Is one-nation conservatism the lesson of COVID-19?

I grew up in a small town in Dudley in England’s West Midlands. My sister and I were the first generation to go to university. My parents probably would have done so today. Before retiring, my mother was a bookkeeper and my father designed machines for testing the strength of various components and materials. During breaks from university, I would work as a labourer in the factories of the Midlands – factories that could make anything, from anything. I would ride my bike because the privatised bus service was rubbish.

People from the Midlands have a strong accent. Although I’m not from Birmingham, those outside the Midlands do not recognise this distinction and we are all ‘thick brummies’ to them. Well, that’s the stereotype, despite our industrial heritage. I remember being called a ‘thick brummie’ at university. That did not end well. The brummie stereotype is just one reflection of the prolonged disdain with which London’s chattering classes and makers of the media view the industrial towns and metal-bashers of the Midlands and the North.

A few years ago, I led a school trip to London. We visited a TV production company and an advertising agency. The advertising agency struck me as the most fun place I could imagine working and the TV company had long lines of Tabithas and Julians queuing outside every time they were recruiting. As a young person, I was barely conscious that such jobs existed. Even if I had been aware, I could never have afforded to move to London, rent an exorbitant apartment and exist on the tiny starting salaries, or worse, unpaid internships, that are a necessary first step in such careers.

And so the Tabithas and Julians reproduce themselves, cruising around London on its gold-plated public transport system, disdaining England’s industrial towns and professing bafflement at Brexit. Such is England. Such is a largely political problem.

Is this a problem that needs solving? Perhaps. And there are two ways we might go about it, both with implications for schools.

Michael Merrick recently wrote a blog post expressing the first option. Struck by the coronavirus situation and our acute dependence on delivery drivers and supermarket workers, he wonders whether teachers have focused too much on academic objectives and university. Perhaps we should recognise that not everyone could or should go to university and that the alternatives are equally valid. Merrick recalls, with shame, warning a student that he may end up stacking shelves.

Perhaps we need a return to the kind of one-nation conservatism in which we pat the little guy on the head and congratulate him for the sterling work he is doing in keeping the country running.

I’m not so sure.

The alternative is not, as Merrick sees it, meritocracy. Rule by those who have ‘merit’ could only ever be imposed in an authoritarian state because someone would have to define merit and decide who has it.

And before we can be clear about an alternative, we need to address an assumption that has so far gone unchallenged: that education is all about the job you will end up doing. I don’t think that’s true. Education is much more than that. Education is about cultural enrichment. It is about knowing the world you inhabit. It’s about political engagement and performing your civic role. Just because someone becomes a supermarket worker, it shouldn’t necessarily follow that they never attend a Shakespeare play or go to a political hustings and articulately challenge the candidates on the state of public transport.

No, a better alternative to one-nation conservatism is to stop viewing education as a means of ferrying young people to particular destinations but to view it as a form of empowerment. The ideal is to give young people choice. Yes, choice is not an unalloyed good. It can be a burden. I make no apologies for that. It is often easier and more comfortable to have difficult choices made for you. But human flourishing depends on human agency. If we have control over our lives, we have nobody else left to blame.

And yes, we are far from such an ideal. So, if it is an ideal worth pursuing, the question we need to ask is what would take us one step closer? Teaching every child to read would be an excellent start. Then, once they possess this tool for learning, we can teach them a robust, academic curriculum consisting of the most powerful and enduring ideas – the ideas that have proved to be of most value in the past. We give young people no choice about that because we cannot know what their future selves may want and need. There is no sorting hat that can proclaim, “This child is destined to cut hair and will never need or want British history.” Then, once young people become young adults and start making choices for themselves, we empower them to do so by giving them opportunities and knowledge of those opportunities. Some may choose to go to university. Some may choose apprenticeships or other forms of vocational education. Some may choose work. Some may choose routes we haven’t thought of yet. And then, later in life, some may choose to learn and train again.

The better alternative to the English obsession with rank is not a one-nation conservative story in which the lower ranks are afforded the honour they deserve, although that is undoubtedly better than dismissing them as stupid racists who vote for the wrong things. The better alternative is to hand people their own destiny. Education has its part to play in that, but so does politics.

