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This is the text of a talk that I gave at #BrewEdWake on Saturday Jan 20, 2018. The views here express my point of view and not necessarily the point of view of anyone else. Header image by nikko macaspac


Disengaged by Design – The NeoConservative War on Youth 

When I say that students are disengaged by design, I don’t have in mind the popular thesis that schools are stuck in some ‘factory model’ past, designed perhaps 150 years ago to satisfy the needs of industrialists, and since left unchanged. This kind of ‘future proofing’ imaginary about the past and future of schools is popular among neoliberal reformers in Silicon Valley & Ken Robinson. Often, the ‘real world’ of work is supposed to be more interesting and vibrant, demanding – and permitting – of creativity than schools. Of course, they have in mind only a slim sliver of jobs in the offices of places like Apple and Google, rather than the vast majority of work that increasingly alienates people.  

So, my broad argument is that no, students are not disengaged because schools are stuck in the past, but because schools are caught in the present strong current of policies that constantly re-shape and re-design schools – and life more broadly – to civically and politically disengage youth. To wage a war on them.  

The state of our education systems – globally – is a result of ‘policy ratchets’ (as Stephen J Ball calls them) “small and incremental moves whereby certain modes of policy thinking and practice become naturalised and necessary” and we ignore those changes at our peril. 

At the same time, these policy ratchets have reshaped society more broadly. Students are headed into a world where only about 10% of employees report having engaging jobs, they increasingly face zero-hour contracts, 13% of 16-24 year-olds in the UK are NEET, the government increases tuition fees, and they face surveillance both in schools and in public. For example, Charlotte Chadderton documents how: 

“Minority ethnic individuals are already disproportionately subjected to more surveillance outside school, such as police ‘stop and search’ practices on the streets, airport controls and police profiling ‘which continue to rely upon racial markers of “risk”’ … Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic groups (BAME) are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people.”

In particular, I want to highlight the neoconservative war against youth, which has 3 strong themes: social justice warriors are out to destroy society (free speech!), privileging of science (especially psychology) over the social sciences (and you can think of how this plays out in the ‘what works’ movement), and an obsession with genetics and IQ.

This week, another Canadian export, Jordan Peterson (read this), part of the rightward turn, is touring the UK to promote his new book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. By chaos, he seems to mean ‘women and emotions’. After Cathy Newman interviewed him for Channel 4, Brietbart called it the“Best takedown of a SJW ever” where we get to see a feminist “crumble”. 

Prominent UK educationalists – Tom Bennett and David Didau – have been RTing Peterson. In the most recent news yesterday, C4 has contacted security experts after Cathy Newman has received misogynistic threats and abuse online. That’s really what they mean by ‘free speech’. 

I use Peterson as an example to show that these neoconservative ideas are globally mobile, and certain segment of the UK is primed to accept them.

He tells us that “biological nature” “sets the rules of the game” which he says precludes us from saying that “hierarchical organisation is a consequence of the capitalist patriarchy” (28:00). In an interview with the eugenicist Stefan Molyneux, he says that there are IQ “differences in ethnicity that don’t look trivial” and that there will be “less and less room for people who can’t deal with cognitive complexity” in our society. There’s no white privilege, no real inequality for feminists to worry about, only “resentful activists” by which he typically means young people. 

These are, of course, themes that we have heard recently from Toby Young, who was given a short-lived job at Office of Students which Jo Johnson said is about “defended[ing] free speech” in the face of “censorship where groups have sought to stifle those who do not agree with them.” “This is why I want the OfS to work with universities to encourage a culture of openness and debate and ensure that those with different backgrounds or perspectives can flourish in a higher education environment.”

But when neoconservative free speech advocates talk about ‘openness’ and ‘different perspectives’, they are fundamentally closed off to the voices of youth, people of colour, women, the LGBTQ community, and people with disabilities. 

In an interview with the RSA, Peterson tells us that “I watch activists at the universities, and know what they are like” “18 year olds who don’t know a damn thing” 

With his hands waving in the air, Peterson yells out: “If you can’t make your dammed bed, quit waving placards at corporations.” 

And that’s the real danger, right? That youth might feel they have a stake in the present and future;  and worse, get the dangerous idea that they should do something about it. 

