[In G. Alred & M. Fleming (eds). Priorities in Education. Fieldhouse Press, University of Durham School of Education, 1996]

The Experience of School - Empowerment or Oppression?

David Smail

I have found a good rule in life to be that if one doesn't know what one is talking about, one should best keep one's mouth shut. This looks like being yet another of those occasions when I am going to find myself breaking that rule. For it is difficult to see what a clinical psychologist who has no professional or formal involvement with schools could have to say about priorities in education which could lay claim to any serious attention - especially from people who are professionally involved in teaching.

The way I have tried to approach the subject, anyway, is to think about it from an angle I do know something about, and that is: what the people who come to consult me professionally seem to find and to have found significant about their education, especially in relation to the issues they consult me about. Perhaps I should say just a few words about who those people are.

The great thing about a public health service is that, even though very inadequately and too often only potentially, it gives 'ordinary' people access to professional help and advice of the highest quality (or, at least, the best there is) at no direct cost to them. By 'ordinary' people I mean people who are not in any position of significant social or intellectual influence and whose cultural, educational and financial resources are often strictly limited. Unlike the clients of those famous schools of psychotherapy, such as psychoanalysis for example, from which originated so much of our theoretical speculations about human psychology, the clients of NHS clinical psychology very rarely come out of any concern over the complications of their 'internal worlds' etc., indeed they are often uncertain about why they are seeing a psychologist at all. As a rule they are impelled by various forms of pain and confusion which tend to relate very directly to the material circumstances of their lives. The people I am talking about are often unlike those - psychologists, educationalists, etc. - who, precisely, 'talk about' them in that they tend to be relatively poorly equipped to gain a conceptual grasp on their predicament. Many of them are highly intelligent, sensitive, perceptive and gifted people, but are frequently unrecognised as such by both themselves and others. The most important thing about them. however, the thing which, in fact, makes 'them' indistinguishable from us all (and the factor, incidentally, which in my view makes the provision of a public health service a moral imperative rather than a luxury), is that if you prick us, we bleed.

'Ordinary' people may have less in the way of resources than all the various kinds of extraordinary people who tend to grab our attention, but they certainly do not suffer less in the way of pain. In fact, of course, quantitatively speaking the reverse is the case: the fewer your resources, the more painful life is likely to be.

Education is one such resource, and an extremely important one, and what I want to talk about today is the way in which those so often intelligent, perceptive and gifted people I encounter as patients seem to have been failed by their education in ways which cause, increase or compound their pain.

The first thing which struck me when I started to think about this was how seldom 'ordinary people' spontaneously refer to school when talking about the important influences on their lives. They may regret that they didn't 'work harder' or 'pay attention', and they may identify such perceived moral failure on their part as the cause of difficulties encountered later in the labour market. But school as an experience tends to be curiously blank - perhaps a bit like having spent a period of your life incarcerated in a rather boring jail - a grey period which there is no pleasure or interest in remembering.

This is not so much the case with better resourced, middle-class patients, whose reflections on their experience of school tend to be more vivid and highly coloured. I can think, for example, of several people who had been to grammar schools who were aware particularly of social factors in relation to their schooling, for example of tensions among the pupils themselves. They may have been highly conscious of the advantages conferred by their education and perhaps of the feeling that they were not in fact entitled to such advantages despite having passed the 11+, or that other people felt they were not entitled to them, or that the very fact of their entitlement to them put them at a social distance from their families, and so on.

It is only when it comes to private schooling, in particular of course the public schools, that I can think - and even then not often - of people reflecting on school as a specifically educational experience, as a context of discovery which could be illuminating and exciting. I can remember, for example, a man who attended a well known public school talking about the enthusiasm with which one of the music teachers introduced a sixth form group to the first recordings of Shostakovich's music, and the electrified atmosphere in which they all listened.

Now I am well aware that this sounds terribly stereotyped, and I have no doubt that if my recollections of my patients' observations have any general validity at all it is to indicate a tendency, not a hard and fast rule. But I would say, in summary, that 'ordinary schooling' tends for most people to lack the intensity of 'extraordinary schooling' in two particular respects: there is less sense of the revelation of a world, and there is less awareness of teachers as mediators of such revelations. It is important to remember that what I am talking about here is what people have to say about their schooling, not what the schooling actually achieves or does, that of course would be a much broader and more complicated question.

