Creativity where We Live, Not Pygmalion-like Escape Ladders
Creating a Working-class Education for a Digital World
by Peter Shukie (Featured in Lumpen Issue Six)
The All-seeing Eye of the Middle-class Education System
When Orwell wrote The Road to Wigan Pier he probably thought little of its impact on those about whom he wrote. The people of Wigan were largely viewed as the poor unfortunates, the observed, the objects from which this expert eye might forge a damning indictment on industrial towns.
Wigan, my hometown, is characterised by sporting achievement, northern soul, music, comedians, artists, poets, politics, being the birthplace of Gerard Winstanley (who developed the notion of the public space as common treasury), and much else. Yet it has struggled to throw off the image Orwell gave of a bleak, miserable landscape of hovels and tripe populated by unfortunates of hardy, yet cheery disposition despite the horrors of their existence. Others have revisited Orwell’s work over the decades since its first publication to reveal yet more about the lives of the working class (Campbell, 1981; Armstrong, 2015). The aim here is not to offer anything like such a retracing, my steps in working class Wigan were my original ones and remain that despite later awareness of earlier travellers. Instead, I found in Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier a more familiar narrative, that of the middle-class observer of lives beyond their own, which they immediately define in relation to their values and behaviours.
It is common to find the travails of the middle class venturing out amongst various tribes and territories of the planet. It often seems exclusively their right to attempt to represent these spaces as alternate, different to their own, and thus ripe for a remoulding so they become more like themselves.
This eye of false objectivity in the head of a remote expert observer becomes dangerous when it is the model by which we have designed our education systems. This leads to a situation in which entire populations, communities, countries, and regions become in deficit. The gap between what is expected and what exists is based entirely on a middle-class perspective. The all-seeing eye of the middle class is at best myopic and more often than not completely blind. This article explores the possibility of a more emancipatory way of seeing education in a digital world.
Why We Need to Create a Working-class-inspired Education System
The emphasis on a working-class education comes from a resistance to middle-class values and approaches to life. If we continue in establishing that education’s purpose is to raise the working class to become like the middle class, the act of teaching and of learning is one of cleansing. Working-class students can only be treated, reformed, and have non-middle-class behaviours eradicated. This is a view of the working class as a disease to be treated.
Establishing places of learning that arrive like spaceships into towns and cities, within but always apart from the communities they arrive in, is perhaps more clearly visible in universities than further education colleges and training providers. Yet all of these places arrive with a national and international, rather than local, agenda. An education system decided by the wealthy and the powerful prioritises the concerns of the wealthy and the powerful. These define what we learn and what is considered important, decided remotely rather than in the communities they serve. What we lose then is the potential for colleges to become porous, community-owned and directed spaces for learning, sharing and creating relevant local responses to diverse issues faced by the people they serve.
The Road to Wigan Pier and its subsequent revisits establish that poverty is an issue and one that bears investigation. In all three cases the focus on working-class culture is viewed cheek-by-jowl with concerns of poverty. While Campbell (1981) considers the gothic dress exhibited in 1980s Wigan as a form of working-class revolt, it is less clear how the middle-class gothic in Buckinghamshire derives their purpose and motivation. Such university or publishing house investigations appear rooted in the alleviation of inequality. The logic is that raising awareness leads to solving the problem. The voices of the working class in these texts are present, albeit interpreted by authors, editors, and eventually readers. What we are actually reading about is not working-class lives, but those of the authors, the direction they choose to focus the camera or microphone, the elements of other lives they choose to include. These voices are not our own. We need to reclaim these stories by writing them ourselves and making these lives part of our education system.
A Class Apart
In the early 2000s I was working with excluded young people at a training provider whose key remit was to keep everyone attending. The range of backgrounds was diverse, but also showed similarity in postcodes, stories of school exclusion, lack of certified achievements from education, and common issues with drink and drugs—either their own or within the family. My own presence there was background related: I was told explicitly in my interview I was ‘being given a chance’ because I lived on a council estate. The thinking was that I could relate better, as if we must all share some kind of collective social housing DNA passed around on the basis of where we lived. Stupid though that assumption was, there was a link; I had experienced these tedious patronising approaches myself and recognised I was not working with circumstances and postcodes, but people.
