Saturday, February 3, 2018

Trouble in School (1955)

From the November 1955 issue of the Socialist Standard

Few of us have seen a jungle but all of us know, from the adventure stories we read in childhood, what a jungle is like. It is a dark, dangerous agglomeration of weird flora and horrid fauna, where the natives are permanently hostile. Fang, claw and poisoned dart lie in wait and savage, malignant creatures leap, crawl and slither everywhere, all to the accompaniment of war-whoops and gibberings.

And that, according to recent accounts, is how things are in school these days. At the same time as “The Blackboard Jungle” was first shown in this country, the News Chronicle (early in September) published “ Jungle in the Classroom,” a series of three articles in which Dr. John Laird reported on London’s secondary modern schools. Five of these schools comprised Dr. Laird’s jungle: they are, he claims,, typical of the rest. In them, children run amok; teachers are resisted, ridiculed, even assaulted; educational standards are almost incredibly low. About 30 per cent, of the children leave school “unable to read much beyond the level of an eight-year-old child, and unable to write a letter that would be easily deciphered.”

Not surprisingly, there were indignant denials. "Sensational and one-sided,” wrote Sir Ronald Gould, of the National Union of Teachers; “fantastically distorted . . . absurdly untrue.” the Secretary of the London Head Teachers’ Association. An official of the London County Council affirmed their view; so did most of the teachers who sent letters to the News Chronicle. Few, however, dealt with the facts, and certainly none mentioned that Dr. Laird is not the first to have said all those things: little more than a year ago a novel called “Spare the Rod” painted a similar picture of secondary modern schooling, and wrung from the Times an admission that “ it probably has some truth in it.”

The secondary modern school is the lowest, most prolific unit in the State educational system of this country. It looks after the children between 11 and 15 who have not passed scholarship examinations, whose parents cannot afford private school fees or don’t care anyway. It sets out to impart the minimum of necessary knowledge and inculcate a number of basic social attitudes. To say that is not to accuse the ruling class of conspiracy, but simply to point to what education means in any society; the equipment and adjustment of the young for what they have to do.

Our educational system has been shaped by the needs of twentieth-century Capitalist civilization, and its success is gauged by the extent to which it meets those needs In the last few years public attention has been drawn to illiteracy almost solely on account of the conscription of boys (no-one seems to worry over illiteracy among girls. who are not conscripted: this writer’s guess—he is not without knowledge—is that it is worse). Dr. Laird says: “. . . We are still turning out from our State schools a very large number of children who in speech and writing recognizably belong to a ‘ lower order ’ " —and quotes a “typical example” from a boy of fourteen:
Miss Rodgers backs the bred and milk the cows and mack ches and buter then she chocks the dinars.
Dr. Laird’s estimate of a semi-literate 30 per cent. is close to the findings of the Ministry of Education committee in 1948. After careful investigation, the committee estimated that among children of school-leaving age:
1.4 per cent were illiterate;
4.3 per cent, were semi-literate—i.e., had a “reading age” of seven to nine years;
30 per cent, were backward readers, with a “reading age ” of under twelve years.
(“Reading Ability”: Ministry of Education, 1950.).
However, it would be wrong to suppose that so much illiteracy is something new—a fresh outcome, as it were, of State education. While the position was better before the war, the percentage of semi-literates and illiterates has always been high; before 1914 the Army taught a large part of its volunteer intake to read from the ABC stage. Indeed, though no figures were taken then, there was probably more illiteracy 40 or 50 years ago than there is now—concealed by teachers who were paid by results.

Several theoretical reasons for illiteracy can be advanced. Dr. Laird’s conclusion is that insufficient time is spent reading in the junior schools, and an American has published a book called “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” which blames it on changes in teaching methods. The fact remains that almost any adult can teach a child to read. Few adults expect to do so because the teachers, after all, are the experts—notwithstanding that every year there are possibly another 70,000 girls and boys who, after a decade in school, are still “backward readers."

For the truth is that the State educational system does not really work, except in the roughest, sketchiest way. It is efficient enough when it seeks out and creams off the brighter, quick-eyed children for “selective" education to fill the managerial, technical and professional jobs. But when it comes to the education of the great majority of working people, it is revealed as a ponderous, incredibly wasteful machine for securing an all-round bare minimum: an enormous open bath up-ended near a bottle, so that some at least will go in.

