Posts Tagged ‘Education’

The Authorities

February 7, 2018

Violence and threats of violence were every day occurrences at the high school I attended. Some children carried knives. It was common to see kids with bloody noses, black eyes, cuts and bruises. The teachers were indifferent to this. If a child complained about their treatment they would be told to ‘stop telling tales’ and to ‘stick up for themselves’. The teachers referred to the children as ‘thugs’, ‘yobs’ and ‘hooligans’. We kids were working class scum, born into poverty, mostly living in an area of high crime, unemployment and substance abuse. The teachers were educated middle class people whose words dripped with contempt.

If a child went into class with a bloody nose or a black eye this would be ignored. If the same child went into class with their shirt hanging out, or their tie hanging down, or if they said ‘fuck’, they could expect to be yelled at, and threatened with lines or detention or even the ‘slipper’ – a form of beating. The attitude of the school authorities was clear: the safety of the children was of little importance, but their adherence to school rules was absolutely essential. A society that deeply concerns itself with appearances – with manners and dress codes – is a society that cares little for the safety and happiness of human beings, least of all children.

The most fundamental ethical and political question is this: Do people exist to serve the rules or do the rules exist to serve the people? At my school – and I contend at most schools – the people existed to serve the rules. I could have been stabbed to death and the teachers would have cried crocodile tears when I was gone. While I was alive my safety and happiness were irrelevant; all that mattered was my obedience and conformity, and that of all the other children. Anyone who speaks about the importance of ‘duty’ and ‘tradition’ and ‘respect for authority’ – as teachers so often do – is someone who prizes the rules above people.

As a teenager I had a travel pass for use on buses and trains. I renewed this pass for a fee each month. One month the ticket office filled in the details on the pass incorrectly and I didn’t spot the error, but a ticket inspector did. I was cautioned and interviewed by the police. I said the office had made a mistake; they said I was a liar and a thief. I was found guilty of travel fraud. This was an important lesson for me as a teenager. My safety was a matter of no importance to society; I could be physically attacked or threatened with a knife and nothing would happen. But the moment I was suspected of defrauding the train company of a small amount of money the authorities swung into action and quickly declared my guilt and proceeded to punishment.

The individual members of the working class are expendable – there’s plenty more where they came from – but the property of the rich and powerful must be protected at all costs. Private property is the foundation of the capitalist system. If the working class get their grubby hands on it – except when they are constructing, manufacturing, operating and maintaining the property – then the system is finished. The idea that the police exist to protect people is a joke; they exist to protect property and the people can go hang. Being working class is not something you are – there’s no such thing as the working class gene – it’s something that’s done to you, a way you are treated from the earliest age, if you are foolish enough to be born into poverty.

This is how the authorities work. They make it clear to working class children, from an early age, that their safety and happiness are of no importance, and that they must obey instructions without question or be punished. Even the suspicion of disobedience is sufficient to bring down punishment. The working class must not be allowed to get ideas above their station. If they are not broken early then they may refuse to do the low paid, low status, manual labour that is essential to society and that the capitalists require of them. Without the working class to abuse and exploit the capitalists’ wealth and power would be at an end. You can’t sit in your office, giving orders and counting the money, unless some poor bastards are outside actually doing the work.

Boys at the school I attended typically went on to work in factories, warehouses and building sites. As an adult I have worked, typically enough, in a factory and multiple warehouses and building sites. But I have also worked in a school, and there I saw that things have not essentially changed. Schools now have anti-bullying policies to which they pay lip service, but the violence and intimidation continues. The teachers don’t personally carry out the violence: they subcontract it to the children who have the most abusive home lives and hence the greatest anger and inclination to violence. By bringing together large numbers of similar age children, some of whom have been deeply damaged by society, and leaving them with limited adult supervision, the teachers can be sure that violence and intimidation will follow. The teachers know that this will inevitably happen and so they are utterly complicit, as are all adults who support the authoritarian education system.