In a class of 25 young people I initially had to use the standard materials purchased by the provider: a guide to employability. Task one was the development of a working diary with each individual asked to reflect on the life of someone they lived with who worked, and how it might differ from those who did not. Regularly, over these first few months, the same thing occurred with nobody having what they considered a working person in their household. A major factor in their attendance was the payment of £50 granted on full attendance for the week, a decisive factor in the period before the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) was provided to a wider college populace. The regular line of family waiting outside the provider’s building on Friday’s payday highlighted the significance this payment had for entire families, not just those on the courses. Our group was in a separated room, apart geographically and at a distance culturally and resource-wise from the general business of the provider. In a room with barred windows we found a freedom based on lack of interest from managers interested only in attendance figures. It meant we might become innovative and playful in creating courses and activities that would attract people who had a record of finding attendance an anathema for most of their lives. Most importantly, it meant my own fledgling steps as an educator could find the space to include dialogue and be led by those people in the room. These early days included humanism and an interest in Carl Rogers, but increasingly on critical pedagogy and the work of Paulo Freire (1998, 1999, 2005). These world famous educators were a lifeline and a way to think differently. A way to think we were important and that the system was wrong in thinking otherwise.
In our classroom of the disadvantaged it was clear nobody saw themselves as disadvantaged. Our stories and backgrounds were algorithmically assigned as marginalised and open to the crisis funding of the programme. Each lent themselves, one way or another, to a tidy allocation as NEETs (Not in Education or Training) that meant the students became valuable commodities for training courses that could wrest them from these depths. But within the groups, the stories were of music, fashion, laughter, adventures in and around their estates, births, deaths, fights, hopes, dreams, and fears. As part of one session we watched a documentary, Kelly and her Sisters (Carlton TV 2001) about a young family living on a council estate in tough conditions. I had anticipated we would start by considering the film a catalyst for discussion around poverty and the pressures it causes. This did occur in part, but it was clear that the young people in the session did not see their situation as in any way linked to this televised depiction. This was poverty on screen, and not the rich real lives they lived.
A decade later a documentary crew visited our area to create a narrative of poverty and fecklessness (Trouble on the Estate, Panorama, ITV, 2015). I had left the organisation by then and wondered how our group would discuss that depiction of themselves, stripped of beauty or agency and laid out as pallid ghosts of televisual poverty. I suppose the same way we thought then, totally unaware of our lives being marginal. I mean, we all were very central, active parts of our own lives. What made such lives marginal was the distance from a centre that we had no part in shaping and that was invisible to us.
Updating Exclusion for the Digital Age
A simplistic notion is found at the root of education as transformation that confuses mere access to educators, resources and qualifications with unproblematic potential to transform communities and individuals. Eubanks (2011) evidences a naivety in expecting increasing access to technology to ‘float all boats’ (p.4) while ignoring societal imbalance. In Eubank’s study, marginalised groups of women living in a YWCA were skilled in technology and employed in high-tech industries but remained locked in cycles of low-pay, precarious employment and insecure housing. In her later research, Eubanks (2017) reveals a technology infrastructure increasingly designed to create systems that are ‘automating inequality’ with private corporations melded with public services to ‘profile, police and punish the poor’. Through algorithms that build in concepts of marginalisation and surveillance, the systems of support become automated as technologies red-flagged working-class people as those most likely to be sanctioned. The frustration, anger, destitution, and even death that results from the creation of digital ramparts across Eubank’s case studies highlights the impact of digital policies on human life—almost exclusively working-class and poor human life. As one of Eubank’s respondents warns us ‘it’s us now, but watch out. It will soon be you’ (2011). The ‘us’ in question relates to the working class. The ‘you’, a safer, although increasingly-at-risk middle class. History suggests that mitigation often comes to the aid of the wealthier, middle classes almost as often as it fails to materialise for those lower down the economic spectrum. The Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake (Laverty, Loach, Johns & Squires, 2017) adds a powerful narrative based around similar experiences: an increasingly automated and digitally defended welfare system that separates out human stories and replaces them with algorithmic brutality. Yet, viewing these horrors of systemic violence in celluloid clarity has done little to stop its spread.
