The routing of the Left

‘Grown ups are what’s left when skool is finished.’
Nigel Molesworth

Whatever battles the Left have fought over the last hundred years, and they have been many, there is one area where it has been utterly routed, abandoned the field and shows no sign of returning. It’s odd because there are not many instances I can think of where the Left are completely absent, in terms of action and voice. The battle the Left somewhat disinterestedly surrendered is in the area of the education of children.

It’s a curious thing that the education of children, and indeed the lives of children generally, is now completely dominated and saturated by right-wing agendas, policies, attitudes, pedagogies, psychologies and so on. From the 1960s through to the 1970s there was something of a healthy debate in which left-wing questioning had some effect. There was a growing understanding that social injustice and inequity might be addressed through education – a very Dickensian idea, but not un-useful at times. More significantly, there was an argument that schools are places where social injustice is in fact constructed and concreted into the social order.

It’s hard to imagine now, but in the 60s, books such as John Holt’s How Children Fail became bestsellers by showing very clearly how schools can both demonise and deify children, empty out the transgressive nature of play, practice exclusion of those bound to fail, and so forth. Schools are not just nineteenth-century institutions that have survived to the present day, but nineteenth-century institutions with nineteenth-century values that have prospered and flourished.

The almost total absence of contemporary action from the Left in relation to the education of children shows how unchallenged the institution of schooling has become, and how pervasive it is in the lives of everyone, including those who have children and those who don’t. What schools do and what they are has become unchallengeable because our stories about childhood have become unchallengeable. Childhood has been reduced to a kind of fetishised object having its inner states and subjectivities picked over and formalised. And it is schools that do very large amounts of the formalising.

Why the Left abandoned children’s education to the tender mercies of the Right probably says something critical about left-wing politics and its gendering, its ignorance of the politics of childhood or the possibilities for education, and its total inability to construct a vision of what it’s like to be a child.

The Right successfully engaged the Left in a battle for education on ideological grounds. Once they did that, the battle was virtually lost. For example, the Whitlam government introduced free preschool education for every Australian child. This was a major Labor initiative and founded on the premise generated by US research that early childhood education could act as a compensator to social disadvantage. Even today, one still finds advocates for early intervention in Australia bleating that every dollar of public money invested in early childhood education could save eight or nine dollars, money otherwise disbursed in building jails or funding welfare schemes. It’s this kind of thinking of children as units of economic investment that is exactly the problem. Often, these days, it comes in the guise of the statement – beloved of politicians and other tired public figures – ‘children are our future’.

Once the political discussion turned to education as a social lever that could produce certain kinds of people, the Right went to town. It’s a very small shift from viewing schools as shapers and moulders of children, to viewing them as being able to identify potential criminals. The social lever the Right wanted to jump up and down on was the one that produced children as compliant members of a global industrial workforce. I remember the current Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh, when she was the state’s Minister for Education saying, in her thuggish way, that the reason children go to school is so that they can get jobs. Nobody objected to her statement then, and I suspect almost no-one would object now.

Debates about schooling are frequently headline news. But these debates are pretty much sensationalist hysteria, often centred around claims that schoolchildren are becoming more and more illiterate, violent or vulnerable. Cue punitive Government responses: increased testing in schools, hand-wringing about ‘lost childhoods’, and proposals for ‘intervening’ in children’s lives earlier. Both the questioning in the ‘debate’ about children’s education, and any answers, are framed in exclusively right-wing terms.

The alternative school movement in Australia is pretty much dead, I think. There are still independent non-systemic schools around the country, but they all work within government-mandated curricula, are subject to government testing and are dependent on funding from those regimes. Innovative curricula is non-existent, because no-one knows what it looks like. There has been no serious discussion from the Left on what that curricula could be, what schools are for, or even who children are for forty years. That’s a long time to be silent on something. The most succinct comment I’ve heard on the schooling of children in three decades was in a song, sung by children.

There’s been some debate and action on the education of children by the Left in limited circles in Sweden and Italy. But ultra-conservative attitudes are now so embedded in Australian education that those arguments are easily appropriated, marginalised and eviscerated, and, consequently, made safe for policy makers.

Like ‘parenting’, a construct as quickly formalised by the Right as schooling was, the debate on children and education is couched in hysterical terms, with strident assertions that children stand on the edge of depravity or criminality, and that if we don’t learn to control them more rigorously and punitively, hell will break loose.

The pathologising of childhood that is now endemic to Australian social life has become a huge bag into which a lot of unsettling dangerous things, and unsettling dangerous children, can be put. It’s in the nature of our thinking about childhood that transgressions of what we say childhood is are pathologised. It’s as though childhood is the place we have to keep under surveillance, as though there is something unthinkable lurking there, something that can’t be contained or engaged or responded to fully, but, in fact, is better erased.

Within the Left you can find intelligent and searching discussion on almost any issue you care to name. But when you start to ask questions about children’s education, suddenly everyone’s a control freak, and the answers you hear are so depressing, so ignorant and self-serving, that there seems little point in asking the questions in the first place.

To think of a child as someone with agency and intelligence, and someone who is also marginalised and punitively governed, is a thinking completely outside the scope of both the Left and the Right.