As a consequence we see rising reports of depression and anxiety among children, along with self harm, eating disorders and suicide attempts. If we see rising reports I suggest it’s because these things are at least talked about now. In the past they happened but were nameless and ignored. They are still largely seen as personal idiosyncrasies, the result of ‘bad breeding’ (i.e. genes), or the fault of children who lack ‘resilience’. The cruelty and tyranny to which children are subjected, in the family, in schools, in society in general, is largely ignored. And so the adults go on handing out punishments, and condemning children who show any signs of defiance, all they while congratulating themselves for their moral superiority.



October 4, 2017

A basic assumption of all authoritarian societies is that children are born bad and need to be made good, or at least obedient, which is the same thing to the authoritarian mindset. This is why adults put great emphasis on obedience, conformity, hierarchy and discipline. Parents and teachers spend lots of time shouting at children, criticising them, threatening them and punishing them. They believe that if they don’t do this then the children will become ‘animals’ or ‘savages’. In fact it’s the anger that adults direct at children, and the hierarchies they force them into, that make them savage.

Children are great imitators. They are born ready to imitate the behaviours of adults in order to survive. The reason children bully other children is that they are subjected to anger, threats and violence by adults, so they repeat these behaviours with other children when they get the chance. It makes a nice change to be the one making threats rather than receiving them. Children are generally placed at the bottom of the social hierarchy. When they are free of adult supervision they again imitate adults by creating their own hierarchies based on intimidation and violence.

Thomas Szasz said that childhood is an 18 year prison sentence that we are all condemned to serve. This is true for most children, although it doesn’t have to be. Childhood could be a time of joy, a time of love, play, adventure and curiosity. But in the authoritarian societies that infest the world today it’s more likely to be a time of criticism, threats, punishment, obedience and conformity, leading to a lifetime of anger and resentment.

At school children are treated like prisoners convicted of a crime, although it’s never explained what crime. Freedom is largely non-existent. Individuality is highly discouraged. Children are trained to sit in silence and await instructions. The underlying atmosphere in most classrooms is one of fear. Even when things seem to be going well the children know that this could change at any moment. The children know that if they fail to follow instructions swiftly and correctly, or fail to do automatically what is expected of them, whether instructed or not, they will be chastised and punished.

Authoritarian schooling teaches children to put on an appearance of humility and obedience while keeping their real thoughts and feelings hidden. What they really think and feel, all their hopes and fears, their doubts and dreams, is made to be a matter of shame, something to be repressed and denied. Children are trained to deny their individuality and their humanity and this creates a lifetime of psychological problems. Children who are encouraged to repress their feelings struggle as adults to create open and meaningful relationships. The habit of keeping secrets, the feeling of shame that surrounds our innermost experiences, stays with us for life.

Brutal schooling creates brutal people and a brutal society. Much of the anger, fear and hatred directed at vulnerable groups, because of their socio-economic status, their ethnicity, gender, sexuality, physical characteristics, and so on, can be traced back to the authoritarian education system in which teachers mercilessly identify and chastise anyone who deviates from expected appearance or behaviour. Children learn this lesson of judgement and condemnation very well and carry it into their adult life. They remember how good it feels when someone else is getting the blame rather than them. It feels good to point the finger at someone else, but that good feeling is short-lived and there is no real personal satisfaction in it. The result is that we live unsatisfying lives in an angry, miserable, divided society.

There is, of course, a tried and tested alternative. All schools should be democratic. There are different ways of implementing democratic education, but there are some key ideas that can be stated briefly. Schools should be run by a school parliament, in which all students and staff have an equal vote. Children should get to choose what they learn about, and how and when they do it, rather than having a curriculum imposed on them. Relationships among students and staff should aim to be relaxed, friendly and informal, with staff acting as facilitators rather than instructors. And this should all be presented not simply as a way of learning but also as a model for how society at large should be organised.

