Revenge of the old Thing

10th May 1996 at 01:00
Fred Inglis celebrates a book that anatomises the barbarians within

EDUCATION AND THE STRUGGLE FOR DEMOCRACY. By Wilfred Carr and Anthony Hartnett. Open University Press. Pounds 45, paperback Pounds 15.99

The past, Marx told us, "weighs like a nightmare upon the brain of the living". But the meaning of that past is, as they say, an essentially contested concept.

Once upon a time, those civic-hearted people who constituted the educational establishment which, we have learned to our surprise, is responsible for the country's going to the dogs, believed that they had won the past. It was a kind of family history in which a sort of democracy was wrung from the hands of the wrong rulers and put in the hands of the right ones: themselves, for sure, but also all those for whom education was a common good, commonly held in trust for them, their children and their children's children who were the future.

Then along came the hot-eyed zealots in all their weird motley: Mrs Thatcher first and hottest of all, Keith Joseph the Mad Monk, Mark Carlisle ("a wet drying out", Neil Kinnock said), and the demons Boyson, Baker, Patten and all, dancing to the macabre music of Hayek and Scruton. This splendid book retells, and then weighs up, the narrative of that dreadful nightmare from which we dead have still not awoken. It is a tale told in tones of regulated hatred of the way in which the value-inheritance of our political culture has been systematically distorted so that the old, abominable corruption of British society - what Cobbett called The Thing - has kept on its juggernaut way even though its gangsters have often repainted it in the colours of turbo-capitalism and piratical new formations.

There have been a few fine books already on this topic - by Ken Jones, by Brian Simon - but damned few, and none with the calm detestation of this one with its long, careful historiography, the noble reclamation of the vocabulary of T H Green and R H Tawney, the steadiness once more to use such terms as equality, dignity, and the good society.

It documents in detail the argument first propounded in 1964 by Perry Anderson that the origins of the present crisis are to be found in the Tory Settlement after the Restoration, the unearthly compromise of English landowners and mercantilists after 1832, the absolute determination of The Thing to drive the mechanisms of education - what Bernstein calls the pedagogic device - in favour of their own class alone. With prescient force, Anderson put this case at exactly the moment at which everyone had forgotten it; Carr and Hartnett give it an exemplary and fully historical sociology.

They then bring it up to date by way of the grisly chronicle of the locust years since 1979, when Old Corruption was called from its sarcophagus by way of the abolition of such genteel, admirable bodies as the Schools Council (remember it?), the long, bitter pay dispute of 1984-86, the 1988 Education Reform Act and the coming of local management which put primary schools permanently on the edge of Queer Street.

At the heart of The Thing's reassertion of itself, is that other Thing, the national curriculum. Carr and Hartnett bring out its incoherence and irrelevance, its monstrous overweighting, its preposterous theories of cognition and competence, with a clarity and directness which, one hopes, will enormously disconcert Labour's education spokesman who has done little in this connection except join the gibberings about standards. As for the office officially nominated to protect those standards, our authors identify its whole point as being to suppress the very heart of the matter, which is that the polity of the future is defined by education; but of course the perpetuity of Tory rule is accomplished not only by keeping politics out of education, but out of politics as well.

Finally, the authors turn to their own domain of teacher education and there, too, the utterly philistine Training Agency does all it can to render teachers compliant, exhausted, always under threat of surveillance, afraid.

Liberal society in the present needs must teach obedient consumerism while it purportedly aspires to a critical citizenry. Mischievously putting Marx's words in John Dewey's mouth, Carr and Hartnett bring their readers, by way of a densely packed book (110,000 words in 233 pages), to see that contradiction.

Their courteous anger is that of generous men who ask their fellow citizens and comrades to stand up for a better, because more democratic, world. Democracy, as they show so vividly, is not just the management's expediency. Fully lived (which means fully taught), it is the good society in action.

For 17 years our rulers have quite consciously and successfully sought to cripple our democracy. This timely book is not just a reminder of this; it is a call to action in defence of a primary value in our lives. The next few months will be crucial to its fate.

Fred Inglis is Professor of Cultural Studies, the University of Warwick, and author of the biography, Raymond Williams (Routledge, 1995).

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