Going military is no aberration, it's at one with the desire for generalised conformity

Military academy for blokes only?

New Labour’s embrace of the libertarian right-wing Respublica’s ‘military academies’ proposal has inevitably lit a few fuses.  One passionate fusillade of criticism comes from the pen of Seema Chandawani, the feisty champion of young people and youth work in Tottenham. Within her assault she comments,

What some people may not be aware of is my background is in Youth Work and Teaching, a profession I have had my whole adult life, working mainly in urban “working class” areas, often with young people who have complex needs. I will refrain from calling them ‘disruptive pupils’ as it leads to the assumption it is the young people themselves who have initiated the disruption to society rather than actually being a product of a disruptive society.

Working up close with such young people, I do not see them as the ‘problem’ politicians are keen on always finding bizarre solutions for but see their circumstances as where we need to concentrate our efforts. The ‘disruptive’ young people are probably those that have more strength than people give credit to, it astonishes me that some of them even make it to the classroom, and that has to be acknowledged before we explore what takes place within school environment. There are young people who are living lives that are beyond comprehension, in Lammys own constituency there are school boys on the streets of Tottenham who have HIV/AIDS that are paid rent boys, an image we attribute to the ‘third world’ and many will only encounter on a documentary on developmental aid projects in another continent.

We have children growing up in not only ‘broken homes’, but violent and abusive homes, situations where the capacity of the parent has diminished and a 14 year old female is juggling the role of parent, exams and normal puberty related issues extended by lack of nutrition, low self respect, no purpose and severe stress related illnesses, often not diagnosed. If we are really serious about raising the aspirations of our young people, in areas ‘like’ Tottenham we have to explore a holistic picture of needs and not piecemeal solutions that ignore the wider framework of young peoples real lives.

Read her piece, FADS ARMY in full.

It is necessary too, I think, to resist seeing the military academies proposal as an aberration. Central to the neo-liberal project is a desire to create the compliant citizens of its imagination.  It wants us to believe we are expressing our individuality in the very act of conforming en masse to its mantra of ceaseless consumption. It wants us to believe that ‘having’ rather than ‘being’, as Erich Fromm puts it, is the purpose of life.

There is little doubt that the neo-liberalism has enjoyed great success over the last three decades in influencing enormously how many of us see the world. Inevitably education has been a primary battle ground in its quest for supremacy. Until neo-liberalism’s accession to power in the very late 1970’s education witnessed a pluralist tussle between a traditional, ‘we know best’ perspective’ and a liberal ‘ we must listen to them’, child-centred outlook, enlivened by interventions of a more radical, politicised nature. Since then, insidiously and unevenly, this space has been squeezed. Nowadays a ‘new managerial’ authoritarianism dominates. Instrumental and behavioural in inclination it is obsessed with testing and measurable outcomes. Of course there has been resistance to this imperative, but, if anything, the majority within teaching has accommodated in differing degrees to its demands. The very existence of our own campaign suggests that something very similar has occurred in youth work.

Despite this shift, though, those young people described variously as ‘anti-social’ or ‘disadvantaged’ continue to be a pain in the side of the establishment, not least because of the vacuum in opportunity created by the economic crisis. With all their contradictions the riots struck fear into the heart of the ruling elite. Indeed, according to Respublica, the military schools idea is a response to ” last year’s riots and launched as part of the institutional response which we believe is needed to tackle the full extent of despair and educational failure in Britain’s poorest communities.” Targeting and pathologising ‘recalcitrant’ youth is  thus given a distinct institutional form, informed by the hierarchical ‘character-building’ culture of the armed forces. Lest we smile too quickly the targeting and pathologising of young people and their families is central to the interventions being undertaken by youth workers as part of the dysfunctional Troubled Families scheme.

If the military school comes to pass, it will be a bitter blow to our efforts to defend a critical and pluralist education. Such an institution will be a closed ideological shop, wherein dissidence will be an offence. Although my eldest grandson does keep telling me that his own secondary school of excellence brooked little in the way of criticism. More immediately within youth work the continuing shift of workers and resources into imposed, targeted relationships with young people begs the question of whether it can be called youth work any longer.  The outcome of the relationship has been decided beforehand. The young people at odds with an exploitative and corrupt system are to conform, become pro-social in their behaviour. Perhaps the military academy and positive youth activities are not so far apart – both in their own ways schools of generalised conformity.

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