An alternative way of learning

The story of life at Findhorn continues with an explanation of the community's role in educating peo

Early December marks another turning point in the year – the ending of several of our longer-term (3-month) training programmes and the departure of those who have been taking the courses – folk who have become part of our family.

One of these programmes that is especially dear to my heart is the Findhorn Community Semester (FCS) programme. This is an accredited semester for students at US universities, counting towards their degree programmes.

Findhorn is one a number of ecovillages around the world that offer such courses, under the aegis of the Living Routes programme based in Massachusetts.

At root, what I love so much about this programme is that it's more or less exactly the kind of training programme that I would have loved to have had on offer when I was a young adult. This is education that engages head, heart and hands and that fires the imagination. I teach the Applied Sustainability course, where the ecovillage infrastructure really helps make the concepts come alive.

Some vignettes from the last couple of months.

Having spent the first part of one morning discussing how the global food economy works and its various impacts – including deep cruelty to animals force-fed on hormones and other growth agents – we go up to Wester Lawrenceton Farm, that is linked into the community.

There we take a farm tour in silence, with the farmer, Nick, occasionally holding up pre-prepared text written on pieces of paper. Next to his chicken-house, with chicks scrubbing around at our feet, Nick holds up an A4 sheet: ’90 per cent of hens in the UK spend all their lives in an area no larger than this sheet of paper’. The students deeply get the message – in their guts.

We spend the first part of another session talking about water and how we could design sustainable treatment systems. Then, we walk around our own Living Machine sewage treatment plant – an indoor, biological system, where plants and the various organisms that attach to their root systems filter out toxins so that the water coming out at the end of the process meets European bathing water standards.

It is beautiful, with flower blossoms tumbling out of the processing tubs. And the sight of snails and myriad water-borne organisms working way in the process of transformation in this elegant, watery cathedral is worth more than a thousand words on the concept of waste treatment delivered in a dry and arid classroom.

Classes (or parts of classes) on ecological building techniques happen on the building site, with the self-builders explaining their designs and describing the various trade-offs they are making between up-front costs and ecological sustainability. (Often, the most eco-friendly option is the most expensive). During the economics class, we play physically with the community currency we have created here – and trace its course through the community economy.

A theoretical session on Peak Oil and how communities can respond to the coming energy famine is brought to life by a visit to our four wind turbines that make us net exporters of electricity. The bases of the turbines have been painted by community members and local school children in beautiful patterns – in the shape of footprints, describing visions of the sustainable future we are trying to fashion.

We build on a theoretical exploration of permaculture principles with the construction over the course of the semester of a sustainable garden next to the Youth Project building. The young people of the community are ‘the client’ and our FCS students work with them in preparing the designs and then doing the building – or at least starting the building. Next semester’s FCS students will complete the job and, by next spring, the area in front of the Youth building will be ablaze with colour.

This is education that works. It stimulates the mind, engages the body and allows the imagination to soar. It has been joyful to watch the 12 young people who have spent the last three months with us open so gracefully and creatively to the transformation they have seen here. And the good news is that it is never too late, after all, to have a happy childhood. For, even though my own spirit and creative imagination were all but crushed in an appalling and brutal educational system that paid respect only to the rational mind, the inner youth in me watches on and dances in celebration of the fact that education like this now exists.

Tonight, we say goodbye to our beautiful students with a sumptuous community feast. Then we breathe for a while before opening up space to receive the next intake.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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Is our obsession with class propping up the powerful?

Lynsey Hanley’s memoir Respectable: the Experience of Class attacks the sharp-elbowed bourgeoisie – but society will only be transformed by building coalitions between the middle and working classes.

Class is no longer banished from mainstream discussion, but it remains an uncomfortable topic for most mainstream media. The background to this is straightforward. The media all too often discriminate on the basis of parental wealth rather than talent: from unpaid internships to expensive postgraduate journalism qualifications, the routes into the industry are difficult to traverse without parents able to offer financial support. But most of us want to believe that our successes are personal achievements: that if we do well, it is because of our own ability, intelligence and determination. To realise that actually, you have queue-jumped, in effect, because of your parents’ bank balance: well, that would provoke insecurity and defensiveness. And so journalists and columnists are often disinclined to understand why society is stacked in the interests of some, but not others. Even raising the issue of class is felt as a personal attack.

That is one reason Lynsey Hanley is such a crucial voice. When she writes about class, she is writing about lived experience. Her new book, Respectable – the belated follow-up to her seminal Estates, published in 2007 – is a powerful investigation into the psychological impact, and cost, of shifting from class to class. She compares it to “emigrating from one side of the world, where you have to rescind your old passport, learn a new language and make gargantuan efforts if you are not to lose touch completely with the people and habits of your old life”. The case study? Hanley herself. The Personal Is Political would be as appropriate a subtitle for this book as any other.

