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Yearly Archives: 2019
I met an ex-student of mine a little while back. He was a great lad. Still is. He went through a tough time at school and left without any grades. And now, as he worked in menial labour for cash-in-hand and far less than minimum wage, his sole desire – to become a plasterer – eluded him: it turns out the stain of academic failure follows you, and locks you out, for a long time after you leave school.
It has bothered me ever since, but this is the logic of meritocracy. We are what we have achieved, and what we have achieved is the result of who we are. No room for luck, no space for good fortune, no need for outdated notions of providence here. He was simply living with the fruits of his failure, right? Yet one cannot shake the feeling that with our inability to factor in the arbitrary to this judgement, we become unbearably self-justified.
For in this new meritocratic world, woe betide those who fail. Woe betide those ill-suited to the assessment of the meritorious. Those who fail merely they reap what they sowed; the losers deserve to have lost, because they are losers who lost.
And all the while those who determine our measure of merit happily discover that it looks much like them, and reap the rewards accordingly.
The result? A whole stratum of society locked out and left behind, disregarded as the authors of their own misfortune and responsible for their own subsequent degradation. After all, with hard work and determination they could have turned it round, they could have written their own fate in the stars, but chose not to – incapable or incompetent, they are nonetheless no more or less than how hard they worked to get where they are.
Any reaching out to support them, to give them a second shot, is one of unearned charity – the lingering virtue of the empowered – rather the legitimate demands of justice.
Education has embraced the same cold ethic, elevating competence as the principal value that can justify status, dignity, worth. Teachers judged by their efficacy, students by their results, leaders by their legacy. A good teacher can become a bad teacher overnight, an effective school leader an ineffective one, as the storms of life or the mechanisms for telling the difference between the two give all the justification and impetus for casting aside those suddenly deemed ‘not up to the job’.
It’s the same for our children. They leave our care, their life determined according to their success within a system the already-successful design, and we declare almost without exception that these results are the inevitable outcome of the efforts they put in along the way. The moral responsibility for success, and failure, is theirs, and failure is largely a chosen destiny – locking children out of future pathways becomes easier to defend when you can convince yourself that justice requires it, that they receive only what they deserve, the authors of their own disinheritance.
But what if this gets justice, and each other, wrong? What if this world of efficiency, of prowess, of cold utilitarianism sells us all short? Makes us all vulnerable? Maybe we need to stop looking at each other through the eyes of what we can contribute, stop judging each other’s worth according to the value of that contribution. Maybe we need to remind ourselves that what we cannot do is no vice any more than our limitations constitute a stain on our dignity. Maybe we must demand that even those who society deem to be failures deserve to be loved. Indeed maybe those who society deem to be failures deserve most to be loved.
When you confront your own limitations, when you recognise your own good fortune, when you concede your own ultimate vulnerability in the drama of life, you come to realise the horror of this way of viewing the world and those within it. Life is more than what we might write on a CV, the sum total of our performance, our technical capacity at any particular point in time. When we go through bad times, when our contribution to an institution, to society, to GDP, is limited, we’re still of infinite value, better than merely what we can give, and we deserve a shot at the good life regardless of merely what we can give.
If we forget that, we degrade ourselves as much as anyone else. The moral demand on all of us to set aside cold assessment of worth and assist the downtrodden, regardless of earned merit, is no more diminished by the asking than it is limited by the giving.
In other words, we’ve become too ready to accept sham accounts of merit, neglectful of the coincidence that often its superficial appeal to justice is simply the rationalisation of our own good fortune. But this is limiting, corrosive, of ourselves and others. Ultimately, life trumps this illusion of logic. And love must always trump competence.
Below is the ‘provocation’ I delivered at the Battle of Ideas debate held last night in Sedbergh. It was a great evening, and conversation took all sorts of twist and turns – a really enjoyable night of thoughtful discussion and robust challenge. A big thanks as ever to Claire Fox for the invite, and I look forward to the November gig at the Barbican – come along!
Is there a North/South divide?
