Humans thrive amidst webs of social relationships. Our innate self-centredness is tempered by the social skills learnt within the family; families prosper when they are supported by others within recognisable and lively communities, while dynamic communities are the bedrock on which democracy has to be built.
An over-dose of individuality (important as that is in the right place) has wrought havoc on society’s traditional social relationships1. In the name of progress a rampant market economy has reduced social capital, and replaced natural familial relationships with cash transactions. We are in danger of forgetting that the roots of civilisation start in the home, and grow in the nearby soil2. We have all the evidence about maternal bonding at the breast, and about the importance of dialogue in the child’s home before the age of five. We know about the way in which the child ‘sets’ its emotions by mimicking those of the adults closest to them. We know of the vast significance of play in helping children to regulate their emotions, and to project themselves into imaginary situations. After several decades of gloomy predictions that this is the end of the family we are, at last, regaining a mental picture of what families should be, refreshed whenever we see a young mother, her man standing proudly by, feeding their child. But the same can’t be said for our understanding of community, for we lack a clear picture as to what a functional community should be all about3. Postcards of Cotswold villages don’t help.
Community is a construct of our minds; it is a group of people, sharing certain things in common with boundaries largely defined by ‘neighbourliness’. To the young child the family is their only community, to a youth his or her natural community is what they can reach on their own, while to an adult an ever more diverse range of people become accessible. “Communities are places that you can get your arm around”4, said a sociologist using gloriously non-technical language. Communities are places where things get done; places where people come together to share ideas, to argue, and simply to socialise. Until thirty or forty years ago communities were just what they had been since our Stone Age ancestors found that a cluster of caves was more congenial to our social species than a separate bolthole. There were places where farmers farmed local land; milkmen delivered milk, market gardeners sold vegetables and fruit in their season, children ran messages, and old trees were cut down, sawn into planks and used to build houses. They were full of noisy, argumentative groups of people who nevertheless recognised the need to support each other. Children were everywhere5.
It was largely cheap petrol that changed all that. From the 1960s onwards with ever increasing vigour cheap transport sapped the energy out of communities, and made much travel dependent on sitting docilely in a car, not pacing it out on a pair of strong legs. There is little conversation in a car, but on the crowded pavements of yesteryear, where many people walked an hour or more to and from work, people talked, and argued. They knew each other very well. Little escaped their attention. Forced by circumstances they had to work out for themselves what caused what, and what might follow if certain decisions were made. And all the time children were around watching, listening, and increasingly joining in. Birth, marriage, good harvest and bad, bankruptcy, taxes, fires, the scourge of alcoholism, the Bank Holiday excursions; no need of therapists in those days, for youngsters learnt naturally to accept the rough with the smooth6.
Children could see why to do well in school would equip them for what they wanted to do “when they grew up”; to be a teacher, boat builder, soldier or explorer or even a coffin maker. Quite simply they knew all about grownups, because they lived amongst grownups all the time. Today’s communities have now been so over taken by institutional arrangements that their life and colour has been squeezed right out of them. Most adults don’t seem to understand this; frustrated at not finding what they want, they simply drive elsewhere. But children can’t do that, they have only their legs to take them to places and too often there is just nowhere interesting to hang out, no one other than their own age groups to talk with, no projects to grab their attention — they spend their hours dreaming of becoming celebrities on television7.
Community, that which perhaps we only really appreciate when we lose it, is rotting away before our very eyes. “There is no community out there”, said a group of headteachers from Manchester, “other than drug dealers”8. The crisis in education is not solely a failure of teaching in the classroom. It is the collapse of any real sense of community able to capture the imagination, involvement and active enthusiasm of young people. So deep is the rot that schools now qualify for large extra grants to erect extensive security fences around their properties. Is it the school, or the community, that are becoming like zoos? And who is observing who?9
All this matters quite enormously for, consciously or unconsciously, democracy can become ‘designed out’ of our daily lives. And it is democracy, the exercise of the rights of the informed, wise, robust and practical every-day man and woman on the streets who maybe knows better than the politician, what really connects to what, that has to be the mechanism to keep a nation on a steady course10. The ballot box only works if the voters are wise. But if schools are following the emasculated version of community and replaced what was learnt and experienced ‘on the streets’ by what we allow ourselves to believe is its replacement — the supermarket or the Shopping Mall. That is why democracy is at grave risk.
Thesis 92: 28th August 2006