The Voice of Youth
Ralph A Tebbutt, a retired schoolteacher, and a lifelong socialist in the union, NASUWT, discusses here the alienation of youth, starting from their responses to the COVID pandemic - but ranges into how their alienation can be overcome by a true education, not an 'indoctrination'.
One good thing that has come out of the Covid Crisis is a greater recognition of the existence of children and young people. In much of our discourse, young people are only considered as an appendage to their parents or other older groups. The actions relative to Covid has brought children and young people to the forefront. This however, does not recognise any importance attached to young people. Rather the attention is a realisation that schools need to be kept open in order that mothers, and possibly fathers, cango back to work to meet the needs of the economy. Crocodile tears regarding the ‘loss of education’ suffered by working class, children are shown to be that by failing to provide the lap tops that were promised. Yet these were clearly essential if these children were to gain an education during lockdown and school closures.
There have been alternative instances in which young people have begun to express their feelings. Many youngsters are alienated from the school system. Central to this is an awareness that this system is designed to meet economic needs of the ruling elite and not the personal, social and economic needs of the young people. Their major complaint is that they are not listened to. The leading role that they play with regard to climate change and the powerful effect of their school strikes has shown that they can be effective in changing attitudes. They had an immediate and dramatic effect in overturning the attempt to downgrade the grades awarded at school end. Young people are beginning to exert themselves and this is continuing with the actions of students in relation to lockdowns at Universities and the growing opposition to paying high rents and fees when they are not receiving the education that they have a right to expect.
Education and the working class in capitalism
The history of education in relation to the working class, shows that the initial response of the ruling elite was against such education. The commonly held view was that there was a need for a whole range of jobs to be done. These jobs were done by the working class. The elite considered that, if the working class was educated, then the workers would no longer be prepared to undertake these jobs. An arrogant approach, assuming that the only knowledge and wisdom that was of any value was that which the elite understood. There is a whole depth of knowledge, understanding and wisdom that resides within the class who, because of their direct contact with nature through their work, have an inert comprehension of what is important in life.
A further approach to educating the working class came from those who had a fear of what they referred to as ‘the mob’. They looked down upon the so called ‘lower classes’ seeing what they decided was unruly behaviour. Some went even further condemning what they saw as immorality. Their answer was ‘education’ - but by this they meant indoctrination and discipline leading to subservience. It was not until the period leading up to the second world war that leaders of industry and commerce realised that, if Britain was to maintain their position in the global economy, they needed ‘skilled managers, foreman and workers’. Hence they developed the tripartite system of Grammar, Technical and Secondary Modern schools to meet these three needs. Of course the elite who controlled society had a totally different form of schooling for their own children in order to prepare them for their role in governing and controlling society. The later proposals for Comprehensive Education began to challenge the prevailing situation. Sadly the progressive developments in the sixties have largely been lost. It is only now that some form of reappraisal is beginning to take place. However, I do not feel that we are very much nearer recognising the importance of involving young people in these major decisions that affect their lives and their futures.
What could happen - overcoming youth alienation
As I was pondering over these ideas, an image appeared in my mind. (It reflects my time as a young boy going to Saturday morning pictures (we did not have cinemas in those days we went to the pictures - at the cost of 4 old pennies! Watching Cowboy and Indian films). Picture a Native American camp, a roaring fire, sat beside it an old tribal chief, decorated in his headdress of feathers, smoking his peace pipe; stood by his side is the young warrior with his bow by his side. The young warrior recognises all that the old chief stands for and knows of his great achievements, but is aware that conditions have changed and that things have to be done differently. The old chief sees before him the new generation, he too is fully aware of the changes and the need for new methods, but he is anxious to pass on to this young warrior all that he has learnt, he recognises that his time is past and that the future of his tribe now rests in the hands of this young warrior. There is a mutual exchange, each listening, each reacting, at times disagreeing on details, but both having a shared aim and desire to use all the knowledge that is available in order to face the challenges that the tribe has to overcome. This I believe is a parable of the situation we face.
There is a tendency to regard childhood and youth as a period during which young minds and bodies have to trained and disciplined in order to fulfil their role in society. This is an extremely conservative approach. The assumption is that young minds are a ‘blank canvas’ which has to be filled in from outside. This I believe to be completely false. From our very birth, we have an understanding of what we need. It may be that we need some help and guidance from our mother, or other persons, but our response is personal and inbred. This same type of relationship should persist throughout life. What is needed is a dialectical relationship between individuals, and between the individual and the community. It is this belief that makes me wary of the stress on ‘leadership’ and leads me to adopt a critical loyalist approach to organisations. I understand the structural form of democratic centralism, but strongly believe that this form of structure depends upon both poles, the leadership must respond to the followers just as much as the followers have to respond to the leadership.
I began with the greater awareness in the body politic of the existence of young people. I do not believe that sufficient attention is given to this sector of our society. Over the past year the Children’s Commissioner has produced a series of reports. One of the most devastating was entitled ‘Pass the Parcel’. This detailed how children in care are shunted around the Country, often a hundred miles away from where they originally grew up. Another report dealt with children and young people falling through the gaps in the provisions made for those in various forms of need. A further report set out the inadequacies of the provision for mental health support, showing how inferior this provision is compared to the provision for adults. It is not that the needs of young people are not known. I have dealt with issues around education elsewhere, but the needs go much deeper than education. They also go much wider than those who are in the greatest need, although the needs of these young people are crying out to be met.
The question we have to ask and to find answers to is whether the present concept of the nuclear family is any longer the appropriate structure within which to bring up our children and young people. As a simple example, I am aware of one young person who within their period at school lived in five different households and attended five different schools. This is not an extreme example, there are many young people who have far more complex and unstable situations to cope with but we simple do not consider these issues. It is time we gave the same kind of attention to the needs of young people, listening to what they have to tell us and seeking solutions to the very real problems that they face, as we do to other sections of our community that have received greater attention in recent times.