Teachers are not to blame (though many readers of Dr. Laird's articles thought they were). Most teachers begin with ideals; some are drawn by genuine love of children, and some are pushed in by parents who want them to have a respectable job. Their training has nothing like the length and intensity of the training for other professions. The majority receive a general training, with an emphasis on one or two “main” subjects, over two years. Of this, several months are spent in teaching practice and several months in holidays; the course of lectures in the time remaining is hardly comparable with the University training of a public- or grammar-school teacher. The educator, after all, must himself be educated.

It is reasonable to assume that there are more than a few schools where the children run riot, as Dr. Laird describes. In the past “school discipline" has been synonymous with lots of caning: perpetuated as a tradition in "The Gem" and “The Magnet" and, of course, “never did anybody any harm"—except that it has been a near-euphemism for a lot of brutality. It is this aspect of the Chronicle articles that has caught the public interest most of all. Most people wonder—with good reason—what has happened since the days of the schoolmaster who
“. . . had several canes of various lengths and degrees of thickness. While administering punishment he got as red as a turkey-cock and occasionally rose up to give greater effect to the blows. Some boys were so frightened that they couldn’t learn their tasks at all, and others so reckless of the punishment they knew must ensue that they intentionally neglected them.”
The real change has been in the scope and content of popular education. As has been remarked, all educational systems serve the needs of particular sorts of social organization, and they change when those needs change. Thus the education of the ruling class of this country, which has a different purpose from the education of the working class, has changed hardly at all in a hundred years. On the other hand there is the secondary education system of Denmark, which until the last third of the 19th century was academic and aimed at producing gentlemen farmers, and changed within a few years to a fiercely patriotic mode of training as Germany rose to become a military power.

In the early days of compulsory education in Britain, the school curriculum did not go much farther than reading, writing and arithmetic. Classes were much larger; the teacher seldom left his eyrie, and some of the teaching was “farmed out" to older children who had mastered the work. Then, as the petrol engine and the electric motor ushered in “light industry'’—particularly in the south of England—in the 20th century, different needs appeared. The working day was shorter but full of new strains and tensions, factories were cleaner, leisure itself becoming mechanized; education adjusted itself by extending the field of teaching.

The process has continued, until a secondary modern school today holds a variety of subjects and activities. Girls, no longer taught housewifery in service, have classes in it at school; manual work, physical exercise and social activity—all of them directed towards specific social ends—are important parts of school life. Indeed, the architecture of schools has changed to meet this different pattern—most post-war schools rival picture-palaces in their splendiferousness and beehives in their agglomerations of cells. The change is still taking place; at the present time, industrialists and economists arc pressing for more and more technical training, to meet anticipated future needs.

In all this, the teacher can no longer sit at his desk demanding immobility. The activities are more personal, the work less mechanical, and the relationship between child and teacher much different The teacher’s dilemma, however, is that the world for which he educates children still demands obedience and respect for betters, and wants to see them inculcated in school. But for that, it might not matter so very much when children danced ring o’ roses round their teacher, as Dr. Laird saw them doing.

The answer to these difficulties is not further reform of the educational system. Indeed, educational reformers have had their way to a large extent and not changed the secondary modern school very much (not even by changing its name) from a place where workers are trained to be workers. Most reformers speak of an educational system in which every boy and girl becomes—thus Olaf Stapledon, at one time—“a complete individual personality and a good citizen of the world.” It sounds very good, but it couldn’t happen in the world of Capitalism, where in fact a prime aim is to make every, boy and girl loyal citizens of their own national segments of the world. And as for the complete individual personality . . .  the supporters of Capitalism, including Dr. Stapledon, wouldn’t like him at all.

The real point is to change the world itself. Education is the product of society; only a different and better society can produce a different and better sort of education. A world organized so that human beings come first will educate its children as human beings, not as prospective clerks, factory workers and soldiers. Dr. Laird’s real grumble—and the grumble of his opponents— is that our schools are failing to educate them for that latter purpose.
Robert Barltrop

Ernest Jones and the People's Parliament (2018)