It’s not complicated though. If you want to do some reflection (via a shortcut), you can try and build a coherent political philosophy and direction for action in regard to your thinking about children on the basis of the following two quotes:

Frank Zappa: ‘A child is a person. Just because they are shorter than you, doesn’t mean they are dumber than you.’

Hayao Miyazaki: ‘When I hear talk of children’s futures, I just get upset, because the future of a child is to become a boring adult.’

Start with those and see how you go.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Your chastising tone makes it hard to swallow, but an interesting article, thanks Stephen. I make theatre with children and teens and also with teachers. There’s a lot of good will in a very corrupt system – corrupt in its sexism, punitive approach and, I agree, right-wing conformist ideology.

  2. Chastising huh? I’ll have to think about that one.
    There may well be a lot of goodwill, but I think that is beside the point. My critique isn’t about individuals at all. I’m just wondering why radical thinking in regard to schooling has disappeared, and why we unthinkingly accept the status quo, and why schools haven’t substantially changed that much in a very very long time.

    1. It’s capitalism – if the kids aren’t in school, what else are we going to do with them? Their parents are at work – heck, even their grandparents might still be working! They’re not ‘safe’ in the streets, they’re not welcome at their parents’ workplaces, and childcare is an inadequate and frightening replica of our ‘socialising’ education system/s. And you’re right: who is there to combat capitalism but the Left? As you correctly ask: where is our voice? Parents are struggling daily with their children struggling daily with ‘school’ and its crazy demands – it is a deep question why we don’t object more than we do. Of course, there are home-schoolers who have taken the issue into their own hands. Keep writing, Stephen, as articles raising the question are few and far between, and can only help.

      1. I think homeschooling is a potentially interesting
        phenomenon. But only potentially. Firstly, because there is still a commitment to stick to the mandated State
        curriculum. Secondly because almost all of the homeschoolers I have met have been fairly affluent with specific expectations of their children, and thirdly because there is little discussion in homeschooling circles that challenges contemporary constructions of childhood.

        1. And I meant to add before that comment submitted itself without being asked to do so, that the issue you raise about the pervasiveness of schools is a very relevant one. I was talking to a few parents-to-be last week. None of them had any idea how terribly all consuming school was going to be in the a few years time, and how little control they would have about its effects. Anyway, how school got to be so pervasive is an
          interesting question, and one tied up with the relentless advance of neo-capitalism.

  3. I don’t see this post as particularly chastising; nor do I see it as particularly new or much of a contribution to ‘the’ or any debate or dialogue on the issue of schooling, education or deschooling at any level. (And I mean not to be hypercritical. I listen closely to any oppositional or other voices, or dissent on the current condition of schooling as a potential cornerstone of what could be a more inclusive, fluid, dynamic and democratic society.)

    If you are awaiting a voice from the ‘Left’, I’m not sure it exists anymore. This might be your point, but I’m not sure drawing or seeking age-old battlelines along historical notions of ‘Left’ versus ‘Right’ is all that useful. I mean who is ‘the Left’ of which you speak? (I look and listen for it in the current binary-oppositional context of all is/but is not political; but alas, this has long ago been subsumed into a polemic of: if you are not for us you are against us. Rephrased in schooling/education terms therefore, if it does not get one a job it is useless.) At best, ‘the Left’ now is a spectre of something that was put to death in the 1980s with the rise of what is now a globally triumphant, all pervasive neo-liberalism. This project of advanced capitalism is all too pervasive, diffuse and effusive to simply (uncritically) refer to as ‘the Right’. (For example, notions of a ‘Left’ in Australian terms have been progressively killed off by successive neo-liberal governments, starting with Hawke’s Labor government, swept up in a tide of Reaganomics and Thatcher-conservatism. Remember John Dawkins in terms of this neo-liberal led and funded project against notions that education and schooling might be a space for anything other than surveillance, subjugation and in this, only preparation for the labour market or diversion from prison?)

    I agree: this project used and continues to use various “pedagogies” inside and outside of schooling and formal education, attached to what might have been formerly identified with “right-wing agendas, policies [and] attitudes”. And yes again, just before the ‘the Left’ was slain and made a ghost there existed ‘other’ pedagogies attached to previously-thought-of as ‘Left’ discourses and these ghosts thankfully still haunt education. (See for example the works of Freire, Illich and as far back as Gramsci for a start. And later there is Giroux, McLaren and bell hooks.) Whilst the attack from the ruling ideology of neo-liberalism has moved to education and schooling at its very core in the form of pedagogy, and aimed at so-depicted bad or not good enough teachers. It is also within this core where some hope for education is found, within albeit rare teachers who are critically haunted by spectres of a leftist past and who have moved beyond the problematic Left v Right dialectic and humanist project.

    Nothing new is suggested when the advanced capitalist state is heavily implicated in the project of education and schooling to – from infant through to adulthood – subdue rather than empower. And whilst education and schooling predominantly works to bolster this hegemony, it also provides spaces for oppositional voices and politics. The workings of the (radical) Left once opened this space; however, the argument and discourse has moved on about how and for what this space should be used in contesting neo-liberal hegemony. If anything is left of or even vaguely attached to ‘the Left’, there is little point waiting for permission to enter educational or spaces of schooling with it, or announcing arrival: this door has been firmly closed by ‘the Right’ or neo-liberalism, who have most powerfully used education and schooling to shut all Other voices out. We have been educated since the early 1980s against anything Left, and the neo-liberal hegemony is well prepared to deal with them.