Such systemised marginalisation and persecution of the poor becomes one not only allowed by the systems of government, but part of the very fabric and purpose of those systems. The drive toward an increased digitalisation of the state is occurring globally, but the marginalising instinct precedes these technological innovations. A mistrust of authoritarian and discriminatory digital infrastructure is also well-established in working-class communities who are already aware of the unjust principles these hierarchies of control are built upon. While the Digital Britain (2009) strategy describes switching public services to digital as cost-saving and increasing satisfaction rates (p.4) there is no mention of challenging societal imbalance. The establishment of a digital welfare state sees those outside the preferred routes as in deficit just as much as its analogue society ancestor did. The UK Digital Strategy 2017 policy paper establishes the main concern for communities as being increased access to broadband and tackling the digital skills gap. For education, the emphasis is on procurement of technology and the establishment of increased technology infrastructure (ibid.). The widening of a technological infrastructure appears to be one-way traffic and top-down. Models of deficit come via government and industry concerns around economic value and transferable skills that relate to consumer and industry metrics. Where any mention of correcting imbalance or injustice occurs, it is in eradicating the lack of access to the infrastructure needed to engage in this vision of a digital Britain. In such a worldview, the establishing of cost-savings, consumer-satisfaction ratings, and efficient access would replace any notions of social change, community-generated or localised responses to education, or alternate approaches to what society or community may represent. The education crisis of Covid-19 has only just begun to show that the problems with technology go deeper than just access to machines. We need a different approach to what education is for and who it involves, not just on what machines we access it.
From analogue to digital, a middle-class view of society dominates and continues to marginalise the working class. In prioritising access to digital education, it ignores the ways that various social groups experience the world and the capital infrastructure that technology depends on. As employer-led models are prioritised by economic need and government agendas, they reinforce a sense that a separated, hierarchical, and often exploitative sector is left in control. A recognition of the differences between classes is also significant: while the education system historically appeared to prioritise success as white collar employment (Todd, 2014. p.222) these jobs held little value or status for many working-class communities (ibid.). The differing views of what success might appear to be were not only around status but also a ‘suspicion of the petty authority wielded by middle managers and bureaucrats…entering such occupations…was nothing to be proud of’ (ibid.). Technology in educational and civic contexts becomes aligned with power and social hierarchies. It is simultaneously stripped of its power to democratise and widen networks that make it so ubiquitous in other aspects of life. By prioritising ownership of technology as a means to access the systems of control, the continuation of education as a creator of a denigrated working class continues. By manipulating technology as a tool of control and embedding that in educational infrastructure the tools of social inequality become future-proofed.
An Education of the Social and the Fallacy of Mobility
Educational discourse often seems rooted in Pygmallion-like concerns with transformation. First recognise the error of our ways/speech/manners and then comply with the authority of the teacher. Work hard, and you too can become like them. Social mobility: the proof that society works and education is our saviour. Diane Reay says that
‘social mobility is primarily about recycling inequality rather than tackling it.’ (Reay, 2012. p.593). Rather than a simplistic notion such as this, Reay suggests, we must recognise that ‘in order to have a more socially just educational system the wider social context needs to look very different, and, in particular, the gap between the rich and the poor needs to be substantially reduced’ (p.593).
The destructive forces of inequality can feel omnipresent and irrepressible with subsequent feelings of helplessness adding to the inevitability of a world that feels wrong. A significant part of such a powerful ‘wrong’ is the knowledge that we are part of it. Wilkinson and Pickett (2009) describe conventional employment in capitalist societies as relationships based on compliance that necessitate ignorance of any wider inequalities they propagate (p.262). From the exploitation of poorer and less-educated markets to sell fatal tobacco products or the exploitative manufacturing of life-saving medicine, the role of the individual worker is complicit but voiceless. The result is a situation in which ‘You might disagree with the purpose to which your work is being put, you might not even know what the purpose is, but you are not employed to have opinions about such things and not to express them’ (ibid.).