It seems a bit of an obvious question, and our laughably dated transport network certainly testifies to years of neglect. But this is not the whole story, and tonight I’m hoping to make a bit of a different case about what the real divide might be.
To start with, we have for too long let this debate become a strictly provision-based analysis, with policy wonks and statisticians looking at what one area has, comparing it with what another area has, and then lamenting the difference. This is fine as far as it goes, but it’s not sufficient. It can only comprehend the measurable – productivity, education levels, tax take – and from it proclaim that many places, particularly in the North, have been left behind.
But it cannot really answer the question why. After all, this recognition of unequal input and output is ages old, and yet some impersonal force seems to continue to drive on political decision making in the same direction. A provision-based analysis can, it is true, give a concrete manifesto to work toward, but it presents a narrow focus on the symptoms then declares them to be the cause.
And the flip side is just as problematic – with the gap only framed in material terms, so intervention is always conceived likewise, and words like ‘investment’ come bounding into view as the main justification for bothering to do anything it at all.
But as we all know investments are made for a return, and the best investments are those which give the greatest return, and those which give greatest return are most likely to find themselves at the forefront of the political mind. The economic utilitarianism sets the rules, and its winners tend to be the economic utilitarians.
Which is all well and good for urban centres, places of scale and population, but where is Cumbria ever likely to come in that equation? More to the point, where is any mostly rural area likely to come in that equation?
So we start to see how the issue here is less political and more cultural – less a divide between North and South, and more of the large urban vs everywhere else.
This is why so much of the funding destined for ‘the North’ rarely seems to go much further than what we all really know to be the north Midlands – the M62 beltway stretching from Hull in the East to Liverpool in the West.
But Leeds is as close to Luton as it is to Lindsfarne; Manchester closer to the Malvern Hills than to the Solway Firth. When we are told there is huge investment in the North, and then see so much of it rarely seems to get past the M62, one wonders if politicians know just how much more North there is.
In my own sector – that of education – this blind spot is particularly stark: of 171 Strategic School Improvement Fund grants, precisely two went to Cumbria, with a combined award of less than was given to a single school in West Sussex.
The big cities and towns along the M62 corridor didn’t do so bad out of that fund as it goes, and politicians can claim with justification to have been investing in ‘the North’. But clearly there is another place, further away still, that we might call the Neglected North, struggling to find a voice in its bid to be a part of any Northern Powerhouse revolution.
This is why we need to up our ambitions somewhat. Because you see, if complaining against the inevitable logic of urban-centric thought is futile, then meekly submitting to it need not be the answer either.
Perhaps I can put this another way. I like living in Cumbria. I want there to be better buses and more museums and better funding for schools… but I also want this place to be cherished for being this place, and not facing demands to be more like somewhere else. Yes, I want the funding the North needs, but not at the cost of its soul.
Now I get this might seem like wanting to have one’s cake and eat it, so let me unpack that a bit, and to do so, perhaps I could offer another example from my own sector.
It has long been a bugbear of mine that Cumbrian schools receive much less funding than schools in Inner London, despite all the natural advantages being in Inner London brings with it (none of which are ever priced into funding priorities and inspection frameworks, an important point to bear in mind). Now, hopefully, we are moving towards an era of greater equity, but even if economic input was identical to that of Inner London, would this eradicate the disadvantage?
Well, no. Because ultimately, even with the exact same amount of funding, there are still challenges – of distance, of recruitment, of school size, of capacity – that will make what we do different. Just as good, for sure, but different.
But what if our versions of excellence cannot be recognised by those who set the rules, too used as they are to seeing from the perspective of somewhere else? What if there is a perspective blindness that means we’re never at the forefront of consideration when the rules are being written?
Take the example of school governors: where is it easier to recruit governors with the vastly enhanced professional skills and experience that is now demanded: in London – with its huge population of graduates and professionals on the doorstep – or in Longtown?
And should Longtown be judged any the worse for that?
Or again: who is mostly likely to fulfill the much more resource-heavy inspection demands of the new inspection framework, the school in rural Cumbria with three teachers, no money and no support staff, or the school in the big city with forty staff, 700 kids and a multi-million pound budget?