    1. Hi, and thanks very much for this comprehensive comment. I’m not sure I get everything you’re saying – though there is much I agree with – but I’ll try to make some sort of coherent response, or at least do an impersonation.
      I’m not arguing that what I’m saying is anything new. Though if it’s “not much” of a contribution you might have to give a better argument in saying why.
      Firstly, it’s still useful I think to tag arguments in this form as Left or Right. This is a blog not a Peter McLaren polemic, and the couching of an argument in the way I’ve done can be a useful way to establish some thinking and maybe some debate in areas where very little thinking is done.
      Whether the ‘Left’ exists anymore as a discrete object might be irrelevant. There are still experiences or ideas one can contingently tag as Left for all kinds of purposes. I’m not waiting for a voice from the Left at all. That’s the last thing on my mind. I’m merely pointing out that since Holt, or Freire or Illich there’s been sweet FA in regard to critical thinking in regard to who children are and how childhood is constituted and even less action in regard to establishing projects that might put that thinking into action. American academics like Giroux and McLaren hardly constitute a threat to contemporary normative thinking on education and the politics of childhood generally. In fact invoking Illich and Freire etc etc just underlines my point I think. You are right to invoke them as ghosts because that’s what they are. That’s all that’s left of the thinking they created.
      I’m not sure what you are advocating though. Cheering on ‘rare teachers’ seems a somewhat anaemic response to the all-pervasiveness of schooling. ‘Rare teachers’ might be exactly part of the problem. Teachers might be part of the problem. The teacher-student relationship might be the problem. Thinking about schools at all as challengeable and the processes they embody might be the problem. I’m not that interested in schools or ‘education’ generally. Both are lost causes. My point is just to ask a simple question as to why in whatever critical marginal political thinking has been doing the rounds over the past few decades the constitution of childhood has become unquestioned. And to suggest that for those who haven’t considered the question, there might be a few simple starting points that can be used in one’s daily life that don’t require familiarity with a particular pantheon of thinkers.

      1. As an undergrad in the 1970s I studied the work of Goodman, Holt, Freire, AS Neill, Monstessori, Steiner, Illich, Dewey and others. It changed my life by shining a torch on the process of institutional socialisation I had been subjected to during my primary and secondary years and caused me to question the university establishment.

        Consequently, my children went to Steiner schools and I can confirm that there is a great deal of discussion among teachers and parents in that growing sector about the child and his/her paradoxically fragile and remarkably robust world. More importantly, theory is put into a highly disciplined, child-centred practice. Steiner education exhibits no political allegiances or philosophical debt to ideology. It is a growing area of choice in education, modestly subsidised and in some states partially integrated into the public school system.
        So, the field is not entirely barren and I am sure there are other examples.

        Australia shifted from an authoritarian, neoclassical system of education in immediate post war period, to a brief and mostly marginal flirtation with radical alternatives in the 1970s before settling into the technocratic, increasingly privatised model we have today. I think it is fair to say that the Left’s main historical contribution to education has been advocacy of the public sector, an advocacy underpinned by notions of equity and accessibility. However, neither the Left nor the Right (if we must used those vexed terms) have differed very much in their views on educational philosophy and have instead drifted to a consensus that education is essentially a utilitarian process whose central purpose is to prepare the student for the workforce, paid or unpaid.

        As Stephen suggests, and I think bscare is in violent agreement with despite the nuance, it is timely to call upon those who identify as progressive to reaffirm an interest in educational philosophy and to contribute to the development of theory and practice that reflects the vision and values behind the widely expressed desire for a sustainable, people-centred future.

        One final point: I now teach at the tertiary level at a private institution and I find it quite disturbing that the student has now morphed into the customer. In that context, the role of the educator is, in management-speak, to deliver quality outcomes that meet customer expectations. The student, or paying customer, is therefore in the rather odd position of dictating how they should be educated. A strange twist on child centred education. I’m glad I’m not a doctor.

        1. Boris, you write so beautifully. At Charles Sturt Uni, ‘teachers’ are called ‘learning managers’. With a push in business toward ‘plain English’, it is farcical that the Education Dept. is barreling toward ‘eduspeak’ at a rate of knots.

          1. Bingo Clare. Obfuscation is endemic and teachers
            fear their customers.
            Thanks for the bouquet.
            I think the Overland blog motto should be (in Latin, of course): We Punctuate.

        2. it is perhaps naive to think that any legitimized form of schooling or education is free of political or philosophical allegiances to ideology. Schools are ideological factories. As Paulo Freire argues, “education is politics”.

  4. firstly, i want to withdraw my comment that you haven’t contributed to the dialogue Stephen, you have and i thank you for it. There should be more of it, outside of the academy and in more accessible spaces such as these.

    When I first read your original post, I was excited by it, particularly your use of the word “pedagogies”. I do think this is where an important key lies: in problematising, critical thinking and real engagement with such theoretical and philosophical concepts as pedagogy. This is so important for teachers (pedagogues) at all levels in education and schooling. I think that this is along the lines of what Boris is saying too – advancing new theories of education. I just think we need to move beyond the Left/Right rhetoric.

