Words by Oscar Johnson
If we teach our children from the outset to help each other up and to share, why can’t we practice that in our ‘democracy’? Go to any school and look at their values – and you might just learn more than you think about society.
Alongside studying, I work in early years education at a primary school. The children are four years old, entering education for the first time. Most of them are also being introduced to their first communities – and learning what it means to occupy a classroom space with other children. Probably more than Maths and English, we focus on developing social skills and each child’s individual personality. I was talking to the class teacher about the way we teach, and I love what she said: in early years we understand the ‘whole’ child – their social skills, fine motor skills, as well as early reading and writing. To form their little social identities, the children are introduced to the ethos and beliefs of the school. This ethos is not, I am sure, specific to my school alone. In school, sharing is fundamental, children must help other children when they need it, and we tidy up even if we have not always made the mess. In society today, though, it seems like ‘everyone for themselves’ has never rung truer. Right now in the UK, if you are poor then you are demonised, and made to believe that you should have worked harder in life. Grown-up society forgets the values that are instilled in each of us from the earliest age. We are all in this community together, there’s no choice about that, so why can’t we share? If we are able, why can’t we help to pick up those who can’t pick themselves up? Why is it okay, as an adult, to say ‘well, those people are poor because they’ve chosen to be’ and ‘why should I help them?’ when we would never condone this attitude in our youngsters?
I am new to this amazing world of early learning, and I am definitely learning just as much as the children are. A few weeks ago, a child fell in the playground. I walked over to help them up, but the class teacher got there first. She, however, did not bend down to help the fallen child up. She called to another child, asking him ‘what do we do if somebody has fallen over?’ The child knew straight away – we help them up! Instead of the teacher or myself picking up the child, other children are encouraged to help their classmates when they need it, no matter who they are. This moment really stuck with me, and it got me thinking about politics. The earliest lessons that children learn are about community. In the playground, anybody might fall over. Everybody should instinctively help them up. If this situation was reflected by adults in our current political climate the response might have been: ‘well, it’s not me who’s fallen over, so it isn’t my problem’ or, ‘if I fell over, I know I could pick myself back up, so why should I have to pick somebody else up if theyfall?’ This is obviously not the school ethos though – everybody in the classroom is equal, just like everybody in society is meant to be equal, so we should help others and we should all share, regardless of anybody’s status.
Somewhere, I don’t remember where, I read that conservatism is a political mindset that is derived of our most childlike attitudes. We are greedy by nature, so the ‘everyone for themselves’ mentality thrives on that: take as much as you want if that is what you desire and forget everybody else. I’d agree that this selfish attitude underpinning conservatism is very childlike. It doesn’t take many hours in a classroom to see how although entirely innocently, children can be selfish. Children do not always immediately think of others, and they can be greedy. These behaviours, however, might say more about the system that brings children up into these attitudes. Regardless, in their perception of the world, young children are absolutely self-centred. What we do in that first year at school, though, is channel these selfish attitudes into the values and ethos of a school community. These values are based on the idea that nobody in a classroom or school is entitled to more because of where they come from. In school, you share everything with all of the children – there is no systematic hierarchy that governs some children as more valuable or important than others. Although private schooling grossly implies that some education is more valuable that others, I guarantee that within their own early communities, private early years teaching equally privileges sharing, and helping those who fall down. Understanding the community-building going on in all early education is a helpful metaphor for our larger community as adults, and it might teach us a thing or two about sharing.
We teach our children to share school resources, space and facilities with everybody else in the classroom community. Sharing is vital when there are thirty children in a class, so why, on a bigger scale, do we forget how to share when we grow up? We live in a society, albeit a pretty big one, and we don’t really have any choice about that. We have to share the wealth and the labour that that society has to offer – and not privilege it for people who sit at the very top. It is very easy to demonise those with less money and call them ‘lazy’, but that mindset completely ignores the systems in place that allow the rich to get richer and then call poorer people bone idle. We would never condone this in school – the place where we are first introduced to what a community is; we learn from the get-go that we are not more entitled than anybody else in the classroom. If we carried classroom-like sharing and selfless values through with us into adulthood, there would not be such an unfair distribution of wealth and facilities. Children who thrive and do well at school understand that in communities like the classroom, we share and we are equal. Why, then, can’t society be so fair? Why can’t we help people up when we are able and they are not, and share what we have so everybody gets a turn?
I urge you, tomorrow, to use your vote wisely, and perhaps to think like a 4-year-old might; they seem to understand what sharing and community really mean (and they are the future, after all).
Image credit: Mark Hillary