On co-option, compromise and integrity.
Early in life you make a choice; either swallow hard, shut up and get on with what’s expected, or speak your mind frankly and pay the price, probably for the rest of your days. Maybe it’s a classic chicken-and-egg situation but it’s just about axiomatic that the higher up any career ladder a person climbs, the more they can be counted on to abandon any thinking, even privately, which deviates from the self-preserving party-line of whichever power structure they inhabit.
I’ve already written about how private education gives the families concerned an irresistible vested interest in maintaining the social hierarchy as it stands. I have two friends, close together in age, both male, both talented, both now in their late-50s; neither from a privileged background; both with a history of youthful rebellion. One has, after a rather late start, doggedly and admirably pursued an academic career and is now a respected professor. The other has just lost his most recent in a series of often-minimum-wage jobs to the recession and is unlikely to find another before retirement age.
One has maintained his articulate combativeness on issues both national and international without a hint of moderation. The other has been modifying his positions over the past thirty years, so that now they blend with the mainstream in the region which is now his home. Anything else would, at his age, make his current position uncomfortable, to say the least; however at least he still expresses himself publicly on line. Most professionals I know don’t/daren’t.
Other contacts have been frank; I couldn’t let it all hang out on-line like you do, they tell me, even in an anonymous blog; it’s more than my job/career prospects are worth. I sympathise, and know I’m only at liberty to do what I do by the certainty (the privilege?) that at my age I have nothing more to lose.
But what effect, writ large, does this have on public debate? Here’s Zoe Williams on why the children’s charities dare not even speak up about the damage to young families this government is inflicting, and the indefatigable Polly Toynbee on why The Archers obstinately skirts around the same issue. Fact is, most of us blandly assume that those in non-governmental positions of responsibility naturally have the truest, the fairest, most uncompromised views on all things great and small; otherwise (in this best of all possible worlds) they wouldn’t have got to be in those positions, right? Wrong.
I was at a PSA meeting last week, called to discuss organisation of the school Christmas Fair. It was attended by the usual handful of well-spoken mums in our otherwise free-school-meals, ESL and council-tenant dominated primary. The discussion drifted as usual to subject of general fund-raising; more cake-sales, more non-uniform days, more on-line donation/shopping.
All of which would have been fine and promising if we were typical of the school’s parent body, but we are not, and meetings like these encourage us to overlook the fact that many of our fellow parents will be struggling right now to cover the essentials, let alone come up with extra time and donations. Some will find themselves in surprise rent arrears when hijacked by housing benefit and/or tax credits cuts next April. How long before they are evicted (to make way for chic new apartment blocks?) and disappear from our classroom altogether?
In the meantime, here we sit, talking about cake sales with the deputy head, himself securely “one of us”, of course. I always assume that these teachers must have an in-house code-speak, kept strictly out of parents’ hearing, for, child from, respectively, “middle class professionals”, “single parent family on benefits” “aspirational immigrants” “workshy slackers” “gangsta’s babymother” and so on.
I appreciate their need for diplomatic delicacy (the startled glance I drew when I mentioned in response to request for a volunteer Father Christmas, thinking of my own mate, that a black Santa might be a nice change) but I wonder if in avoiding sensitive terms (“black”?) the staff aren’t sometimes in danger of being guilty as we bunch of amateur do-gooders of evading certain pressing issues altogether.