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Becoming Educated

Young People’s Narratives of Disadvantage, Class, Place and Identity

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John Smyth and Peter McInerney

Becoming Educated examines the education of young people, especially those from the most ‘disadvantaged’ contexts. The book argues that because the focus has been obdurately and willfully on the wrong things – blaming students; measuring, testing and comparing them; and treating families and communities in demeaning ways that convert them into mere ‘consumers’ – that the resulting misdiagnoses have produced a damaging ensemble of faulty ‘solutions.’ By shifting the emphasis to looking at what is going on ‘inside’ young lives and communities, this book shifts the focus to matters such as taking social class into consideration, puncturing notions of poverty and disadvantage, understanding neighborhoods as places of hope and creating spaces within which to listen to young peoples’ aspirations. These are a radically different set of constructs from the worn-out ones that continue to be trotted out, and, if understood and seriously attended to, they have the potential to make a real difference in young lives. This is a book that ought to be read by all who claim to know what is in the best interests of young people who are becoming educated.
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4. Bringing class out of the closet

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This chapter does not mince words—whether young people succeed or not educationally is very much influenced by their social class location—which is itself a social construction. It is time we stopped backing away from this reality and began to think beyond the fantasy that education is within the reach of all. Doing that requires that we confront and challenge some well-entrenched shibboleths, but as Varenne and McDermott (1999) put it in their book Successful Failure, ‘It takes hard intellectual work to clear the decks for only a moment’ (p. xi).

To set the stage for what is to follow in this chapter we want to acknowledge and build upon Varenne and McDermott’s (1999) argument that it is difficult to think and talk about education and schooling ‘without necessarily thinking about failure or success as categories for the identification of children’ (p. xi). They make their point more directly when they argue that we ‘have organized a terrible problem for ourselves’ (p. xi) in the way we have made:

…individual learning and school performance the institutional site where members of each new generation are measured and then assigned a place in the social structure based on this measurement. (p. xi)

What invariably follows from this kind of positioning is a singular focussing of attention on ‘a Johnny who can’t read or a Sheila who can’ (p. xiii)—something that Varenne and McDermott refuse to do. As they put it:

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