And when this happens, and these unwitting biases play out, which areas of the country will find themselves being told their schools are not good enough and their teachers are substandard, by a legion of politicians and journalists who never set foot here but line up to wag their fingers and emote about educational disadvantage, unable to conceive that perhaps the very mechanism that tells them this is so is already unfit for purpose?
This is where that bigger problem comes in view. Bridging any gap requires that we first recognise that the whole edifice is tilted, perhaps not by intent, but certainly by ignorance, a sort of yoke that those outwith the circles and society that governs us are compelled to labour under, whilst being blamed for being burdened in doing so.
So few of those who rule us come from among us, and those who do have had to leave, indeed to escape, to get there. And what is true for rural counties is just as true for coastal regions or post-industrial townscapes. The perspective blindness, and the values disconnect to which it testifies, is egalitarian in its disdain.
So the North/South divide is really just a proxy for a deeper disconnect between a big-city, graduate-dominated, well-connected, liberal-minded Britain, and the power they have to shape and determine the rules by which everyone else must play. This is the gap that needs bridging: not just one of provision (though that too), but of esteem, of value, of being valued, for who we are and where we are, wherever we are.
I used to think education was about social justice. Perhaps not in those terms exactly – it is a contested term after all – but at root this was the main justification for coming to the profession. Not sharing a love of subject, not wanting to spread knowledge, but addressing injustice – from this could I draw my sense of vocation, indeed my very identity, in the determination to put right what appeared to me to be such manifest wrongs.
I confess I never inquired too much further into the nature of these injustices – what mattered was that I believed they were, and in crusading against them I could find solace in myself and evidence of my own virtue. I was angry and, with all the indignation of the Victorian moralist preaching to a fallen world, it was that anger which fired me to change the world and the people in it.
As time has gone by, I am less convinced than I once was. In fact, that is probably not strong enough – I am now unconvinced by the idea that education is principally about social justice, or any other euphemism for the same. There are many reasons for this change, but fundamentally I think social justice cannot help but become an issue of power, which means it cannot help but become an issue of conflict, and I no longer think education is principally about power, let alone conflict. For me education ultimately concerns the soul, not increasing wealth or power or position – yet social justice narratives cannot help but be about the latter, with all that entails.
Practically speaking too, the problem with narratives of power is they must include dominion; there can be no quarter given since negotiation can only ever look like the accommodation of injustice, which is not something the right-thinking can countenance. There can only be winners and losers; everything in the middle is fair game for the struggle. After all, who would accept peace terms with the status quo and those who would uphold injustice in preserving it? Against opposition there must be only victory, nothing less.
There is a snag though. The thing is, anger is incredibly powerful, it can fire this revolution, this conflict, at least for a time, and give its adherents the courage to pick a fight with that status-quo and the power interests that reside there. It was why I originally held, and mostly retain, an admiration for Michael Gove, his authoritarian liberalism notwithstanding. He got it, I thought, he could see this wasn’t fair, and he was willing to rattle cages and upset vested interests to make sure something was done about it.
But anger can also obscure, and consume, and make unknowable the life and loves of the person or people standing athwart the progress of your social justice narrative. If anything can be taken from the turf wars of the current education landscape, it is surely this. Whether it’s the internecine wars of the progs and trads, or the constant bickering over the existence of different types and structures of school, or the cultural (and increasingly moral) battle against the communities we serve and the parents who reside there – too much has become zero-sum conflict marked by demands of power, and righteous anger in the pursuit of it.
I’m as guilty as anyone of this, and I’m sure this whole post – with all its pretensions – might be disregarded as an end-of-term indulgence, the ramblings of a tired teacher with more than a hint of the pompous. It’s also hard to get the language right, and if I’m making a hash of it I hope you’ll forgive the misfire. But either way, the more I reflect, the more I have become aware that the anger at social injustice that once fuelled my desire to ‘make a difference’ can no longer sustain the effort required to live with its effects.
