If there is hope… it lies with the proles

Posted on January 30, 2013

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This is one of my ‘not off to a good start’ blogposts. You may not realise it yet, but when you understand that the ‘proles’ of this piece are standard scale classroom teachers then you’ll know what I mean. The fact that I am a member of SLT doesn’t help. Even my boast that I was once called a poacher-turned-gamekeeper as a badge of proleness doesn’t help because it was EIGHT YEARS AGO!!! If I throw in the oft-repeated fact that I was from a family reliant on benefits then I’m just starting to look desperate and, actually, that isn’t what I mean at all.

What I do actually mean is that in our current education system, if there is hope then it lies with the full-time, all-the-time, in-the-classroom, honest-as-the-day-is-long, non-TLRd teacher. And it is much to our discredit that we have for so long forgotten this fact. But maybe, just maybe, we are in danger of remembering.

Let me digress a little…

George Orwell is the closest thing I have to a literary hero. I came across him fleetingly at school but it was during my degree dissertation (Marxism and the Working Class Novel) that I came to know and love his quirky leftism and quasi-heretical thinking. I have read all of his journalistic articles and letters and have a novel brewing in me that is centred upon his brief time as a teacher that one day soon I will begin to write.

Strangely enough though its not Orwell’s literature that I love but his writing more generally: The Road to Wigan Pier, Down and Out in Paris and London, Hop Picking, The Lion and the Unicorn, Homage to Catalonia. But 1984 is something altogether different, something altogether special. I’ve yet to come across anything to match it for dystopian horror, tragic love, political intrigue and (believe it or not) unbridled optimism. It conjures Kafka, Shakespeare, Machiavelli and – for the purposes of this post only – Bartle.

You see for me this novel, with its gruesome scenes of torture, oppression, hatred and merciless control is actually one of the most beautiful representations of the power of optimism that the literary heritage has to offer. And it is in Winston Smith’s pitiful ‘hope’ for the rise of the proles that this searing optimism takes form.

Take the following quote.

“But if there was hope, it lay in the proles. You had to cling on to that. When you put it in words it sounded reasonable: it was when you looked at the human beings passing you on the pavement that it became an act of faith.”

Interpreted one way the hope seems pathetic and futile, or an unreasonable “act of faith”. But it is the very leap of ‘faith’ that is in itself ‘hope’ full. In an existence where Winston Smith has no belief in the leader he ‘worships’, the woman he ‘loves’, the party he ‘serves’, the news stories he ‘writes’ or even the life he ‘lives’, he has to “cling on” to his hope for (and belief in?) the proles.

And so it is with our seemingly dystopian education system at present.

It feels like we have had a succession of Big Brothers for some years now: Ministers for Education whose faces stare down on the profession, always watching us and always changing the rules of the game so that things always seem to be getting better to justify their own legacy.

It feels like we have had our very own Thought Police for some years now: the Ofsted regime often seeming like a panopticon-style prison where our every move is scrutinised so that we become utterly self-policing and self-regulating.

It feels like we have had our very own Party Inner Circle for some years now: the O’Brien like SLT members who seem to be enjoying the fruits of their rise through the ranks whilst at the same time imposing the will of Big Brother and the Thought Police, through torture if necessary.

And it feels like we have had our very own Party members for some years now: the Winston Smith’s of Middle Leadership who appear to do as they are told by the system leaders above them even where they know that this is wrong. Or their counterparts, the Symes and the Parsons whose utter belief in the system they faithfully and unthinkingly serve will ultimately lead to their own destruction.

And then there are the proles…

“If there was hope, it must lie in the proles, because only there, in those swarming disregarded masses, eighty-five percent of the population of Oceania, could the force to destroy the Party ever be generated.”

Winston Smith is absolutely convinced that at some point in the future the Party and Big Brother will cease to exist and that the meek proles will inherit the earth. He sees in them an organicity that the Party and all its members lack; a natural state that is … well … natural and therefore timeless. Whilst some critics might suggest that he sees a crude and degraded stereotype of humanity in the proles, I rather think that their humanity (they are constantly singing in the novel) stands in stark contrast to the Two Minutes Hate of the Party members.

