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The riots: empowering the wastrels?

In 1899 the National Union of Teachers argued that ‘the danger to the British Empire lies within the homeland. The wastrel, the ne’er-do-well, the rickety and the criminal, these and not the Krupp gun or continental jealousy are the real danger’. This, the union argued, demonstrated the importance of the authoritative teacher in maintaining civic order, and they’re claims we’re hearing repeated in the aftermath of last week’s riots. We need, some argue, to clamp down on ‘chaotic classrooms’.

I believe that education is indeed the key to overcoming many of the problems that created the riots last week, but it’s a very different kind of ‘education’ to the one the NUT defended over a century ago – and still advanced by many politicians and commentators today.

In my PhD, I look at how education can be used in a number of ways. To simplify enormously, I argue that it can either be used as a tool prising open the future – enabling people to have a collective say in what kind of world they want to live in; or it can be used to close off political change and reinforce dominant ideologies. Given that I believe these riots were – in part – caused by people who do not believe they have a future, I think it is vital that we choose the former variety of education: what I will here call ‘popular education’ (drawing on the tradition developed in Latin America in the latter half of the previous century). Its task must be to empower ‘the wastrel, the ne’er-do-well, the rickety and the criminal’ so that they can shake off these labels and help shape their communities and their futures.

I must be clear that I am not offering popular education as a pragmatic suggestion to help integrate people into capitalist society. Popular education’s role is not to create a ‘level-playing field’ for ‘equality of opportunity’, but to make visible the structures which perpetuate inequality, and to collectively empower people so they can do something about this. It is thus a far cry from much of the emphasis on ‘authority’ in education we are currently seeing, which is designed to keep people in their place. Ethics aside, this is a ludicrous premise given that so many have no ‘place’ in which to be kept: capitalist society has already made it quite clear it does not want them – there are, let us recall, 54 unemployed people for every job in Tottenham.

With a number of successes around the world, popular education rejects the traditional, top-down mode of teaching in favour of an educational space which is negotiated between teacher and learner and is shaped by learners’ desires. It might, for example, give students a space to talk about their experiences of the police (both positive and negative), and proceed from this to ask why different students might have different experiences. It might expand to consider why some people commit crime, why certain crimes have sentences that seem disproportionately high and so on. In such discussions, the knowledges of the students – together with those of the educator (who will be learning with the class) – combine to arrive at a more concrete understanding of issues which affect students’ everyday lives, providing a springboard for action and organising. It thus offers one way for the energies unleashed in the riots in such a nihilistic, destructive manner to be given a more positive, utopian character.

The key problem is finding spaces for this kind of education. It is almost impossibile in mainstream schools, and youth clubs are being shut down at an alarming rate. There are perhaps gaps that can be exploited – the citizenship curriculum, education in prisons and young offenders institutions. There is also the possibility of utilising popular education in existing struggles (against police brutality, for example, or the closing of local services) – but these are few and far between, and not enough to bring around a systemic challenge.

The task of those who seek radical change must be to identify more of these gaps and widen them: not by imposing a predetermined vision of a world yet to come, but by allowing people to communally construct the world they want to live in and so restoring a sense of the future to them.

David Bell

Published inBritish Politics

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