So what’s the war on youth?

Peterson is an example of what I have in mind when I talk about the ‘war on youth’, a phrase which comes from Henry Giroux. In the neoconservative attack, youth are triply marginalised because it is claimed:

  • they don’t know anything
  • they are ‘fragile snowflakes’ and ‘play victim’
  • they are dangerous to free speech (read: dangerous to the identity politics of wealthy white men)

These attacks are always racist and sexist, directed against people who are poor and the most marginalised and vulnerable. 

The war on youth is an attack on class:

Tuition fees, re-introduced by Blair in 1998 at £1,000 pounds, tripled in 2004, at which point Michael Gove called people who objected “fools”: “anyone put off from attending a good university by fear of that debt doesn’t deserve to be at any university in the first place” (Finn, p. 7) Tuition fees then tripled again ten years later to over £9,000.

The war on youth is an attack on the differently abled:

Guardian 2013: “…the charity Contact A Family suggests that some schools are regularly making unlawful exclusions. The charity’s survey of over 400 families of children with disabilities or additional needs found that 22% are illegally excluded once a week and 15% every day (for part of the day).” 

And the war on youth is an attack on people of colour:

Schools week Oct 2017: “School exclusions data shows that pupils from black Caribbean backgrounds are three times more likely to be excluded than white pupils, at a rate of 0.29 per cent compared to a rate of 0.1 per cent. Pupils from Irish traveller or Roma/gypsy backgrounds have the highest rate of exclusions of any ethnic group, at 0.49 per cent and 0.33 per cent respectively.”

There’s also evidence that the reported stats on exclusion are the “only the tip of the iceberg“: (2017)

“National figures from the Department for Education show that 6,685 pupils were permanently excluded from schools in England in 2015-16 – the majority of them in the run-up to their GCSEs – marking a 40% increase over the past three years.

A study by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) thinktank claims these figures mask the true scale of the problem, with pupils forced out of mainstream schools by informal methods that are not captured in national exclusions data.

The report, published on Tuesday, says 48,000 pupils are being educated in the alternative provision (AP) sector, which caters for excluded students, with tens of thousands more leaving school rolls in what appear to be illegal exclusions.

Some are removed through “managed moves” between schools; in other cases children are transferred to off-site AP – some of which will be independent and unregistered – while others disappear into “elective” home education.

The IPPR study says the number of children being electively home educated has more than doubled over the past four years. “A parent can choose to electively home educate their child. If a school wants to avoid recording a permanent exclusion, they can encourage a parent to electively register their child as home educated. This is illegal.”

So why call all these attacks ‘neoconservative’?

As Michael Apple argues, neoconservativism is about two things: a “return” – British values, authority, testing, high standards, patriotism – and it’s also about a fear of the “other.”

In an interview with Spiked about “the crisis of authority of the classroom,” Tom Bennett says there is a “chronic” “crisis of adult authority” in the broader culture and classroom, and he believes children want a restoration of adult authority because they are “waiting to be told what to do.” He is concerned that not teaching about “cultural legacy” might “endanger civilisation.”1I take this paragraph from by article here.

In fact, according to Stephen J Ball, the Coalition government and Gove married a lot of neoliberal and neoconservative doctrines. Typically, neoliberals emphasise the free market and privatisation without the explicit agenda for cultural reform (a return to British values). They also typically place more emphasis on global competitiveness that neoconservatives do through their future proofing agenda. But, Gove wove these two strands together.

In both cases, neoconservativism and neoliberalism form a narrative about who is valuable. As Lord Nash said about British Values (2014) “A key part of our plan for education is to ensure children become valuable and fully rounded members of society.”

What would it mean to be a non-valuable member of society? To be a surplus, disposable? To have no hope in a meritocracy? 

The overarching narrative that connects the global education reform movement – Gove in the UK, to the OECD, WeF and the Davos crowd – is one that values human capital. If schools can produce better human capital, the GDP rise and country will prosper. 