    1. Thanks for clarifying your interest in the concept of pedagogies, as I wasn’t sure which way you were going with it. That’s very helpful. And thanks for your input and thinkign generally, with further thanks to Clare and Boris. The concept of pedagogies is as you say a potentially critical idea. However, I’d dispute that we need new theories of education. Its not that we don’t need new thinking, but I wonder myself if we need different ways of thinking about children (and consequently about ourselves generally), different sociologies in fact. Theories of education always have me reaching for my custard pie these days. I just can’t see how any new theory could be activated in contemporary schools, and any theory that has as its basis enactment in that setting is already compromised. Boris raised the issue of Steiner schools.I don’t agree that Steiner schools have no philosophical debt or have no political allegiances. Every educational practice has philosophical debt and political allegiances, and I think Steiner’s relationship to anthroposophy is highly problematic. Also Steiner education has some presence in the Vic educational system. I don’t think this could happen unless their political allegiances and underpinnings were highly compatible with the governing of the state system and the governing of children generally.
      These posts are all highly prolix aren’t they?

      1. Perhaps not new theories, but deeper and more critical thinking on education theory and practice. And perhaps allowing access to ‘old” theories, pedagogies and thinking on pedagogies, such as those previously attached or thought of as attached to the left.

        Prolix? It is a big and complex issue and it should be problematised as such. There is no ‘simple’ way out as this can be implicated in dumbing-down which is a key component of the neo-liberal project that eradicated the so-called left.

        Thanks also for foregrounding my thinking on these issues of left and right, which are most pertinent and relevant today particularly in the political/media context.

  5. Hi Stephen,
    Now you’ve lost me. You began by castigating the Left (and Right) for negligence; then proceeded to eschew education theory of any colour, it seems, though you nod in the direction of Holt, Lllich, Freire..; and, finally, you appear to be completely opposed to any system of education whatsoever.

    There’s a lot of criticism here but little constructive thought.

    With respect, it is just plain wrong to suggest that the Steiner stream of education in Australia has defined political allegiances simply because it receives modest government subsidy. Assertions like that lead us down a very slippery slope.

    I’m just not sure what you are advocating, Stephen. But I respect your views and read all your posts with great interest so perhaps you need to spell out what you really think. What is to be done?

    1. A friend has just completed her uni degree to become an early childhood educator (after 13 years as an assistant in Steiner Kinder). There is a lot of energy being put, by the mainstream, into the rights of children, into cultural inclusion (diversity); into the protection of childhood, into ‘upping’ the profile of early childhood educators (mostly women): but she found that when it came to the goodwill of such study, inquiry and inspiration being transformed into pedagogy – a bizarre ‘eduspeak’ mindset takes over and the actual experience of ‘being a child’ and ‘being a teacher’ for that matter, goes out the window. And even from early childhood, it’s all about ‘the job’ or ‘the outcome’ and the actual experience of being unfettered, of being human, of relating to nature, of developing the inner forces of compassion, courage and endeavour, of learning how to feed and clothe ourselves and those who rely on us – these are considered ‘romantic’ and nothing to do with ‘education’. And parents conform because we’re brainwashed into believing in materialism and capitalism. Now small children are demanding ‘brands’. What is to be done? An end to advertising and vested interest would be a good place to start. How do we end that? Gee, I dunno.

      1. Maybe these guys know?

        Big A little A bouncing B
        The sytem might have got you but it won’t get me
        1 2 3 4
        External control are you gonna let them get you?
        Do you wanna be a prisoner in the boundaries they set you?
        You say you want to be yourself
        By Christ do you think they’ll let you?
        They’re out to get you get you get you get you get you get you
        Hello, hello, hello, this is the Lord God, can you hear?
        Hellfire and damnation’s what I’ve got for you down there
        On earth I have ambassadors. archbishop. vicar. pope
        We’ll blind you with morality, you’d best abandon any hope,
        We’re telling you you’d better pray cos you were born in sin
        Right from the start we’ll build a cell and then we’ll lock you in
        We sit in holy judgment condemning those that stray
        We offer our forgiveness, but first we’ll make you pay
        Hello. hell. hell, now here’s a message from your queen
        As figurehead of the status quo I set the social scene
        I’m most concerned about my people, I want to give them peace
        So I’m making sure they stay in line with my army and police
        My prisons and my mental homes have ever open doors
        For those amongst my subjects who dare to ask for more
        Unruliness and disrespect are things I can’t allow
        So I’ll see the peasants grovel if they refuse to bow.
        Introducing the Prime Sinister, she’s a mother to us all
        Like the Dutch boy’s finger in the dyke her arse is in the wall
        Holding back the future waiting for the seas to part
        If Moses did it with his faith, she’ll do it with an army
        Who at times of threatened crisis are certain to be there
        Guarding national heritage no matter what or where
        Palaces for kings and gueens, mansions for the rich
        Protection for the wealthy, defense of privilege
        They’ve learnt the ropes in Ireland, engaged in civil war
        Fighting for the ruling classes in their battle against the poor
        Great Britain? Future? bollocks, you’d better look behind
        Round every other corner stands P.C. 1984
        Guardian of the future, he’ll implement the law
        Big brothers system’s always there with his beady eyes on you
        From God to local bobby, in home and street and school
        They’ve got you name and number while you’ve just got their rule
        We’ve got to look for methods to undermine those powers
        It’s time to change the tables, the future must be ours.
        BE exactly who you want to be, do what you want to do
        I am he and she is she but you’re the only you
        No one else has got your eyes, can see the things you see
        It’s up to you to change your life and my life’s up to me
        The problems that you suffer from are problems that you make
        The shit we have to climb through is the shit we choose to take
        If you don’t like the life you life, change it now it’s yours
        Nothing has effect if you don’t recognise the cause
        If the programmes’s not the one you want, get up, turn off the set
        It’s only you that can decide what life you’re gonna get
        If you don’t like religion you can be the antichrist
        If your tired of politics you can be an anarchist
        But no one ever changed the church by pulling down the steeple
        And you’ll never change the system by bombing number ten
        Systems just aren’t made of bricks they’re most made of people
        You may send then into hiding, but they’ll be back again
        If you don’t like the rules they make, refuse to play their game
        If you don’t want to be a number, don’t give them your name
        If you don’t want to be caught out, refuse to hear their question
        Silence is a virtue, use it for your own protection
        They’ll try to make you play their game,refuse to show your face
        Be exactly who you want to be, do what you want to do
        I am he and she is she but you’re the only you.

