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Losing My Edge

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.