Employee-owned organisations, they argue, might reduce if not eradicate this tendency toward absolved responsibility. From the perspective of education, the relationship is clouded by a sense of supposedly being explicit in creating creative, critical thinkers. Clouded because this expectation is itself rooted in expanding neoliberal purpose and the language of market and consumer dominating educational institutions (Hall & O’Shea, 2011). We might find space to generate alternative voices and practices, but at some point, institutional learning is faced with metrics of employer-validated relevance or economic output. How might it be possible to create the language of new possibilities and radically altered societal structure to challenge social injustice while locked within institutions that serve to uphold the status quo? In Wilkinson and Pickett’s view, inequality thrives in the vacuum created because democracy is excluded from economic considerations (p.264). The law of the market provides the validation for increased inequality. Their solution is for cooperatives, employee ownership of businesses and representation on company boards (ibid.). As with Paulo Freire’s (1999) response to challenges of the new information age, they recognise the importance of the institutions. We cannot abandon educational institutions but we must transform them. McLaren (2014) describes how teachers are ‘encouraged to be good “systems people”, to create synthetic environments for our students. [That] dish out knowledge like fast food; burger specials arrive limp and overcooked from the Insight Kitchens of Google, Twitter and Apple’ (p.171). The purpose is standardised and efficient learning/teaching that creates opportunity for only ‘practical’ and ‘technical’ forms of knowledge, and the real value of ‘productive’ or ‘transformative’ (ibid.) knowledge is lost.
Rather than getting rid of institutions, McLaren’s call is for purposeful and powerful organisations that use education to transform by fighting inequality, creating education that addresses an ideology that reifies the manipulation of human labour for capitalist gain. What we need are
‘...theories that provoke teachers to question the value assumptions that underlie their technocratic cultural terrain and throw open to scrutiny the classroom practices and social relations linked to the capitalist law of value that future teachers are forced to acquire during their teacher education’ (p.172).
Class has to be recognised as a concern of the current education system that not only fails to address the denigration of working-class communities, but that promotes it.
Class and Education: The Toxic Metaphors of Ladders and Lifeboats.
The problem of inequality in education appears two-fold. On one hand, despite moves towards widening participation the data highlights a predominance of white, middle-class students from privileged backgrounds in Russell Group universities (Reay et al, 2010, p.107). Even where working-class students have achieved the grades to access these institutions they are less likely to attend (ibid.). Second, even in pursuing a corrective of inequality by accessing these institutions, success becomes individualistic and reifies the image of lone working-class students being rescued from the misery of their existence. This reflects concern with a recycling of inequality rather than tackling it (Reay et al, 2010) and the lifeboats that allow salvation for a precious few further embed the concept of the drowning masses left behind.
The result of these policies is that whole communities, giant swathes of society, feel left behind in educational terms. Not only as individuals, but whole families and communities become little more than places to escape from. Education acts as a ladder out to some kind of distant light rather than a powerful/empowering part of regeneration and social betterment. This destroys any meaningful engagement with communities and instead generates an aspirational escapee mentality rooted in fear of loss and failure.
Popular Education, Critical Pedagogy and the Challenge to Middle-class ‘Common Sense’
To establish an alternative to the imbalance of the current structures requires awareness of the ways that education is part of the proliferation of inequality. This occurs in classrooms, between educators and students, as well as on a macro-organisational level of government policy, with economic interest coming first. Initially, the notion of critical thinking appears to ensure that alternate thought is part of the educational process. However, if constrained by achievement based on economic viability and employability (a perpetual shadow curricula in every discipline), then criticality is itself impoverished. Critical analysis—bound by neoliberal common sense and rooted in the assumptions of standardised, middle-class convention—is sanitised and incapable of moving beyond the status quo. Whether through the creation of institutional Massive Open Online Courses or national school curricula, decision making and ownership remain in the hands of universities that are saturated in middle-class values and expectations. What these values create are philosophies of civilising missionaries and salvation as they reach out to communities. What they need to develop are practices of dialogue and shared respect, mutuality and collective purpose.
Paulo Freire (2005) proposes a popular education that relates to communities directly, stripping hierarchical models of teacher-student, to allow for dialogue and problem-solving as a basis for how, and what, we learn. Popular education insists on the recognition of those involved in any educational activity to have a voice in its purpose and its method.
Popular education is the catalyst for the alternative education model proposed in the remainder of this article. I describe some of the ways that we challenge the creation and maintenance of hierarchical, common-sense approaches to learning that validate only conventional models. Our challenge is based on dialogic approaches to education on a practical level, with multiple participants creating spaces to explore what education might be. Partly, this has resulted in leaving the academy behind and finding fresh air in spaces we can breathe freely. However, many of our experiences occur within the academy, including activities within institutional courses that create dialogic space and find the space to create, reflect, design and build community-facing education based around the stories of those involved.