  6. A recent issue of The Nation (June 14) covered similar issues and failures in the US education system, and looked at a number of ways to address it.

    Interestingly, a number of the authors are involved in ‘A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education’, that states, ‘Evidence demonstrates, however, that achievement gaps based on socioeconomic status are present before children even begin formal schooling’, suggesting an early intervention strategy. But what they argue for is a broad program of activities that would increase student involvement – the result being disadvantaged children with the same advantages as children from middle-class (and upper-class) backgrounds.

    Given that everyone must have the same access to education, this seems admirable but does it mean more schooling? If students could choose their own activities, it would seem less like a manufacturing process.

    There are also very real pressures on students in the US. Currently it’s summer holidays there, yet my sister is on a Geometry camp because she feels her Geometry isn’t quite good enough (and luckily her family can afford it). When applying for college, all those camps, after-school activities and everything else you do counts toward your entry.

    That being said, during my brush with the US education system in a middle-income town (and it makes all the difference when your town funds the school), the extra-curricula opportunities were far more than in the Victorian state school I went to.

    So why, given that the US is the pointy end of neoliberalism, is there more debate surrounding their education system? (Could it be because of more disparity in the US system? A weakened Australian Education Union?) The Labor government is even adopting strategies (testing and tracking students) that failed in the US and were dismantled in Finland in the 1980s.

  7. Thank you everyone for entering this debate. A few things, Boris first as he has a lot of questions. Yes Boris, people frequently say to me that I’ve lost them, so I’ll try to clarify and offer constructive suggestions. I note that Overlanders often want constructive suggestions for things.
    Once there was some debate about what education as for, and what it is. Now there is very little except within very narrow confines. When I say I am not interested in education I mean that I am not interested in debates about how children should be educated because the debate has now become impossible outside narrow ideological confines. These confines are predicated on particular assumptions of children that no-one would consider challenging, and these assumptions frequently swamp everything else. If you want to debate constructions of childhood then I’m your man. Benjamin raises a few issues about education in the US, and again to get sucked into that debate is to ride on unquestioned assumptions about what education is for, who children are and so on. The US ‘debate’ isn’t really debate. Just briefly, before I get all constructive, I am not criticising Steiner schools because they receive govt funding. I am criticising them because they claim to be apolitical and aphilosophical, which is frankly bullshit. As Benjamin points out education is always about politics.
    If you are interested in how childhood is constituted, which is also to ask how adulthood is constituted too, then wondering about methods of education become redundant. Asking questions about childhood’s construction immediately takes you into a marginal space. From that marginal space interesting things can happen, but they will only ever be short term and it’s unlikely you will build an empire out of them. Let me give you a personal example that might help, though I usually try to avoid such things.
    From 2004 to 2008 I lived in Brisbane involved in a project I co-created with several other people. The project involved a child care centre. Child care is the absolute bottom of the educational pyramid. It is a ghetto, and I have written about this at length in various publications. It is inhabited by mostly young women, paid rubbish wages, and usually run for-profit. Ours I should say, was not run for profit. Men are not welcome, and are not welcome in early child ed generally. Early childhood ed is insular, conservative and though it is 95% female not exactly a hotbed of feminist thinking. Child care is also sometimes a dumping ground for desperate parents who want a space other than home for their children for various reasons. Child care centres are small prisons. They are highly regulated and policed by govt regs and by attitudes of early childhood professionals, academics and so forth. No-one would work there unless they had too.Because of this child care can be precisely a place where something interesting can happen, as they are incredibly marginal locations. For me and my colleagues they are largely places with large numbers of unhappy children, so of course we would want to get in there as fast as possible, even if meant working for scummy wages. But because there are large numbers of children there, many who virtually live there, we could begin to build an autonomous community of children and adults, highly-politicised, and radicalised. It was an attempt at a different kind of sociology and the results were astounding. What did we do with children? We researched our lives and thoughts together, and documented these as rich political actions. It was a short-term project and after 5 years we shut it down. The most amazing things happened in that location, and it was easily the most radical early childhood project seen in this country.
    This a process I am advocating then. Find a marginal space. Politicise it and do it co-operatively and do it co-operatively with the children and adults you are with. Find new ways of making that politicisation visible. Stop thinking of ‘education.’ Think about political constructed identities and do it with humour.
    I hope this helps everyone’s thinking.