Ernest Jones
From the January 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard
We begin a three-part series on significant figures in the first working class mass political movement, Chartism.
‘As regards the working man swamping all other classes, the answer is simple―other classes have no right to exist. To prepare the way for the absolute supremacy of the working class, preparatory to the abolition of the system of classes, is the mission of ‘The Red Republican.’  (July 1850)
Ernest Jones was a lawyer, a poet, and a prominent Chartist agitator who was sent to prison in 1848 for two years. Upon his release, he continued is Chartist activities and together with his friend George Julian Harney tried to give the Chartist movement a more socialistic direction. He knew both Marx and Engels personally and was a member of the Manchester section of the International Workingmen's Association. Jones was committed to the wider international context of the workers' movement. He wrote in The People’s Paper of 17 February , 1854:
‘Is there a poor and oppressed man in England? Is there a robbed and ruined artisan in France? Well, then, they appertain to one race, one country, one creed, one past, one present, and one future. The same with every nation, every colour, every section of the toiling world. Let them unite. The oppressors of humanity are united, even when they make war. They are united on one point that of keeping the peoples in misery and subjection ... Each democracy, singly, may not be strong enough to break its own yoke; but together they give a moral weight, an added strength, that nothing can resist. The alliance of peoples is the more vital now, because their disunion, the rekindling of national antipathies, can alone save tottering royalty from its doom. Kings and oligarchs are playing their last card: we can prevent their game.’
In  response to a lock-out of around 20,000 mill workers by the employers at Preston and also in an attempt to revive the Chartist Movement, Ernest Jones was the prime mover in assembling what was called, the Labour Parliament. Jones in the People’s Paper for January 7, 1854, wrote:
‘Every day brings fresh confirmation of the need for a mass movement and the speedy assembling of the Labour Parliament. If it is delayed much longer, every place, Preston included, lost or at the best forced into degrading and weakening compromises . . . The Cotton Lords, at a ‘Mass Meeting/ of their own, unanimously resolved to support their brother Cotton Lords of Preston and Wigan with the full force of their funds. Under these circumstances it is class against class ...It must, therefore, become manifest that unless the working classes fight this battle as a Class, that is, in one universal union by a mass movement, they will be inevitably defeated . . . The greater the lock-out, the wider the strike movement, the more national becomes the movement – the more of a class struggle it is rendered – and if the working classes once see that they are struck at as a class, their class instinct will be roused and they will rise and act as one man.’
The Parliament first met on March 6, 1854, at Manchester, and was attended by some fifty or sixty delegates, mainly from the textile unions. The Parliament’s discussions lasted several days and when it broke up it declared its unfulfilled intention of meeting again at a later date that year. So in 1854, there met two Parliaments, and invited but unable to attend Marx was to remark:
‘some future historian will have to record that there existed in the year 1854, two Parliaments: a Parliament at London and a Parliament at Manchester –a Parliament of the rich and a Parliament of the poor – but that men sat only in the Parliament of the men and not in the Parliament of the masters.’
The work of Ernest Jones for the Labour Parliament marks the culmination of his career as a revolutionary agitator. When, in 1858, the People’s Paper ceased publication, Jones, worn out and disheartened became a Liberal for the last eight years of his life. While he still recognised the inherent evils of the society he lived in, he resigned himself to an accommodation with it, "I am about to take the world as I find it, and see if we cannot make the best of it, such as it is, without any violent and sudden disruptions of Society."  But this should not diminish his contribution to the cause of the working class. During the American Slave-owners War, he campaigned vociferously against slavery and against the Confederacy when it was trying to gain support from the cotton-mill workers who were suffering from the blockade. He died in Manchester on the 26 January, 1869, a day after his 50th birthday.  An estimated 100,000 lined his funeral cortege. Ernest Jones, the son of a major, a barrister-at-law, and a published poet, died in such poverty that his friends had to launch a financial appeal for his widow and three children.
In 1780 less than 3 percent of Britain's 8 million population had electoral rights. From the late 18th century, pressure for parliamentary reform grew, culminating in riots in several British towns in 1831. Even after the 1832 Reform Act was finally passed, only one in seven adult males were able to vote. The Chartist movement was the first mass political movement of the British working class and effectively Britain's first civil rights movement. Many unknown and therefore unacknowledged workers engaged in the mass struggle for the vote and political power. As the factory and mill owners resisted any rebellion against the dictatorship of capital, Jones and fellow radicals such as Harney emphasized the connection between the struggle to win the vote and the class struggle. In addition, they also emphasised that this was just a part of a wider and greater international fight for democracy and people’s power.

