The recent increase in my engagement with politics has coincided with reading certain texts on society and social justice. It’s difficult to say how one might be influencing the other; I suspect it’s a two-way thing. I’m this far (pink bookmark) through David Held’s Introduction to Critical Theory and it is awesome.
In school history lessons we learned about the brave men fighting in the trenches and the horrible things the SS did to the Jews. It seemed over-simplified – good versus evil (a bit like Star Wars, which I didn’t get either) – why would anyone choose to be evil? It didn’t make any sense. I wonder if we should dissolve History as a school subject and instead integrate it into Sociology and Philosophy. What, after all, is the point of teaching History? Surely to enable us to use the lessons of the past to inform the future? In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire proposes than we are are the only species on Earth to possess a sense of our own history; I suspect this ability is not being used to best effect. Much of what the Frankfurt School observed and explained in the first half of the 20th century we can see happening right now in the UK; direct, heavy promotion of capitalism by the state, the ideological division of the working classes and the unemployed, the suppression of the masses through a constant drive to produce. The HE sector has not escaped impact; tuition fees have created not only a consumer culture but also a culture of production as we are required to work harder for our salaries; to teach more students with the same resources.
Coming through very strongly in Held’s second chapter – as Freire also stipulates repeatedly – is that only the oppressed masses can create radical societal change. Lukács (son of wealthy investment banker turned communist philosopher) described the proletariat standpoint as ‘the only one from which the totality can be grasped’.
Like Lukács, Marcuse et al.,I don’t really count myself among the ‘oppressed masses’, but rather one of Marcuse’s middle-class intellectuals, working to form a cohesive, democratic radical Left, and trying to educate the people. This is bloody hard work. It seems that vast swathes of our society are trapped in a paradigm where insults are traded for entertainment. Attempts to educate are often met with abuse (see comment thread under next Youtube link for numerous examples). Natalie Bennett (leader of the Green Party) is often criticised for her performance in media interviews, where she never interrupts, and refuses to sling mud. I suspect – like Freire – she appreciates that the revolution needs to liberate and humanise the oppressors as well as the oppressed. I often think Russell Brand could do with living out this theory too, but that would mean sacrificing column inches. Brand is trying to cut through the distractions and anaesthesis provided by the mainstream media and wake the public up to the inequalities in the system, but he is stuck in a paradox; in order to get the attention his cause deserves, he has to play the very game that he is trying to subvert. It’s not surprising that he is labelled a hypocrite; he must feel very conflicted.
This assumption that societal development requires production and suffering in place of pleasure and self-preservation appears to be deeply embedded in our social consciousness; if anyone questions this they are looked on as mad or stupid. In this Natalie Bennet interview, Andrew Neil is like a dog with a bone about the Citizens’ Basic Income: “but how are you going to PAY for it?”. No-one ever asked that about Trident, or the Iraq war, or bailing out the banks. Probably no-one ever asked that about the first world war (which we still haven’t paid for). The idea that something as fundamental as CBI can be costed as an isolated financial intervention within the existing political paradigm is ludicrous. It is about far more than a financial bottom line; it’s about rethinking production and easing repression, guilt and the aggression we subsequently direct at ourselves and each other. It’s about transcending a system that relies on us being mentally and physically diseased. Unfortunately if you say that it sounds like you’re dodging the question, but if you don’t hold the view that we should all suffer for the sake of production, the question is pointless.
So, given Held and Freire’s writings resonate so strongly with my own concerns, what can I do to help the cause? How can I live these convictions out in my work? Two of my best friends – Kirstine and Naomi – are currently studying for their PhDs. Kirstine teaches philosophy in prisons and has advised the government on prisoners’ right to vote. Naomi teaches politics and sociology to school pupils on Widening Participation projects. They are both fully, directly engaged in the political education of the masses that Marcuse identifies as being the only way forwards in reversing state-capitalism and reducing inequality.
On the face of it, my job doesn’t seem to allow the same kind of impact. I teach art and design teachers in HE; generally creative, autonomous people with a strong sense of their own individuality. I would even describe many of them as radical thinkers. But they do need liberating. Many of them are chronically overworked; made to teach more students with less, expected to cover for absent colleagues, jobs downgraded, hours cut… Three years ago – a decision I now regret being complicit in – much of the PG Cert course was moved online. One result of this was that staff are now expected to do all the coursework in their own time; they are supposed to receive cover for the handful of days in the year they attend face-to-face workshops, but as these are irregular (rather than, say, every Friday morning, as they used to be), it often doesn’t happen in practice.
I have been talking in depth with some of my students about these issues over the last few weeks. I approached this academic year with a strengthened resolution that 14/15 would be the year I didn’t let a single student slip through the net, and I am delighted to say I feel like I already know the new cohort better than I have previous groups. Since taking on the course leadership I have worked to ensure things of worth are actually learned rather than boxes merely ticked. This year my emphasis has been on ensuring the course is accessible and flexible, and students are supported and listened to. What I am hearing is that it is unacceptable to ask teachers to do so much of the course in the time they should be spending with their partners and families, and on their own creative endeavours.
I think this is where I need to go next; arguing the case for 20% time – 0.2FTE paid release throughout the 12-month PG Cert course for full-time teaching staff, and 0.1FTE for part-time staff and those continuing on the MA beyond the Cert. What I find really interesting is that every year I see my students working harder and achieving more, but – as is evident from the recent unit evaluations – increasingly protesting about the workload. Here is the thing; the first unit is entirely peer and self assessed. The students themselves collaboratively decide the required standard, and that standard appears to be getting higher. They want to do more, to learn more, but their jobs and lives prohibit this, and they are frustrated. It seems incredibly short-sighted to suppress this tremendous desire to learn and to innovate.