Revolution and education

12 November 1968

Last week Tom Fawthrop, leader of last year’s revolt at Hull University, spoke at the Guild  debate on student revolt. In today’s issue of Guild Gazette, he was asked in an interview to define the nature and purpose of education, as he saw it, and to give his views on the place of universities and the student in society:

Question: How would you define education?

Fawthrop: There are two basic processes in education: learning and assessment. In our society assessment is everything so that most attention is paid to paper qualifications which are totally divorced from the real world. Thus we produce experts and technicians without any social understanding, and an intelligentsia out of touch with the people.

Question: What is the place of the university in this system?

Fawthrop: The university is the top of the social ladder from the point of view of the student. He has been trained to respond to the stimuli of ambition and careerism which tell him to forget the ideals of learning for the carrot of riches and wealth. The university creams off the privileged child through a schooling system of pure “social darwinism” – the survival and selection of the few. There are exams at every rung on the upward climb where the less highly-motivated fall aside. It is all part of the middle class norm of getting ahead, of making it.

Question: You have described the failures of the present system, but how would you like to see education?

Fawthrop: The idea of education is inevitably subversive to any orthodoxy, to all accepted methods and thought. Education is first and foremost a process in which old concepts are criticised and challenged. The fact that millions of people starve in a society of plentiful resources indicates that an orthodoxy of conservatism dominates. For instance, economics is taught in a conservative frame of reference. Students are receiving a training in how to think rather than to think for themselves. To redress this, universities must be internally democratised. The abolition of all exams will result from this, for exams are a police patrol of the mind. They force the student to cover a certain topic in a specific time. Thus it is inconvenient to discuss Vietnam or race, say, in lectures.

Question: What reforms are needed?

Fawthrop: Students must have at least equal decision-making power in the structure and content of their courses. The boards of governors of colleges and universities must become truly democratic, representative of society. Instead of having industrialists, bankers, managers, etc, on these boards, they should contain ordinary people – teachers, trade unionists, journalists, social w0rkers, etc.

‘Question: What is the relationship between the university and society?

Fawthrop: At the moment there is an artificial distinction between formal learning and a general education. This suggests that education is an institutionalised process only carried out by an elite few. In opposition to this I would pose the idea of the free university, a university which anyone can enter and in which people are encouraged to think and learn all the time, and not just when it is convenient for those in authority. Under capitalism the free university is a transitory concept; it involves pushing out the limits of our education to expose the hypocrisy behind the content of learning at present. Education should be a creative concept, having mass appeal, not a painful punishment inflicted on kids who’d rather go out and play in the sun. Then the psychological barriers would be down and the perseverance of middle class valves in education would be ended.

Question: How is political authority linked with education?

Fawthrop: Already in some primary schools the system of free encounter is being used. The child educates itself through unstructured, undirected learning. This self education produces self-discipline. On the other hand, authoritarian codes of discipline go with an authoritarian syllabus. The guy who uses the cane against the kid also uses the book to browbeat him into a straightjacket of conformity. Thus by the time we’ve reached the university level government is limited with ways of teaching, ways of disseminating orthodox ideas concerning the nature of the world.

Question: What is the role of the student in the revolution?

Fawthrop: At the moment students are totally separated from society in their learning. But anyone who takes education seriously must have a social, as well as an intellectual committment. Universities must open their doors to everyone. Until we can change the economic base of society we have to use the resources in education in new ways. There are economic limits to education enforced by capitalism, but inside the universities we can extend democracy (as we can in other sectors of society – the factory for instance). By developing a better system of education one is developing a better way of life – firstly by students trying to make the concept of democracy have real meaning – which it can have in the size of a university. But if we do not relate these educational revolutions to the rest of society, then all we do is contemplate our own academic navels – which intellectuals are already notorious for, and which in turn induces an anti-student attitude among the mass of the population.

Question: You advocate revolution; does this mean you are advocating violence?

Fawthrop: I am advocating change in society. But people confuse ends with means. If they showed half as much concern with the end of abolishing all slums and poverty in this country as they do in a narcissistic debate on violence, then they would have got their priorities right. At this stage in England the all-important objective is that the mass of the people should be determined and united to change their society for the better. The issue of violence is a side issue, decided not by us, but by those who will use violence to stop us achieving a just and equal society. Revolution uses the minimum of violence to achieve the agreed objectives of the mass of the people.