The Times newspaper once sent out a question to a collection of the most esteemed authors and thinkers of the day, asking a simple question: ‘what’s wrong with the world today?’ Amidst the detailed and worthy explanations from those justifiably angry with this injustice or that inequality, one writer responded with a simple answer: ‘I am.’
And I can’t help but thinking he was right. My justification for teaching, for wanting to help the most vulnerable, for wanting to ‘change the world,’ with all the laughable, beautiful naïvety it displayed, can no longer be about anger at social (in)justice, because I can no longer find a way to believe that anger at social injustice is up to the task.
The truth is, however much I wish otherwise, I cannot change the world. I can only change myself. It was only pride that ever made me think otherwise. As Newman put it, “To live is to change, and to change often is to become more perfect.” I certainly lay no claim to perfection, nor even mediocrity in truth, but Newman’s words ring true – changing myself is the one thing I really do have power over. And maybe that’s the only realistic shot any of us really have at changing the world.
I suppose what I’m asking is, what if that righteous anger which fires our desire to address social injustice and inequality, the indignation that has been at the root of the monumental political and social capital resources poured into the education revolution – what if none of this is enough? Not because this inequality or that injustice are unworthy of such emotions, but because perhaps righteous anger lacks the gravity to address such issues; too superficial, too fleeting, consuming its source and leaving behind the charred remains of a brief, if brightly shining, career.
Maybe we need to transform it into something more fruitful, more sustainable. And for myself, I increasingly find the most convincing explanation of why we should do anything at all is simple service – a humbling of ourselves, a humble offering of ourselves, not for reward, not for social mobility, not for grades, not for greater wealth nor greater power, but because serving is its own justification.
I suppose what I’m saying is maybe we need is to demand more from ourselves than righteous anger; maybe we need to demand love.
Maybe love is greater, more radical, more fruitful, more sustainable, and yet infinitely more demanding, than anger or any of its emotional brethren. And as we in Catholic schools had drilled into us as kids, to love is to serve. I used to think this was meant metaphorically, in the way someone with power serves merely by executing that power, but now I suspect it was more than that: Christ’s washing of the feet was not just an act of humility, but an act of true leadership.
Perhaps here, in this less glamorous act, this (for some) less compelling model of leadership, is how we achieve our social justice. Perhaps here we can face with cheerfulness the unwinnable odds, we can suffer the slings and arrows and still find reason to persist. Perhaps here we become more effective agents of change than all the angry tweets and emotional speeches and heartfelt handwringing, because we dare to humble ourselves in service of it. Not for anger, but for love. Only love.
For some this might not be enough – indeed for some this might be pious hokum. Maybe anger is what helps us get up in the morning, to fix manifest wrongs, to have the battles and survive the conflicts that are a necessary part of effecting change. And I understand that and admire those who can sustain it. After all, it worked for me for a long time. I don’t like kids getting a raw deal either. I dislike injustice too. But ultimately, it exacts a terrible toll. And I’m just not sure any longer if I have the resources left to pay it.
For an educational context so absorbed by the pursuit and possession of knowledge, one wonders why it can be so hard to find people willing to talk about the purpose of having it. On the traditionalist side, it can sometimes feel that those advocating for ‘cultural literacy’ (or any of its iterations) do not quite realise how radical their position demands them to be; for the progressives, it can seem like their desire for disrupting power structures stops at the point that their own privilege comes into view. As such our curriculum discussion too often risks superficiality: a way for lots of people to show they think knowledge is important, but for few people to drill down and say why it matters that kids have *this* knowledge, and what they should do with it when they get it.
Yet this matters. It’s fundamental. What we want our kids to know is shaped ultimately by what we want our kids to be.
One unhelpful trend is the (mis-)treating of ‘curriculum’ as a self-sufficient concept. After all, there is no such thing as ‘curriculum’ per se – instead there are a thousand answers to the questions ‘what should we teach? When should we teach it?’ And it is the (transient) answers to these questions that comprise the curriculum, the components which are later embodied in the composite.
