“Sleep teaching was actually prohibited in England. There was something called liberalism.”

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There was an article in the Daily Mail this week about a bright young teacher lamenting left-wing bias in education; he worried that teachers were using their influence to brainwash the young people in their care, promoting ‘lefty ideals’ and anti-Tory messages. This is a serious allegation, and one that warrants unpicking.

First of all, education has long been viewed as wielding great ideological power, and its potential to be a cultural mouthpiece for the state is something that Althusser discussed when he talked about ideological state apparatuses and repressive state apparatuses. When you have a charismatic speaker and a rapt audience, there is certainly potential for this. But this may well be overstating a teacher’s charisma and influence, as well as over-estimating a young person’s willingness to be fed propaganda without an argument… But there are rules about political bias in the classroom for a reason.

Teaching does attract a fair amount of ‘lefties’, obviously. But I’m curious to know exactly what Calvin Robinson means when he thinks students are being brainwashed to support Labour rather than Conservative. Is it that overt? If so, let’s not pretend for a second that teachers have any reason to love the Conservatives at the moment. Rushed and poorly planned curricular changes: check. Selling schools off to private firms: check. Dismantling terms and conditions: check. Mucking about with pensions: check. Cutting funding, so that jobs have to be cut: check. Enforcing a pay freeze: check. Maybe the solution to teachers being apparently anti-Tory is for Tories to stop being anti-teacher.

Do young people have any reason to love the Conservatives? They are the ones facing tougher and more ‘rigorous’ testing. They are the ones who lose access to subjects that aren’t deemed necessary. They are the ones who face massive tuition fees if they want to go to university. They are the ones who seem, to use one of their words, the most ‘woke’ in years. Could it be that students are just engaging more in politics and seeking spaces to air their views?

I think there’s something more to this as well, and it’s to do with the current obsession with polarising every single damn issue into ‘left’ and ‘right’. Either can be used in a derogatory way. And this obsession ensures that we only stay divided. If political discussion in classrooms is more covert than overt, we are looking at the promotion of certain principles, rather than citations from a manifesto.

There is official guidance on the sort of principles that teachers must promote in classrooms: these are called British Values. It’s not a phrase I like, because when you look at the values, there is nothing particularly British about them; we don’t own them. We should just call them Decent Human Being Values. They are as follows:

  • democracy
  • rule of law
  • individual liberty
  • mutual tolerance and respect

See what I mean? There’s nothing specifically British about these; it’s not like there’s a reference to Queen and Country, Proper Queuing Etiquette, or Making Tea.

Do these sound inherently right or left wing? Should they?

Pair these with the need to ensure that Equality and Diversity issues are addressed sensitively and appropriately, and you might start to think that this is where a more ‘left wing’ bias starts to come in. If I told you that these came into effect under a Labour government, while British Values became a requirement a few years ago, would that make a difference? Does the phrase ‘British Values’ start to sound a bit like something from a UKIP manifesto? Or are we just projecting a political bias where maybe there isn’t one at all?

BV and E&D show that there is a definite ideological push in education, but it’s one that few would argue with. It’s fine to use that opportunity to teach kindness, tolerance and respect, right? Because if that’s what Robinson thinks is left wing, he’s really not saying great things about the opposite view.

Is he wishing that we teach two sides of every debate? Because, sweetie, there isn’t time, and it’s not always appropriate to do so. I talked a lot about politics this year during lessons on The Handmaid’s Tale; I taught these classes from an unabashed feminist perspective. Should I have stopped and given equal weight to the far right view espoused by the founders of Gilead? Because to do so would have fundamentally misunderstood the novel.

An E&D fail lesson went viral this week. In this lesson, students were asked to consider the slave trade from the point of view of a trader; they were asked to weigh up the value for money offered by the different slaves and take part in an auction. At a stretch, they can have some points for including numeracy skills, I guess, but this clearly hit the wrong note. Funnily enough, encouraging young people to treat human beings like commodities isn’t really the sort of thing that a Decent Human Being should do. Would Robinson approve of this lesson for its promotion of capitalist values? I suspect not. I really hope not.

Because it’s not really about left and right. It’s about right and wrong. It’s about Decent Human Being Values. If certain political parties champion those more than others, then of course there will be political bias. Rather than fighting the symptom, maybe those in power should address the cause. If you don’t want people to think you’re nasty, how about you stop being nasty?

And let’s be realistic. When you have attacked the education system for years, don’t be surprised when it’s not a fan.

Yes, balance is best. But sometimes it’s not going to work. If you had to choose between a ‘lefty’ lesson and a ‘righty’ one, though, ask yourself: would one do more harm than the other? Would we be more worried about one than the other? Is it more or less worrying when the politics of a classroom oppose those of the government?

I’m going to leave you with some quotations from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, on the subject of brainwashing. Huxley presents ‘sleep teaching’ in the novel – the very opposite of being ‘woke’.

“And that,” put in the Director sententiously, “that is the secret of happiness and virtue – liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their inescapable social destiny.”

“Till at last the child’s mind is these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child’s mind. And not the child’s mind only. The adult’s mind too – all his life long. The mind that judges and desire and decides – made up of these suggestions. But all these suggestions are our suggestions… Suggestions from the State.”

The purpose of this ‘sleep teaching’ was to ensure hierarchical social stability – to keep everyone in their place and happy about it.

“Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able to read or write. Besides they wear black, which is such a beastly colour. I’m so glad I’m a Beta.”

When the State’s ideas are beamed straight into people’s brains, dystopia ensues. Maybe those ‘lefty’ teachers are just ensuring that young people grow up to be questioning and discerning individuals, rather than those who parrot propaganda. Now that doesn’t sound so bad.

Huxley, again, puts it better than I can:

“…most men and women will grow up to love their servitude and will never dream of revolution.”

I want young people to dream of something bigger and better. I want young people to have high expectations. I want young people to question injustice. I want them to discover and embrace their agency, rather than sucucmb to their servitude. I think that just makes me a Decent Human Being. If it makes me a ‘lefty revolutionary’, then maybe our society really is in poor shape.

Robinson has since published a follow up, which you can read here.

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