Litmus test for the harder side of Scottish life

7th May 2010 at 01:00

Carol Craig's The Tears that Made the Clyde is a trenchant critique of contemporary Glasgow society and, by extension, of all Scotland. Despite her concern and anger at the waste of human potential our past has created, she offers no simple cures but tries to see the relatedness of causes and consequences. It is a book which challenges educationists, politicians, community activists and social scientists.

In 19th-century Glasgow, wealth accumulated, labour was skilled but cheap and housing was appalling. Perhaps more than in any other city in Britain, a brief but huge expansion of industry drew thousands from Ireland, the Highlands, the rural Lowlands, and rapidly proletarianised and brutalised them. The gap between the wealthy and the rest was enormous.

Today, Glasgow's male life expectancy is four years less than the Scottish average. The gap between life expectancy in poor Glasgow and affluent Glasgow is widening. Where whippet-like men were once the norm, obesity is now among the world's highest. Some 36 per cent of children live in households where no one is employed. Problem drug use is the highest of any area in Scotland. All of these truths remain valid, despite years of futile government and municipal programmes to end deprivation.

An aggressive masculine culture, centring on alcohol, violence and non- engagement with women and families, arose from various factors. Pride in industrial skill, in a city where heavy engineering was dominant but was also prey to the vicissitudes of trade, kept men firmly bonded; the pub, gambling and football were the alternatives to being penned with women and children in grossly-overcrowded homes. The result is a cold, hard culture in which insult is more common than affection.

Craig paints education as largely failing to provide a finer vision. Although 19th-century Scotland was, by international standards, well- educated, rapidly-urbanising Glasgow was not.

In common with all Scottish schools, frequent testing, rote learning and corporal punishment were the norms until the late 1970s. Even with comprehensive education, Craig suggests education had alienated parents, who gave limited encouragement to the poorest young people to identify with it. The very idea of advancing through education can be dismissed as having ambitions beyond your station, as a desire to escape your family, class and community, as a threat to traditional social solidarity.

Beyond her cultural critique, Craig's message to educationists is to prioritise resilience over self-esteem, indeed to recognise that the emphasis on self-esteem, with its Pollyanna-urge to praise uncritically, actually undermines resilience.

Her second message is that if the cold, sterile experiences of too many young Scots are to be reversed, then resources must be focused on the emotional health of our nursery-age children.

Craig's book is moving, complex and litmus-tests much of Scottish life. It will not be favoured reading by the target-drivers, the planners or most politicians. It will disturb those who value markets, competition and league tables.

While politically radical, it refuses to genuflect to the myths of the Scottish left. Indeed, its strength is that it shatters myths but offers hope, giving it an increasingly rare intellectual integrity.

Alex Wood is headteacher of Wester Hailes Education Centre, Edinburgh.

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