Schools should be about education, not "social justice"
I was educated in what must have been the final days of a venerable British tradition — the teacher with overtly Right-wing political views, freely and entertainingly expressed from the front of the class on a regular basis.
OFSTED inspectors, the Bloomsbury Group, the Blair government, and indeed the entire Labour Party; all were frequent targets of Mr M’s hilarious barbs. I don’t think he could get away with it now, 20 years on. It would only take one malcontent with a phone camera to create a viral clip, or some humourless parents empowered by the modern vogue for snitching, and he’d be in serious trouble.
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But paradoxically, while Mr M didn’t hide his personal politics, there was never a genuine attempt to instruct his pupils politically or impose ideological conformity. His views did not affect his teaching or his marking. He praised the Left-wing historian AJP Taylor, and I distinctly recall his palpable contempt for the German conservatives who enabled Hitler’s rise to power. His classes may have appeared political, but really weren’t at all.
Contrast this with the new instructions issued this week by the General Teaching Council for Scotland that all teachers must promote “social justice, diversity and sustainability.” Here the opposite is true: while it may not appear to politicise education, it does, profoundly. Their arguments must be rebutted.
Firstly, they claim that political neutrality in schools is unachievable. By their account, what looks like neutrality — the avoidance of explicit politics in the curriculum — is a kind of hidden privileging of conservatism, because it simply upholds the political status quo. All teaching is ultimately ideological, then; the only question is which ideology gets to control the schools.
There is a grain of truth here, but a much larger dollop of evasion and rhetorical sleight of hand. The fact that any theory of education contains at least some implicit background assumptions does not mean that heavily politicised approaches to education are therefore unobjectionable. The extent to which education and instruction are politicised does matter, and the assumptions behind “social justice” and “diversity” are heavily political and hugely contested. In addition they are often party political matters.
The second argument you will hear is that these matters are not really politics at all. Who could possibly object to social justice or diversity? Aren’t these just synonyms for being a good person? We teach children literacy and good manners, so it stands to reason that we should teach them to be accepting and tolerant too?
This isn’t true either, of course. The beliefs that march under the banners of “equality and diversity” and “social justice” are highly controversial, highly debatable and in many cases at variance with factual findings from genuine academic subjects. To infuse those beliefs into the curriculum is not simply to introduce children to the world as it is, or to encourage them to recognise the dignity of their fellow human beings. Rather, it is a way of recruiting pupils to a particular worldview and a set of ideological commitments.
Mr M would have hated it.