“London’s burning, London’s burning”

The origins of this British nursery rhyme are said to go back to the Great Fire of London (1666). Recent events have lent the words a grim sense of déjà vu. Politicians know they must do something – and quick. But what?A stark warning comes in a blog posted by Charlie Harvey on the New Internationalist web site and dated 9 August 2011.  He says that the recent riots in London (and elsewhere in the United Kingdom) will recur unless society’s political and economic structures are radically overhauled. Actually, he doesn’t quite say that. He writes:

“We need to examine the dual forces of consumerist dogma and the ideologically driven collapse of community cohesion. These two forces when applied to a poor and alienated underclass of young people who have learned to hate the police are nothing short of incendiary … With a looming financial disaster and continuing commitment by the powerful in society to never-ending consumption, uninhibited greed, and systematic inequality as the only way to manage the world, this is probably not the last time London will burn.”

The context for such alienation is starkly delineated:

“A generation of kids are constantly told that having more stuff is the route to fulfilment in life. The same kids have no access to said stuff… Thatcher did away with society in order to free us up for total market domination of every aspect of our lives… Her successors continued the policy and persisted with consumerism as the axiomatic basis of all human fulfilment… Conclusion: Kids with a burning desire for more stuff and no belief in society may very well start smashing up their communities to get a taste of the good life.”

Would it were so simple! What of the traditional roles that families and communities (understood as those that can provide love, care, and support) play in the socialization of young people? By which I mean the way they learn to live in a particular society, to understand and appreciate its values and standards? Did Thatcher do away with all of that, or were there other forces at work? And what became of the moral foundation provided by public education – the kind of education that turns us into responsible, thinking citizens?

The Crick Report on “Education for citizenship and the teaching of democracy in schools” (1998) – commissioned by a Labour government – was categorical about young people:

  • learning from the very beginning self-confidence and socially and morally responsible behaviour both in and beyond the classroom, both towards those in authority and towards each other;
  • learning about and becoming helpfully involved in the life and concerns of their communities, including learning through community involvement and service to the community;
  • learning about how to make themselves effective in public life through knowledge, skills and values.

A reputable British political theorist and democratic socialist, Sir Bernard Crick believed that “politics is ethics done in public”. The Crick Report, which in 2002 led to a compulsory curriculum on good citizenship being adopted in English secondary schools, openly stated:

“We aim at no less than a change in the political culture of this country both nationally and locally: for people to think of themselves as active citizens, willing, able and equipped to have an influence in public life and with the critical capacities to weigh evidence before speaking and acting; to build on and to extend radically to young people the best in existing traditions of community involvement and public service, and to make them individually confident in finding new forms of involvement and action among themselves.”

The question is: what went wrong? If the problems of political apathy, social alienation, and moral vacuity are to be tackled meaningfully, the public education system must be closely examined for its failures and omissions. It was the Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865–1939) who wrote, “Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.” Metaphorically speaking. Otherwise, it may not just be London that burns.

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