Student revolt: the debate

Elsewhere, the paper has a report of  last week’s debate on student revolt:

Richard Davies, President of Guild, called for “direct action” during a debate on student revolt last week. He urged the Gilmour Hall audience to “go back to your departments and make revolution at the grass roots.”

He elaborated his theme with a disparaging account of student participation in Liverpool. “You have been bought off by representation on committees, which only a few such as the one on Health are of any use. Key decisions are not made on committees – they are made in Staff House over cocktails. They have the experience and power and are here for decades. We tin-pot bureaucrats of Guild are only at the top for a year or so – do not wait for us to act.”

Speaking, appropriately enough, on Bonfire Night, Mr Davies associated himself with Pat Bagshaw and Margaret Kear in wondering when the Liverpool revolution would occur. He spared nothing in his invective: “This Guild should take a political line on Rhodesia and Vietnam. I’m fed up seeing the same faces in Council, at debates and in Gazette. Students must be fully committed to this cause, even if I am probably the most hypocritical person in this House.”

The fireworks, let off spasmodically during the debate, reflected the fiery nature of the speeches. Half way through, Mr Tim Shuttleworth declared, “Instead of taking yourselves so seriously, go down to the Sphinx and drink the place dry. I’m off to Hall for the bonfire.”

Tom Fawthrop from Hull University and Chris Harman from the London School of Economics were, however, more concerned with proposing the motion “This House supports student revolt.” Their main argument was that although “student revolt is about changing the world” a single university would not have much success on its own. Mr Fawthrop insisted, “you need cooperation with other oppressed sections of the community. After all, our lives are as tightly regimented by exams as the workers’ are by their factory environment.”

He was not, however, very confident that students would take up his arguments. “NUS is one of the most reactionary student unions in the world. When real confrontation does take place, NUS will be far from the barricades. I do not think anything will happen at Liverpool because you will go back to the coffee bar and forget everything.”

Chris Harman declared “the most reactionary block are the engineers and scientists who have the most work to do and probably do not have a satisfactory sex-life.” This point was, of course, refuted by Mr Chopping. Opposing the motion were David Logan, Vice President-Elect of NUS, and Allan Craig, from Manchester University. Their main theme was that  “although we should be actively involved in campaigns for grants, better accommodation and representation, we should not use militant means.” David Logan disagreed with the propositions’ argument that “revolution is the only and necessary solution to human problems” and declared that peaceful dialogue with Vice-Chancellors would yield better results.

Allan Craig’s attempt to quote Marx, to ridicule the proposition, met with a cry from the audience “Which Marx – Groucho or Alfred?” The House collapsed into laughter, as it was prone to do throughout the evening.

At the late hour of 10:45, the motion was passed by 78 votes to 62 – most of the chamber had already left to play with fireworks.

Footnote from the future (2010)

Tom Fawthrop has subsequently had a long career as a journalist, extensively covering the developing world. He has been working in South-East Asia for the past 25 years and is currently based in Chiangmai, Thailand.  A Guardian stringer in Manila in the mid-1980s, during the revolt against the Marcos dictatorship, he also covered the region for the Irish Times and various radio stations. His reports included a number of historic events: the People Power revolution that finally ousted President Marcos in 1986, the UN peacekeeping mission (1991-93) and the UNTAC election in Cambodia, the militia death squads run by the Indonesian military in East Timor, the referendum and another UN mission (1999-2001).  His work has frequently appeared in the Economist, the Age (Melbourne), the Guardian, Sydney Morning Herald and the London Sunday Times. In 1989 he produced and directed a documentary for the Channel 4 Bandung series: Dreams & Nightmares – Cambodia Ten Years After Pol Pot. He also contributed to news features on Cambodia and Vietnam for SBS TV Australia, Dutch, Swedish and Spanish television. He is co-author of Getting away with Genocide, the history of the Cambodia Tribunal.

He contributes regularly to The Guardian website.


Author: Gerry

Retired college teacher living in Liverpool, UK.

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