As such, if we wish to articulate the power of the curriculum, we must cast our eyes to the components – it is in those thousand answers that the real conflicts lie. After all, why this and not that? Why always this and why never that? The answer is not linear – those decisions are the articulation of a process, the staging post of countless uncontrolled (and uncontrollable) variables: the decisions of leadership, the knowledge of the Heads of Department, the expertise of the individual teachers, the desires of governors and parents, the assertion of politicians, the hue of available resources, and all the way to the cultural and moral contexts in which all of them were formed.
The curriculum, then, is really the shadow cast by those who deliver it – and of the society in which they live, or the society in which they wish to live. It is the song of the cultural and moral norms of those that develop it (as opposed to those receiving it – a serious issue in a world where all teachers are graduates and there exists a huge values divide between graduates and non-graduates). In this sense, schools will nearly always conform to dominant political culture, and the prestige worldview to be found there, even when that dominant political culture sees itself as revolutionary or disruptive – and the curriculum is the principal tool by which that conformity is expressed.
For this reason, those who argue that the curriculum is a tool for transmission of a progressive politics, for the pursuit of activism and social justice, are at least cognisant of its power and thus the importance of its ownership. The error is to think they are alone in thinking this: self-described traditionalists may have a more genteel language to describe it, but ‘social justice’ and social mobility have long been the justification for the education revolution drummed up by a certain liberal Gramsci-loving Tory. Each want to make the world anew; each wishes to do so by tearing up what came before it.
One suspects this latent progressivism inevitably hampers the traditionalist cause. In short: if cultural literacy is really the aim then they can not achieve what they desire, since they are not really willing to desire it, but will instead create their own templates every bit as partial and political as the progressives they deride. They will default to utility and social mores as the two categories within which to discern curriculum content, and reject as an order to be consigned to history that culture in which much of that content was borne.
In this sense, they too pursue a rootless engagement with knowledge, one that is not rooted in a place or culture as such, but is instead a theoretical and fundamentally ahistorical process of knowing, an act performed rather than a reality absorbed. Here, then, cultural literacy is less about coming into possession of a lived and living inheritance, and more about creating a spreadsheet inventory of what that inheritance might be. This is the Hirschian dilemma – it risks a commodification of knowledge, a conglomeration of things put together without a unifying story to tell to justify their inclusion, or to justify the exclusion of anything else; something possessed, not possessing.
When this happens, the decision of what to include becomes little more than a power game, a way to express the dominance of one group or other at any particular point of time. Progressives accuse traditionalists of indulging the misogynistic and the colonialist, whilst traditionalists accuse progressives of fetishising the provocative and the political – and each stand unable to articulate their defence against such charges, since neither has an alternative beyond whim and utility to explain what enlivens their curriculum choices.
In the UK context this is particularly pertinent, as we have been subject to a curriculum debate in which knowledge has very much become a sort of capital, the gluttonous accumulation of which has been preferred over any attempt of explaining why it is worth having. And this is why any talk of cultural literacy, or cultural capital, is destined to fall flat: it would require a broader ecology of thought that few evangelists of the cause would be willing to accommodate. As I have written previously:
if one starts from a position of neglecting the religious and theological backdrop of the culture in which so much of our cultural inheritance was formed, what is offered is but a shadow of artefacts, and ultimately historical and cultural illiteracy, a secular humanist wish-projection of what our shared history and identity should have been, rather than what it practically and really is.’
There is little hope of cultural literacy when the framework used to form it sits so uncomfortably with the culture and context in which its core content was developed. One can possess a mental gallery of loosely related experiences, one can experience having engaged with them, but without the web of meaning that brings them together into a unified whole, so one’s knowledge is really mere akin to an acquaintance, a sort of cultural pastiche, where these things instead sit as sterile artefacts to be gawped at as an aesthetic exercise, though essentially indifferent to purpose and focussed instead on the more superficial values of skill or utility.
Of course some will defend this, pointing out that it is inevitable, and it is the task of each generation to give fresh meaning, to rediscover anew our cultural inheritance and make it speak for our times. Which is true, though to the extent that this process is carried out in cultural and historical vacuum, a hermeneutic of rupture from the very stories one is trying to tell afresh, so this starts to look very much like that progressive account of curriculum as disruption we might ordinarily expect a traditionalist to reject.