    1. Apologies to bscare, who put the ‘education is politics’ argument, not Benjamin. BTW .y comment on prolixity was intended as a humorous one. Nothing seems to breed lengthy debate like the subject of education. Probably because so many teachers get involved, a profession that is not noted for its inability to talk at length.

    2. Stephen,
      You wrote:
      “I am not criticising Steiner schools because they receive govt funding. I am criticising them because they claim to be apolitical and aphilosophical, which is frankly bullshit.”

      I can’t leave this without a couple of brief comments.

      How a system of education functioning within a philosophical framework could be construed as ‘aphilosophical’ is lost on me. As for ‘apolitical’, my point was that you did make a link between receipt of government funding implying subscrption to political ideology. I think your argument here is paper thin.

      For the record, I am not an anthroposophist and have no ties with the Steiner education system other than having been a parent whose children clearly benefited from the experience.

      1. Hi Boris, thanks for this.
        I was responding to your statement that Steiner schools have no “political allegiances or philosophical debt to ideology.”
        I don’t think that is true. I don’t see how it can possibly be true. I didn’t, as far as I can see on re-reading my comments, object to Steiner schools receiving subsidies that any independent school might receive. I was making the point, that the Steiner streams that I understand are present in some Vic public schools are there because politically they fit well with the ideological governance that constitutes the school system. If they didn’t fit they wouldn’t be there.
        Your children may well have benefited from their schooling and I’m very happy if they did. In regard to my argument that’s neither here nor there. Schools are political enterprises, that are interested in very concrete outcomes that have only incidental connection with the well-being of individuals. For schools to describe themselves as apolitical or without ideology doesn’t make a lot of sense. Schools are first and foremost, ideological enterprises. That’s why they exist.

      2. i agree with Stephen that schooling and education are political and ideological contexts. Indeed, they are ideological factories. What should teachers do about this? they should, as I think Stephen suggests, not ignore the politics and work to politicise it further. Essentially, this is a big part of Freire’s and critical pedagogy’s project. And here in lies a major problem with education: the politics and ideology is attempted to be ignored. Most new/beginning teachers just leaving education and ‘training’ are unaware of the politics and ideology of education and think their work is unproblematic. Pedagogical work is a neverending and critical project, requiring constant reflection and reflexivity in the pedagogue. They need to be critically aware of their contexts, the world and their relationship with these context, the world and their students.

  8. Hi Stephen

    sine no one else has taken up your challenge to think through the two quotes you end your post with, I’ll have a go:

    Firstly, Zappa’s quote is extremely radical. I read it as very anti-developmental. Ie, most educational-speak I hear/read, whether mainstream or alternative, seems predicated on a developmental story, of increasing knowledge/prowess. Start dumb, get smarter. Start unaware, get conscious. Start morally unhinged, get anchored. Start young, get older. Etc.

    I think it is possible to trace the narrative of our lives as developing from one state to another. But the developmental story in education seems so negative to me — I mean ‘negative’ in that the story is always about the student/learner is is someone who is ‘not yet’… not yet smart, not yet proficient, not yet moral etc. A pedagogy of lack. You the student lack something, and I the teacher, and we the educational community/system, will address that lack.

    Until we are talking about a different narrative – one of positive difference – then I’m not really interested in talk of being ‘critically aware’ of our educational frameworks. By ‘positive difference’ I mean that we can have stories of abundance, of what people actually are, what they are doing, how they are living and growing and shrinking and reconfiguring. So a child, or any ‘learner’, is someone to firstly get to know, because they have stuff in abundance that we do not yet know — keeping them, and ourselves, in the state of openness to the other.

    1. Thanks for this Luke. Yes, exactly, I am not at all interested in educational theory, at least not anymore, and thanks for taking up the challenge of the two quotes, which is really what the whole blog was about. Education is dominated by developmental theory of various kinds, theories of how human beings are to be constituted, and how they are to be pathologised. The fact that developmental theories as a way of constructing who we are, are so endemic seems to me to speak volumes about the influence of schools as agents of social construction. As this post has shown getting a discussion about education as a political structure that gets outside of the boundaries of educational theory is extremely difficult.Schools have become invisible in many ways, and that’s why they are so effective.
      As I said earlier, in another comment a conversation about childhood is constructed is a very different conversation to one about educational theory, but it’s very difficult conversation to have. The only conversation that’s more difficult, where children are concerned, is about the politics of parenting.
      In regard to which, I found another quote from Zappa about childhood:
      “I am disturbed by the way people like that treat their children…..: “A perfect child? Of course! We have one here — he’s under the
      coffee table. Ralph, stand up! Play the violin!”
      It’s as if they are saying, “Yeah, just look at HIM. We fucked! This came out. Now he can do so much
      homework! Yeah, we have a good boy. How about yours? Those people over there — they have an ugly
      one with a Jughead hat.”
      “Oh, we got ours a coonskin one — he was so-o-o grateful.”
      The more boring the child is, the more the parents, when showing off the child, receive adulation for
      being good parents — because they have a tame child-creature in their house.
      That’s why they’ll bring their neighbors in, open the door to the kid’s room and show him off: “Here, look
      at this! Ever seen one of these up close?””

