Recently I read Claire Bishop's excellent article 'Con-Demmed to the Bleakest of Futures: Report from the UK' (http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/209). Where she argues "that in the wake of the general election in May 2010, which resulted in a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition-the UK’s first coalition government since 1945—the ensuing cuts to culture cannot be seen as separate from an assault on welfare, education, and social equality. The rhetoric of an "age of austerity" is being used as a cloak for the privatization of all public services and a reinstatement of class privilege: a sad retreat from the most civilized Keynesian initiatives of the post-war period, in which education, healthcare, and culture were understood to be a democratic right freely available to all."
After reading Claire's article I thought that I'd write a little bit of personal history regarding my own experiences with early education and how a library saved my life...
The Southend on Sea, Essex Library.
In the dark ages. The mid to late seventies at the age of 13, my life was a troublesome affair. Our family was constantly under seige. Life felt like a fatalistic (un)merry-go-round as we tried to deal with various, chaotic situations that occurred and impacted our relationships on a day to day basis. Whilst trying to negotiate in our own particular dysfunctional way, the onslaught of violence in a home on a council estate in Southend-on-Sea, Essex; we also had to somehow contend with intrusions from over officious social workers. Every route we took led to a different form of disempowerment. The formal education available to me at this time was worthless and offered no way out of poverty. The general feeling between us all was that we were caught within a hostile system. On the council estate we unkowingly made matters worse as we stole each other's toys or formed gangs.
At this time when the country was almost bankrupt. The Labour government was receiving international loans of $5000 million to try and prevent the economy from collapsing. If it was not for North Sea Oil, the UK would of fallen into a state of total collapse. In 1975 UK's inflation rate peaked at 26% and unemployment reached the highest levels since the Second World War reaching hundreds and thousands. Many companies who had previously been based in the UK and investing in the economy, began moving their businesses and assets abroad where it was more profitable. Strikes spread across the land, rubbish was left outside piling up in the streets and the dead were left unburied. Very soon after this the age of Magaret Thatcher's (UK's first female Prime Minister) own brand of conservative politics and early forms of neoliberalism would begin to dominate the land.
When I remember these times, my mind usually focuses on what happened to many of my peers after they had left school. A few survived the systemic challenges of bad education and social deprivation. Yet, if I use all the fingers on both hands I run out of digits to count how many of them had either commited suicide, died of drug overdoses, or gone to borstal and then to prison. Already at the age of thirteen though, I had a sense of the life that I was being set up for and growing determined not to move in this direction. My heart, head and soul needed nourishment and I was not getting it. In order to change my course my behaviour needed to change.
So what was I to do, what decisions should I take to change what seemed at the time a hopeless situation, especially when I was accustomed to feeling disempowered in the environment I was growing up in?
Every morning I would leave home and pretend I was going to school. In reality, the day would begin with a long walk into the central area of Southend, where the Essex Library was and (thankfully still is to this day).
For nearly a year I managed to pretend I was going to school, whilst hiding concerned letters from the headmaster sent to my parents about my regular absence. I would enter the library seeing all the different kinds of people, of all ages researching, reading the abundancy of books, accessible to anyone. It also had a small cafe then which was not much of a deal, but going there for breaks in between reading about art, technology, science, religion, sociology and politics etc, helped to create a certain sense of self assuredness. Sitting in the cafe I would overhear adults discuss what they were reading. I learned a lot about the enquIring minds of other human beings and felt that I was a part of something that until then, was a hidden secret.
I was so shocked that all the knowledge in this place was not being shared with me and my peers at school. It also felt as though my venture, discovering all of this information was not 'offically' allowed. Not for my kind, as in not for my class. To say that I was dragged out of the library kicking and screaming, once the local council's truant officer had heard about my (despicable) antics, would be an understatement. The library was my second home. However, the only choice given to me was to either go back to school or end up in a borstal. Knowing how bleak and violent these environments were from friends who had themselves been there, and noticing how they had changed for the worse, the choice was clear. I went back to school.
Now the reason I'm sharing all of this personal history with you is because today many libraries are being closed down due to the recent cuts by the present government in power. And yes, much information can be accessed on-line. But this, in no way replaces the important experience of meeting others in a real, physical learning environment. And this also goes for education right across the board. If we are forced to rely on the Internet alone as a source for knowledge and sharing, future minds will be less informed. Market forces increasingly dominate the Internet, dictating the interfaces/portals and therefore creating bias that privileges corporate values above greater human needs. Libraries provide chance encounters in local community settings with unexpected sources of knowledge and experience.
If we consider the real reasons why libraries are being closed it all begins to fit into place. The backdrop to all of these drastic cuts relate to neoliberal intentions dominating every aspect of our daily lives. Slogans such as "the big society" and "we are all in this together" are promoted by the coalition governement; forcing us to conform and adapt to what has been termed as the ‘age of austerity'. This is proposed to us as a way to level out the effects of the financial crisis of 2007-09, while they themselves remain untouched due to their own privileged backgrounds and benifits gained from promoting corporate interests such as those of the media mogul Rupert Murdoch. It really does not demand too much insight or mental agility to realise we are being conned. We are being socially engineered to bear a burden of debts which are not of our own making.
"The reduction of government expenditure is the most overt attack on public services, usually with the most destructive effects on the poorest. Cutbacks to public services such as the reduction or closure of public facilities, either directly through outsourcing or indirectly as providers of the next nearest alternative (the shopping centre rather than the park, the bookstore rather than the library), pushing social or non-work time and spaces into the hands of private ownership and their ‘facility charges', caps on housing subsidy, unemployment payments, disability benefits, and so on, all serve to put what were once public responsibilities and interests into the private sector whose ownership extends not just to the material facility, service or entitlement (the park, the building, the benefit) but also to the right to access it, the requirement to generate a profit." Screw (Down) the Debt: Neoliberalism and the Politics of Austerity. By Suhail Malik. Metamute. http://tinyurl.com/6z2kska
Thinking back to the harsh times of my early years in contrast to where I am now, I owe much of my current state of being to that Library in Southend on Sea. What will become of those other young souls who will not have the choice themselves to experience alternative avenues out of the systemic limits of imposed poverty? The Internet is an extension to libraries not its replacement. Education and knowledge is a varied and wonderful thing. Once taken away, we are less empowered, more likely to conform to the whims of others who do not have our best interests in mind.