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We don't need no education

"But Mr Biddlecombe what is god?" It's 1972, Felixstowe, Suffolk. I'm wearing a gym slip several inches too short according to the music mistress (Du Cann there are male members of the orchestra!) and I've just discovered existentialism. Julia Weatherly and I are the only atheists in a religious school and we have found our intellectual edge. Rev Biddlecombe runs the chapel where I sing in the choir and is attempting to teach us theology. I am giving him a hard time because that's what you do when you are fifteen and running up against authority and the big questions in life. I know he won't be able to answer, and that no teacher can. The question is not there in search of an anwer, it is there to challenge the boundaries of a prescribed world.

We live in a world governed by education - a small mean god we worship, even without realising our faith. It schools us in the rational mind and teaches us to look at the earth through the heartless and acquisitive eyes of Empire. Depending on what kind of house we are born into we go to school to be shaped by the requirements of our hierarchical culture: to be turned into obedient factory or cannon fodder, to fill in forms, or to arrogantly rule the world. But no matter what school we attend, all of us are programmed to see life in geometric squares, truth as scientific facts, the earth as property, our nation's history as the rightful conquest of Western civilisation. We are taught that control of the mind is always more important thanl real-life experience. Some of us are broken by our establishments - bullied, humiliated and made miserable, labelled as difficult or deficient in some way. Some of us become haughty and power-hungry. Some of us find ways to thwart the hold this god has on our imagination and our liberty. When I am fifteen I devour philosophy and literature in the bathrooms at night and start to keep a journal. I have decided to become a writer, which means I will be the one in the room asking awkward questions, bringing the mythos into play, challenging conformity at every turn. I am learning no one will ever love me for it - but I'm going to do it anyway. If only to hold open a door.


"But the sea is also beautiful!" It's 2012, Stowmarket, Suffolk. I am sitting at question time at the What if . . . the sea keeps rising? event, chaired by Andrew Simms. Everyone on the panel has given a slick and scientific low-down on climate change and the way it will alter our coastlines as the Arctic melts and the waters cover the earth. The sentence floats uneasily among the rigid facts and figures, among the agricultural tools of the c14th barn, signalling another route we could take - except that The Problem about Transition has just risen among the sea of heads. The Problem at question time is usually three-fold: 1) Transition is too middle class 2) what are you going to do about population? and 3) where are all the young people and We Have to Take Transition into the Schools!

I am no longer fifeen. I have learned to bite my tongue and not take the bait. I've been in Transition for four years and know all these "questions" are memes, manifestations of the annoying defense system of the left-brain, and none of the people who utter them intend to act on their words, or indeed join Transition.

Transition is big on education. Its tools and ingredients favour an academic approach: measurement, graphs, stats, mindmaps, flipcharts, trainings. In 2009 the UEA published a survey about Transition Norwich (from its mailing list) that received more attention than anything the actual Tranistioners were doing on the ground. Students and researchers have often observed our grassroots activity, as if they were in charge or separated from the meetings and projects, like anthropologists making notes on an interesting rainforest tribe. In spite of our emphasis on reskilling, learning practical stuff and giving it value, the abstract theories of the mind world are considered superior to physical experience, and for sure anything that smacks of creativity or the unquantifiable stuff of the right hemisphere.

This is not to knock learning here. But to bring attention to the limits of this approach, to our logos-biased world, and to question how we go about Transition. Our ability to look at reality is severly hampered by our education. Our instituationalisation makes us obedient and perverse in ways that hamper our ability to act decisively. Trained to be commanded, we are waiiting to be told what to do (mostly by people we are taught to think of as our responsible "superiors"). We think that if children understand climate change, everything will be sorted and we won't have to change ourselves. We don't see that the mindset that enables governments and corporations to engineer reality, the systems that makes people disassociated, hostile to one another, controlling, scornful of life, have its roots in the classroom and playground.

We don't see that this system will resist the kinds of changes we really need to make, because it is designed to uphold the industrialised world (as Charles Eisenstein points out). I have taken Transition into school (to give classes on Reconnection with Nature and Peak Oil in Norwich and honeybees in Bungay) and was shocked by its soul-destroying architecture and atmosphere of repression. The children were raucous, lively, friendly and also disturbing. They got Peak Oil and creation myths and pollination in a trice, and listened more-or-less quietly to the tales about the future Transition Cambridge brought with them, and happily tuned in to the spirit of the beehive. Then the bell went, and so probably did everything we said. Theatre and stories are for fun. Back to the curriculum tomorrow!

postcard from the sunrise coast

The sea is also beautiful, and I am still a non-believer. It's the end of the summer and the newspapers are full of smug-looking schoolboys jumping into the air with their triple A results. I am not going back to school, but I can feel the season turning. Geese are coming in from Siberia in the mornings, and the evening light is turning tawny. Everywhere the fields lie bare and gold after the harvests. Floating in the deep swell, I can feel the temperature of the water dip. After six weeks the Social Reporters are returning from their summer break to a full-on autumn term. We're genning up for the Conference, looking ahead, filling in the rota. This is my last postcard from the Sunrise Coast.

No one taught me to love this old North Sea. It was there all the time when I was reading Sartre in the small hours at my boarding school, and now it is here: still mysterious, moving, unquantifiable. No one taught me to love the moon that shone through the bathroom window as I turned the pages, or my friends sleeping in the dormitory, or the feeling of being able to write about my own life, to make meaning of everything, to be autonomous and not bow down to authority.