Sure some will defend the project, pointing to the aesthetic as criterion of judgement (‘the best that has been thought and said’), but without that criterion clearly explained (I’m yet to see it) then it seems to me that the progressive claim that cultural literacy is really just the projection of dominant-group prejudice or presumption is perfectly valid.
As such, when Christine Counsell points out that English teachers can not realistically teach all the knowledge required for an in-depth understanding of texts in the English classroom – the theology, the archetypes, the Scriptural knowledge – then the answer can not simply be teaching more R.E., since R.E. is simply not in a place to deliver it. The kind of R.E. that would be required for that is not the kind of R.E. the mainstream would be willing to accept, any more than it is the kind of curriculum that the mainstream would be willing to accept. All that knowledge, that background understanding, that complex web of meaning, a sort of infrastructure for thinking – not only would the time required to develop it be dismissed out of hand, but the desirability of doing so would face the insurmountable problem of a culture that no longer really sees the desirability of doing so.
Which is fine for some – even if one might quibble whether or not it is capable of developing cultural literacy. Though it does bring to the fore the contemporary traditionalist paradox: at heart it is liberal, not conservative, a project of individual empowerment (‘Knowledge is Power’), formed from a desire to overthrow the status-quo every bit as much as the progressives whose project it claims to reject. It identifies knowledge as desirable not for teleological reasons but for its usefulness in that pursuit of power – be it economic, social or political – yet it simultaneously rejects the tradition that both formed the content and would provide the most profitable window for its understanding.
In other words, contemporary traditionalism runs up against its fundamental rejection of tradition, and in so doing outs itself as a progressive project, different in style more than substance.
As such, the difference between the (largely secular liberal) traditionalism in contemporary education, and the (largely secular liberal) progressivism, is one of branding more than DNA. There is nothing radical about either, since each articulate in their own way the same thing, and mostly just have endless disagreement on the route taken to get there. Alas, neither seems to offer a compelling account of the end to which they aspire – or indeed why any journey is worth taking at all.
Maybe, then, we need to look elsewhere for a truly radical account of curriculum, in both its components and its composite.
I sometimes wonder about death. Not in a morbid way, you understand. Just the practical stuff – how it will approach; who will be there; how long it might take. It’s part of being Catholic I think – we pray for a good death, so you naturally end up thinking what this might look like. Pain free, of course; comfortable, yes; surrounded by loved ones, absolutely.
My Grandad died before Christmas. It really affected me; I loved him dearly. I really did. And yet, I wasn’t there. I couldn’t be. I was far away, seeing to my own affairs.
Which is fine, right? We’re all busy these days, seeing to our own affairs. It’s natural. One cannot be blamed. No need to feel guilty.
But the niggling feeling wouldn’t go away – what if his vision of the end was like mine? What if he, too, wished to be surrounded by loved ones? Maybe that was precisely what he wanted, and yet I was elsewhere.
When Tony Blair offered his vision of a graduate workforce, he conceived of a society of the highly educated better able to service a shiny new graduate economy. The industrial sector had been decimated, leaving behind unemployment and despondency, and besides (the story went) fewer people wished to enter the old industries anyway.
The answer seemed obvious – send as many as possible to university, have them enter the job markets later as fully-fledged graduates able to undertake the jobs our newly globalised world shall demand.
But there was a problem: the graduate jobs both promised and required did not exist. Or certainly not in sufficient numbers. So to help provide that job market, as well as cater for the newly heightened expectations of a whole generation of young adults, we demanded young people get degrees to do the very things their Mums and Dads did without needing one – nursing, teaching, the civil service, law, industry – indeed jobs they were still successfully doing without having one.
The effect was to make university education necessary not for social mobility, but for mere social equilibrium.
As such, sales pitches placing university as the catalyst to improved health-and-wealth were a self-fulfilling promise, with those proclaiming the benefits the same as those tilting the odds against those who dissented from the cause.
