From the September 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard
"What's this got to do with engineering?" Instead of waiting for an answer, he is staring sullenly out of the window near the back of the classroom. It would be possible to ignore it and carry on with the talk on The Cause of Two World Wars, which you have just started. Not all of them are paying attention yet; but even among those who are, some are smirking at the question. You are conscious of the fact that the employers of this eighteen-year-old apprentice would be pleased to hear him talking like this. They release him for one day a week to attend school; and they begrudge any time which is not spent in learning his trade.
Some of those who are smirking are dressed in leather jackets and bright blue jeans. They couldn't care less whether they are wasting their time or not. At least, school is a skive from work. But his question threatens to side-track the subject of the lesson: and that appeals to them. This youngster, Wilkins, on the other hand, has a conventional haircut and wears sports jacket and flannels. He is bright too, so that any attempt you might make to explain the relevance of the subject, or the importance of their Liberal Studies period in general, will be seized upon and turned into an argument. On balance, you decide that it would be better to keep him silent, and hope that the subject will engage his interest eventually.
While you have been weighing up the pros and cons, there has been a pause of almost five seconds, so that even the youth in the far corner who has been reading the Daily Mirror more or less covertly is now listening for your answer.
"Nothing at all", you say, with a smile that signifies total confidence in what you are doing,
Wilkins snorts contemptuously out at the view.
"If you look at these maps, you can see that Germany did not even become a nation until the end of the last century, whereas Britain and France . . . "
"I mean—what do we want to know about History for?"
"Yeah! That's in the past."
Even a quiet fat lad at the front is muttering something similar, so that you can sense that it is going to be a waste of time while they are in this mood. They are not usually as bad as this. Perhaps it would be better if you let them get it out of their systems. "All right. Let's put the lesson on one side for a minute. You think you should come here just to learn engineering and nothing else, Wilkins, is that it?"
"Well, that's what we're going to be, isn't it?"
"Yeah! What good's this stuff to us? Last week it was art, or something. And we heard all about the stars, and biology and that. How's all that gonna help us to get a good job?"
It would be taking an unfair advantage to press this small, pimply-faced boy to explain what he imagined as a good job. The youth in the corner has gone back to his newspaper; but you can afford to ignore that too for the moment. "I'm well aware that you are going to spend the best part of your lives working—whether you want to or not. But is that all life is—eat, work and sleep? By the time you are forty, and you've got whatever job you're going to get—what then? You've got to have some other interests." There is a dirty laugh from the middle of the room; it is taken up with gusto by the rest. You smile faintly, waiting for them to subside, and then say, "Yes—but even that wears a bit thin over the next twenty years, you know. If you've got no interest in the world around you, no knowledge of what's going on, life's a pretty dreary business. Look at Robinson", you say with mock enthusiasm, pointing to the youth with the newspaper. "He's keeping up with world affairs, you see—reading his newspaper."
Robinson goes red, folds up the paper and says, "I was reading the cartoons", anxious to disclaim any suggestion that he was doing anything intellectual.
"We don't want none of the egg-head stuff. It's a load o' junk", says pimple-face.
"How do you know?"
"I don't wanna know", he says, getting angry. "If that lot at the top go for it, then it's crap as far as I'm concerned."
"What are you trying to make us all", Wilkins sneers, "—good citizens?"
If you weren't a socialist, this one would be a gift. You could talk with all the reformer's enthusiasm about better opportunities for everybody, steady social improvement, increased and enriched leisure for all, and the responsibility of every citizen in forming this brave new world just round the corner.
As it is, you know what Wilkins only feels in his bones, that life in this system of society never works like that, because capitalism needs more restrictions and more repression and more waste the more surely freedom and abundance become possibilities. This is the root cause of Wilkins' sceptical and truculent attitude. He can't see why, but already, at eighteen, he has sensed that there is no way out. Some of the others despise it all, and try to live for kicks, as far as apprentices' wages will let them. He has tried to use his intelligence by putting his faith in the only positive value he can see—work.
"I'm not trying to make you anything, Wilkins. I'm not even trying to make you into an engineer instead of a human being, which is what you seem set on becoming. If you want to be nothing else but an appendage to a machine, that's up to you; but don't try to kid me that it's a full life."
Wilkins is silenced; and the others partly take their cue from him. Instead of attacking now, they ask questions and listen to the answers. But as you go on, showing them bit by bit that the realms of the arts and sciences and world affairs are not simply for the capitalist class (without naming it), a sense of uneasiness grows in inverse proportion to your success. You know that, to them, you represent Authority, one of Them, and that the more reasonable you are, the more they like you and take your judgements on trust, the more you are reconciling them to authority, to the status quo, to the idea that a decent life is possible inside capitalism. What can you do to open up their minds to the influence of knowledge and ideas, without dissipating the sceptical and critical attitude which is their only safeguard against the prevailing climate of hypocrisy and deceit?
"What you say doesn't add up, though, does it?" Wilkins says, putting both hands flat on his desk. "Why do they keep getting steamed up about 'We must export more' and 'We must protect British interests abroad' if that's what caused the last two wars, in the end. If they know that, why do they keep on with it?"
"All right—why do they? It's a good question."
Reprinted from the Socialist Standard