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10 thoughts on “Is one-nation conservatism the lesson of COVID-19?

  1. Stan Blakey says:

    I agree with the general sentiment here but I do think education is hugely important in getting people prepared for a career or just gainful employment. Yes it is more than that but that doesn’t diminish the importance of the what jobs will it lead to factor.

    I am not sure what the context of the title is. It is funny how people are picking their favorite idea and deciding that the COVID-19 events should lead everyone to agree with it.

    My contribution – from the COVID-19 events we might learn that sometimes we should make quick decisions based on the advice of experts (e.g. when deciding measures in a pandemic) and sometimes we should take some time and see how things unfold before deciding what we can know (e.g. do the events due to COVID-19 significantly change how we should think about education or otherwise live our lives when there is no current pandemic.)

  2. David F says:

    Merrick’s ideas fall right into the debate in ed we’ve been having in the US for the last 140 years. In 1900, ed thinking was split between those who argued for a traditional course of intellectually serious studies to prepare the mind through the academic subject matter and those who argued that the schools should train citizens and workers for industry, emphasizing vocational training and respect for the principles of child development. At that time the latter was tied to the progressive movement, which adopted Dewey and later the constructivists. That last is probably why we’re still having this debate…

  3. Thanks for the link Greg, but I’m not sure you have interpreted my perspective accurately. I’ve long argued that all should have access to a high quality education, but detached from the utilitarian claims of future employment. What you’re suggesting here has been my argument for years and I don’t much disagree with it (though I’m not its characterisation as ‘one nation conservatism’ quite works to be honest). Indeed this has been exactly my critique of social mobility, which I’ve been rattling on about for ages too as you perhaps know. The post you reference here is just an extension of this very same line of thought, one at root you seem to agree with – that we can decouple the passing on of a rich intellectual heritage from the narrow pursuit of credentialism as the only object of education. By all means root around the blog – I’ve written quite alot on this, there and in other places, or you can listen toward the end of this piece here, where I address this misconception directly https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09ghmgl – thanks again for the link

  4. Harriett Janetos says:

    It’s a small world (and a long story) but in the early 80’s I lived in Walsall, very close to Dudley. Prior to that I was a news typist (no computers!) for BBC Radio, on duty when both Reagan and the Pope were shot. I met quite a few Tabithas and Julians in Broadcasting House, who struck this Californian as quite curious with their respective lilts and  idiosyncrasies, especially as someone who grew up in a modest, Greek-American household. Now that I teach in a high-poverty school primarily servicing Hispanic children of extremely modest backgrounds, I am keenly aware of the importance of literacy in their lives as the gateway to competing with the American equivalent of the Tabithas and Julians. Another important reason to get reading right!

  5. The fundamental view expressed is one that I support. I never have understood why 50% of the population should need a degree. It causes devaluing of this academic currency, gives youngsters unnecessary debt and was a thinly veiled attempt to massage the youth unemployment figures.
    We need to be delivering a broader spectrum of skills and also tooling youngsters for some of the changes that they are likely to face; a working life that extends into their 80’s and maybe even 90’s being just one with the changes of career that are implicit during these times. Many youngsters will finish up with jobs that do not exist at the moment.
    It is a shame that you had to poison your point of view with comments about Brexit and the North / South divide.
    The last election showed that those living north of the ‘Watford gap’ will not tolerate self serving elitists controlling political protocols and the will of the people.

    • Chester Draws says:

      My plan is that we need to reduce the value of university degrees. That’s not possible with the current political set-up, where too many middle class people want their children to go to university, more as a cultural marker than any particular use.

      The solution is that all trade qualifications be not longer be granted as degrees — that is all qualifications explicitly aimed at a particular job as opposed to learning a general background. That is medicine, law, teacher training, engineering, marketing etc.

      University degrees would then be for humanities, general sciences etc. As it used to be.

      Once you don’t have lawyers and doctors with degrees, the idea that the degree is the pinnacle of learning dissolves.

      Of course doctors and lawyers strongly resent pointing out that they have trade qualifications rather than an education. But that doesn’t make it untrue.

  6. Harriett Janetos says:

    There’s a good discussion of all these issues in Bryan Kaplan’s The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money.

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