Shine A Light

What’s education for, privilege or meritocracy?

A British composer and educator asks whether individual effort can really counter structural privilege in the long run.

Ornette Clennon
20 May 2014

Ornette Clennon, teaching

Reading Peggy McIntosh’s important essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack,  from the volume Race, Class and Gender in the United States, edited by Paula Rothenberg, I was struck by her brutal honesty about what she perceived as her privilege that was based solely on the colour of her skin. I enjoyed her notion of an invisible back pack full of important goodies, designed to make life easier but made available only to certain people. Out of twenty six items of privilege that McIntosh identifies, I found these quite telling:

  • 14. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  • 15. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  • 16. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
  • 17. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.

That got me thinking about purpose of Education.

If we believe that Education is about giving people opportunities in life to get on and to be successful by their own merits, are we being naïve? McIntosh describes the nature of structural inequality that is so embedded in the system that it remains invisible. So, it makes me ponder on what Education is for;  it does not seem able to truly defeat the effects of privilege or bias.

 However, how we perceive education really does dictate what sort of society we want to live in. If we see education principally as a means of preparing our young minds for the employment market, then perhaps we’ll regard the acquisition of knowledge as a commodity to oil the cogs of neo-liberalism. But what does this mean? Perhaps it means that people should be educated only to further their nation’s economic competitiveness, as Lord Browne (a former BP chief executive and Goldman Sachs director) implies in his 2010 Independent Review of Higher Education (p.31).

Is this a bad thing? Well….it all depends. If we revere the market and its values, and see education as serving to prepare our young citizens (subjects) for its successful negotiation, then we are educating our young people to accept the market's rules, to accept that market values determine whether they are winners or losers. Education that is primarily linked to future economic prosperity could be seen to be about producing cogs in a system that ultimately maintains a neo-liberal status quo of inherent inequality.

Who is responsible for inherent inequality?

In his Tough Guise: Full version, one of the US’ leading anti-sexist male activists, Jason Katz says that “we focus always on the subordinated group and not on the dominant group. And that’s one of the ways that the power of dominant groups isn’t questioned – by remaining invisible.” (p. 6) In order to build on Katz’s and McIntosh’s ideas around the “invisible”, we need to look at the market and its agents.

Even though we often hear about rampant individualism, as being a defining characteristic of market economics, ironically it is not the 'individual' that is really at the centre of our market paradigm. It is their freedom to enter into market transactions using various forms of capital (cultural, social and economic) that becomes an avatar (a symbol of function not being) for the individual in the market. In other words, we see the effects of their privilege or their 'invisible backpacks', not the individuals themselves. This de-individualisation is also applied to the oppressed or the losers within our market paradigm; where they are reduced to mere statistics to describe the market’s losses.

Do we have an alternative role for education? This is a tricky question because if education is reframed principally to be about self-enlightenment, empowerment and liberation from oppression then it becomes incendiary! To educate individuals who can actually see the mechanisms of inequality and who also can call out the shadowy figures behind the market avatars is quite a dangerous thought. Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed has much to say about this revolutionary process of ‘calling out’ the shadows.

Ornette and kids_0_1.jpg

Ornette Clennon at a premiere of his piece Only You, 2013

In my book Alternative Education and Community Engagement, I explore how a Freirian ‘critical pedagogy’ can be used to explore some of the hidden forms of dominance wielded by a marketised education terrain. I explore why our mainstream education system on so many levels is perceived to be failing our most deprived. I track how the burden of responsibility for this failure in popular discourse most often falls on the deprived but never on the unseen privilege or avatars that the system upholds.

This sleight of hand promotes the idea of 'hard work' by implying that the deprived are somehow indolent and lacking in aspiration. This illusion promotes 'hard work' as a panacea that is a viable answer to the hidden structural inequalities of privilege but fails to point out the limitations of a meritocracy (or having more 'choice' between different types of school) that in reality is only built on privilege. Pierre Bourdieu calls this process of not telling the whole truth, misrecognition.

More insidious is the notion of deprivation as a facet of 'culture' that can pathologised and problematicised. It is, for example, fashionable in some political circles to describe academic attainment as a facet of certain cultural groups and not of others, as though it is the 'culture' itself that is to be praised or blamed for the outward effects of structural inequality. It is precisely this notion of 'culture' that allows the deprived to remain faceless and easily categorised into market-friendly statistics, all the while their educational attainment continues to fall.

So what are we to do with our Education? How can we begin to answer some of these conundrums using what we currently have? Up and down the country, we currently have communities who are passionate about the education of their young people. These communities have set up Supplementary Schools, sometimes known as Saturday Schools and they are designed to counter the official (and often hidden discriminatory) narrative of mainstream Education.

They do this by educating their young people in a critical pedagogy that teaches them to recover their historical memories, in the manner Ignacio Martin-Baro suggests, where they are taught to de-couple their understanding of their histories from the official mainstream narrative. Ignacio Martin-Baro proposes that we need to teach our young people to understand where they are coming from in their own (indigenous) terms, not through the eyes of the (invisible) oppressive system, before they can plot a viable way forward.

This view very much echoes the seminal writings of W.E.B DuBois and his The Souls of Black Folk where he coins the phrase “double-consciousness” (p. 9) to describe the state of seeing oneself through the eyes of the oppressor, which directly conflicts with one’s inherent view of self.

So, how can communities be supported in this important work in ways that truly enhance mainstream Education instead of competing with it? In my book, I share some case studies of how a multi-partnership approach between supplementary schools and other education and cultural providers points towards a possible solution to this conundrum. 


Alternative Education and Community Engagement: Making Education a Priority Published by Palgrave Macmillan. £25.75 (Kindle Edition ISBN: 978-1-137-41542-4), £41.50 (Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-137-41540-0)


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