Tuesday, 5 July 2016

The Longbowmen of Agincourt who hit the wrong target?

According to Brendan O’Neill who wrote an article – ‘Not thick or racist: just poor’ - in this week’s Spectator, celebrating the BREXIT Victory, those who voted LEAVE were typically those who “do physical labour, live in a modest home, and have never darkened the door of a University, (who were) more likely to have said ‘screw you’ to the EU…” And again – “Of the 240 local authorities that have low education levels – ie more than a quarter of adults do not have five A to Cs at GCSE – 83 per cent voted Leave.”

And so, how are we to characterise them whilst still remaining both politically correct and free of the taint of ‘elitisim if that is possible?’ Are they the low class drinking companions of Sir John Falstaff who went on (some of them at least) to win a glorious victory with their longbows at Agincourt or the Tommies who were pushed forward to get mown down on the first day of the Battle of the Somme? Are they the poor? Are they the dispossessed, the ‘plebs’ who voted in the plebiscite, the ‘proles’ from the proletariat (lumpen or otherwise), the workers, the unemployed or, heaven forfend, the ‘chavs’? Are they the true demos – the ‘people?’ Just making a list like this will trigger a number of reactions towards me, many hostile (I can feel some bristling as I write), but I still insist on it being worth asking these questions. Seeing the spectrum of reactions is, in itself, informative regarding the nature of the consciousness of our society.

In, as Bryan Appleyard has it, a great “howl of protest” they, whoever they are, expressed their rage at dispossession caused by globalisation and at being on the end of an austerity they certainly did not cause (that was the bankers) by targeting, of all things, the European Union. There is a strange illogicality in this. If they represent the true folk wisdom of the people which knows better than the educated elites how did they get it so wrong? If they have no wisdom by virtue of who they are, as some ‘elitists’ might aver, is it a surprise that they got it wrong and behaved so illogically? We seem to be caught in a cleft stick.

My educated voice even daring to speak about them with detachment, and therefore, to detach myself from them, as an object I am examining, will be castigated. My very attempt to characterize them will be seen as a condescension that is not permissible. But things are complicated. Am I really separate from or ‘above’ them? I come from the demographic into which they fall – my father grew up over a fish and chip shop owned by his father, a runaway from Hull at the age of 14. My father worked hard, became a policeman and sent me to the local Grammar School where I was educated as a result of which I would probably be considered now as ‘middle class’. This shows that none of us are in a fixed state but are all, potentially, ‘dynamic’ and that that dynamism exhibits an impulse towards intellectual betterment. It is the education that I received at my Grammar School that enabled me to look critically at what they have done and to see what the shortcomings are, not least the fact that, if things go wrong, it will be this very group who will suffer most keenly. And, in spite of this, like the similarly educated Rod Liddle, the brilliant Brexiteer columnist, I am one of them by origin and understand what motivates “them”, or should I say “us”? This, of course, is the crux of the matter. My very distancing myself from ”them” and talking ‘about’ them will constitute the charge against me and the evidence laid out for my elitism. I, too, am in a cleft stick.

Education is one of the gifts bestowed on us and, in right-thinking times (and I’m not sure ours constitutes one of these), it is one of the most highly prized assets a society can bestow. From the latin “e – ducare” – to lead out from, it means that a good school will challenge the narrow blinkered place where a child is (and where it might, if consulted, prefer to stay) and lead that child out by the hand to a better place where it can see more and with a wider perspective. It is education that might enable one to criticise what Brendan O’Neill admits to be the badly educated caucus that he champions and yet it might also be that very fact of an educated sensibility which is blamed for having ‘elitist’ rather than ‘educated’ insights like this. This is the paradox in which we are caught because we want to insist on folk wisdom while also wanting to praise and promote the merits of education. It can even result in the lampooning of certain sections of society on the grounds of their being educated as in Michael Gove’s rejection of ‘experts’ or the characterization of the typical Remain voter being, horror of horrors, a graduate.

But if education is not a prize which enables us to free ourselves from our backgrounds and escape poverty and to analyse critically the errors made by the uneducated, why do people complain that it is so unavailable to the poor? How have we come to the point where, specifically, being a graduate disqualifies you from having a sensible and informed view? If that’s the case what was all the striving for and does education have any value after all? Is this where we have come to?

I am sure that, in writing this, I have been guilty of condescension and that highly educated Brexiteers such as Rod Liddle would be the first to tell me so, in a very educated way, of course. If I am guilty of condescension and elitism it is a kind of educational elitism which I can't help but embrace, though. As a teacher my whole life has been invested in the idea that education does raise you - otherwise what's the point?

I don’t intend this article to be by any means to be the last word on this matter and it is largely exploratory – asking what I hope are pertinent questions rather than giving answers. For that reason I’d welcome comment from others.

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