For most ordinary people, then, I suspect that school was a time they simply had to get through, that they have little retrospective interest in, and that may or may not have succeeded in the essentially disciplinary aim of shaping them to its goals, most of which seem to relate to fitting them into a suitable niche in the labour market (if, indeed, one could be found).

This is not to say, of course, that school-age children do not learn a great deal, that they do not have a passionate curiosity about their world, that they do not seek to establish themselves in its society with great energy and tenacity. The problem, particularly presumably from an educationalist's point of view, is that the child's curriculum is quite likely to be almost entirely different from the school's, and that his/her energy, tenacity and curiosity are likely to be applied to forms of 'knowledge' which may well not be regarded by official 'education' as legitimate, valuable or healthy. But if their knowledge and experience is only minimally structured by the school curriculum, that is not to say that children invent such structure for themselves; they take it, rather, from the world in which their social lives are embedded and which has been pre-packaged for them by the largely commercial interests which control it. What may look like the children's unofficial curriculum may in this way be in fact determined by interests which know better than educationalists how to engage children's attention and commitment. What this begins to suggest, I suppose, is that school for many ordinary people is simply an irrelevance in relation to the world they actually have to live in and the concerns it imposes upon them.

As school curricula become aligned more closely with the business values of the social power system in which education is buried, it may well be that school becomes less of an irrelevance. Certainly most of the educational thinking which is accessible to the lay person (an example would be the recent commission set up by independent television1) seems to focus on bringing the experience of school more into line with the requirements of business, and since it is hard even to imagine a school system which was not centrally preoccupied with preparing people for earning a living, that may well have its advantages. But still, when I think about it, failure to equip people adequately for the labour market is by no means the only way in which the people I talk to have been let down by their education. Certainly they don't think so: as I have said, they blame only themselves for not having profited from the official curriculum. It is important to add, of course, that people themselves - we ourselves - are not necessarily the best judges of the ways in which we have been deprived or oppressed. How clearly you can see into the reasons for your difficulties depends, among other things, on the availability to you of appropriate tools of analysis. It is precisely such tools which those who have been most educationally deprived lack, and so they least of all are able to say where school failed them. What I encounter over and over again are men and, more frequently, women who think about their world with great intelligence and perspicacity, but have no idea that that is what they are doing. Far from it. Often the very reason for their consulting a psychologist is that they feel painfully out of step with those around them, and have come to accept what is usually the world's judgement that they are abnormal in some diagnosable way. Their intelligence and perspicacity are often upheld by nothing more than a kind of dogged trust in their own subjectivity, a refusal to give up an attachment to the way things seem to them to be despite the determination of almost everyone they have encountered along the way, at home, at school, at work - to knock it out of them. They have, so to speak, an unrequited love of truth which they seem incapable of abandoning however much pain it causes them.

Such people tend to think about things that those around them, including teachers, regard as not their business or not their place to think about; they reflect upon issues in a way which makes their nearest and dearest uncomfortable. They are, I would say, concerned about the social world in a way which others regard as embarrassing or even dangerous. Their concern seems to find no echo, no established structure in which it may be elaborated, no confirmation that it is a concern that could be or has been shared.

These are people who take their experience seriously, but it is too often experience which remains entirely private. And because it is so private, because it fails to find a location in a consensual society where it can be shared and developed as a contribution to an understanding of a common world, the experiencer may become afraid that she or he is mad. I remember one woman, for example, who arrived to see me one fine spring morning pale with fear that she was losing her mind because she had been derailed from a joyful appreciation of the beautiful day by passing a cemetery which caused her to reflect on the fleetingness of beauty; this must, she thought, be pathologically morbid. Another woman confessed with anxious hesitation to failing to feel sad at a funeral, but rather registering with interest the expressions of sanctimony on the faces around her. A third tended to concur with her family's view that she must be barmy because she cried when watching Iraqi soldiers being killed on television news. All three of these women , and I can think of countless others like them - were extremely intelligent, refined and sensitive in their feelings, and very poorly educated. What education seems to have failed to do was to discover their concern, to requite their love of truth, and to reveal to them a human community, past and present, which would have welcomed them with open minds.

