‘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.