In studying for a post-graduate degree in history, I seemed always to gravitate to a study of how people stood up to the injustice of unfair, authoritarian, or totalitarian rule – how people responded in those moral crucibles. An absorbing and horrific situation was the Anschluss Osterreichs – in that historical event I found encompassed, for situations large and small, the entirety of the behaviour of ruling classes, and the ruled. In history, when I read of people going out of their way to co-operate with, say, totalitarian rule, I feel lesser as a human being; when people stand up to it, I am inspired. But I always know that both responses are part of the expression of human nature.
Which leads me to a matter laughably minor in comparison but in the context of our tiny country, still of some significance. Is your principal a strangelover? The reference being to Dr Strangelove in the Peter Sellars’ film of the same name and subtitled How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Has your principal twisted this way and that to follow, as he or she always does, the government line, in this case to support IES and clusters?
Except in one crucial respect, my argument about strangeloving principals is summed up by the subtitle – strangeloving principals do not, at base, have to learn to love the government line, it is inherent in their intellectual and moral make-up. That is because we have much less free will than we think. Strangeloving principals, while often very competent principals, feel morally lost going against authority, they need someone to trust and believe in – so feel impelled to strangeloving.
But in the matter of IES, standing against it was, on the surface, not that big an ask. To read that as many as 20 clusters have volunteered is disappointing. Not much was being asked, they just had to display solidarity and wait. To see so many principals capitulating, undermining the stand of others and, even more seriously, the organisation that represents them – a representation to be even more needed in the future – was mildly sickening, but I understood, my understanding of human nature forces me to understand.
As it happens, I am presently working on a Primary School Diary that has me in 1989 standing outside the Hamilton Education Board knowing that I was going to have to spend the rest of my life fighting against or ameliorating as I saw it, the education effects of ruthlessly uncaring governments and their strangeloving fan club.
But then again, I suppose my free will gave me little scope for choice.
It was 1957, I was 18, in my second year at Auckland Teachers Training College and I had just come out of a film – a film about the First World War – Paths of Glory – starring Kirk Douglas who as Colonel Dax fought and failed to defend six French soldiers on charges of cowardice for refusing to participate in a suicidal attack. They were shot.
I walked out of the Regent Theatre, blinked in the harsh sunlight, turned left up Queen Street and left again up Wellesley, I can remember myself by the Art Gallery, the tears streaming down my face, saying, ‘I’m never going to let the buggers wear me down.’ A puny human vow, I know, in the face of life’s outrageous fortunes, but there it is, a formative moment, or more accurately, a moment of what had already formed. (It has come as something of an insight to realise that Dr Strangelove and Paths of Glory were both by Stanley Kubrick.)
In 1990, in the first issue of Network Magazine I wrote:
The failings of New Zealand society were somehow made the failings of New Zealand schools. In other words, the failure by adults to succeed in what they wanted to do in the wider sphere was blamed on schools, which eventually meant New Zealand children had to bear the consequences of adult failure. For example, the failure to continue with compulsory superannuation, the main election plank used by Robert Muldoon to gain power, and fear-mongered by the conservative media, had nothing to do with schools, everything to do with right-wing mythology and the quest for power. Schools, however, are bearing and will bear the scapegoating social and economic consequences of this monumental failure of adult imagination and judgement.
Please principals, can’t you see, except where it has worsened, nothing has changed. This New Right argument, imported from overseas, is laying waste to what could have been an outstanding education system – the education of a generation of children diminished and the professional lives of teachers ravaged.
And I wrote:
Power should be shared throughout the education system, and various checks and balances be in place to stop it becoming too concentrated. It is only in this way that children will gain some protection from the vagaries of educational and political ideas, and the human drive to control and dominate. The powerlessness of the young, the fact of them being young, makes school-children tempting targets for those who want to turn schools into battlegrounds for competing visions of what society ought to be.
Please principals, just as ‘schools governing themselves’ was the false siren call for Tomorrow’s Schools, so is the call for ‘co-operation’ (of the imposed sort being advocated) for today’s schools. What is needed is for our education system to be organised as set out in the preceding paragraph.
And I wrote:
The reins will be loose as schools are encouraged to buy into Tomorrow’s Schools but they will soon be tightened to horrific effect.
Please principals, if you are not really a strangelover, let’s not be suckered again.
Is strangeloving most principals? Of course not.
Is it a significant number? No.