And so, as collateral for a newly gentrified economy, our children were siphoned off into two camps according to which part of the economy they could serve, the graduates to one side and non-graduates to the other, with the latter prevented from entering the job markets of the former. And all for a fallacy: that one must be highly educated before one can become highly trained, and not being highly educated inhibits your ability to become highly trained.
This was simply untrue, and generations of successful non-graduates, historically given access to socially esteemed and well-paid jobs, trained within the workplace to high levels of expertise, attest to it. No, it was only ever graduates that insisted as many people as possible had to be graduates, the confirmation bias of a class policy makers holding up their own pathways as the pre-eminent model of progress.
In treading this path, we instituted a grad-class protectionism that has proven disastrous to the social fabric, engendering a values-chasm between graduate and non-graduate that looms large over our civic space. Every year, swathes of children are tacitly deemed failures by the social mobility narrative that shapes our politics and our schools, whilst the other half are told the true path to success is to leave behind – geographically, socially, morally – those networks of kith and kin in that place we call home. And to both, the unstated truth that those who fail to do so – those who are left behind – are but second-placers in the meritocratic footrace of life.
For a policy that was so self-consciously progressive, do note the irony – with degree education the gateway to the jobs markets, and since for most young people this meant a move away from home, so expansion of the university sector looked more and more like an embodiment of Tebbitian ‘onyerbike’ philosophy. Not because of a stress on the importance of work, but because of the quiet assumption that we should all accept the demand to be uprooted in order to access it.
It has been quite the project over the last few years, looking for ways to explain the social fracture encompassing the UK. Some put it down to austerity, others to ingrained economic inequality sapping morale and opportunity from swathes of the country, whilst others still think lack of education is the key factor – as if the non-graduate population haven’t been ill-treated enough without also being blamed for being angry that the tables have been so consistently been tilted against them
Still, for all one might offer an account of why change has happened, one thing surely cannot be denied: not everyone has benefitted from the changes that have accompanied the modernisation project.
In declaring that half of all youngsters must go to university, we were telling them they must leave – an injunction that hit all the more keenly in those areas long-neglected that could least afford such siphoning off of the young and talented. After all, whilst university was and is framed as a coming of age waypoint, a significant proportion of those who leave never return home, having built new lives and met new loves – and found access to new jobs – in a different place. This is of course fine, but we would do well to recognise it is not without consequence either, assisting decline in some areas rather than, as was promised, mitigating it.
As such, at those key points in life when we most need loving interdependence, when we realise we want loved ones close – often the dawn of new life and the end of it – families have found themselves scattered, unable to lean on one another for support, a geographical fracture all the more egregious amongst tight-knit working-class communities used to keeping extended family close.
This is the ultimate irony of social mobility: the more ‘successful’ your children have been, the more likely you are to be distant from them as old age approaches, and to feel the growing loneliness of that distance.
Of course, some areas have benefited from the huge expansion in graduates, as they were meant to – other areas have suffered, as they were always likely to. A graduate economy is well served by a graduate market, but not all places have graduate economies, or need graduate markets, certainly not whilst the wider investment that would generate these jobs remain absent.
And so, we have the fallout that has come from insisting children need to move away to get on. It has had real-life consequences. It has incentivised the uprooting of a generation of young adults, stretching family bonds over distances that even the conveniences of modern technology cannot entirely overcome. In so doing, it has proven as socially disruptive as any other factor – be that housing, or globalism, or mass immigration – that populists and demagogues insist is at the root of current social unrest.
In other words, whilst university education is a good thing, and many people have benefitted for having received it, it is time to acknowledge that there have nonetheless been macro-level negative impacts too.
Which is where my Grandad comes back into view. You see, to my great regret, I was not able to be there for his final moments. I was a beneficiary of the social mobility dream, I had left, and was now far away. And whilst I cannot honestly say I would trade my position now for what it might have otherwise been, I can say it feels like a high price to have paid to achieve it.
And it inevitably leaves me wondering if my own children, pursuing their own success in future, might be issued the same demand. What choice will they really have but to pay it?
At which point, those final moments of my own suddenly loom far lonelier than I pray for them to be.