Education vs the working class - Martin Small

A review of Education and the Working Class, by Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962, 28s.).

Submitted by Steven. on June 26, 2016

THIS BOOK IS SUBTITLED “Some general themes raised by a study of 88 working class children in a northern industrial city" — that is all such children who have reached a certain standard of grammar school education between the years 1946 and 1954 (girls) and between 1949 and 1952 (boys),1 — most of them went on to university: though "there was a diversion of gifted girls to the training colleges, and amongst those at university were some who were undercut by social doubts which, playing upon a sensitive or flawed personality, could have distressing results", most of them "completed their education happily and successfully. There had been moments of stress, but most grew through this and accepted both the way they had been trained, and the world for which they were being prepared. They are now middle-class citizens."

In raising general themes the authors are largely concerned with the implications of that last adjective "middle-class". Marburton is a prosperous city eighty miles north of Birmingham and the latest guide book considers that it is "almost in the centre of England", (Marburton is not its name, but get an atlas and you can work it out), and its four grammar schools, like most English grammar schools, have been founded, and [are] often staffed, by the local middle class for the children of that class." What is now the function of an originally middle class institution in a society now using it to tap sources of energy outside the middle class?

"The aim is to enrich understanding of the social processes of education, not to provide facts and figures about the immediately contemporary' situation." (229) And on the first page the authors stress "The paramount fact that we were dealing with people and not things; and that any "objectivity" to which we could lay claim must always conceal areas of 'relationship' which, though they might threaten to divert or swamp the social observer, were also, in potential, the richest source of vital understanding. No social observer can simply observe. His essential humanity compels him to feel, to 'belong'." (3-4) They make extensive use of the Crowther reports, but at one point they suggest that "'findings' or 'conclusions' of this precise arithmetical nature, can, in a sense, be irrelevant to the issues that are affecting young people's lives." (132) What findings and conclusions, then, are relevant? The authors say very little about the direction of the interviews from which they gained their information: the direction seems to have been minimal, but the information is detailed, it has been assembled with skill and care, and it is illuminating and fascinating. Even assuming that the educational experience of these children is "exceptional", yet the exceptional remains symptomatic and indicative of forces and stresses in the ordinary social structure: for we live in a totalitarian society, and each one of us lives, not his own life, but rather an assemblage of bits and pieces of the lives of ideal people constructed in response to the lessons of history and given authoritative personification in institutions. The state was the first mass medium, and man's laws have been synchronising man's existence and experience long before the appearance of television, etc.

For the purposes of comparison and contrast the authors first examine ten middle class children, who received their education at the same time as the 88 working class children and whose parents were confident of their children's right to a Grammar school education — they were not able to bequeath to their children any vast amount of capital, but they were able to hand on an increasing skill in commanding the state system such that their sons and daughters ultimately received a high standard of education, and one which helped them move smoothly into satisfied and energetic citizens."(42) The authors think it significant that of the 86 working class families whose 88 children (there were two sets of sisters) received the full grammar school education2 34 belonged to the 'sunken middle class'. It would seem, they suggest, "that one of the consequences of throwing open grammar school education has been that middle-class families who have collapsed through ill-health, bankruptcy, foolishness or any of the stray chances of life, have been able to educate their children out of their fallen condition and reclaim the social position of their parents and grandparents." (56) The poor relation is trying to re-establish himself — " … perhaps [they are quoting the words of a middle class child who has become a grammar school teacher] after ten years or so, I might start looking around … But you've got to establish yourself first, haven't you? Right?"(37)

But to the majority of these working class families the grammar school was alien: it was incomprehensible — it ignored them. At first for the parents there might be "their own rediscovery of the delights of learning and, in a sense, some began the grammar school course alongside their children. But after the first years came the worrying doubts and frank ignorance about what it might lead to, and when the reassurances and the knowledge did not flow back from the school, a dormant father might awake into a more sceptical life … " (122)

The trouble for the working class parents was that they knew so little … that they often lacked the raw material to ask questions with. Instead they asked if Alan was doing well at Latin, were told that he was 2% up in a practice 'A' level paper — and went down the school steps with this new fact floating over the profound ignorance with which they came."(206)

For the 88 working-class children entry into a grammar school meant, usually, a ceremony of initiation into the techniques of "an alternative community, a particular code of living together and growing up”(108): "They had suddenly lost in some measure that mesh of securities, expectations, recognitions, that we have called 'neighbourhood'."(94) For some this process (described, from different viewpoints but with equal eloquence, in Emile Durkheim's Moral Education and in Hermann Hesse's Unterm Rad — translated into English as The Prodigy) might be long and painful; others (the early leavers) might not survive it, or (the anti-school factions) might survive it only at great cost to themselves. In the beginning — and for ever afterwards — there was, if not the Word, at least The Message: " … daily from the teachers came a host of warnings, injunctions, suggestions, that spoke of the gulf existing [between grammar school, and other, children]. Working-class children felt themselves being separated from their kind. The choice between school and neighbourhood was faced daily in small concrete incidents. For the teachers these incidents were merely part of the pattern of manners, part of that training in 'tone' which distinguishes the grammar school from the general community. They were honourably conceived and held, but for the child something much more central to his living was being locally but continually strained … "(110)3 And daily there would be "incidents in which children — often quite shy children — had taken a painful stand against the school or over something which must have looked quite trivial to the teachers … "(109) And of the children who went to university, the small group of eight which went to Oxford and Cambridge "seems to be sensitively recording a crumbling away felt through much of the sample."(149).

