The suburbanisation of the soul

11th April 2003 at 01:00
THE recent work of one of my favourite novelists, J G Ballard, has been set in chilling societies of the near future, where people owe no allegiance to traditional values but are driven by the pursuit of power, wealth and personal gratification.

In Super-Cannes, one of the characters says: "The notion of the community as a voluntary association of enlightened individuals has died for ever . .

. (people) pay lip-service to community values but prefer to be alone."

This perception cuts right across many assumptions underlying current policies in education, which are rooted in some conception of community, however vague.

The emphasis on education for citizenship, for example, presupposes a commitment to a democratic society in which community involvement is seen as an individual and collective good, helping to build "social capital".

Similarly, the concept of social inclusion, which is right at the heart of many government policies, takes for granted that one way of countering disadvantage and alienation is to develop strategies which encourage civic participation, thereby giving the "excluded" a sense of belonging and a stake in their community.

Schools are regarded as having a vital role to play in this. They constitute "mini-communities" in which youngsters learn what it means to share, support, listen, compromise, respect. From a political perspective, they are viewed as a bulwark against fragmentation and division in society, particularly at a time when traditional agencies of social control, such as the family and the church, are much less powerful than they used to be.

New community schools have the explicit aim of co-ordinating previously separate social agencies (education, health, social work) in an attempt to strengthen the infrastructure of public sector provision and ensure a better level of service.

All of this is undoubtedly well-intentioned. But how convincingly does the constant invocation of community stand up to analysis? Traditional interpretations imply a sense of place, shared interests and a common identity. These are now seriously challenged in a number of ways. Social mobility means that many people have lost the sense of belonging associated with their geographical roots. Others may pursue interests that are not defined by location.

Technology makes this easier. It is possible to be associated with multiple social networks through the internet but with little commitment or obligation to maintain the association. As for identity, in the post-modern world it is shifting, elusive and subject to reinvention.

What seems to emerge is that much of the appeal of community is a form of nostalgia, an expression of regret for what has been lost and a desire to recapture the security it once gave. However, that security has gone. The fixed points in the lives of previous generations cannot be recaptured. We have to learn to live with uncertainty and the reality of rapid social, economic and technological change.

There is also something distasteful about the regular association of community with disadvantage. Contrary to official intentions, it runs the risk of becoming a deficit concept. Policy-makers see a sense of community as an antidote to the indicators of social exclusion - unemployment, poverty, poor skills, inadequate housing. They rarely mention community when referring to more advantaged areas, such as the prosperous suburbs of our cities.

The Ballard character referred to at the outset captures something of the value system of those "communities" when he says: "Today we scarcely know our neighbours, shun most forms of civic involvement and happily leave the running of society to a caste of political technicians."

The result? "The suburbanisation of the soul has overrun our planet like the plague."

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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