Yesterday, I was half-listening to the news, as you do, when I thought I heard something Harriet Harman was reported to have said which struck me as astonishingly revealing.
Today I checked out a couple of news reports in the papers and I think this, from the Telegraph, relates to what I thought I heard (the quote is much longer than the ‘snippet’ I originally picked up):
“Equality is important not just for the individual but also it’s an economic argument. Think about the economies that will thrive and prosper in the future. Do you see those that are hierarchical and hide bound – where everyone knows their place – where you get [on?] on the basis of your connections or because your “face fits”? Far from it. Because that is the opposite of a meritocracy.
“The economies that will thrive in the future are those where everyone can achieve their full potential and where the economy can draw on the abilities of all.”
So what is the ultimate point of giving people a better opportunity in life and a better education? Apparently, It is to feed the maw of the economy.
Now I find this not only a horrifying vision of human life and society, but an astonishing thought from the mouth of a Labour politician. I rather naively thought that the Labour Party regarded the worship of the economy as in some sense inimical to human well-being. Indeed, it was originally called the ‘Labour Party’ (I thought) because there were people — labourers — whose lives were weighed down and diminished by the unending demands of ‘capitalism’.
There was —or did I imagine it —an element of Marxist Utopianism about the labour movement. But that Utopia did not consist of a world where the economy got bigger and bigger, and the contribution of the individual towards it became more and more effective. Rather, the point of the movement was to free the labourer from his labour and to allow people time, space and the necessary personal and intellectual equipment to be something other than a cog in the machine.
Thus, when the Workers’ Educational Association was founded in the early years of the twentieth century (by a keen member of the Church of England) its aims were, not that people would thereby gain the ‘skills’ needed to contribute to the economy but,
... to acquire knowledge which would enable them to decide for themselves what to think about the society in which they lived and worked. (A Brief History of the WEA)
Thus the education ‘workers’ were encouraged to receive was as much in the liberal arts as in the practical sciences. It was certainly not about giving people ‘job skills’. Nor, therefore, could the education it offered be evaluated in terms of its economic ‘usefulness’, unlike the present.
Nevertheless, this could not, I think, be characterized as ‘learning for learning’s sake’. Rather, it stemmed from a particular understanding of education which itself reflected an understanding of being human. It is noteworthy that one of the key patrons of the movement was the future Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, who was also an early tutor and who regarded it as one of his most important contributions to society.
Unfortunately, New Labour’s worship of Mammon, and its subservience of our education to our suitability to feed the machine, is all of a piece with the ‘decadence’ of Western society — its declining or falling away from its previous character. Of course, it was never perfect —indeed, far from it. But surely it had a higher view of human life, and therefore a greater potential for human development. By contrast, what Labour’s ‘equality’ policy seems to offer is the equal opportunity for all of us to become Epsilon-minuses of Huxley’s Brave New World —fit for a purpose designated by others, and blissful in our ignorance.
Revd John P RichardsonAnonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select 'preview', then close the preview box. When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.
22 January 2010
22 January 2010