It\’s year 10\’s English class in a London comprehensive. Forty kids are debating the purpose of a school. \”Teaching social skills,\” they suggest. Why do you need them? I ask, playing devil\’s advocate. \”To get a job.\” Is that the only point of having social skills? \”Yes, what else is there?\” One demurs, hesitant and not entirely sure how to express herself. \”No, there\’s more to life than a job. There\’s happiness. Social skills are needed to make you happy.\”
It was a fascinating illustration of how deeply the instrumentalist values of the market have penetrated our everyday thinking when kids talk in this way. \”Social skills\” is the type of phrase management experts dreamed up to put a market value on a set of human characteristics.
These were bright and interested 14-year-olds, but if you ran this argument in any other school, you\’d probably get pretty similar responses. The gap that intrigued me was the absence of any notion of being a good person, or of the many values that might not be able to command a market price such as being challenging, courageous, truthful, honest, spontaneous, joyful or even kind, compassionate.
I started with this classroom anecdote because it seems a good way to make concrete an absence.
That absence being something that Maddy herself seems not to notice. Sure, schools are there to produce a certain set of social skills: I recall how hiding at the bottom of the ruck in the frost was supposed to build character for example. And there\’s also the simple basic idea of socialisation: teaching the little beggars that they are indeed part of a society, not just atomistic individuals.
But schools also have other things they\’re supposed to teach as well: like the basic tools to enable you to navigate the modern world. Readin\’n\’ritin\’ come to mind, sums, how to think, how to evaluate an argument, consider evidence, even, if you like, how the birds n\’ the bees thing applies to human beings.
Nary a mention of all of that: no, it\’s all Thatcherism, the triumph of the market makes schools so appalling according to Our Maddy. Absolutely no recognition at all of the things that schools used to at least attempt to teach and now seem not to.