What education is centrally about, surely, is the person's relation to a social and material world. That relation can, however, be mediated through teaching in a variety of ways. Children can, for example, be shaped to a social purpose, or they can be introduced to a world.

The first of these two alternatives seems, unfortunately, to have become the norm. Not surprisingly in the light of the Business Revolution of the eighties, schooling becomes an extension of management, and prey to all the business phenomena which seem to have infected every other aspect of life: endless reorganisation; abrupt discontinuities dictated by fashion; a preference for make-believe, mediated by promotional campaigns, over reality; the establishment of a system of appraisal which has much more to do with discipline and surveillance than it does with accurate evaluation of achievement. Under the rule of this ideology, children are managed according to the requirements of a volatile and uncertain market which trains people to become consumers as much if not more than producers but has, otherwise, little interest in them. Since I work only with adults, I have in my clinical work not yet seen many of the products of this system, so I am not too sure how satisfactorily people are being kitted out for so-called 'postmodernity'. The statistic that in Britain during the eighties suicide among men aged between 20-24 rose by 71%2 suggests that postmodernity may be leaving something to be desired.

If education were, on the other hand, about introducing children to a social and material world, it is by no means obvious how one might set about doing it. Here one encounters all the difficulties about objectivity and subjectivity. At one extreme (and I seem to remember a lot of my own schooling taking this form) you could drill children into acceptance of and participation in a rigidly defined reality and set of social certainties which took little account of how they themselves saw or felt about things but which did have the, maybe doubtful, merit of forcing everybody into a boat they could cooperate in sailing. The ruling intellectual dogmas I grew up with - logical positivism and behaviourism - even if they dealt often brutally with individual dissent, at least assumed that we were all living on the same planet.

The understandable reaction to this form of intellectual tyranny may, however, also go too far, such that people are brought up to believe that they can, so to speak, whistle up a viable world from within themselves, that all that matters is creativity - seen as some kind of inborn trait - and 'personal growth', that satisfactory living is in some unspecified way to do with the unfettered exercise of will ('you can do anything if you really want toy). What one seems to end up with here is a kind of loosely structured 'New Age' philosophy coupled with an often quite fiercely asserted moralism derived from an assessment of the evils of the 'old' patriarchal age of competitiveness and gender stereotyping. The professions of psychotherapy and counselling constitute a crucial pillar of the society corresponding to this approach, since it relies, as Richard Sennett3 has pointed out, on a model of men and women as self-creating and almost infinitely malleable: through processes of, for example, 'cognitive restructuring', or by 're-programming' yourself 'neuro-linguistically', by circling back through your childhood to complete 'unfinished business', and so on, you can supposedly correct the errors of your history and shape yourself to the demands of the moment. In this context education becomes a question of unleashing the potential of 'inner worlds', and weakening if not proscribing many of the categories of the outer world which owe their origin to the bad old days.

Carried to its logical extreme, which of course it couldn't be, this kind of cultivation of individual interiority would result quite literally in madness. Meaning is a public, not a private construct, and if we didn't live in a consensual world - a world whose principal features we all recognised and spoke about in the same way - we would not be able to operate a society at all.

The way out of these difficulties comes with the realisation that objectivity and subjectivity are not mutually exclusive alternatives, but are complementary. The individual subject could not be viable, or even intelligible, out of the context of a world whose features and meanings are culturally established independently of him or her, and in a perfectly good sense therefore objectively. At the same time, such objectivity cannot but be the creation of a collectivity of subjects - it is in its turn not given independently of the bodies and minds of the men and women who strive to understand it.