Up to a third of the sample are dissatisfied with their present position, but most of them have readily enough become middle-class citizens: what a fall is here, indeed, from what the authors found to be "perhaps the commonest feeling" among the working-class parents — the feeling "that education promised a kind of classless adulthood in which you could mix freely and talk with every kind of man and woman."(83) "Measured intelligence is well known to be largely an acquired characteristic." (Floud, Halsey and Martin, Social Class and Educational Opportunity, 65). But what a comedown to find that it means merely, what the middle class knows … Our great institution for the pursuit and discovery of truth is merely another life-attitudiniser, as much as any other in the last analysis a myth and a tradition which cannot be rationalised …

The achievement of orthodoxy "had meant a rejection at conscious or unconscious levels of the life of the 'neighbourhood'. This mattered less for some than for others. But when the new manners, new friends, new accents, new knowledge, heightened the adolescent tensions of home life, security and sense of purpose shifted from any wide emotional life and located itself narrowly in schoolwork, in certificates, in markability."(152) 46 of the children have become teachers-and the authors suggest that many who were 'drifting' "turned to teaching not because, deep at heart, they wanted to do it — but because they did not want to move away from the academic succession (eleven plus — O level — A level — college — teacher) which had become so entwined with their very sense of who they were in society."(143)

From time to time, when interviewing an ex-working-class child, the authors sense that "one part of the mind acknowledged stratification, change and difference, but was overtopped by another part not wanting to know and recognise these things — "(173) "There is something infinitely pathetic in these former working-class children who lost their roots young, and who now with their rigid middle-class accent preserve 'the stability of all our institutions, temporal and spiritual' by avariciously reading the lives of Top People, or covet the public schools and glancing back at the society from which they came see no more than 'the dim', or the 'specimens' … [Grammar] Schools born out of middle-class needs; schools based on social selection, further refined with each year after 11; schools offering a complex training in approved images of dominance and deference — are these the bases for general 'individualism', for 'democratic living'?"(219-20). No, of course this will never do — but is “pathetic” the word to describe what is happening? As in Robert Jungk's Brighter Than A Thousand Suns, the ordinary lives of simple people become terrifying, monstrous: screaming "Kafka! Kafka!", we all rush for the nearest burrow … Freedom is not so much threatened as escaped; and one contemporary way of escaping it is to imagine that it may, or even must, be exchanged for security: security from certain things need not be an illusion, but it is an illusion to think that security may be purchased in exchange for freedom: freedom is not a state, it is a condition of life, of living. The authoritarian principle is that public order must be preserved against individual license, so that the individual may pursue his lawful desires in peace. But desires are not lawful, although if it were not for laws they would not exist: they would merely be ourselves — to be free is not to resent life, laws are resentment.

"We might be otherwise — we might be all
We dream of, happy, high, majestical.
Where is the love, beauty, and truth we seek
But in our mind? and if we were not weak
Should we be less in deed than in desire?"
Aye, if we were not weak — and we aspire
How vainly to be strong!" said Maddalo …

Our original sin is that we are not what we know we could be: concerning this matter Education and the Working Class provides a beautiful, intense and restrained collection of information: there would be no need to complain if the authors has not offered a way of accepting or changing this fact. But in Some Notes on Education and the Working Class at the end of the book they do appear to suggest that our society needs those qualities in our working-class children which the grammar school system is at the moment swamping, and that therefore all that is necessary is to make the working class and education understand each other better.

Our society needs what it gets: it needs the middle class virtues: ambition, imagination, and realism. Ambition and imagination go very well together: "When he was small I used to try to impress on Derek [the son of the middle-class parent speaking] the need for work. I'd point to a man sweeping the road and say, 'That's what happens to people who've got no ambition and don't work hard when it's necessary"."(17) "It's a question of using your imagination … you have to think of the years to come, you have to think of the time when you'll be 30 or 40. I think what starts you off, you see people around you and you say to yourself; 'Well, I don't want to be like him.' You think you might be like them in a few years' time and that sets you wondering."(20-1) All this provides a basis for "a realistic sense of their social position"(41) — they know that there is a very good reason for their being where they are: "I should say by and large that the working class are those that lack abilities, those who can't get on, that's who they are."(184) The middle class is — and knows that it is — that
group of people who have been selected to tell other people — the working class — to do what it is necessary to do: is it really necessary to point out the unreason of erecting an authority to decide what is necessary to be done? … So long as there is a hierarchy of authority to be manned: so long as the principle of education is selection and not growth (this point is made in Herbert Read's otherwise uninspiring pamphlet on The Education of Free Men and rather better in Bob Green's article on The Ethics of Anarchism, in ANARCHY 16 pp. 164-5): for just so long the middle class virtues will triumph. In the meantime it is as well to remember that living inadequately is a problem which will not be solved by constructing another system but by contracting out of the present one — as Paul Goodman says: "A free society cannot be the substitution of a 'new order' for the old order; it is the extension of spheres of free action until they make up most of social life …" (quoted in ANARCHY 11, p.19). The only way to be free is to be free: we must live differently.

1. Appendix: Two. (pp. 259-62) of the book gives the definition of "working class" used in the sample, and a full description of the procedure used to. select the sample.
2. Appendix 1 (pp. 229-49) examines a number of "early leavers."
3. Do people who. say " … honourably … but …" really know what they mean? — or, if they do. know, do they really imagine what they know? — or, further, why do they lack "the generous impulse to act that which they imagine" (Shelley)? or "action is the life of all, and if thou dost not act thou dost nothing." (The digger, Gerrard Winstanley).