A Community Digital Platform
Community Open Online Courses (COOCs.co.uk) is a platform that explores the ways that we could educate based on distributed knowledge and multiple approaches to learning. Everyone that registers is immediately able to create a course. What a course looks like, what it is for, and who is invited become the responsibility and directive of the educator—whoever that educator is and whatever their motivations are. In such a space the working class and its million sub-sections are then not immediately seen as a deficit—a problem that must be civilised by middle-class values in an educational system.
These COOC spaces allow people to create courses within formal educational spaces, but that immediately transfers the purpose and direction of what is taught and learned to others. We play with form, discuss what teachers do, what knowledge looks like, and how we share and discuss it. The impact has been powerful (Shukie, 2018) and shows that people can discover and use more when they see the purpose of doing it in their own lives. This is not technology-led, nor institution-led education. It is purpose-led and provides motivation that cannot be framed in escapism and white-knight-saviour narratives.
When encouraged to create a space for dialogue, and to create projects based on their own stories, we still have issues of ‘Am I doing it right?’ The response of ‘I do not know, it depends on you and your community’ is to transfer power—a transference that is often deeply unsettling. Shifting from transmission models to purpose-led and community-impact-driven approaches shapes new models of thinking and acting, of being in the world. It is this activism-in-action that can help redesign how we educate and who is involved, to escape desperate hands reaching for rope ladders and futile efforts to scramble upwards. Replacing this with confident communities that design learning opportunities and shape education that works for them and their communities is the way ahead. Pygmalion metaphors can be revisited as an ancient regime that we look back on with sorrow for the way we used to be. Working class as a term for a disparate collective can begin to find its value as the home of indigenous knowledges, local and contextualised expertise, and places of new confidence imbued with responsibility, purpose, and the means to act. We are always part of the story, and central to our own stories. This has to be a part of how we learn and what we choose to explore. That does not fit with Henry Higgins-style visiting experts that correct and modify until we look like them. It requires a participatory and energised engagement with making a world as we need it to be, avoiding designing this in isolation, and becoming skilled in dialogue, creativity, and the ability to share to develop.
The examples of alternative approaches described here can appear in many cases to be already familiar, based on student-led pedagogies. Where they differ is in their purpose. The activities begin by seeing students and teachers as equals, rather than as economic units coming together to complete a transaction that is counted, measured, and accredited by others. It is in the immediacy of context, on the navigation of each narrative, the inclusion of community and family, and the in-built necessity of our stories that define what value the learning/teaching/knowledge have. Rather than the invisible, inane, and often contradictory edicts, where instructions are ‘handed down’ without consultation and with the only response one of compliance, these activities relied on activism, engagement, reflection and creation. As the projects unfolded across multiple lives and communities I met with researchers, students, and community educators who had struggled to find support from organisations interested only in functional skills. These institutional limitations meant almost all projects continued in informal spaces in order to grow.
Art therapy courses developed despite a lack of funding because Maths, English, and ICT were not explicit. The rooms were packed because people loved the opportunity to meet, create, and learn. All the functional skills were, ironically, in full view and flourishing. Organisational myopia may be incapable of seeing this energy, focussed instead on poorly attended courses with all love and purpose removed.
Much like the banking educational model Paulo Freire vehemently resists, we face multiple situations in which knowledge and learning are defined remotely and insisted upon rather than engaged with. We remain with some choice: a decision to reject dehumanising and marginalising practices and to create learning that is inclusive and dialogic. It does not mean every session becomes a discussion, every course a committee, but it does mean that choices made and direction travelled must involve opportunities for all voices to be heard. Technocratic and institutionalised models of learning might well be efficient for some, and certainly seem to be profitable for a select few. Our choice extends to the point where we might ask ourselves whether we consider such impoverished knowledge and inequality of resources as a natural and inevitable consequence. Are we agents of an educational process of compliance or agents of change?
The examples of how we have created opportunities of engagement have had to begin with an understanding that we all have value; all our voices are worthy of being heard and no one person’s experience is greater than any other. Such a basis differs from the status-bound, civilising mission of some middle-class educators’ views of working-class communities. Our role as working-class educators is not to ridicule or mock these educators, but to welcome and work with them as people who also contribute to an educational system based on transformation and purpose, not on compliance and the maintenance of unfair and illogical systems. Rather than Orwell’s experience of speaking to one community with the intention of reporting to another, we can create educational spaces that encourage direct engagement. In doing so, we develop practices that explore untested feasibility, and a willingness to recognise that our worldview is not the only one. We might have to continue off-road to do this.
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