The education divide in society has traditionally been framed as one of ability, with the ‘well educated’ (predominately middle class) having the knowledge and aptitude to perform valuable work, while the ‘less well educated’ (predominately working class) lack such qualities and so are suited to menial jobs. More recently, it has been highlighted as a division of values with the well-educated characterised by strong commitment to an open, immigrant-welcoming global society and weak ties to birthplace and nation while the less well educated are more typically averse to immigration and prefer preserving the cultural make-up of the nation over the supposed economic benefits of globalisation.
There is another dimension, though, in which these two groups of people differ and it holds the key to the first two divides. While middle and working class children often go to the same schools, becoming well/less well educated respectively, their experiences of school are very different. The middle class school experience is characterised by praise and effort. The working class one is characterised by humiliation and defiance.
Imagine a middle class child just starting primary school. They are entering a world whose language and customs are familiar and where the most important tasks, like reading, are familiar as well. Looking around they soon realise that they can do these important tasks relatively well compared to their peer group. That sense of ‘I am better at this than other people’ creates powerful positive feelings within children, indeed within all of us, because we are primates and social position is something we’ve evolved to care about a great deal. So middle class children enter a positive spiral at school where relative achievement leads to praise which leads to effort then greater achievement.
The typical working class experience of school is the mirror image of that. Unfamiliar tasks that others seem to be able to do effortlessly are a struggle at first. Seeing that in this domain they are worse than their peers, working class children begin to withdraw and object. As their school careers progress, the humiliation of being worse continues leading to defiance and punishment, creating further humiliation and less desire to catch up.
As these two groups of children progress through school the different trajectory of their spirals take them further apart. The praise-effort spiral takes middle class children to good grades and eventually exam passes while the humiliation-defiance spiral takes working class children to bad grades and exam fails. When they reach the end of school these outcomes can seem perfectly natural. “Of course Child A succeeds, look how hard she works”, “Of course Child F is failing, look at his behaviour”. The idea that school might be the key driver of that behaviour is rarely considered.
We, that is middle class people, have a story we tell ourselves about our school system that goes something like: although the odds in society are naturally stacked in favour of the rich, school is an equalizing gift to the poor, if they would only take it. We bolster this story by seeking out the working class people who succeeded academically and they tell us that it is true, with hard work and determination you can succeed and here is the living proof.
But the reality of success for some is not proof of the availability of success for all. If the working class en masse decided to work as hard as they could at school then the middle class would not sit back and watch the high grades they expect to receive as a matter of course, turn into 50/50 toss ups. Exam passes in our norm referenced system are a scarce commodity and middle class people have the knowledge and resources to retain their near monopoly of them. So concluding that the system works because some working class people succeed, is like concluding that the Hunger Games is tough but fair because that’s what the winners say.
The fact that teachers bear no malice towards the working class, indeed, are strongly motivated to help them succeed can make it seem absurd that school could be a driver, not an ameliorator, of class division. Decent people can work in bad systems though and as a consequence do bad things. The missionaries, traders, administrators and army officers who made the British Empire were not evil, or not any more so than people generally. Many of them were motivated by a desire to help and improve the countries we colonised. But the British Empire was evil, it enslaved and plundered people while maintaining itself through repressive force. Decent people carried out those evil acts because they were operating within a system that was based on the idea that Europeans are superior to non-Europeans. Proceeding on the basis of that fallacy, plantation slavery, reorganising land titles in Bengal, the suppression of the Mao-Mao revolt all seem decent. A similar fallacy lies at the heart of our education system, that people who pass exams and go to university are superior to people who don’t.
We’re taught to downplay praise, not boast or let it go to our heads, so if you experienced school in the praise-effort spiral it’s easy to downplay the effect of school’s treatment of people on their development. But imagine for a moment what it’s like in the contempt-defiance spiral. You are told throughout your childhood that you are failing. ‘Bright’ ‘able’ children are passing so presumably you are the opposite of those things. If you fail your exams you won’t get a good job, you’re going to stay poor. That’s a message that’s hard to downplay. Have you ever been treated like that in a workplace? Did you/would you respond by staying and working harder?
This punishing treatment is inflicted on both sexes but it falls especially harshly on boys. Girls, like it or not, can acquire status as partners and mothers, but to be without the means to provide for yourself and others is emasculating. The jobs that used to take working class boys at 14 and give them steady incomes and respect are gone. The jobs waiting for today’s school failures haven’t got that decency, where they exist at all.
Is it really surprising that some of these angry, humiliated, working class boys want to become Jihadis and some want to defend their country from the Jihadis? Those at least are praiseworthy courses in the eyes of some. What’s their alternative? Where else should they look for a chance to make something of their life, having been taught they’re too stupid to succeed at work?
It’s a sad irony that schools are tasked to deal with this problem by teaching British Values. You know, our decent, middle class values like openness, and tolerance. As if people we treat with contempt, cementing their position as our social inferiors in an eleven year, compulsory process that starts when they’re five, don’t share our values because we haven’t told them what they are.
The children we praise grow up to be open and tolerant; the children we humiliate don’t. People treat others the way that they have been treated.