Fear and Loathing in the classroom

The chads have barely finished hanging since the votepocalypse in the US. I managed to time things well enough that I managed to snatch about an hour of the actual proceedings live from 3 o’clock, though it turned out to be a rather empty hour of talking heads filling time punctuated by the very occasional state result. By the time I drifted back to sleep the standings were broadly “Trump seems to be doing better in the polls than expected”. Indeed.

The post-mortem journalists plunged elbows deep into the rotten corpse of the election, eagerly flinging out the guts of the Electoral College system, the spleen of the media and the colon of social media. It’s going to take a long time to really get a grasp of what happened and maybe more importantly why, but if there was one unifying idea from a whole year of huge political stories it’s that the liberal/left wing of politics seems to have disconnected from large swathes of the population. They simply did not see it coming. It may be harsh to start deliberately blaming individuals for this failure (they certainly didn’t want this outcome) and yet over the last few years there has been a shift, if not towards conservative/right wing viewpoints not just in this country but worldwide, or at least a rejection of the left’s values. I don’t use any of these words in a pejorative sense, but the descriptive. It’s time to do some genuine introspection. At least those of us with a liberal leaning tend to have plenty of practise at that.

It strikes me that there is a certain parallel to be struck between what is being seen politically and in schools. Voter profiles for Brexit and Trump may have break down in similar ways, but even if the young voters did not necessarily favour the aforementioned choices, a sufficient number of people voted and chose them. That’s a lot of potential families with children who go to school who are potentially thinking along the same lines. I’ve had several students in the last few weeks ask questions about the President Elect, all of them worried to a greater or lesser degree. Despite my own misgivings about the man (and even more his prospective advisers) I’m also aware that there may be students in the classroom whose parents are supportive of Trump. I’m not sure what the effect on them will be of hearing Trump’s supporters derided in the media or people around them. I try to stay politically neutral in the classroom but it isn’t easy (even more so in some subjects I would think compared to science). I don’t believe that all Trump voters are racist, or misogynist, or homophobic or any other manner of distasteful things, though no doubt there are some who are. But the big message I got from this year’s politics is the big middle finger to institutions. And that puts teachers right in the firing line.

I don’t think class can be ignored as a factor here. The largest group of students at the moment underachieving across the country is white working class, and in particular the boys. This is not to ignore other underperforming groups, nor is it a call to promote wwc boys at the expense of any other group, but look at voting records and see which groups are most likely to have voted for Brexit and Trump. There is a group sitting here in plain sight generating an open hostility to what is perceived to be a controlling institution of schools and they are more than happy to metaphorically, or literally, flick it the Vs. It’s no good comparing them to a students in another poorer country and saying “you don’t have it as bad as them” or “if you just behaved like this then you’d be fine.” We are selling kids the promise that if you turn up on time, do what we ask of you and complete these courses you’ll succeed. But when they look around their surroundings they don’t see any of this. The promises ring hollow because they are not seeing the claimed benefits. Traditional masculine roles may have gone from their lives (not necessarily a bad thing) and although we may want to work with the best of intentions to help change their outlook it is a long grinding process. Good intentions are not enough if you want to make genuine change. Remove hope from someone and you may well be left with a desire to kick out that won’t be ameliorated by what we can offer in the classroom, and certainly not from people removed either geographically or culturally from the challenges these young people face.

A politician (who shall remain mostly nameless) a few years ago seemed to think the panacea was to encourage “a thirst for reading”, as if that was doing any more than describing what successful students did rather than giving any kind of explanatory way to improve things (thanks for that insight, Mikey). The failure of government institutions of all stripes to tackle rampant inequality in some areas of the country should be a source of national shame, yet to be fair the reasons are complex. A disenfranchised group may feel that powerful sense of unfairness in their life for all kinds of reasons; the feeling of persecution and injustice can be felt by anyone regardless of social group, ethnicity or gender. What does change between groups though is the ability to deal with the unfairness, what tools and support they have to overcome what they see as the unfair (whether or not we agree with them). This is where the “I managed to succeed on much less” anecdote breaks down; while no one knocks that success it is not necessarily transportable to another person’s life, outlook and history (incidentally there is some evidence that there is a general tendency of the working class in America to value personal triumph over the work of institutions and systems, so that a school teacher may be viewed with mistrust but a “self-made” billionaire is seen as sticking it to the system).

Change can come from a lot of places, but right now we need people to start getting their hands dirty and get active. And if all else fails, we might get some smashing new art from the next few years. The ones who need the support, patience and attention may often be the ones most likely to initially reject it.

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Author: Mr Whellan's science

Nomadic science teacher

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