In 1986, the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded, killing its seven crew members. The cause was a failure of a seal (an ‘O-Ring’) on an external fuel tank – the seal broke with freezing, re-sealed itself at launch, and then re-opened after 30 seconds when subject to enormous forces. But the causes of the failure to predict this were numerous. One was the problem of what became known as ‘group-think’ – that individuals were disabled from bringing autonomous and non-mainstream judgements to the discussion. One element contributing to this was the use of powerpoint, which has since been closely regulated at NASA. Powerpoint assigns potential issues to bullet-points, and one effect is to give all issues similar weight, since they occupy identical spaces on a long list. Potential failure of the ‘O’-ring was, indeed, noted as a risk, but it was lost in a welter of other issues of less significance.
How do we know, as we are sifting through an array of issues, which will emerge as morbidly significant?
The multiplicity of failures, incompetences and malfeasances in contemporary government present us with this problem. There is what has been noted as a ‘normalisation of the extraordinary’ through sheer repetition – to a point where they barely provoke an indignation that used to be more readily triggered: Donald Trump’s congenital abuse of women and behavioural norms; ‘Boris’ Johnson’s disregard of constitutional conventions and his serial cronyism; SERCO’s long-standing pattern of security failures and abuses. Which is the ditch we are prepared to die in?
Education and schooling has had more than its fair share of successive failures and abuses. Some, I have explored in previous Blogs – not least those issuing from the pathological institution that is Ofsted – and I don’t need to go into them here. So where do we place the recent government resolution to ban ‘anti-capitalist materials’ from school teaching?
Well, my inclination would be to say that this is the most egregious, significant and corrosive policy measure in education that we have yet seen in the modern period. Only days and weeks old, the news already dissolves into that steaming midden of issues and abuses for which the media simply cannot summon the resources or the concentration to expose. The incessant, bullet-point pandemic of controversies leads to a kind of institutional ADHD in the media – perhaps assigning all issues equal helpings of an indignation spread too thinly, or else, concentrating on trees rather than forests.
There is no need, either, to go into too much detail about the blindingly obvious violence such a measure does to our liberal democracy (ie.still a democracy, but less and less liberal by the year). The measure reeks, if not of Fascist States (General Franco, Chairman Mao and Joseph Stalin put official sanctioning of knowledge high on their lists of insanely personal projects), then certainly of authoritarian States. General Suharto, Indonesia’s most recent dictator, had history textbooks burned and rewritten to remove all reference to Communism. Communism was the ‘pig’ in his ‘poke’, anti-capitalism is the same in ‘Boris’ Johnson’s poke. To mix animal metaphors, if you are too close up to it to see that it is an elephant, just stand back a little. The thought whizzing through ‘Boris’s’ brain is of the same family as those which wormed their way through the mind of Stalin and Suharto – an unhinged denial of constraint, an inability to understand, or even to perceive of, social change and the moral development of society.
Having said this, the battle for anti-capitalist teaching was lost in 1988 when we all seemingly went along with the notion of a National (‘nationalised’) Curriculum. Early skirmishes were quickly forgotten: how could certain poets and not others (eg. Caribbean poets) receive official sanction; was Banghra a legitimate musical form; was the philosophy of John Dewey corrosive of the command-and-control system of schooling overseen by Ofsted and Chris Woodhead. All of these issues were resolved eventually – but not the underlying issue of the official sanctioning of what is to be learned and how. That particular ‘O-ring’ exploded years ago.