We need to talk: a case for political education

Two stories, both depressing, both, I fear, in their different ways indicative of the kind of society we are becoming, caught my eye today. The first was the lead story in today’s Daily Mail, a typically vicious and calculated piece of ‘journalism’ (I’ll do them the credit of not assuming it was drafted in Tory Central Office) which claimed that ‘jobless immigrants’ (yes, that lot again) would face much greater restrictions in what benefits they can claim (you can read it in full online here). The sub-heading gleefully informs readers that ‘Britain’s generous welfare system should no longer be a magnet for citizens of other EU states’, while the article is illustrated with pictures of long queues, at customs and outside a job centre, presumably all jobless migrants. The second story, altogether less sensational but sobering reading nonetheless, reported that a third of British adults feel they have ‘no-one to turn to in a crisis’, while 37 per cent thought they would suffer one within the next five years.

Both stories are striking examples of the need for and relevance of adult education to the challenges we face as a society. The Mail story is both a reflection of the poor standard of mainstream political debate in this country and an illustration of how much we need to revive political education, what we used to term ‘education for active citizenship’, both for adults and young people. There is nothing very newsworthy or interesting in the article. The problem is, first, with what it omits (any sense of the very significant benefits immigration has brought to this country) and, second, with how it is written. The tenor and placement of the article suggest that the government is introducing new legislation to combat a massive social and economic problem – that of benefit tourism. It is supported by a series of statistics showing fluctuating numbers of home and foreign workers in the UK but no attempts it made to link these to the problem of benefit tourism (the subject supposedly under discussion). The reasons for this are obvious: first, because, fairly obviously, they do not support the case for cracking down on benefit tourism; second, because, as it happens, there really is no evidence of a problem of benefit tourism in the UK at all. Unsurprisingly, the article makes no effort at all to back up the claim in the sub-heading – that Britain’s ‘generous welfare system’ makes it a ‘magnet’ for citizens from other EU states – and offers no evidence to support the proposition that UK benefits are particularly easy to access.

The number of people who come to the UK from other EU countries ‘simply because of our benefits’, to quote Iain Duncan Smith, is miniscule, as Mr Duncan Smith must, of course, realise. His own department, Work and Pensions, reported in 2011 that only 6.4 per cent of people claiming working-age benefits were non-UK nationals. Furthermore, a European Commission report from October last year, examining the effects of migration within the EU on each member state’s welfare and social security system, found no evidence that benefit-related factors were a significant motivation for EU citizens to migrate. In fact, it reported, ‘EU migrants are more likely to be in employment than nationals living in the same country’. Work and family were, overwhelmingly, the main reasons for EU citizens migrating to other member states. This is unsurprising and, in a way, I suppose, beside the point. Articles like this one do not seek to inform or advance the debate. They are intended to provoke the bitterest sort of rancor in their readers. Reports over the weekend suggest that we can expect to see similar stories in the press on a pretty much daily basis until the general election next year.

The Mail story highlights the poisonous nature of much contemporary political coverage; how it appeals to the kneejerk emotion while neatly sidestepping reason or evidence. It also shows what a fractured society we now seem to be and how keen politicians are to exploit those fractures (and how indifferent they are – or appear to be – to the very significant human cost). Much of the reaction to Channel 4’s documentary series Benefits Street shows how little it takes to move people to anger and hatred, and how viciously that can be expressed (conversely, it also shows how little it can take to humanise someone). The BBC story, which highlighted the (insufficiently reported-on) problems of loneliness and isolation in our society, also pointed to the fractured social existence many of us now lead. In very many cases, people no longer feel able to depend on their neighbours. They feel no special obligations towards them and have little sense of any dependence on them for a shared existence (real though that dependence often is, as the story suggests). It is difficult to detect in public life much of a sense that we are living a common existence, bound by shared values, inclusive of everyone in our national community.

I was thinking about this in the context of the great adult educator, R.H. Tawney. Tawney thought that education for active citizenship was essential not only in securing the effective, fluid working of democracy but also in developing a ‘cooperative life among equals who respect each other’s humanity’. His work as a tutor with the Workers’ Educational Association showed him how important adult education could be in developing fellowship and stimulating open and comradely discussion among equals. Only through discussion of this sort could we begin to reason our way to a sense of common purpose or shared values, Tawney believed. He would have bemoaned the loss of this in current political debate but I think he would also have been quick to point to the need for serious, informed conversation, the only sort that is likely to lead to any change in the way we organise society. It is the absence of any conversation of this sort from mainstream political debate that would have most exercised Tawney about the political scene today, I suspect. He would have rejected the argument from austerity, so often used to overcome any principled objection to potentially damaging social and economic legislation. As Tawney put it, ‘As long as men are men, a poor society cannot be too poor to find a right order of life, nor a rich society too rich to have to seek it.’ We badly need a conversation of this sort. But that conversation requires a much greater degree of political literacy and political engagement than we, as a society, currently possess. Given what political debate has become it is little wonder that so many people are turned off by it or are seeking alternative ways of expressing their political views. Too often, that journey ends in frustration and bitterness. There is some hope, I think, in the kinds of informal, non-mainstream educational activities that have sprung up in Scotland around this year’s independence referendum, and in other attempts to revive the connection between education and social movements. They show how adult education, and political education in particular, can act as a catalyst for new thinking and for change. Political education can be critical both in creating a more engaged, hopeful and cooperative citizenry and in promoting that sense of common purpose and fellowship Tawney thought so essential to any properly functioning democracy, and which we so plainly lack today.

