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By Jason Michael
YESTERDAY ON SOCIAL MEDIA I made a comment regarding my perception of the purpose of my working-class education in Scotland, a comment which – while obviously resonating with many – managed to cause something of a reaction. It strikes me still, over two decades later, that education as I experienced it in Scotland in the 1980s and 90s was intended to batter into me a particular way of thinking of myself; to cast me into a form that would serve the interests of the British state and its economy infinitely more than it would serve my interests as a human being. Never have I been able to escape the sense of oppression I felt as a teenager in a hostile environment in which my developing intellect was unable to verbalise or adequately articulate the percolating awareness that the anvil and hammer of class antagonism and our colonised and subaltern education system were beating me and my classmates into docile obedience and learned inferiority.
Kilmarnock Academy was in many respects a wonderful school. It did not employ overt or forceful means to retard the socio-economic ambitions and expected trajectories of the young people in its care. In spite of its towering and austere architecture, designed and deployed as it was to overwhelm the impressionable minds of the ‘boys and girls’ from the slums and later housing schemes of the town, the place afforded us a decent, if functional, education and a space to be properly socialised and mature before setting out to be marked by the world. The school did not challenge the fundamental assumptions of the purpose of the working-class. It merely fortified the expectations of the world of its young charges, and equipped them with the tools to survive in the workforce.
The purpose of my working class Scottish education was to train me to be subservient and inferior. This was inflict… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…—
Jason Michael (@Jeggit) June 10, 2020
Many pupils from the school went on to university, as I did myself, but never once was I encouraged to explore the idea of further education. When it came to the future, the emphasis of this education was on apprenticeships to the manual trades with talks from local business people and a mandatory ‘Industrial Awareness Day.’ There is of course immense dignity in labour, in eating bread by the sweat of one’s brow, but there is something both cynical and repugnant about the existence of an educational institution – an entire tradition of working-class education – established with the singular purpose of being a factory for the production of a morally defeated and compliant labour force. This was abusive and I felt it even then.
This, however, was not the only abuse, and it wasn’t the greatest abuse. The true wickedness of this device was located in its distorted and distorting understanding of authority; not in the teachers as individuals – most of whom were good, well-meaning, and often dedicated people, but in the sometimes conscious sometimes unconscious class distinction between the inmates and the prison guards. Our ‘role models,’ the adults we were to admire and aspire to become like, were to a man and a woman our social betters – the bright shining lights of the middle-class, always and everywhere imbued with a bourgeois and paternalistic attitude towards their ‘wee savages.’ This grotesque imbalance of power, something that crippled rather than empowered, extended also to their relationships with our parents. Before them – these little gods – we watched our mothers and fathers regress to coy ruffians at parent-teacher meetings; an experience that assaulted our deepest and most intimate trust in the ‘adults’ of our own class.
We left school with this now ingrained assumption: That we were at the bottom of the hierarchy, that by our nature we were inferior, and that we could never escape our predestined and natural place in a world that was owned and managed by our superiors. Looking back, it troubles me the most that this was done to us by our fellow Scots; by men and women who daily made it their business to correct our Scots language – or, as they called it, our ‘bad English’ – and whose greatest ambition was to be thought of as British. Scotland was a romantic and defeated dream, but a dream which they knew offered a hope for something better to a labouring class the domination and tempering of which had been intrusted to their more qualified moral guardianship.
Years later, after having come to Ireland, a nation which a hundred years earlier had won its independence from the brutal violence of England, all of this – my uncomfortable memories of school and the sour taste it had left in my mouth – began to make sense when I read the words of Pádraig Pearse, a teacher himself and the commander-in-chief of the 1916 Rising:
One of the most terrible things about the English education system in Ireland is its ruthlessness. I know no image for that ruthlessness in the natural order. The ruthlessness of a wild beast has in it a certain mercy – it slays. It has in it a certain grandeur of animal force. But this ruthlessness is literally without pity and without passion. It is cold and mechanical, like the ruthlessness of an immensely powerful engine. A machine vast, complicated, with a multitude of far-reaching arms, with many ponderous presses carrying out mysterious and long drawn processes of shaping and moulding, is the true image of the Irish education system. It grinds night and day. It obeys immutable and predetermined laws, it is as devoid of understanding, of sympathy, of imagination, as is any other piece of machinery that performs an appointed task. Into it is fed all the raw human material in Ireland, it seizes upon it inexorably and rends and compresses and re-moulds, and what it cannot re-fashion after the regulation pattern it ejects with all the likeness of its former self crushed from it, a bruised and shapeless thing, thereafter accounted waste.
‘The Murder Machine,’ Pádraig Pearse, St Enda’s College, Rathfarnham, Dublin (1 January, 1916)
Don’t worry, I hear your objection. It is true, Scotland’s education system is independent of England’s control. The national curriculum is the product of Scottish teachers. England and the British government in Westminster have no control over what Scottish teachers teach Scottish children. This is true, or at least it is as true for Scotland as it was for Ireland in 1916. Union, as the absorption of Scotland (1707) and Ireland (1801) into Great Britain and the United Kingdom qua Greater England was and is a colonial process in which London actively colonised the minds of the collaborationist classes – those who benefitted from British rule – and in so doing it colonised and thus co-opted the education systems and cultural institutions of the nations it now owned.
What then was the result? Much the same in Scotland as it was in Ireland; England dominated the Scottish people by the hand of Scottish people. Without pity or passion, it ruthlessly erased our history, inculcating us instead with the British imperial myth of Scotland as an incompetent people and nation dependent on the benevolent and parental support of an English state that has, in all its history, shown nothing but contempt for Scottish and Irish independence. Rather than slay us, as would a wild beast, it trained us and re-formed us into ghosts of our former selves. With its many and far reaching tentacles it used Scottish hands and Scottish voices to subdue the free spirit of the nation, transforming us over time into useful bodies – a resource of human flesh to power the factories and mills to England’s benefit, to fight and die in mud and blood to further England’s ambitions, and to be ever grateful that the broad shoulders of Mother England protected us from the fates of failure and poverty and from the darkness of ignorance that would inevitably come with freedom.
The Murder Machine