Children are not stupid. They know when they are being treated unfairly and they resent it, quite rightly. They also know when they are being treated with kindness and respect and they respond positively to it. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be any problems in a democratic school. But it means that problems can be worked out in a way that treats everyone with respect, rather than assuming that the children are always wrong and the adults are always right. Adults must learn to accept that growing up can be difficult and sometimes children need to express their anger or frustration without automatically being condemned for it. Teachers are quick enough to express their own anger and frustration. They are the supposedly ‘professional’, ‘grown-up’ people, and they are the ones who need to learn more self-control, and to be less selfish, not the children.

Human beings are ingenious creatures. There are no problems we can’t solve if we make the most of the talent and energy available to us. To do this we have to start by really nurturing children, really helping them to discover their own interests and abilities, and by allowing them to develop in their own way, in their own time. If we do this then our children will at last have the chance to realise their true potential, instead of becoming more sick, twisted ‘grown-ups’ like the rest of us. And we might finally recognise that children are not animals to be trained, or savages to be civilised, or inadequate adults who need to be shaped and moulded, but unique, irreplaceable and extraordinary individuals who need and deserve our love and support.


September 26, 2017

Childhood in this society is built on fear. Children must obey their parents or they will be punished. They must go to school or they will be punished. When they are at school they must obey their teachers or they will be punished. They must wear what they are told, sit when they are told, stand when they are told, speak when they are told, be silent when they are told, eat and sleep when they are told. If they fail to obey they will be punished. The threat of punishment hangs over childhood like a toxic, choking fog.

This threat creates enduring fear in children, and the fear continues into adulthood. Children are told that if they don’t work hard and do as they are told then they won’t get a job, they’ll have no money, and their lives will be terrible. This fear haunts adulthood. It makes adults obey their bosses, and dutifully pay their bills, their rents and mortgages, for the rest of their sorry lives. Their outward conformity masks their inward resentment.

Adults hate children and want them to suffer. Just think how much time adults spend shouting at children, as well as threatening them. This is seen as the normal, acceptable way of raising children. Parents claim to love their children and yet they are constantly dissatisfied with them and trying to alter their behaviour. Teachers claim to like children but they spend their time filling children’s heads with useless facts instead of allowing them to develop naturally.

Adults tell children to ‘grow up’ and to ‘stop acting like children’. They praise children for being ‘mature’ and ‘grown up’. Could anything be clearer than this? According to adults, being a child is bad, being an adult is good. Adults want children to stop being children as quickly as possible and to become little adults. This is why they dress children in little suits and ties and send them to sit at desks at school. The children’s lives are made to be just as miserable and conformist as their parents’ lives.

Children are naturally playful, curious, imaginative, energetic, challenging and rebellious. These are all qualities that are hated by adults and the conformist, authoritarian society in which they live. Adults and wider society want children to be obedient and conformist. They want children to fit neatly into the bottom of the social hierarchy. They are terrified that children will challenge their lives and values. They are terrified that the meaninglessness of their existence will be exposed.

Of course all adults secretly wish they could be the things that children are when they are actually allowed to be children. So periodically adults get drunk, lose their inhibitions, and behave like children in their most hyperactive and destructive moods. This is the socially acceptable outlet for our repressed humanity. Soon enough the alcohol wears off and the adult returns to miserable conformity. Adults don’t have the courage to live lives of genuine freedom and creativity so they take out their frustration on their children and make them just as miserable and conformist as they are.

Most of what parents do is done for their own sake, not for their children. When parents worry about their children being polite, or getting into a good school, or getting good grades, they aren’t thinking about their children’s well being, they are thinking about their own reputation as parents. If a child gets a good grade in an exam its parents are proud of themselves for raising such a child, and keen to tell everyone how wonderful ‘their’ child is. What the child wants or feels is irrelevant. As long as the child appears happy, and appears to be succeeding by the standards of society, then how the child really feels is of no importance.

If a child appears unhappy its parents are likely to take this as a personal criticism and become angry. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ they will demand. ‘Why are you looking like that? What have you got to look so sad about? We do everything for you!’ Bullshit. The parents do everything for themselves, to cover their own fears and insecurities.

