Sunday, 24 January 2016

School is why we have Inequality

People are primates. Though we are capable of reason and compassion far beyond that of our brother apes, our instincts come from the jungle. It’s natural for us to make our society a hierarchy and our response to finding ourselves at the top, or bottom, of that pile are natural too. The tools we use to accomplish this are far more sophisticated than raw physical challenge, but the urge they satisfy is not.

Imagine two children on their first day of school. They don’t know it yet but they are about to start competing for a place in society. If they do well in this competition then they will grow up believing themselves to be successful and worthy of respect, after all, is that not how the adults in charge of school have always treated them? If they do poorly then they will grow up learning that they are worth less than other children. When they leave school their grades will merely confirm what they already know: whether they are a high status individual, deserving of further academic accolades and secure, well-paid employment or one of low status, deserving only what someone powerful deigns to give them.

Telling a person that they are better than those around them elicits a powerful response. People like that and will work hard to maintain that position and earn more praise. Telling someone that they are inferior to their peers produces an equally powerful, negative response. People, especially children, respond to that treatment with anger and defiance. They refuse to do work if the outcome of that work will be confirmation by grade that they are where they deserve to be: the bottom. In this way school does not only decide who will be high status individuals and who low, it modifies the behaviour of those groups in a way that makes the division seem natural and beyond the power of school to change.

This video shows a primate reacting to unequal treatment.

A D is a piece of cucumber.

How can it be with so many teachers so passionately committed to equality, working so hard to break the connection between familial wealth and educational success, that school is the instrument by which inequality persists? The answer is that teachers have no control over what it is that determines if an individual is to be praised or humiliated. Politicians have decided that the determinate is academic ability. The way a child uses language dictates whether they will be at the top or the bottom of school and because we all learn language from our parents, the children of the educated will always have the edge in this competition. Improve teaching and you improve it for rich and poor alike, rich children would still have the additional resources to ensure their pre-eminence. The goal of our education system is to break the link between background and achievement, but if we did so then large numbers of rich children would be failures at school, unable to secure university places. The lack of resistance to this outcome shows how far it is to ever being reality.

People are primates but uniquely among primates we have devised a means of modifying our destructive primate behaviours: institutions. Our instinct is to sleep with people we find attractive, the institution of marriage aims to keep us faithful. Our instinct is to favour the strong and beautiful over the weak and ugly, the institution of law aims to secure equal treatment for all. Education is the odd one out for, rather than countering our instinctive formation of hierarchy, it doubles down on it, ensuring all children grow up acutely aware of their place in the social order.

We think of destructive behaviour and poverty at the bottom of society as indelible features of our society. Yet the only inevitability is this is how people behave when systematically humiliated and poverty wages are what we offer to people we’ve conditioned ourselves to believe are inferior.

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