An influential number – yes – and I’m sorry to say, providing a model for principals coming through the ranks. Strangeloving principals can be very good principals, indeed, their ability to run a good school, can often be a key part of their justificatory argument for their strangeloving and betrayal. Their mantra can be: I can’t do anything about the politics of education [and in a way they actually can’t, as explained above], I’ll just do what I’m told and do the best I can within that. The reality, though, is that the narrowing and tightening of boundaries they are willing to settle for, on other principals has a dispiritingly burdensome effect and on children a tragic diminution of education richness.
I have listened to the moral reasoning of these principals over the decades and have, I believe, a clear view of the main strangeloving recourses employed as they go about their decision making. The main recourse has overwhelmingly been to see the benign in whatever governments have come up with on the way to seeing the good even the beautiful. That is strangeloving.
These principals, on the basis of their circumvented sense of free will, look unremittingly on the bright side of government decisions and learn to love them. That is strangeloving.
These principals see government education decisions on the basis of their surface intentions; accepting the good faith of governments through thick and thin. What governments see is what they see, what governments say is what they say. That is strangeloving.
See no evil, see only good. That is strangeloving.
If there is no moral problem recognised there is no moral problem to be solved. That is strangeloving, indeed, the essence of it.
To have strangeloved through six years of National government education policy represents something exceptional, a degree of naivety so profound, a free will so circumvented, as to suggest transcendental disjunction.
For these principals, as education has become more hierarchical and the curriculum a caricature, they have come to feel comfortable with being part of that particular chain of hierarchical control and that kind of curriculum – a curriculum carved up into small pieces for control, and school education being able to be tied up neatly in an organisational bow.
As for the education review office, the bearers of the sharp end of government control – no problem, give them what they want, even more so – then these principals, in all sincerity, can say they have no problems with the review office.
I think it is generally agreed by dispassionate observers that clusters under the new system will become the new unit of the primary education system and a strengthened bureaucratic extension of the ministry and education review office. There will be softly-softly early on to help the strangelovers come to terms with the policy on the way to loving it and then to expressing their profound support for it, but the structure to emerge from that will be a government-aligned principal (from secondary schools if possible) who will take control of key areas, including, of course, the freedom of school principals and boards of trustees to make public statements. This will be of particular significance as each cluster faces its turn to be Christchurched and worse.
The expert and lead teacher system will become a crucial source of bureaucratic patronage and the main line for career advancement. Much will be made of schools helping other schools, and there will be some of that, but the main effect will be to narrow education for control and standardisation.
In the more immediate, clusters will be used against public schools in the manner of charter schools. They will be used for show purposes, to become the focus of heavy bureaucratic and government propaganda; to demonise standout schools; to become the darling of the media and the Act Party; and to slather teacher organisations as obstructionist, even set up NZEI for some kind of deregistering. Effort will be made by some, for instance, STA, to create division between principals and boards of trustees, and the clusters will appear as little oases of privilege (they won’t be in reality, though, because much of the ‘privilege’ will be misdirected).
Peter Hughes – Orwell’s O’Brien – will be portray himself as the good guy – really one of us – someone principals can trust, do a deal with. But Hughes for all his practised charm is just another deeply educationally ignorant bureaucrat appointed to pull the wool over teachers’ eyes. He is entirely unacquainted with New Zealand’s holistic and child-centred education, the idea of education for the whole child, the idea of education for creativity and imagination, and the idea of competing ideas arising from variety in education.
Well – is your principal a strangelover? Oh, and by the way, did he or she give you a say in the decision?
The main point of this posting is that amongst the 20 clusters referred to, there will be principals who may have some residual fight left in them, some greater loyalty to the wider group, some greater sense of a more independent free will – they may have gone along with the local group led by a strangeloving principal or small group of strangeloving ones – this posting is a plea to them to reconsider. It will, I know, take especial courage to alter course, but I leave that heartfelt plea out there.
As for the future of IES, the future for primary school education – the election result puts me in the position of having to say I don’t know – what I do know, though, is that we should hunker down, stick together, support and trust our teacher organisations, and take one thing at a time; we cannot now blast the government off course, but we can conduct a low level but steadfast and dignified battle of attrition. I also know that some flawed individuals, admittedly impelled ones, heading off on a self-deceiving adventure is not the way to go. In the prevailing circumstances, struggling against something close to an education evil might not bring garlanded victory but to struggle against evil can be uplifting, and in history has an honourable place, indeed, is the very stuff of history and the part I find most inspiring.
Put another way: Don’t let the buggers wear you down.