Friday 25 May 2012

Social Mobility, Education and Industrialisation

Agreeing with Alison Wolf that "vocational education is a great idea for other peoples' children" won't make me popular since she's become Michael Gove's puppet. But I think on this, she's right. Vocational qualifications are dreamed up by the middle classes as a dewey-eyed guilt-driven solution to what even they can see as a tsunami of lost teenagers (God... there's a thought!) caught out in an employment market determinedly gluing people to their social position if their maths and english (capital E?) isn't any good.

So Gove sets about trying to get their maths and english (I don't care about capitals!) better, with a drive for more traditional education (just like he had!). But it's unlikely to work, and will probably serve to exacerbate their misery. How many times do you need to be told you're no good at something? Try just once more...

I suspect the root of the problem doesn't lie in the education system. I would be tempted to say it lies in the home, but this is not quite the whole picture. Kids who grow up with books and a family that loves reading, will learn to read. Kids whose parents worry about them learning their tables will learn to do maths (actually, kids whose parents don't worry about them learning their tables on ideological grounds, will probably do even better!). But having said all this, I don't believe homes are that different from how they were 50 years ago. Yes, there's more divorce and possibly more emotional chaos in the home - but the nuclear family of 50 years ago was pretty radioactive in different, but equally oppressive, ways. Yes, technology has invaded the home, but it has also given the kids something to talk about when they go to school. But what has changed is the environment of work, and I think the work environment more than any other factor is creating the social mobility problems that we now face.

Mass industrial employment was not predicated on an ability to read and add-up. Physical power and endurance (if you had it) was enough. Teamwork helped, but often social skills and intelligence developed  in the Steel mill or the mine, not the classroom. Physical work provided the step up, acknowledging the basic biological attributes of an individual, but then providing a context from where they might grow. And of course not everyone could hack-it (I would never have survived down a coal mine!) Whatever emotional trauma lay in the childhoods of individuals, some of them could do something that was rewarded and valued.

It is the end of industrialisation that is the end of social mobility. Service jobs self-select the articulate and bright. Service companies are run by the articulate and bright whose parents had books in the home and worried about their kids learning their tables. The end of industrialisation brings a radical split in society between the communicative classes and those whose childhoods are damaged in the home. This, I think, is why the miners' strike is such a critical historical moment. The workers knew what  they were losing. It wasn't the loss of an industry; it was the loss of equity.

The question is, how much of a time-bomb is the lack of social mobility? How worried are we? Do we believe there will be riots? How determined are we to do something about it that actually works, rather than pretending to do something about it 'because we ought to'? But if we were really determined, what should we do?

One thought is to reintroduce industrialisation: (*in a deep 'cinema' voice*) "The return of the industrial revolution - it's back! but this time, it has a social mission!" I can't see that somehow - even with the Hollywood treatment. If a robot can do the work, why not let it? However, "cottage" manufacturing may be possible. But what industrialisation presented socially - in the steel mills and the coal mines - was conviviality. People were together, being themselves and being useful, and being seen to be useful. From there, people could start to grow from basic human relationships and mutual recognition.

The end of industrialisation has brought social atomisation; or maybe it was the other way round. Either way, social atomisation has brought a lack of social mobility because socially-atomised industries (the service industries) require from their workers the inner emotional resources which can only be nurtured in a loving home. Industrial society did not predicate itself on the existence of loving homes. I think the most important lesson taught by industrialisation was that it had nothing to do with what was made. If it was simply about that and nothing else, industrial society should have collapsed as Marx predicted. Instead, it had to do with the fact that the factory was a context for learning and making sense of the world. It hung together not just because it suited capitalists, but because it suited workers too.

In their current form, the vast majority of service sector industries cannot provide an environment for conviviality. There is only one service sector industry which has the possibility of being able to do this. It is EDUCATION. But the nascent education industry faces a drastic choice as to whether to follow the other service industries and become socially atomised (with increasing formalisation of assessment, content, etc) or whether to become a new industry for conviviality.

1 comment:

dawidtailor said...

I suppose the main of the issue doesn't lie in the training and learning program. I would be inclined to say it can be found in the property, but this is not quite the whole image.

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