The Education Business
Whatever your views are on whether people should have pensions or secure jobs, the fight for genuine education in the UK is on. Hidden away within the rigorous performance management regime in higher education and the ongoing industrial dispute lurks a profound point about what we lose if we stop thinking. Thinking about, talking about, understanding and challenging what is emerging for the existing and future generations of working people in the UK.
I want to tell you a story about why education, the type where both staff and students can say what they think, helps us to prepare for the undoubtedly hard realities ahead. Just to be clear, I work in a university where 95% of our students are not rich and are highly diverse. Many are experiencing discrimination ad debt in their search for a decent job. Many of my students are scared and confused about what lies ahead. Many don’t have a clue what to do with that experience and occasionally when they arrive in class express a startling aggression and hostility towards authority. And that’s just the students.
It’s a long story, but I spent last summer on Ramsgate’s beaches reading the writings of the philosopher Hanna Arendt. As holidays go, this was grown up. A patchwork of writing-to-deadline, anxious heavy dreams and the annual game of re-establishing a sense of belonging amongst a dispersed and motley crew of genetically related people.
In other circumstances an Ian Rankin would have sufficed but in preparation for a Freud Museum event about cultural unthinking and everyday fascism organised by the remarkable Greek Psychologist, Daniella Angueli, I return to a lifetime of reading political tomes on the beach. For someone who has carried Michael Harrington’s Socialism Past and Future to every Greek Island holiday since the 1990s, reading Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism on the Isle of Thanet didn’t seem all that weird.
The Kent coast is a place of profound beauty. The peninsula where St Augustine brought Christianity to England, white chalky cliffs, rock pipits and wild tides, now a neo-Dickensian society overwhelmed with deprivation and drugs, split 40/40 between Boris and Corbyn with the only UKIP office still openly in business. Eleven of Ramsgate’s sixteen town councillors are UKIP representatives. There were thirteen but one didn’t pay their council tax and another was arrested for shop lifting. A bleak house.
For someone who cut off any direct contact with the BBC and the mainstream press during the elections, reading The Isle of Thanet News is a chin-drop experience. Tucked in amongst the stories of the social consequences of forgetting a thing called regional development, was a story about how NHS Professionals, the NHS internal labour agency, is being sold off to the private sector. You read that right. Despite the chronic cost of private agency labour to the NHS, the only price controlled agency managed directly by the NHS is now being privatised. Quietly, without any resistance.
I guess its no surprise that I read about this stunning policy mistake in a part of the world where the social contract was broken somewhere in the 1980s.
As I’m watching a gang of seagulls mug a German English Language student in possession of some chips, I read a prophetic phrase about Europe in the 1930s by Arendt “It is as though mankind had divided itself between those who believe in human omnipotence (who think that everything is possible if one knows how to organise masses for it) and those for whom powerlessness has become the major experience of their lives.”
Hanna Arendt received heavy criticism for her cold analytic writings about the Nazi administration, specifically Adolf Eichmann during his trial in Jerusalem. Observing this silent thoughtless man she famously proposed the concept of the banality of evil. Her work importantly proposed the use of bureaucracy and administrative processes to build an unthinking following-of-orders strong enough to secure the logical conclusions of fascism.
Although I wouldn’t rate her chances of surviving a Friday night in Ramsgate, her capacity for understanding fascism, at the cost of trashing social norms, is a growing commodity. Arendt’s writings are experiencing a revival in part because of her proposal for consciousness raising about the slow steady policy steps that we are taking towards an everyday fascism in the UK. She explains something that is hard to follow in our current pseudo-democratic state, that the steps towards a totalitarian order are paved not with good intentions but no intentions at all.
In the anti-communist era in the USA it was a criminal offence to be ‘prematurely’ anti-fascist. To see the emergence of a fascist regime somewhere on the horizon was enough to get one grey-listed, if not fully black-listed in the black and white thinking of McCarthyism. One of the uncomfortable realities of having your consciousness raised, whether involuntarily or not, is that some people can see what’s round the societal corner before it can be expressed in polite or impolite company.
“Comprehension, means the unpremeditated attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality- whatever it may be.” Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism.
When you participate in any form of adult education, you unavoidably have to face realities that are hard to think about. The constant appeal to excellence and employability for both staff and students in a context of societal decline could be experienced as demoralising or completely alienating. We might not dress well or be good at dinner parties, but we’re not stupid.
As a profound culture of unthinking emerges in the UK, the ability to think about and speak about what lies ahead becomes a responsibility rather than a choice.
To listen to Elizabeth Cotton’s talk about Hanna Arendt: Unthinking politics and fascist blocking of thought click HERE
To listen to a recording of Davd Morgan’s talk click HERE
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