  9. Secondly, Miyazaki: A child’s future is a boring topic if it means we imagine them to grow up into the current world in predictable ways (ie, just as the developmental stories of education predict – there is a destination – the ‘educated’, ‘moral’, ‘critical aware’, ‘creative’ or whatever person/adult, we we can imagine which our current frameworks and predicaments). But it is a gracious and intriguing topic if by a ‘child’s future’ we can ever imagine that their future could be different to ours, in structure and character and not just in substance, because they might abundantly deal with our current world in their own ways thus creating their own new worlds.

    If this is the case, that our children could have futures we can not ever imagine (but which we could experience if we join in with them and their worlds), then we can stop worrying about ‘preparing’ our children, and starting wondering (as in, be in wonderment at, and wonder about, and wander with) about who they might be-and-becoming.

    Just as a simple practical example: Let’s look at languages/literacy (like ‘English’, numeracy, ways of being online and working with computing technologies, ancient crafts and codes etc) is something that someone (‘student’, ‘child’, and me and you) might take up, in order to do things, including build new worlds and care in better ways. Rather than literacy being a necessary thing that all children need to adequately join in our current world. Well, actually, one of the things child can to with literacy/languages is to join in with our current world, but there’s some much more. Let’s start by being open to find out what.

    1. Oh, Ok, you did Miyazaki too. Miyazaki is very interesting as he is committed to the reality of children as people. The whole notion of children as “our future” is predicated on an idea of ownership (“OUR future’) children as ourselves replicated, as extensions of us, a somewhat narcissistic idea and rather psychotic I think. It’s an idea that helps us who have forgotten we were children comfort ourselves, but not useful to the children concerned.
      Whatever minority group is being persecuted by our weird political policies, children are always the minority within that minority, our ideas of childhood governed so rigidly that the children are invisible. (See my post on War=Dead Children).
      Literacy is a an interesting example of governance, because it is so very narrowly defined (even if you go as far as Howard Gardner and his bizarre theories of ‘multiple intelligences’) and is strictly utilitarian.
      The full quote of Miyazaki’s BTW is: “This may sound like a zen mondo [question-and-answer session], but when I hear talk of children’s futures, I just get upset, because the future of a child is to become a boring adult. Children have only the moment. In that moment, an individual child is gradually passing through the stage of childhood, the world of childhood-passing through it from moment to moment. But there are children in existence all the time. That’s the way it should be understood, in my opinion. This can’t be said clearly with words.”
      Miyazaki’s quote can be easily mis-read I think, that children exist in some sort of state of innocence unconcerned with past or future, but somehow ‘developing’. But I think Miyazaki is talking around something, something very concrete, something similar to the reification of childhood which I have been talking about.

      1. “Miyazaki is talking around something, something very concrete, something similar to the reification of childhood which I have been talking about.”

        which is…?

        1. That a child is a PERSON. And, as Nigel Molesworth succinctly put it, “‘Grown ups are what’s left when skool is finished.’ “

          1. And also, as I wrote in a comment above: “Find a marginal space. Politicise it and do it co-operatively and do it co-operatively with the children and adults you are with. Find new ways of making that politicisation visible. Stop thinking of ‘education.’ Think about political constructed identities and do it with humour.”

  10. ok.

    so I often get asked about my twin boys (under 1 years of age): “Are they good babies?” or “They seem good…”

    I often counter with a question: “By ‘good’, do you mean ‘convenient’?” Conversation tends to end at this point, which I don’t mind.

    Very few people ask: what are they like, who are they becoming, what sort of energy or vibe do you get from them? Or else: are you (the parent) being good to them?

    1. And…

      So many people demand of my children that they smile for them. “Are you going to smile for me…”

      But I asked my five-year old what she thought of people always asking kids to smile, or commenting on her hair. She said it was boring, and annoying.

    2. That’s very funny. The ‘convenient’ riposte I mean.
      I wrote a paper about babies a couple of years ago, that was published in a professional journal and was basically about how we concretise babies (and hence ourselves), mostly because we find them frightening and puzzling I think. There was an Adam Phillips quote in there as I remember, that goes something like “It’s not a common enough knowledge that everyone was once a baby.”

  11. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all the quotes in the blog and comments come from artists:
    – Molesworth on ‘skool’ (a character in a book, from Stephen)
    – Frank Zappa on ‘not dumber’ and ”perfect’ children (muso, from Stephen)
    – Hayao Miyazaki on ‘children’s futures’ (animator, from Stephen)
    – Crass on ‘Big A little A’ (band, from Clare)
    (and I was going to add a quote from Michael Leunig, but didn’t in the end)

    The kind of ideas and questions I’ve suggested above, which I think link with much Stephen has been saying, have been provoked in me by various people I might call ‘sensitive artists/creators’ (although ‘doing art’ will for them and myself be quite a problematic catch phrase) who have somehow been caught up in education (from early childhood through to tertiary).

    And such ideas seem very different to what non-sensitive-artists think about education, even from the very enthusiastic and caring.

