Are students who wag school “already statistics of the worst kind”? That’s what one Hamilton principal told her school. Many students didn’t agree, so they organised a walkout the following week. Unlike so-called left commentators like Chris Trotter and right-wing scum bags like Mike Hosking (he called the kids entitled little snots), we think the solidarity the students showed is a life skill that will stand them in better stead than sucking up to authority.
What was wrong with what Fraser High principal Virginia Crawford said? Many see it as “tough love” telling truanting students unpalatable truths about life in the real world. Trotter says she has the right and duty “to speak plainly and forthrightly about the awful statistics to which so many of the students attending Fraser High School are likely to contribute in the months and years ahead of them”.
She said: “Every student who walks out of the gate to truant is already a statistic of the worst kind, highly likely to go to prison, highly likely to commit domestic violence or be a victim of domestic violence, be illiterate, be a rape victim, be a suicide victim, be unemployed for the majority of their life, have a major health problem or problems, die at an early age, have an addiction – drugs, gambling, alcohol or smoking.”
One of the student’ few defenders in the media, Deborah Hill Cone, rightly points out that being told by an authority figure you are certain to become a grim statistic is more of a danger to young people than skipping class.
But there’s a much deeper problem – Crawford confuses cause and correlation. She suggests that truancy is the cause of domestic violence, illiteracy, rape, suicide, unemployment, drug addiction, alcoholism and smoking. She does not mention ethnicity, but when 22% of Māori Year 11 students attend less than 80% of school days compared to 14% of total Year 11 students (as cited by Graham Cameron in The Spinoff), there is a underlying dimension.
Blaming Māori kids who wag school for unemployment is on a par with blaming Māori for higher rates of unemployment, lower wages, and higher rates of imprisonment without asking about other possible causes, such as the destruction of trade unions and secure employment in industries like forestry, fishing, agriculture, trucking and manufacture, especially in regions like Northland and the East Coast.
But it’s not mainly about ethnicity – Crawford and her supporters hate the working class. In her speech, she speaks of working class Hamilton areas of “Nawton or Dinsdale or Western Heights or Te Awa” in tones dripping with contempt. Chris Trotter calls these “dead-end working class suburbs”. The future of students who don’t get NCEA is predictable, she says. If they left the “comfort zone” of Hamilton “they wouldn’t survive. They’re more likely to be the thing who is used and repeatedly knocked down and out by the big world outside Fraser. Not a person anymore, not a unique individual with potential to develop awesome talents – a thing”.
But unfortunately being treated as a “thing” is the rule not the exception under capitalism. Most people must sell most of their waking life to an employer, to be at their beck and call, and all too often to be “repeatedly knocked down” not by the big world, but by bosses, bank loans, student loans, mortgages. Even highly qualified workers, like university lecturers, increasingly face precarious employment.
Education is important. Ignorance is one of the ways the powerful keep their power. Free, public education is a great thing but not when it is used as a pulpit to promote neoliberal ideals of individual students knuckling down and climbing the greasy pole to lives of “financial security and freedom”.
For working class people, the only sure way to financial security and freedom is through collective action. The way to stop “the big world” (aka the rich) from repeatedly knocking us down is through supporting each other and building our common strength. Maths and English are important but solidarity is a life skill that Fraser High students just schooled us in.