Pathfinders: The New Home Help (2018)

The Pathfinders Column from the February 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard
“Hey Google! What was 2017’s must-have gadget?”
Answer, in bland but maternal voice: “Last year’s must-have gadget was me, the Google Assistant, or you could try the Amazon Alexa, or if you’re rich and really patient, the Apple Homepod, which hasn’t come out yet.”
“Hey Google! What can you actually do that I can’t do for myself?”
“I can tell you a joke.”
The concept of a digital home assistant has probably not invaded your world to any great degree yet, despite massive promotion by the above companies. If you’re out of the loop or behind the curve then don’t feel too bad, because Apple have also failed so far to bring their pricey Homepod to shops, meaning that it is definitely bringing up the rear in the dash for dominance over the smart home hub market.
People have been talking about the ‘internet of things’ for years. This is the idea that all your work and domestic appliances, tools and systems are chipped and wired so that you can control them remotely by phone or timer program. There is no doubt in the minds of manufacturers that 'You Definitely Want This', even if you might be entertaining some doubts about what happens to your house appliances when little Herbert the Hard-Core Hacker gets his cyber-mitts on their IP addresses. Here is capitalism operating at its most magnificent, creating a product line and then attempting to create a demand for it. You as the idea consumer must be unable to resist the lure of a smart tin-opener you can operate from Arizona, and a fridge that knows you just used the last tomato and reorders it for you.
With so much smart around you, you are going to need a hub controller to coordinate it all, so that you can tell your house to turn down the lights, turn up the heating, draw the curtains, audit the fridge, switch on BBC iPlayer, start the laundry and run your bath. Imagine the bliss. It’s like having your own team of digital slaves. What worker doesn’t want to be waited on hand and foot like the lord of the manor and the king of the castle? You could almost forget that you’re a real wage slave, at least until the next time you go to work.
The problem at the moment though is that most of those smart things are still on capitalism’s drawing board, so the home hubs which have rushed to market don’t really do anything very useful. But that’s ok, because they’re fun anyway, right? Here’s what you can do with a starter Home Mini, for the modest price of £50. You can ask it for recipes, in case you don’t have a recipe book. You can get it to compile a shopping list and send it to your phone, in case you can’t write. You can ask it a history or geography question, or get it to read the news headlines. You can listen to music, if you’ve got a paid Spotify account. You can text people and check the weather without looking out of your window. And yes, it even tells jokes.
Of course, apart from the jokes, you can do all these things anyway, assuming you have an ordinary broadband computer. And the starter hub is only the start of a relentless upselling campaign in which you are offered add-ons, extras and upgrades that give you even more functionality, as if the sheer pointlessness of it all is an irresistible spur to further spending. Perhaps this stuff will be useful one day, like smart watches aren’t, but it doesn’t really matter. In capitalism things aren’t made and sold because they’re useful, but because people are made to think they want them. So much money, time, energy and resources so that you can talk to your curtains like a god of small things.
Here is a question you can ask: “Hey Google! How do you self-destruct?” Here is what it will answer: “Self-destructing in three… two… one… Only joking!”
Good thing we’ve all got a sense of humour.
It’s Wicked!
If you answer Wikipedia’s periodic cries for help by agreeing to donate £2 a month for something you might use six times a day, you get an effusively grateful email from them every month telling you what a grand job you’re doing in keeping the flame alight.
An interesting and possibly unique thing about Wikipedia, and its related Wiki services, is that if there was a socialist revolution in 2018, it would make the transition into socialism completely unscathed and in exactly the same form. It’s hard to think of any other service, free or otherwise, that you could say that about. It doesn’t carry adverts and its contributors work for free, simply for the sake of the common good. Indeed it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Wikipedia is a piece of virtual socialism, embedded right inside capitalism. When people say ‘Oh socialism wouldn’t work because people won’t work for nothing’, just point them at Wikipedia and say ‘Explain that then’. Before Wikipedia existed, nobody would have believed that a global free encyclopaedia was possible. Now we know it is possible, but in capitalism there are of course maintenance and server costs to take into account, hence the frequent call for donations. Unlike charities which aim to ameliorate the worst of capitalism instead of changing it, Wikipedia has established a radical precedent which socialists ought to celebrate, and perhaps assist if they can. As the internet aims to expand into an internet of things, socialism could be described as an expansion of the same idea, a Wikipedia of things, freely given according to ability, freely consumed according to need.
It ought to be worth two quid of anybody’s money to stop this island of socialism from sinking beneath the commercial waves.