Here are some simple moral facts that usually go unrecognised. Parents do not own their children. Children do not belong to their parents. Parents have no right whatsoever to shape or mould their children. The only responsibility of parents is to help their children to discover their own interests and abilities and to find their own way through life. Everything else is bullshit.

I have no absolutely no interest whatsoever in hearing parents whine about how hard it is to be a parent and to raise children. I have no interest in hearing their worries and fears. We have all heard far too much about these things already. When will we hear about how hard it is to be a child and to grow up in this cruel, competitive world? When will we listen to the children’s worries and fears? I mean really listen, without anger, without judgement, without trying to impose our preferences on them.

If you think it’s hard to be a parent there’s a simple solution: don’t fucking do it. You have a choice, children don’t. If you think it’s hard to be a parent, with all your years of experience, all your knowledge of how the world works, try imagining what it’s like to be a child with no experience and no knowledge, thrust into this vast and complex world, expected to obey and conform immediately and without question.

Of course parents need and deserve lots of support and encouragement. But not for themselves, not because being a parent is hard, or because children are so demanding, or for any of the other selfish bullshit excuses that parents come up with. The only reason that parents need and deserve lots of support and encouragement is so that they can give lots of love and support to their children. And I mean genuine, unconditional love and support, I mean helping children become who they want to be, not moulding them to meet society’s expectations.


August 7, 2017

The education of children in a capitalist system has two main purposes. First, to enforce obedience and conformity. Second, to impart the skills that will prepare children for exploitation by capitalist employers.

On the first point, students are required by law to attend a state-approved place of education, backed up by threats of force and punishment if they fail to do so. They are told where to be, at what time, and what to do when they are there. They are told what to wear, when to speak and when to be silent, what to say and what not to say, when to sit and when to stand, and what they must study, regardless of their own interests, abilities or preferences.

The instructions of school staff are beyond question. Failure to obey results in punishment, sometimes collective punishment, with little hope of appeal. The attempt to defend oneself is likely to provoke those in authority still further. The school staff themselves are divided into ascending layers of junior and senior staff, with orders flowing from the top to the bottom, again largely beyond question.

Schools are strictly hierarchical and authoritarian institutions. They enforce obedience and conformity on staff as well as students. Individual students do often rebel, of course, but it is generally a futile, destructive form of rebellion, which only makes their lives worse.

On the second point, in schools it is regularly emphasised to students that they must study hard and do well in exams in order to get grades and qualifications that will impress prospective employers. According to this outlook the fundamental reason for being at school, and for studying the various subjects the school offers, is in order to prepare children for the functions that will be assigned to them by future employers.

At work, as at school, people will be told where to be, when to be there, what to do, what to say, and how to dress, according to the requirements of their employers. School helps to prepare them for this. The crucial difference between school and work is that school only prepares people for exploitation while the capitalist workplace carries out that exploitation.

Workers in the capitalist system neither own nor control the wealth that their labours create. They are paid enough to get by from month to month, if they are lucky, while the managers and shareholders get richer and richer by control of the wealth the workers create. The workers’ lives are not their own. They live to serve. The education system helps to make this possible.

School is also a good preparation for war. Both schools and the military place great value on strict hierarchy, obedience, conformity and correct uniform. History lessons glorify war and assert the value of patriotism, self-sacrifice and the leadership of so-called ‘great men’. This is all useful when the capitalists want to invade some impoverished country to steal its natural resources and exploit its labour.

There are a few romantics who oppose this state of affairs. They think that education should be for the benefit of children rather than for the maintenance of the existing social order. They think that education should be about helping children to discover and develop their talents and interests. They think that children should be treated with respect and given a voice in deciding the course of their own lives.

I must confess that I am one of these romantics. The foundation of an authoritarian society is an authoritarian education system. We will never have a democratic society until we have democratic education. Democratic schools do exist, where all decision-making is based on the principle of one person, one vote. The concept of a ‘person’ includes both staff and students. The idea that workers and children are persons is, I know, a radical one, but its time may be coming.