I don't remember those lessons I learned during the day - cosines, dates, or Latin declensions. But I do remember this sea. How it changes every day, the light, its mood, the shape of the waves. How it feels when you are there, immersed in the elements, alone with the wind and sky, or alongside your fellows, as the cormorant or the seal pass by. And it feels to me that the greatest lesson we ever learn comes directly from the planet we are now trying to "save", and that if we held our love of this place and all its creatures as the basis for all our knowledge, how differently the world would look. How differently we would speak with one other, with our initiatives, with all our relations.

Images: still from The Belles of St Trinians; harvest fields outside Bungay; Plants for Bees class at Bungay Primary School, 2011; Peak Oil class at Catton Grove, 2010; still from Kes; on Aldeburgh beach, 2012



Alex Loh's picture

I didn't do too badly at

I didn't do too badly at formal education but had some very rough times coping with the pressures of it ranging from the culture shocks of being shifted between private and public education as my parents' finances changed for better or worse, the inevitable racial/identity issues a British Asian lad would face, and competitive exams on top of that.

I got through it all, but at the expense of having a pure hatred for formal education structures which remains to this day (a big reason why I never want children as I don't want to put them through all this) - I still have nightmares about exams and school at age 40.

What I find more shocking is that in any other context an adult who put kids into an institution and through a situation they have nightmares even towards the very end of their youth would usually be leaving said institution in the back of a Police car, surrounded by angry crowds and the Press!

To be fair in todays society really bad teachers who abuse kids physically or mentally are normally nicked and judged as they should be - but if its to do with exams and league tables they are  viewed as "high quality educators in a competititive world".

And if the older folk of Stow were asking "where are the young people?" the reason they are not in Transition or anywhere else is because their attitudes have made life intolerable for them, (especially denying them the chance to gather and enjoy music or arts events if they carry on too late at night or make noise) - so as soon as they can afford a car and/or independent living they move to London and SE England to find a more fun lifestyle (coincidentally many only seem to attend Uni so they can at least get 4 years of this before ending up back in the region and the mundane lifestyles).

About half my younger friends from the region have left what is actually a beautiful area because of this..


Caroline Jackson's picture

For some of us as you did,

For some of us as you did, Charlotte, it's the kicking against our education that makes the rest of our lives work.  For others it is the embracing of the school and its values.    I shall be forever grateful for my secondary schooling which gave me skills, knowledge, self-belief and an opening into higher education.  Most of all I was taught to think, to question everything and to listen hard.  The teachers there, like so many teachers I've met and hopefully the teacher that I was for 30 years, wanted to see me as a talented individual, growing and changing as the result of their teaching.  Since the National Curriculum was turned into a means by which schools and teachers are continuously judged and league-tabled, state education has become a strait jacket for all concerned.  The system is vile but the teachers are still there, trying their best to do a bit of educatiing while no-one is looking.

Alex Loh's picture

Perhaps it is the adults (of

Perhaps it is the adults (of voting age) rather than the kids who need educating? I grew up in the era GCSE's and the national curriculum were introduced - and noticed the change myself - as, to be fair, did at least half of the teachers.

Others actively welcomed the ruthless competitiveness and openly said (as back in the 80s political discussions with your teacher were not censored) they considered poorly performing kids to be fit only for the scrap heap, and some would even admit they did not care if/when they landed up in prison, a mental home or even dead!

Unfortunately these changes to the system, which I fully agree were extremely counterproductive, were voted in by the will of at least half of the people back in the 80s, replacing what seemed to be a much friendlier and fairer system, and many younger childless working people from the "new middle classes" clearly resent what they think is excessive taxpayer cash spent on kids (even though its a pittance).

Another thing I find particularly worrying (as a British Asian) is the trend to idolise the "Asian systems" of education which have a tremendous toll in mental health problems and youth suicide rates (which even the Asian nations goverments do not like).

 its perhaps particularly ironic (as a happily single, childless man) that I feel England really does not value children at all and that greatly saddens me..

Charlotte Du Cann's picture

back in the jug agane - the bigger picture

To be honest I didn't spent much time kicking the system, so much as avoiding it. I learned early on rebellion is part of the "Jug" and forging a way out of it is more useful.

More useful too would have been classes in Life - learning skills like making fires and growing veg and carpentry, as well as the stuff that underpins society, how money works and local politics (things I've had to pick up in Transition) as well a lot more creativity, communication, co-operation and valuing of everyone's presence in the world.

I'm sure there are great teachers out there (including you), and I've met many people who have climbed ladders out of limiting backgrounds though education (mostly university). However the post was looking at the big picture. And all the professions, no matter how well intentioned their practioners, are there to manage and hone a mindset and advance an Empire.

When I was a journalist I loved journalism, and came across some brilliant writers and investigations. But that doesn't mean the media shouldn't come under fierce scrutiny, or be looked at through a Transition lens. It was better before Murdoch changed the dance in the 1980s, however it has always shaped people's thinking and manipulated emotions. And that we need to look at. It's a more acceptable target of course than education, which can be a holy cow.

I haven't met many children though who want to go back to school . . .

Anni Kelsey's picture

Surely you are right that the

Surely you are right that the system is not ever going to promote ways of thinking and doing that actively undermine what it is actually trying to achieve.  Surely too, as you say it is the earth who teaches us in indefinable ways to love her and to try to live accordingly.  Maybe that means we can have no direct educational route to radically re-shaping other people's views be they young or old.  But what I do know is that passion and insight like yours leaps out of the words you right and goes right to the heart.