Being taught to be lesser: education, inequality, and society

By Karl Egerton. Karl, 30, is a writer from Leeds, UK. Please read his entry and leave your thoughts and comments below.

“He who opens a school door, closes a prison.” – Victor Hugo.

It’s hard, on first appearances, to pick a fight with Victor Hugo’s pronouncement on the power of education. The novelist advances an apparently simple idea about the role education plays in seeking the good life and avoiding one of the worst of all lives – that of a convict. This was pertinent when Hugo wrote it, at a time when to go to prison was to lose full membership of society, as exemplified memorably in his novel Les Misérables in the character of Jean Valjean, a man imprisoned essentially for the crime of poverty. Valjean’s reform and acts of great kindness are insufficient to save him from the persecution of Inspector Javert, the embodiment of state and societal hatred for the criminal.

The idea is also bound to feel relevant now, as the myth of the prison as a place of correction and rehabilitation collapses. In the UK, we hear of prisons run at dangerously low levels of staffing, where substances like ‘spice’ that are the only escape from enduring misery leave marks that will brand the prisoners long after their official sentences end. Prison staff strike in desperation, only to be called irresponsible by a government committed to letting this situation stew, and prisoners smuggle in phones to record videos pleading for rehabilitation, only to be silenced. The myth was exploded long ago in the US – prisoners there manufacturing the goods on which the country relies, or being sent as expendable forces to combat wildfires in the hope of earning a reprieve, would see something familiar in the prison ships on which Hugo’s repentant hero spends much of his life.

Let’s look closer though. The most natural interpretation of Hugo’s statement is institutional – if you, representing an institution with the requisite power, open a school, you are ‘closing a prison’, disrupting the machinery that drives people into the penal system. And this interpretation makes sense for Hugo’s time, when universal schooling was not guaranteed. With insufficient schools to go around, opening a school increases the number of children that receive an education. Those who would otherwise have missed out entirely then gain access to a scarce resource.

But how do we apply this in a modern context? It’s now almost universally recognised that children have a right to an education. In the UK, barring the extremes where a child’s only choice of school might be inaccessible because of public or personal circumstances (say, because they’re busy caring for family members), we don’t currently have a situation where children cannot receive education. I don’t wish to erase or understate the significance of the terrible exceptions, but our focus in this piece lies elsewhere. The question now is: what are we doing when we open a school? And this is where the situation gets more tricky because, I claim, what we’re doing depends very much on what kind of school we’re opening. Is the school free to attend for all students, or does it carry fees? Is the school open to all ability levels, or does it require applicants to be tested on their academic achievements? These are variations that we should at least examine before closing the matter.

Here’s a straightforward thought that aims to resolve the issue immediately. The purpose of a school, so the thought goes, is simply to educate. Financially selective schools offer that service to those who can afford it, and academically selective schools to those who fit their criteria for achievement. One might criticise those criteria, but if that’s the purpose of schooling, then as long as a school doesn’t spectacularly fail its students, it’s at least educating those individuals. Then you’d need only determine whether those more educated have a lower chance of committing a crime (strictly speaking, of being caught committing a crime). I won’t dispute this – there’s every chance that the link isn’t straightforward, but I won’t speculate on the statistics. So let’s assume the correlation holds. Is it the issue then settled?

I think not. Crime certainly isn’t straightforwardly linked to ignorance: few thieves have failed to learn that this isn’t allowed by law, or that there are other ways of acquiring goods. To suppose a simplistic link is to turn a blind eye to a significant factor in crime: power. If you have power, (and wealth is one of the most obvious current forms of power) certain sorts of crime are unlikely to occur to you. You need not acquire through theft, violence, deception, what you can acquire based on resources, status, or connections. The very powerful might get drawn grossly beyond the bounds of the law, using their status to manipulate and undermine state powers, but these are extreme cases (and frequently go unpunished). The many merely quite powerful people are unlikely to do something drastic and risky like trying to mount a coup d’etat. Mark Thatcher aside.

It’s furthermore important to note that power and lack thereof are in some respects relative conditions. One can have the vote yet be disenfranchised if one’s vote is meaningless due to deep-seated cronyism, or if one’s vote is restricted to choosing from among a tiny elite who carefully manage the barriers to entry. Neither condition is worse than disenfranchisement in the more literal sense, but these are still forms of unfreedom, and they relate to what some have and others have not.

What has this to do with the question of selective education, then? Well, we have a system throughout much of the world (the UK is my core example since I’m familiar with it), where education is split into tiers. Selective schools bear a status denied to non-selective schools – the frequent line is that these schools provide a better education than their non-selective counterparts, and while this might be true, that would immediately invite the question why the resources put into these institutions shouldn’t be used for everyone’s benefit. Such reasoning is rarely raised at all, and when it is, the response is often that it’s an infringement of personal freedom to deny those who can afford it the right to paid-for education, and it’s unfair to high achievers to be slowed down by the rest of the pack.

I don’t buy either response. For education is far more than a single-track process with some ahead and others behind. If education did fit this picture, private tuition could remedy most worries; you can buy many hours of high-quality one-on-one tuition for the cost of a private school’s fees. But this isn’t what is desired – after all, private tuition is widespread among privately educated students anyway, and it’s a commonplace for parents trying to get their child into an academically selective school. The desire is to join certain social circles.

By attending a selective school, one’s social circle becomes restricted in at least the dimension in which the school is selective, and typically several related dimensions. And given the uneven power relations in place in our society, those sorts of selectiveness that are linked to wealth and class exchange richness and variety in the child’s social circle for a more prosaic richness, and the assumption of power that comes in tow.

As things stand, in certain schools the children are taught to take the mantle of power, to assume privilege, and in other schools they are taught to be lesser. Or to be fairer – for many non-selective schools do amazing work resisting their allocated role filling the lower tiers of the pyramid – it’s the overall structure of education that teaches certain children to be lesser.

By being raised into powerlessness, a child can develop into an adult who’s used to being dragged along by the whims of chance, and when circumstances place them in a position from which they cannot legitimately escape, one of the few options left may well be crime. To return to Jean Valjean, it’s his complete powerlessness in the face of poverty that leads him to steal, and once he is caught that powerlessness is locked in: he will remain marked forever. It’s therefore not right to say that ‘he who opens a school door, closes a prison,’ because some schools contribute to the power imbalance that drives some into the corridors of power and others into dire straits. To stop children from being driven this way, the imbalance must change.

It wouldn’t be right to leave things on a merely negative note, though. The most natural interpretation of Hugo’s claim is institutional, but it’s not the only one. We could also understand it personally. We could take it as saying that to choose education is thereby to save yourself from the kind of hopeless situation where crime looms expectantly. And this, I think, we should still believe. For the platitude that knowledge is power has some truth to it, and what’s more, knowledge is the sort of power that’s most accessible to those of us not ushered from birth into the privileges of wealth or class.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to our newsletter!