    I use the term ‘sensitive artist’ guardedly (and I know I haven’t explained here what I mean by it), but the larger point I want to make is that ‘education’ will look very different to people who think of humans as creators, rather than humans as follows/leaders/consumers etc. To create sensitively is to be open to a future not-yet know, not-yet-experienced, not-yet-lived, which somehow connects with and makes more ethical/passionate/alive/renewed the world we already finds ourselves in. As such, the PERSON is itself one of the great ongoing creations.

    1. Luke: What remarkable ground we cover. I might add, and remark explaining my joke further, that Nigel Molesworth, and the St Trinians’girls (subject of the YouTube clip) were both creations of Ronald Searle (now I believe 90 years old) one of whose formative life experiences was as an inmate of Changi. Schools seemed to be a natural arena for him to play out his Changi nightmares.
      Schools are not generally noted for their encouragement of non-conformity, either in thought or behaviour. Once non-conformity would have got you the cane, now it will get you a diagnosis and other forms of punishment. If one thinks of institutional and psychological life as the construction or definitions of persons then ‘education’ starts to take on interesting complexions, and schools start to look decidedly weird. A school as a gathering of persons for the sake of being gathered together and thinking and acting what personhood is and could be, (the politics, the action, the governance etc) would be a most unusual enterprise. But under current regimes of educational policing would be closed down fairly rapidly. So I take your point on ‘sensitive artist’, but there really has to be another more disruptive, less lame, term to use.
      I remembered while writing this note, that John Burningham (author of the great ‘Avocado Baby’, ‘Courtney”The Magic Bed’ etc etc and not to be confused with John Birmingham author of the terrible ‘Dopeland’etc) went to school at Summerhill in the 1950’s.

  12. what about… crazy-beautiful-awkward-open maker? (instead of ‘sensitive artist’).

    Of course, by suggesting that different types of people might imagine education differently, we are now heading into a conversation about who we think we should become (an ethical, political, communal question) since who we think we should become is what we think education/learning/schooling should look like.

    which is a debate about humanity, and what to care about, or: how to care.

    1. >what about… crazy-beautiful-awkward-open maker? (instead of ’sensitive artist’).

      You’re gettin’ there. What about ‘ratbag’? Or ‘nuisance’?

      >which is a debate about humanity, and what to care about, or: how to care.


      1. Stephen,
        surely being a nuisance, or ratbag, or non-conformist, or disrupter, are all by products (perhaps necessarily, but not always?) of the crazy-beautiful creator, and/or, the driving force of some creators — but being a hassle to norms is hardly creative itself, as it would simply ratify the norm (anti-norm = re-establishing the norm)… we don’t all need to play the joker card, right?

        maybe ‘an operator in the wide-open space, that looks like margins or crack to the power centres’ is what you are getting at… (to re-use terms from your previous posts).

      2. Stephen,
        surely being a nuisance, or ratbag, or non-conformist, or disrupter, are all by products (perhaps necessarily, but not always?) of the crazy-beautiful creator, and/or, the driving force of some creators — but being a hassle to norms is hardly creative itself, as it would simply ratify the norm (anti-norm = re-establishing the norm)…
        maybe ‘an operator in the wide-open space, that looks like margins or crack to the power centres’ is what you are getting at… (to re-use terms from your previous posts).

        1. Yes, I’m just joking. I’m interested in nomenclature
          and, like you I guess, I don’t think we have enough variance in our thinking of such labels as ‘writer’ or ‘teacher’.
          It was Donald Barthelme (I think) who said that the writer
          is the person who when they start to write has no idea
          what they are doing. I sort of take this to mean that you have to have a scepticism about what you are doing each time you do it, a scepticism about being a ‘writer’ or an ‘artist’, which is why I was throwing around words like ‘nuisance’ to try and get a feeling for the person who doesn’t take themselves so seriously, and is sceptical of ‘artistic’ discourses.

          1. I like this.
            If we are not sure what we doing when we start to do something, we are not actually beginning,
            but just continuing what work in another situation
            which might not work in this one (unless you believe that all the world and our situations are the same, one program/method/solution/approach/practice cannot work all the time)

            And so it is with ‘teacher’, ‘educator’,
            ‘learning manager’ or whoever…

  13. Yes, for a long time I struggled with this, because I just didn’t get writing a novel or doing a painting, and then writing ANOTHER novel, or doing another painting and so on. I thought that I was obviously too stupid to understand artistic processes.
    It was the same with working with young children. It took me a dozen years to begin to see that there was a lot in the politics of education and the politics of the governance of children that was being industriously swept under the carpet, and that wired into education – as in ‘art’ – were a whole raft of unexamined preconceptions, strategies, structures, etc etc blah blah. So now, after many years I feel a lot better. Slow learner.

  14. Great piece Snufkin. Do you actually do the pine needle thing in winter and when will spring be here? I am dreading the spring. It will make me feel very sad – perhaps for a childhood lost. Already the bloody wattles are out.

  15. Oh, why am I late for this discussion? …
    I need to contribute anyway, so:
    Here is a groundbreaking idea: children are the present. People are the present no matter what age they are. And they are who they are, that is individual, changing human beings. I am pro unschooling/natural learning/community based learning. Please visit to see what I have been doing about the issues discussed.

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