If I think about aspects of my own education which I have found most valuable - many of which, I might say, came about in spite rather than because of the official curricula - they seem to have just this quality of reciprocity between the personal and the impersonal, subject and object, and this seems to be the case for many people who speak appreciatively about particular experiences of learning. Something that one was searching for becomes gradually, or perhaps even suddenly, clear through being related to the searching and discovery of others. An intimation of some aspect of the world is given definition and clarity through the realisation that in fact the territory in question has already been mapped by others, or that others at least know better how to survey it. This kind of process is very different from, on the one hand, being forced to learn by rote concepts and categories which bear no relation to one's own concerns, and, on the other hand, being encouraged simply to indulge one's own fumbling attempts at reinvesting wheels. The skill of the teacher, presumably, is precisely in mediating the relation between person and world, in acting, that is, as go-between, seeking to satisfy the desire of the person to know the world by introducing to him or her what may in fact be known about it.

It is just this kind of marriage between inside and outside, the acknowledgement that a legitimate desire may find its consummation in an established body of knowledge, which is missing in the experience of the people I mentioned earlier. Take, for example, the woman who was upset by her thoughts of death intruding on her appreciation of a spring morning. 'Knowledge', for her, was almost solely the concern of an oppressive Authority to whose mysteries she had no right of access; her duty, rather, was to learn its rules and obey its ordinances, to treat it with respect but not to encroach upon its interests. Her own sensitivity to and reflectiveness about the world, the kind of yearning concern her social connectedness aroused in her, she regarded as a shameful liability, something that shouldn't be there, that should be knocked out of her, that betokened something very like insanity. When I pointed out to her that the intrusion of thoughts of death into the contemplation of beauty was not her experience alone, but had long been elaborated into works of art of all kinds, etc., she was, after a moment's incredulity, not only relieved that she wasn't going mad, but pleased and excited to find herself in such good company.

Part of the reason that so many of the people I encounter suffer from attacks of annihilating anxiety is that, as subjects, they have long ago been cancelled out by the powers that be, prominent among which is school. They simply are not able to believe that their own embodied experience counts for anything socially worthwhile, and yet, because they are possessed of a mysterious kind of integrity (which after years of thinking about it I still find hard to account for) they are unable to abandon their subjectivity for one of the ideologically more comfortable positions on offer in our society. The woman who cried for the Iraqi soldiers derived absolutely no satisfaction from her concern; moral self-righteousness was completely foreign to her and she would infinitely rather have been able to share the indifference of those who thought she was barmy. What might have been her greatest asset became, from her point of view, her most painful liability. She had just not encountered a world which showed any appreciation of what she had to offer it.

I hope, however, that teaching does not become too much like psychotherapy. For if the kind of ideologies which tend to dominate education frequently lose sight of individual subjectivity, psychotherapeutic ideologies tend to do the opposite, i.e. become so submerged in the subject that they lose sight of the inexorable realities of the external world. By 'external world' I mean that mysterious material and social entity which men and women of good will have in good faith struggled over the centuries to describe and understand. We shall never, of course, be able to describe and understand it so perfectly that its objectivity will be finally and completely established, but neither is it a figment of our imaginations. Psychotherapies often give the impression that reality is so dependent on the meanings we accord it that we can change these at will to make of it whatever we like. But this simply does not seem to me to be the case: it has been my experience that people are able to reduce their own suffering and distress, as well as contribute to the public good, by discovering the truth rather than inventing it, by reaching out to grapple with material and social reality rather than by delving into themselves in order to adjust their perception of it. Our understandings of the world are hard won, and to win them we need access to the powers and resources which make them possible. The fostering of such access, I should have thought, could be a priority for education.

The reasons for our needing to understand the world will of course vary according to our moral aim. As things are, the ruling aim seems to be one of exploiting the world to the advantage of a small minority who wish to maintain and develop power over what they have already appropriated. It is not in the interests of this minority, bearing in mind that knowledge equals power, that education should be generally available. A more congenial moral aim - one which might conceivably even capture the interest and enthusiasm of children - might be to use our knowledge of the world to make it a more comfortable place for us all to live in. In which case that knowledge needs to be more widely shared than it is. Which could be another priority for education.

1 Learning to Succeed: Report of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, National Commission on Education London: Heinemann, 1993

2 The Health of the Nation: A Consultative Document for Health in England. HMSO, 1991.

3 Senett, R.. Destructive gemeinschaft. In R. Bocock et al (eds). An Introduction to Sociology. London: Fontana Press, 1980

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