Privilege can make you feel embarrassed. We don’t like privilege. We like hero stories. We like to hear of someone overcoming adversity and triumphing against the odds. We turn away from people who are “born with a silver spoon in their mouths.” In this article I want to consider the depths of privilege and what that privilege might mean for democratic education.
You will already know, if you have been following this blog, that I have been investigating the quarrel between determinists, compatabilists and free will libertarians. I find the determinist argument the most convincing. The notion that there is something outside biology and environment is faintly absurd- a little meta-you that hovers above these factors and makes decisions, like an angel or spirit. The consequences of free will arguments are unappealing: that the unfortunate are responsible for their own misfortunes; that the privileged can take credit for their silver spoons. At the same time I am aware that the illusion or delusion of free will is deeply rooted. It is hard to escape.
Here is a personal example. I love reading. I’d also love to feel that my reading somehow reflects credit on me. After all, many people with the ability to read don’t read. I may not be sporty or practical but this is something I can feel proud of, isn’t it? As I make paths through the jungle of books, pamphlets, webpages and other texts in my life, I get an intense feeling that I am making myself, creating my own persona by what I choose to read.
If I reflect on this further, however, I can see how this sensation is an illusion. I was born into a household with books. I didn’t start reading early but when, around the age of 8, I started to read I was pulled in for many reasons outside my control: there were times when I would have been bored without a book, I suffered asthma as a child and reading was a way to transcend what was happening in my body, at school I was praised by teachers for my reading activity, and reading gave me a way out of the competitive boyish activities I was not suited to, the rough-and-tumble of the sports field. Each book leads on to another one, each reading leads on to another one, but if I float high enough above the situation I can see that what I do is no more self-creating than the activity of a bee buzzing around in the garden looking for honey.
If I turn from my own situation to someone who does not read or cannot read I now find myself unable to judge easily. Neill always said there is no such thing as a lazy child and, although that can seem counter-intuitive when you are faced by a child who is swallowed up in apathy, I have grown to appreciate the deep wisdom of the perception. Children follow through the dictates of their biology and environment. My reading is in no way better than any other child’s activity: one plays ping pong, one rides bikes, one enjoys talking, one makes models. You could say that they all do what they have to do, in every sense. They are all dependent on their environment: ping pong tables, bikes, books and models. If we want to understand what is happening with a child there is nowhere else to go other than biology and environment: it is pointless to adopt a moral, improving or preachy attitude; it is a conceit to go on about how much reading means to you personally. You are different. The child is unique.
I was privileged to have been born in a country that had libraries, schools and bookshops, and within that country into a family where there were bookshelves with books on them that stimulated my interest. I was privileged to live at a moment in history when I did not have to go out to work at a young age and when the surpluses of the economy allowed me to buzz around like a bee. In another age I might have died as a child. Some people who do not read are born with other privileges- wealth, physical fitness, sharp business acumen, networks that provide them with opportunities. Some people, and particularly people in under-privileged countries, grow up with a set of opportunities that is much narrower in range and depth than all those little pieces of luck that have brought me to where I am now, doing what I do. However good you feel about your achievements or bad you feel about your lack of them, it seems reasonable to acknowledge the huge part that luck plays in them.
Some children have the privilege of going to democratic schools. Critics draw attention to this as though it invalidated the whole project, as though the fact that the children at Summerhill come from families who can afford to pay the fees means that they are “born with a silver spoon in their mouthes”.
“Sure,” they say, “Summerhill is nice if you can afford it. But what has that got to do with the rest of us? We have to go through the bog-standard comprehensive and make the most of it. Those kids are living off privilege.”
I heard the same arguments levelled against Mosaic, a small democratic school in Charlotte, North Carolina. “These parents and teachers are just opting out of the system. It makes the state school even worse and gives even more privileges to those who already have enough.”
Other than cutting everyone off at the knees to make sure we are all the same height, I cannot see much remedy for these inequalities. When I was studying art history all of my reading did not outweigh in the balance the fact that some of the people in the same class had villas in Tuscany and had been going to the Uffizi regularly since they were nine years old. On the one hand I was the beneficiary of the democratization of culture. A mere plebeian, I could go and look at public collections of painting that two hundred years before would have been outside my social class. On the other hand there were people with more resources to travel, more connections to open doors and an ingrained sense of deserving it all and a self-confidence in asking for what they wanted that was entirely alien to me.
Last year I wrote about the fact that Summerhill is not an anarchist school. The question of privilege is one of the reasons that it cannot align itself with anarchist positions. It must continue to do what it sees to be good, responding to each child as unique, swerving away from moral arguments and keeping a small hope that this influence will spread out in the world and have a vitalising and invigorating effect. The children who go to Summerhill have the privilege of enjoying he benefits of this. But I cannot criticise them for taking advantage of and enjoying their privileges. Privilege has many layers going to great depths and it seems improbable and possibly undesireable to me to even attempt to do away with them. You have an uncle who will give you a start in your working life by offering you a position in his business: are you going to turn that down and say, “No, I only want what everyone else is getting”?
If you reflect that all the good things in your life are the result of chance- your biological inheritance and the happy accidents of environmental circumstances- it doesn’t give much room for you to make yourself the hero of your own story. Once we really grasp the idea that we do not create ourselves but are created by our genetics and environment we will perhaps be able to govern ourselves with greater fairness and compassion. We will not call children lazy, idle or naughty. We will accept that deep truth that Neill intuitively grasped: a child’s path is her own.
I am in England at the moment and these issues have been coming into conversations. I feel the deep well of privilege that has allowed me to do the things I have done in my life. And I do not feel that it is through any great merit in me that I am not begging in the street in Southampton like the coughing beggars I saw there. Isn’t the proper response to privilege always an increase in compassion?