Why social history matters

The past, writes poet Michael Donaghy, ‘falls open anywhere’, and it’s important that, when it does, we recognise and understand it. History is important not only to our sense of who we are but also to our capacity to engage actively and intelligently as citizens in democratic society. History and political literacy are intimately linked, which is why we ought to treat sceptically any politician’s attempt to reframe the way history is taught.

The ‘great men’ model which, until relatively recently, dominated the way in which history was taught in UK schools – and which education secretary Michael Gove is, by all accounts, keen to revive – failed most of us because it did not give us an adequate understanding the forces and events that have shaped the communities in which most of us live. When I left school aged 16, I knew a lot about the Second World War, a little about the British Empire and the Industrial Revolution, and a few key dates regarding kings and queens and the battles waged on their behalf, but I knew next to nothing about the English Civil War and the extraordinary debates and ideas that ran through it, or about the impact of the Acts of Enclosure, the slave trade, the Suffragette movement or the Peasants’ Revolt. I knew still less about the events and actions, the tensions and struggles, that shaped the town I grew up in.

The fact that our perception of the past changes and is contested makes it all the more important that we are able to make informed judgments about it and defend, if only to ourselves, our own sense of who we are against those who would deny, dismiss or marginalise it. History and, in particular, social history – history that acknowledges the experiences of ‘ordinary’ people and their ways of recording and transmitting them – is a critical part of active citizenship in a democratic society. Growing up in poor or marginalised communities – communities which are, for the most part, off the radar of the mainstream media and whose stories are rarely told, and are, in some cases, in danger of being forgotten – it can be difficult to develop a sense of pride in where you come from and who you are, still less the sense of agency and possibility necessary to make the most of one’s talents and aptitudes and change things for the better.

This was brought home to me really powerfully when I visited a social history project in Edinburgh a few weeks before Christmas (I wrote about it in more depth in a previous post). The members of the Edinburgh Social History Group I spoke to all expressed dissatisfaction with the way in which they were taught history at school. Their sense of having been short-changed grew stronger the more they discovered about the ‘real’ history of their country – from the Porteous riots to Red Clydeside, the stuff that didn’t make it onto the curriculum – and the history of their own community, which, over decades, had waged a series of creative and determined campaigns for better housing and community conditions and better local services. Their response was to develop a project which would provide a lasting record of their community’s campaigning history while reinvigorating, they hoped, the spirit of community activism, particularly among young people. One of the group’s founders, Anna Hutchison, explained:

We encourage them to be proud of where they come from. It’s not all bad. It’s changing slowly. We’ve got a lot more people involved in campaigns and activism now, and that’s through local people going into their schools, into youth clubs, and telling them how it’s done.

The Workers’ Educational Association in Scotland, which supported the group’s social history project, has really grasped the nettle on this, developing a number of similar schemes giving students a chance to draw on the ‘real, lived experience’ of their communities. The flexibility in Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence means the resources produced by these projects are now finding their ways into schools, giving young people a chance to gain a real understanding of where they come from and what forces shaped the neighbourhoods in which they live. Seeing for myself how much more meaningful history taught in this way can be, and the difference it can make to people’s sense of agency, I feel uneasy when I read of plans to remove ‘social reformers’ such as Mary Seacole, Florence Nightingale, William Wilberforce and Olaudah Equiano from the national curriculum in England in favour of the likes of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Nelson and Winston Churchill. You have to wonder what sort of historical role models will be available to girls or to children from black or minority ethnic backgrounds, in particular, under this reformed curriculum – and what impact this is likely to have on social mobility.

Social history is an important component of an education capable of producing the sort of citizens who can revive and sustain our democracy. We need to be able to think critically about our traditions (I mean all our traditions) and to understand that historical interpretation is contested. History, understood in this way, can provide a good grounding in political literacy, helping us develop the skills we need to critically deliberate, and to examine and see through the simplistic rhetoric of politicians, much of which is intended to obscure and mislead (‘the mess we inherited from the last government’, to take a currently near ubiquitous phrase as an example, masks a host of ambiguities and distortions). Just as importantly, social history can give us a sense of ourselves as stakeholders in an ongoing narrative, with as much of a right to a say and as much of a chance of making a difference as anyone else. It can also remind us that other perspectives matter, help us see the world from other people’s points of view, and give us a better sense of our connections to others (all common outcomes, incidentally, of much adult education). The unpleasant and divisive language used by politicians of all parties to vilify and stigmatise the poorest (and least able to answer back) in society suggests that the development of this important imaginative capacity is urgently required.

We badly need a history fit for purpose in twenty-first century democracy, poorly served as it is (in general) both by its politicians and its mainstream media. And we need a history that is inclusive and representative; that tells the stories of all of us, not just a privileged minority; and that gives us a sense of the possibilities concealed in the official narrative of British history (history like political debate is artificially constructed and it’s useful to understand what is being excluded and why). Learning to think historically and to see ourselves as responsible, democratic citizens with a stake in society and a role to play, are crucial skills for active democracy. They are also skills that need to be cultivated across a lifetime. Political education is a lifelong necessity. Understandings change and it’s important that adults can find spaces in which to learn about, debate and, if necessary, challenge these new understandings. Projects like the North Edinburgh Social History Group show just what can be achieved and how transformative this sort of approach can be for adults and, indeed, for whole communities, providing a vital intellectual foothold in a society – a world – that is changing frighteningly fast. If we lose our sense of who we are and where we have come from, we are unlikely to have much of a sense of where we are going.