The human capital narrative also privatises responsibility: If you fall out of work, it’s up to you to up-skill your human capital. Gert Biesta has pointed out how the right to lifelong education was replaced in the early 1990s with a responsibility for lifelong learning. Of course, as Thomas Piketty points out, humans aren’t literally capital – and he doesn’t use the phrase – unless you are talking about chattel slavery. 

Now, in that context – an obsession with improving human capital, the human stock – and the neoconservative framing of society as a level playing-field, a meritocracy, the resurgent of a neohereditarian obsession with the genetics of IQ begins to makes sense. 

Where does the 4th wave of neohereditarianism come from?

In this reactionary neoconservative context, where people try justify increasing austerity, they use the promise of social mobility and meritocracy as their stand in for ‘social justice’. The idea of human capital explains why not everyone wins. As Stephen Jay Gould argued,1996 “resurgences of biological determinism correlate with episodes of political retrenchment, particularly with campaigns for reduced government spending on social programs, or a times of fear among ruling elites, when disadvantaged groups sow serious social unrest or even threaten to usurp power.

Following Gould, Richard Valencia identifies roughly 3 waves of neohereditarianism, and what you are seeing here in the UK is the 4th. 

In his Nov 2013 Margaret Thatcher Lecture, Boris Johnson raised the topic of IQ and merit:

“Like it or not, the free market economy is the only show in town. Britain is competing in an increasingly impatient and globalised economy, in which the competition is getting ever stiffer. 

No one can ignore the harshness of that competition, or the inequality that it inevitably accentuates; and I am afraid that violent economic centrifuge is operating on human beings who are already very far from equal in raw ability, if not spiritual worth. 

Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130. The harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top. 

And for one reason or another – boardroom greed or, as I am assured, the natural and god- given talent of boardroom inhabitants – the income gap between the top cornflakes and the bottom cornflakes is getting wider than ever. I stress: I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed, some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity. 

In perhaps the most chillingly memorable line, Johnson argues for the need for a ‘shock’: “I worry that there are too many cornflakes who aren’t being given a good enough chance to rustle and hustle their way to the top. We gave the packet a good shake in the 1960s; and Mrs Thatcher gave it another good shake in the 1980s with the sale of the council houses.” 

So, the 4th wave of neohereditarianism is the sound that comes along with another shaking of the packet. Not sure how being shaken helps the cornflakes at the bottom, but they don’t call it precarity for nothing, do they?

And if we go back one month earlier to OCT 2013, Dominic Cummings, Gove’s attack dog, wrote in a secret report that The Guardian published: “differences in educational achievement are not mainly because of ‘richer parents buying greater opportunity’ and the successful pursuit of educational opportunity and ‘social mobility’ will increase heritability of educational achievement.” 

Of course, the heritability statistic was for animals breeders to help them select and breed traits in a population. In fact, we’d be better to call it the ‘selectability’ of IQ or achievement. What use would that statistic possibly have for governments and educationalists? 

Early this month, In the London Student, Ben van der Merwe broke the news that James Thompson has been hosting a secret conference on intelligence and eugenics for the last three years at UCL. Among the more prominent attendees was … Toby Young. 

But that’s just the beginning. Andrew Sabisky, the person at the heart of David Didau’s thinking about genetics and intelligence and who wrote the appendix to his book, presented a session called: Is it Worth Giving Children Pre-School Education?

James Thompson said that “Eugenics is one topic” covered at the UCL meetings, & Sabisky even uses the word ‘eugenics’ in his interview with Schools Week when he asked the interviewer what choices she would make with her own babies. 

Sabisky talks about the “cognitive deficiencies” that “mark out minority populations”, and actually jokes about trying to get approval to experiment on kids at a local day-care by putting them in deprived environments. His conclusion:

“There are other problems with devoting a large amount of resources to very young children. Absent valid genetic prediction, we have only very imperfect ways of knowing who actually requires the treatment.”

In the appendix to Didau’s book, Sabisky argues that “ethnic differences in IQ” are a fact, noting that “the United States has a substantial black population with a long history of educational underachievement.” At rEd (2014), Sabisky strongly suggests that any inequality in society is the result of the genetics of IQ:

“Thanks to universal education, environments are relatively equal, and consequently heritability is pretty high. Everyone is getting a reasonably fair shot at success, and consequently genes significantly influence outcomes. … individual differences in intelligence and academic outcomes are largely a result of genes.”