Respectable compellingly (if sometimes erratically) weaves autobiography with academic research. Hanley grew up on a council estate in Chelmsley Wood, a 1960s ­new-build area of Solihull, in the West Midlands, a few miles from Birmingham. Her childhood, she says, would once have been labelled “respectable working class”: far removed from middle class but not “quite classically working class either” – rather, “foreman class” or “skilled tradesman class”. It feels wrong to infringe on Hanley’s right to self-define, but she does seem to have a very restrictive view of what being working class entails, so much so, that she isn’t entirely convinced she belongs. There has long been a clash between those who define class as a cultural identity and those who believe it has more to do with economic relationships (and those who think it is a combination of the two).

At Hanley’s school, “people didn’t do A-levels”. The high achievers ended up at the gas board or the Rover works and the word “university” evoked “something as distant as Mars”. Her school had 600 unfilled places, “effectively . . . abandoned by the community as much as by the local authority and by central government”. Hanley has always felt like an outsider: she struggled to make friends, found the limits of what was expected of someone from her background suffocating, and when – against the odds – she made it to sixth form, it seemed “one minute I was struggling for air, the next I felt as though I’d entered a large bubble of pure oxygen”. She looks to academics to help explain experiences she found difficult to navigate at the time. Her sense of isolation, for instance, can be illuminated by the sociologist Angela McRobbie’s exploration of “the ‘hermetically sealed’ nature of working-class culture in Birmingham”. The Uses of Literacy, Richard Hoggart’s 1957 classic, is her Bible; she feels he “could have been writing about my own childhood”.

Aged 17, Hanley was juggling five ­A-levels with four jobs: working at Greggs, selling Avon products, delivering newspapers and “making cakes and chocolates and selling them door to door”. But she became a professional journalist. When she was a teenager she visited Aldi to buy margarine and glacé cherries; now she comes back with “cold-pressed rapeseed oil and Pinot Noir”. She says “lunch” where she used to say “dinner”.

This is a well-crafted book full of insights. Hanley is determined to challenge the assumptions of left and right. She refers to socio-linguists such as Basil Bernstein, who examined how middle-class forms of communication were given preference over working-class expression but not because they were innately superior. Those who made the leap from working class to middle class found themselves assimilated by the new world. Many found it increasingly difficult to relate to the world they grew up in, and the people they grew up with.

Hanley thinks the approaches of both left and right to social mobility are problematic. Whereas the right uncritically worships the idea of “social mobility” – of parachuting the “lucky few” into the middle class without challenging the structure of society – the left, she says, believes that “social justice and social mobility are mutually exclusive”. In other words, she is questioning that old socialist maxim: “Rise with your class, not above it.”

Hanley assails those – including me – who place support for populist anti-immigration movements in a broader social context. She believes that we are downplaying the extent of racism in working-class communities, reducing it to fears over housing and jobs. We are robbing people of agency by letting individuals off the hook for their prejudices, she argues, stressing the casual racism she encountered on a daily basis. Disturbingly, she found that racism was often seen as a “sign of respectability”. She remembers sentiments along the lines of “Only common people hang out with darkies” and so on. My parents met through the Trotskyist movement; my father eventually became a white-collar local authority worker, my mother an IT lecturer at Salford University, and I was always by far the most middle-class of my friends. I’m not going to wish away the casual racism I encountered growing up in Stockport (and I’m white), but I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by Hanley’s argument. Why is there an anti-immigration party with mass support now, yet there wasn’t one in the 1950s, when bigotry was far more open and widespread? Surely something has changed, and rising job, housing and general economic insecurity have had a role to play? And will a strategy of criticising people for voting Ukip – or even for the far right – win them over?

My main problem with Hanley’s book is this. Those of us who want to transform society so that it is not run as a racket for a tiny elite need to build a broad coalition. I’m a political activist who writes; Hanley is someone writing about reality as she has lived it. But her book surely challenges attempts to build unity between the working and middle classes. She writes of how middle-class people both hog and deny their “social and cultural capital”, and believes that those who argue in favour of a “99 Per Cent” under attack by an elite help entrench middle-class privilege. The middle classes pretend they have the same interests as the working class, while using their sharp elbows to keep them down.

I wonder if there is a third way. Abolish unpaid internships; introduce scholarships; invest in education at an early age; automatically enrol the brightest working-class young people into top universities; deal with social crises, such as the lack of affordable housing, which help destroy opportunity for the less privileged; have a proper living wage. And so on. But if those who believe in social justice fail to build a coalition of supermarket worker and schoolteacher, cleaner and junior doctor, factory worker and university lecturer . . . well, we will fail. From the low-paid against the unemployed, to private-sector against public-sector worker, to indigene against immigrant, there are enough divisions exploited by the powerful as it is.

Nonetheless, Respectable is of vital importance: a searing indictment of a chronically unjust society in which our opportunities are granted or denied from the earliest of ages. The book may not offer clear prescriptions, but it is incumbent on all of us to fight for a just and equal society – one that currently does not exist. 

Owen Jones’s Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class is newly republished in paperback by Verso

Respectable: The Experience of Class by Lynsey Hanley is published by Allen Lane (240pp, £16.99)

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism