacy of the contemporary, certainly more than the past, then clearly an alternative vision exists to the one most commonly proffered, and needs to be taken account of.

I’m not sure how often we see that challenge accepted. Curriculum development often appears to proceed without acknowledgment of an argument that concerns its very soul, sometimes ignoring altogether, other times attempting a cross-fertilisation to avoid accusations of the chauvinistic. One might well understand why: this is a minefield, strewn with the traps of politics and identity. But also, because it requires one to retreat back to first principles and ask the most basic questions: if the core curriculum goes hand in hand with developing cultural literacy, then what comprises this culture? And should we only focus on this culture? And what is our aim in seeking to transmit this culture to the next generation?

The Moral Dimension

Potential responses only outline the space for future dialogue, rather than providing a comprehensive answer. The curriculum is the capture of a process, the staging post of cumulative decisions and experiences coming together to form a proposed canon of knowledge. It is the principles guiding these footsteps which offer the best chance of fruitful dialogue.

And so, they begin: are curriculum decisions made with utility in mind – to help ensure future employability and the ability to hold one’s own, in general society as much as in esteemed company? Is it identitarian – to infuse children with the fruits and intellectual architecture of the culture in which they are being formed, the better to increase their attachment to it? Is it simple familiarity – those things which, through time and fashion, have traditionally comprised a liberal education and have long been seen as constituent parts of a quality curriculum? Is it resurrecting a memory – choosing a canon based on its resonance with a particular past, offering pupils ways of finding meaning in the cultural landscape around them? Or is it spiritual – to form the children in front of us and help them inhabit a worldview, a manner of being, which might otherwise remain alien to them?

A collection of all these? Or something else entirely?

The latter might be considered out of place, a soteriological cherry on top of what is otherwise a utilitarian project, by varying degrees, and there are those who would claim such an ambition is an act of oppression, taking upon itself an intimate concern with the soul that should properly be beyond the remit of the school. I am not sure this can really be upheld as a novel exercise – all schools do it, even those who deem themselves most devoutly secular, from content taught to rules administered to values upheld (children from socially conservative traditions, and with socially conservative views, will experience this most acutely in our schools today).

As such, the question is not whether the curriculum is in some sense shaped by a prior moral or spiritual commitment, or even whether it should, but rather which it should be – and how we should decide. Howsoever one finally chooses to answer that question, the issue of content selection as co-constructing that project is never far away, but it most properly follows the prior vision, rather than preceding it.

In a world of busy-ness and deadlines, the time to reflect on such matters can seem indulgent, even should the desire exist to do so – better to simply chuck all the ingredients in and get the job done. But avoiding these questions, or tactfully choosing not to consider them, only gives justification to those who would maintain that our curricula do not represent expanding horizons, but expanding certain horizons, whilst leaving others unattended – with the interlocutor free to speculate for themselves the underlying reasons for any omission. And whilst time is finite, and decisions must be made as to what makes the cut, this is of course understandable. It is not unfair for detractors to ask on what basis curriculum decisions are made.

Curriculum Kitsch

Looking around, it can sometimes feel as if curriculum improvement consists primarily of simply adding more stuff. This is clearly problematic – it is one thing associating challenge with quantity, but if there is no underlying coherence (important for both the learning and the remembering) to weave such knowledge together then the curriculum lacks authenticity, and gives to those charged with teaching it or learning it no justification for doing so, beyond personal fiat – the determination of a particular Head, at a particular time. Here, the curriculum risks losing its inner dignity, becoming an atomised collection of things, ready to fall apart once the authority of the person insisting upon it ceases to be its sufficient cause.

The focus on content accumulation, on simple quantity, risks turning knowledge into just another consumer product, in which the capacity to consume and one’s accumulated consumption becomes a social signifier and sign of success. And the more glamorous the consumption, the more niche the diet, the better, not because of the interior quality of what is consumed, but because of the status associated with the ability to acquire the exotic.

However, in elevating knowledge consumption by quantity to prestige status, we risk a sort of consumerist kitsch, choosing knowledge not to enhance or nourish, but to impress, to define oneself, to affirm status and the ability to consume and to have consumed – knowledge as performance, as spectacle, knowledge as bling.

The Alfred Jewel – likely the head of a ‘æstel’, much like a yad, which were distributed along with copies of Pope Gregory the Great’s Regula Pastoralis

I’m not convinced this approach has longevity beyond the personality of the individual leader insisting upon it, lacking meaning since it lacks telos – something which underpinned the motivations of those tasked with creating curricula and composing the canonical in ages past. When King Alfred completed his project of translating particular works into English, and insisted upon their distribution and even their reading, he did so not because of a desire to simply fill a neutral pot called knowledge, where the fuller it became the better, but instead because those works were ‘most necessary for all men to know.’ The justification, the enlivening principle, was formation, not a gluttonous accumulation. It was anticipated that the wealth of wisdom could flow from reading these texts, from knowing these principles, to the benefit of both the individual and society.

Whilst exposure to a broader variety of knowledge is certainly a starting point, and learning for learning sake is a virtue to be rehabilitated, this is not a permission slip for some sort of educational nihilism, either for pragmatic purposes or ideological: the question of ‘why?’ has to remain central. Only once this has occurred might one get down to better considering the what, and justifying the discrimination (in the literal sense) necessarily involved in defining it. Because in a finite world, or more specifically a 25 hour timetable, one must indeed be discriminatory in choosing what to include over the myriad other things that could have been included. And one best have in mind the reasons for doing so. Only here can one find the dignity of the curriculum, beyond fiat and fashion, to develop a coherence worthy of the formative years of our children.

Conclusion

The elephant in the room here is the demand placed upon schools by our accountability system, and the pragmatic necessity for highest possible exam performance. This has been left alone not because it is deemed to be of lesser moral worth – I tend to agree that the best we can do for our children is to deliver an education which enables them to achieve excellent exam grades – but because curriculum development is in some sense leading the way over qualifications, being at once more ambitious and more aware of the principled necessity of a broad and high-quality curriculum.

And this is as it should be – examinations capture a slice of what has been taught; they should not become the outer limits of what we teach.

Here’s hoping, then, that the current race toward curriculum improvement proceeds with a clear commitment to an underlying coherence. Or else we’re just playing at this. And however politically astute that might be, and however much professional prestige and career advancement people might find tied up with it, it shall nonetheless be destined to crumble with the passage of time, when, as inevitably happens, people ask why we study this, and do not study that, before realising that we have neglected to ever give an answer.