Why would anyone think that race is a useful category to partition people by to investigate intelligence? What would anyone even hope to DO with that knowledge? Even if people claim that racial groups have different IQ’s because of environments instead of genetics, this puts forward a dangerous and false ‘deficit view’ of people. To assume that a ‘culture of poverty’ is the problem is another way to marginalise people.  

Outside of Twitter, many of these people who talk about genetics and IQ are small fish. But there are many larger fish to worry about: 

 On The Life Scientific, Jim Al-Khalili introduces Robert Plomin’s findings: “much as we like to think that good parenting and good teachers make all the difference, they don’t. The most significant influence on academic achievement is written in our Children’s DNA.” 

Plomin summarises his findings about the heritability of A Level scores: “Most of the differences in children’s performances can be attributed to the DNA differences between them.” 

Al-Khalili replies: “all the work we can do in guiding the children, in giving them advice, sending them to the right school, and it’s already there imprinted in their genes.”

Plomin: “In the past I really hated to pit nature versus nurture because they are both important, but when you’ve got people so … people so worried about differences between schools, the league tables, that at most accounts for 20% of the differences between children in school achievement. Genetics accounts for well-over half, maybe two thirds… we’re talking about by far the biggest predictor of children’s performance. I think it’s important for parents to get that message.”

What are the real consequences of the war on youth?

This war on youth translates into behaviour policies like the ones Barry Smith at Yarmouth. 

“We all know children say things like that to get out of work. You never pretend to be ill to get out of work because we expect you to work through it. If you feel sick we will give you a bucket. If you vomit – no problem! You’ve got your bucket. That’s probably all your body wanted – to vomit. If you are really ill we will make sure you get all the attention you need,”

But here is one school behaviour policy scandal you might not have heard of: a school with a Zero Zone, “hours of enforced silence,” “having students retake standardised tests to increase scores,” and “inadequate supervision, bathroom accidents and even infections due to denial of restroom visits.” 

And here is the shocking thing. This school, Rocketship Education (a charter school network in California), is held forth as a progressive school with personalized learning. It’s the Silicon Valley future of schools, along with Alt-School, which uses surveillance cameras and heat maps of the classroom to personalise learning for students.

It’s difficult to see radical possibilities of hope for youth in either of the main reform movements: the neoconservatives see youth as dangerous, but the neoliberal ‘future proof’ movement also tells a story about the value of youth that too often “forecloses hope” (Henry Giroux). Now, I don’t have a problem with Ken Robinson in the same way I do the neoconservativism, but I worry very much when he is used to set the left limit of our map to a better educational future. Let me tell you why.

In Creative Schools (2015), Ken Robinson acknowledges the “blight of unemployment” that affects “young people that have done everything expected of them and graduated from college” and even that many graduates are underemployed in jobs that don’t require a degree. But rather than conclude that the economy has broken the agreement, Robinson blames schools – and youth. “There is an ever-widening skills gap between what schools are teaching and what the economy actually needs. The irony is that in many countries there’s plenty of work to be done, but despite the massive investments in education, too many people don’t have the skills needed to do it.”

The debunked idea that there is a ‘skills gap’ further marginalises youth – it turns them into an economic problem rather than source of hope. Moreover, framing the purpose of education – even creative education – so strictly in the confines of what businesses demand is short sighted and alienating. 

But I do want to leave you with some reason for hope, and I think it’s located precisely where the ‘factory model’ idea about schools misses an important reality.

If students were really being disengaged by ‘factory model’ schools, in effect, kept down and repressed by a school structure that hasn’t changed in 150 years, then the reactionary force of neoconservatives like Peterson would make no sense. They’d have nothing to worry about if kids were being trained to follow instructions and take their place in an industrial hierarchy. But people like Peterson are worried precisely because youth are critically engaged in ways that might actually topple hierarchies. Schools and classrooms might in some – and perhaps – many cases be places for radical hope. 

The more neoconservatives think we are doing something dangerous for youth, the more we know we’re on to something. 

References   [ + ]

1. I take this paragraph from by article here.
I footnotes