In the quote above he imagines them as being “swarming” like bees, reinforcing images of their natural-ness, their hardworking-ness and their community-ness (not to mention their stinging-ness). He also invokes the fact that they have become “disregarded” and it is in these respects that I make the comparison with classroom practitioners in our schools. It too often feels like they have come to be seen as valuable only for the attainment-pollen they collect and the progress-honey they produce. It too often feels like they have been disregarded by the Big Brothers, Thought Police, Inner Party Members and Winston Smiths who line up to take the credit for the achievements that they bring about through their industry.

The net result has too often been a separation at the points where connection is most needed. A disconnection between the proles in our classrooms and the middle leaders and the senior leaders in their schools. A disconnection between the proles in our classrooms and Ofsted. A disconnection between the proles in our classrooms and our Ministers of Education. Given the power structures in place this has led to a bottom-up mistrust of the conspiring patricians and an equally powerful top-down mistrust of the conspiring proles.

“But the proles, if only they could somehow become conscious of their own strength, would have no need to conspire.”

Here is Orwell’s optimism. Here is my optimism. The eggbox nature of our schools have long since prevented our classroom-based proles from becoming “conscious of their own strength”, a fact sadly replicated by the eggbox nature of our trade unions (the organisations that we should have been able to rely on to help us coordinate our strength). But some of the changes that have started to come about through the use of Web 2.0 technologies and social media sites to help teachers create networks, share practice and articulate their shared consciousness are literally revolutionary (Tahrir Square anybody?).

But it is not the virtual connections that are the radical outcomes of these new technologies and social media, it is the real ones: the Teachmeets and the Tweetups, the school visits and the shared schemes of work, the blogs that shape our classroom practice and the love, anger and joy (amongst other emotions) we feel with, for and on behalf of our colleagues in other schools. It is the feeling that we are not alone and that we do not need to be treated as if we are alone by the system or its representative authority figures.

But Orwell offers a forewarning:

“Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.”

Here is a Catch-22 situation if ever there were, or so it would seem: consciousness before rebellion but also rebellion before consciousness? It is Winston Smith at his bleakest with regard to the proles. If teachers are going to use new technologies and social media for making real connections what on earth does this mean for them? How much of what happens in these forums is about raising consciousness and how much is about rebellion? My own ultra-optimistic point of view is that it offers the opportunity for both to arise simultaneously: that the networks of classroom practitioners who are tweeting, blogging, teachmeeting, sharing, caring, daring and comparing are raising their consciousness through rebellious thinking and urging each other to rebellion through their shared consciousness.

And the reason I feel such optimism is this:

They need only to rise up and shake themselves like a horse shaking off flies. If they chose they could blow the Party to pieces tomorrow morning. Surely sooner or later it must occur to them to do it.

Classroom teachers are the majority of our education system, in terms of sheer numbers, of contact time with students and of relationships with these students. They are the horses. The system that seems to so badly disregard them is based on an illusion. Big Brother in 1984 is not real, but an illusory figure of power, big on slogans but essentially a fairytale. He is a fly. The Thought Police (more flies) function on the basis of mass fear inculcated through their methods and their hold over the Party members. It is these Inner and Outer Party members (Senior and Middle Leaders in our schools) that most have the power to thwart the proles and keep them from fulfilling their “hope”. And yet these school leaders often hate the system too, sometimes more than the proles themselves. Many of them are open doors willing (or at least capable) of being pushed open. Sometimes the greatest acts of rebellion are as simple as sitting down on a bus or pushing at an open door.

Alternatively sometimes the greatest acts of rebellion are putting copies of radical blogposts into the pigeon holes of key people, or encouraging a virtual colleague to seek union support, or emailing a link to innovative practice to a Head of Department, or giving a presentation to virtual colleagues and not telling real ones, or doing it then telling the real ones, or hosting a free event, or stapling a Wilshaw speech to your lesson plan, or who only knows what. It doesn’t have to lead to Room 101.

And as I am almost at the end of my post let me here nail my colours to the mast: I am a prole. Perhaps not by title, but by instinct, by belief, by memory and by hope. There are many more proles masquerading as middle or senior leaders: some unwillingly, others unwittingly and some who want to prise apart the system as it currently is and put it back together properly: with, by and for the proles because ultimately whether the system is broken or fixed, good or bad, right or wrong…

“If there is hope … it lies with the proles.”

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