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A hope for 2015: teachers become more resistant to the politicisation of pedagogy

true gritI was interested in the response to the Teach First BLOG particularly the reference to neo-Thatcherism and the cult of “no society”.  One or two stated that they couldn’t see anything in the Teach First advert other than society. I offered to BLOG a response and here it is.

The world seems to be divided amongst those who think that Margaret Thatcher said there was no society and those who claim she didn’t. It’s become one of the the defining statements of the neo-liberal era.

So what did Margaret Thatcher say:

What is wrong with the deterioration? [mistranscription?] I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and[fo 29] there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.

If children have a problem, it is society that is at fault. There is no such thing as society.[fo 30] There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.

I think the most wrong headed assumption of this ideology, amongst a number, is that society exists solely as a group of individuals and government can only function through the conduit of individuals. That is clearly wrong. Many governments exist in the world with little or no recourse to the individuals they purport to govern.

The missing factor is power relations. Individuals do not have equal access to power. It’s the antithesis of the Marxist view that power is concentrated in hierarchical structures. In a society that composes solely of individuals there are no hierarchical power structures and, in effect,  no power. It’s a convenient argument for the powerful. It’s also ironic that by denying the existence of power structures most individuals are denied access to power and individual agency. Michael Gove has played this game to perfection, by sidelining structures designed to distribute power, such as local authorities, you effectively centralise power for the few and marginalise the many.

In fairness to Margaret Thatcher the extent to which she attacked the public services is not always substantiated by the facts. The subsequent Labour government under Blair was arguably more Thatcherite than Margaret Thatcher. During the Thatcher years the ideological landscape had changed as had the notion, of “what needed to be done”. Policies similar to those of Blair and Brown were replicated in many Western countries.

World view, the ideological landscape, is important. It’s how we construct our ideas. It’s possibly  why some see the statement above as an assault on society and others see is a reasonable point about self reliance and aspiration. We have different world views.

It’s often said that if private schools are good at anything it’s instilling confidence in young people. Grit, confidence and aspiration are not solely personality traits. Cognition makes a rational assessment of the environment and makes a judgement on whether it’s safe or not.  Private schools succeed in instilling confidence not because of some magic formula but because they are elitist. You have to be a winner in life to go to one. Their alumini are aspirational because it makes sense for them, when when they think about it, to be so. Elitism creates its own world view that cannot be replicated. What if your world view is based on poverty, disability or mental health issues. What then the talk of grit and individual failure?

The interesting thing about the Teach First advert when you watch it properly is the argument presented as to why low income families become losers in life. It’s not because of society or unequal power relations; it’s because individual teachers won’t work with low income families as a consequence education is unfair.

That is some claim.  There is no mention of the responsibilities of governance, society, OFSTED, the pressure on individual teachers and the consequences to teacher’s livelihoods of failure. I bet few agree. And yet very clever people think long and hard about constructing messages. They have to, their jobs depend on it.  Neo-Thatcherism has taken such a grip on society that what was once perceived as perhaps the most shocking statement of it’s time is pretty much common place.

It’s a well documented phenomenon:

Furthermore, the shift towards promoting corporate over social welfare redefines the relationship between the individual and society. Under Keynesian welfare policies, social justice required decreasing inequality through social programs and a redistribution of resources and power (Levitas, 1998, p. 14). Under neo-liberal post-welfare policies, inequality is a result of individuals’ inadequacy, which is to be remedied not by increasing dependency through social welfare, but by requiring that individuals strive to become productive members of the workforce. The goal for neo-liberal societies is to create the competitive, instrumentally rational individual who can compete in the marketplace (Peters, 1994).

It’s no co-incidence therefore that we currently see government ministers promoting the concept of grit and the armed forces. It’s political and not pedagogical. The individual is to blame for everything. There is no one else. Society is constructed entirely from individuals.

It’s ironic that a profession often associated with lack of aspiration and individual failure, “those who can, do those who can’t, teach” is not more resistant to zombie politics and the politicisation of pedagogy.  Perhaps the explanation is that teachers have a world view that reflects a commitment to making a difference and not making money.

The underlying fault line of pragmatism and the “what works” agenda is, quite simply, if the presiding worldview is that “what works” is the economy and market forces how are teachers supposed to differentiate between “making a difference” and making money.  The message I think is clear; teachers have to be more resistant to zombie politics and politicised pedagogy.

Top of the hat to @Totallywired77 for reminding me about Giroux

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