This book about education and class pays homage to working class life not only through academic research, but also through an eclectic ensemble of styles ranging from conventional academic writing through to raw, personal narratives expressing the pain of marginalisation.
Reading The Working Class is a visceral experience. The senses and the intellect are awakened and at times assaulted by the passion expressed by the contributors, whether teachers, academics, writers or poets. It is a journey with pit stops mentioning classic theorists on social inequality and education such as Erving Goffman, Paulo Freire, Pierre Bourdieu, Ruth Levitas, Diane Reay and Bell Hooks. The many chapters, a staggering forty-six, cover as many topics -“ starting with failure and activism, and getting to dreams, destiny and diet towards the end. The chapters are interspersed by short interludes or provocations around the topic and are energised by anecdotes from diverse literary and media sources. Sir Humphrey of Yes, Prime Minister fame makes an entrance, as do references to the contemporary films Forrest Gump and I, Daniel Blake. Chapters are punctuated with quotes from current and ex ministers including Thatcher, Cameron and May as well as a slew of former education ministers such as Gove, Morgan and Greening.
Although long, the book is not plodding. It is a romp peppered with statistical data and clips from newspapers, as well as extracts from classic tales -“ from authors such as Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens and Alan Sillitoe -“ depicting working class misery. Passages written in more conventional, academic styles are offset by gritty and deeply moving first person accounts of life in austerity-worn Britain -“ such as that of Jaz Ampaw-Farr, whose contribution rebukes her uncaring, prejudiced, middle class teachers. Most contributions are relatively short, yet there are exceptions, such as Phil Beadle's -“ entitled -˜Working Class Pleasures'. Beadle's contribution is a chilling first person account of living and growing up in abject poverty that focuses a razor-sharp, critical lens on upper class Tory rule, which saturates lives with capitalism, nationalism, tobacco, alcohol, pornography, gambling, addiction, right wing tabloid newspapers and TV programmes promising instant fame. It is both a homage to Beadle's dad and an exposition of how a working class upbringing in the 1960s and 1970s creates masculinity. Folded into its primary narrative is a series of footnotes which provides ten -˜factors' affecting working class engagement in education and which exposes the double bind of a working class male position in which pride and identity meets an almost compulsory culture of tough, anti-academic machismo. As Beadle writes, -˜People who do not read are easy to manipulate' -“ and in walks public school-educated Nigel Farage.
There are many moving first-hand accounts of growing up, written with rage and passion, exposing what is really happening in the UK. The seemingly intuitive, untethered accounts manage not to rant, however. Some depict pain and achieve poetic profundity, and their language appeals to the senses, depicts contexts and provides attention to detail. Rhythm and pace create multiple layers of meaning, and language becomes a working class weapon.
The book's structure works to juxtapose a cacophony of different kinds of voices; from poems to personal polemics, from critical theory to heart-wrenching narratives. Academics reflect with honesty -“ in almost confessional tones -“ on the unimaginable changes seen since their upbringing, when the public education system in the 1970s and 1980s provided grants to attend university for free. They admit to their personal upward mobility while mourning the fact that the communities they grew up in have sunk deeper into economic depression. The ache reverberating throughout the book cries of a divided society in which those born on the wrong side of the neoliberal capitalist machinery are skewed tighter and tighter while access to the educational opportunities that created upward mobility in the past recedes into a distant, vanishing point on the horizon.
As a collective diffraction of voices, styles and historical lenses, The Working Class does not shirk from complexity and admits of no easy answers -“ indeed, it leaves any final message open, although darkly ominous. Yet, as a rush of sheer, unadulterated, no-holds-barred passion, it reminds us that we are human and that class is a living, willing, desiring disharmony of divergent as well as collective forces that will not be stilled. It is this passion, manifested through a multiplicity of styles -“ from sprawling, raw biographical prose to the contained rationality of academic critique, and via anecdotes, quotes and remembrances inflected with humour, irony and pain -“ that is the book's ultimate message. This brimming, unfettered multiplicity of forms is an antidote to the bleak, sterile, smooth diktats of neoliberal rhetoric.
Read this book if you are a new teacher and want to find your moral compass; read it if you are an experienced teacher and feel that you are losing your way, to know that you are not alone and that the madness is not in your head alone. It's the madness of late capitalism that remorselessly creates and recreates working class inequality.