I've recently been involved in an online discussion on James Atherton's “Recent Reflection” blog (all relevant links below). The exchange began as a response to a video of Sir Ken Robinson (talking rather hyperbolically about the need for a “revolution” in education) posted on TED.com. The responses very quickly polarised between two differing philosophical viewpoints which might be roughly characterised as a contrast between British pragmatic empiricism and the American Dream. As the debate drifted ever closer to the issue of class, I was reminded of the famous comedy sketch by the two Ronnies and John Cleese which plays upon representations of British class divisions. I looked the sketch up on YouTube and as I watched it I was struck by something said by the working class character, played by Ronnie Corbett: “… though I'm poor, I'm industrious honest and trustworthy. Had I the inclination, I could look down on them, but I don't.”
Since we can't really expect a comedy sketch to explain itself we need to look elsewhere to be able to tease out what's going on here. The remark demands a little, dare I say, reflection.
The first part of the statement is a clear case of what we could call a self-representation; a self-image which describes the qualities which this character values in himself and feels others might value in him also. Interestingly, as a description, it's in marked contrast to those given by the other two characters. He describes himself through qualities which anybody would be proud to say about themselves; he describes himself in ways which have very little to do with his social status as such and he describes himself in ways which actually say only two distinct things: he works hard and he's worthy of other peoples' trust. This begs a question about how he has arrived at these representations of himself? Is this self-image something which is self generated or is it something which has been adopted? Whilst the other two characters describe things about themselves which other people might find distasteful or problematic in some way (and are certainly social constructions too), this character only describes things about himself that the other two would wish to be the case. His self-image conforms exactly to what the other two would have him be. He's a mirror of their idea of the underclass and he is a mirror which shows not the slightest threat nor subversive inclination - even the inclination to look down on them ie: to adopt their repugnant supercilious attitude.
Class society in the UK has changed a great deal since 1966 when this comedy sketch was first broadcast. Thatcher's government presided over an unprecedented fragmentation of the working class, but despite claims of the demise of class society in the UK, the underclass is still a very tangible reality.
I'm currently reading (more like skimming through really) Pierre Bourdieu's book “Distinction” in which he uses the term “habitus” to describe how different social classes distinguish and express their values through their differing tastes. It occurs to me that the very act of critical reflection itself is often seen as being a bourgeois pretension; an elitist nonsense like so many other abstract intellectual pursuits - as Isaiah Berlin is reputed to have said: the British have never had an Intelligentsia.
We often think of critical reflection as freely available, unlimited, and unencumbered, since it can be carried out in the relative comfort one's own mind with no further requirements than a lack of physical discomfort or distraction. But, looked at from this new perspective, it becomes clear that critical reflection is something which is frequently avoided or devalued amongst the very people who, arguably, could benefit from it most. Anti intellectualism may not be exclusive to any particular social class but it undoubtedly benefits some social strata much more than others. It suits them very well because it disempowers the people who might rise against them in a legitimate struggle for emancipation.
As I said in my comments on the Recent Reflection blog discussion:
"People who have the privilege of better education, more money and more time are in the position of being able to “reflect” and make choices about their future. Reflection doesn't come for free - it has to be cultivated and given space to develop. Many people on the bottom rung of society often don't even have the time to be able to reflect and make clear choices about WHAT they'd like to do, let alone HOW, and they very often don't have the inclination to reflect because this has never been cultivated in them or valued by their social habitus."
I wrote the above as a response to the following statement:
"It is absolutely a societal responsibility to the extent possible to create genuine opportunities for everyone."
Opportunities are practically meaningless without the means to take advantage of them. A lottery ticket is an opportunity. We could argue over whether it's a "genuine" one or not, but the fact remains that providing access to opportunities is simply not enough. The "genuine" things that people really need are help, support and encouragement to participate in society at all levels, including the intellectual. If my speculations about reflection are in any way correct, then what we need far more than opportunities is a transformation in the way that people from all social strata view and apply critical, reflective and intellectual thought. Many would argue that this starts with education and yes, this is certainly a major contributor but it also starts much deeper than this, in the very attitudes that society fosters and perpetuates in all its citizens and this is a significantly bigger challenge.
Context of the original discussion here (beware, it's long!).
Video of Sir Ken Robinson on TED.com here
Habitus in Sociology here