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Thursday, August 11, 2011

92. Did the Beatles have it right? Is love all we need?

Back in the Sixties, the Beatles were on to something in their anthem: ‘All you need is love’. That song, along with Lennon’s later “Imagine’ , combined to project an image of a loving, peaceful world, in which differences are not simply tolerated, but celebrated; a world in which the economic divisions - between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ - are dissolved through the simple strategy of rejected the personal ownership; a world where the ideological differences are similarly dissolved, through the dissolution of religion; a world in which people live in peace.

Critics of the sixties are quick to point how simplistic and unrealistic this ‘All-you-need-is-love’ agenda is; how this kind of sloganising - Imagine: all you need is love - produced no noticeable improvement in the state of the world.

(Although the 60s and 70s did see some changes. In Australia we saw the introduction of Medicare – a scheme to ensure that everybody had access to quality health care. We saw the introduction equal pay for equal work – replacing the old system in which women were paid much less than men: it was actually built in to the pay scales. We saw the extension of notions of social justice – the notion that there should be programs to assist and support the poor. We saw a shift towards a safety net for the unemployed. And then there was the fact that FREE tertiary education was a reality in those backward days.)

If all if this is ringing bells of recognition in your minds, let me help you ot. It’s a re-run of the scene from the Python film, The Life of Brian, the one that begins with the rhetorical question, ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’, and ends with: ‘Well, apart from better sanitation, and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order - what have the Romans ever done for us?’ And the answer is, ‘Brought peace’.

The sixties and seventies were the period during which the American civil rights movement and the feminist movement both made deep inroads into social thinking. That period wasn’t a golden age, when everything was so much better than now; but it was an age of significant change – and for the most part, change in the right direction.

But we moved on, didn’t we, to the 80s and 90s, and watched as the gains of the 60s and 70s were whittled away. The anthems of the 80s and 90s seem to have been a whole lot more effective. All you need is ‘economic rationalism’; all you need is ‘user pays’; all you need is to give free rein to the entrepreneurs and all of us will be better off – in the long run.

Well, we’re pretty puffed out after their pretty long run of entrepreneur-ing, and things don’t seem a whole lot better.

One of my major interests is education. In the schools of the sixties we fought to make schools more caring places; we strove to ‘humanise’ schools, to break out of the traditional competitive structures that had seen schooling as a process of separating academic goats from the non-academic sheep. Schools had served as great sifting machines. To modify the metaphor: education dealt in apples. Some apples were ‘windfalls’ – they dropped off the tree before picking time, and disappeared into unskilled, low status jobs – road sweeping, garbage collection. ‘Low grade’ apples – the drop-outs and early leavers, who disappeared as soon as they could – at 15 – went into unskilled jobs. The more able took up apprenticeships, or went to work in the huge typing pools that existed in those pre-computer days. A little higher up the tree were the apples destined for work in banks, or nursing or primary school teaching. And from the top of the tree came the elite few – roughly 9% of all kids – the ones who went on to universities to enter the more lucrative professions.
Then larger numbers of kids began to stay longer in secondary schools. We tried to make schools more hospitable to the wider range of abilities. Pastoral care programs began to emerge. We recognised that schools needed to care for more than just the mind and the intellect. Schools needed to be caring places, supporting young people through the tough years of adolescence. For a time – a short, short time – the destructive philosophy of competitive learning was replaced with a philosophy of growth. Schooling ought not be about the ‘survival of the fittest’, but about the growth of each apple to its fullest potential.

The Progressive movement in education placed the individual child at the centre of the education project. Traditional education had framed its task as separating the high quality apples from those of lesser quality, and ‘rewarding’ the very best; progressive education framed its purpose as nurturing each apple, giving each apple the attention it deserved. At its heart, the philosophy was based – at least in part – on the faith that ‘all you need is love’.

Maybe it’s time to revisit the idealism of the sixties. Can it do any harm to ask the question: ‘Is love ALL we need?’

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