Flow of Ideas

Kids in the Land of No Dreams

Glenn Rikowski, London, 7th October 2005

In The Observer last week (2 October, p.12) there was an article by Amelia Hill on ‘Five-year-olds to be given careers advice’. Hill noted that:

“Primary school children should receive careers advice and be encouraged to question their dreams of becoming pop stars and fairy princesses, according to an influential cross-party group of MPs.”

This recommendation along with many others (on adult training and apprenticeships, for example) will feature in a forthcoming report of the Associate Parliamentary Skills Group and the National Skills Forum, notes Hill.

Thus, this dream-killer proposal is the responsibility of a cross-party group of MPs. The grimness of the proposal can be laid at the door of all the main political parties. Mr. Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times would have been particularly pleased with this plan to curtail the imaginations of young minds. ‘Facts, facts, facts’ are all that is required in the Gradgrindian educational prospectus.

Bad Fairies

Barry Sherman, a Labour Party representative argued that:

“For too many children, a future as a fairy princess or pop star is the only dream they have, and it doesn’t occur to them to aspire to go to university, be a doctor or a scientist” (Hill, 2005).

However, when I carried out research in two further education colleges in Birmingham in 1996 (see Rikowski, 1996) I discovered that nearly a half of the sample (47.8%) wanted to go into higher education (HE) [1]. Many in the sample were Level 1 and Level 2 students; only 119 were relatively high-flying A-level or AS students (i.e. those doing qualifications geared up for HE entry). Thus, later on, as they approach the real world of capitalist work, they forsake ideas about pixies and glitter and embrace the need to prepare themselves for capitalist work – either through doing vocational courses or through trying to better their jobs prospects through HE entry. Furthermore, even if those in their early years believe in Fairyland, by their secondary school years many get involved in the sharp and poor end of capitalist work through child labour (see Rikowski and Neary, 1997). Later still, when in college or university, students encounter capitalist work as they study, often to keep debt levels low and in some cases to aid their survival on their course of study (see Rikowski, 2000).

Yet Sherman seems to want primary school kids to be concerned, worried, and even fearful perhaps about their future as capitalist workers. Whilst some critics might argue that the views of Sherman and his ilk imply the ‘destruction of childhood’, its ‘innocence’ and dream-like and fantasy states, this partly misses the point. Sociologists of family life put these myths into perspective. The key point is that Sherman is conniving in the capitalisation of these young souls: the attempt to turn the young, emerging self towards the road of self-shaping for future work roles; for a life as a worker for capital. He advocates social engineering for the capitalist agenda on a massive scale and he invokes propaganda to this end. Or kidoganda, perhaps: the concentrated and subtle (or even brutal) imposition of the values of capitalist work onto young people in an attempt to shape their consciousnesses in favour of working enthusiastically for capital and making positive and early career choices.

Sherman notes that it would have to be done in a ‘delicate way’, all the more to be effective perhaps. No doubt cartoons, funny furry toys and characters along the lines of Ronald McDonald could be trailed in, with TV programmes and videos to back up the message.

Capitalist Work Mentors for the Labourers of the Future

Simon Hughes (a Liberal democrat MP, for non-UK readers), says Hill (2005):

“…believes children should be given mentors before they leave primary school to start talking to them about career options. ‘They would be able to enthuse the child, then continue mentoring throughout secondary school with a view specifically towards careers advice’, he said” (Hill, 2005).

Thus, an army of subtle persuaders should be employed to jolt primary kids out of their silly dreams and impart ideas about where they should be putting their thoughts about working lives. This surveillance will continue into secondary school, thus keeping the kids’ imaginations ‘on message’. Of course, Sherman and Hughes might want to hold up the professions of doctor and scientist to the kids, but this feeds the dreams and fantasies that all can be doctors or scientists. It evades and elides the inequalities in the capitalist labour market. Enthusing the kids about working in a call centre or cleaning in a hotel might be a greater challenge.

Many years ago, Simon Frith (1980) wrote critically about how employers were arguing that teachers and schools were not making sure that students ‘esteemed’ industry and commerce, as they (employers) thought they should be doing. Employers in the 1970s, noted Frith, were concerned about the ‘ignorance of industry’ amongst the youth. The blame was placed on teachers and schools, but it was secondary schools that got the brunt of this criticism. Now the apparent need is to catch ‘em young and ever earlier in making sure the right messages about capitalist work are rammed home into the minds of the young. Perhaps pre-school and nursery careers advice and mentoring will be next on the list, or pre-natal careers mentoring. Rather than the voices of whales or Mozart being played to babies in the womb, perhaps The Voice of the Careers Mentor will become a favourite CD for mothers- and children-to-be.

His Master’s Voice

In the same report by Hill (2005), Chris Davies, Chair of the National Primary School Head Teachers’ Association is quoted as saying:

“I would never expect a primary school to have a careers adviser or hold a careers convention and it would be wrong to give young people precise advice on their future careers but there is no reason why we could not give then an awareness of the reality of the way the world works” (Hill, 2005 – my emphasis).

This is not reassuring. Of course, the problem about giving young people any careers advice does not sit easily with what New Labour and the Department for Education and Skills see as the nature of the labour market in the world of globalising capital. People will need to be flexible and adaptable, change careers/jobs many times, update and renew skills and qualifications in a kind of ‘learning unto death’ (Rikowski, 1999), and to not expect ‘careers’ in a traditional or conventional sense (Green and Rikowski, 1995). The reality of this picture is not the point here. What is obvious is the mixed (and contradictory) messages coming from those pontificating about learning, skills and the labour market in Government circles.

However, I do not simply believe Chris Davies when he argues that kids should be given an awareness of the reality of the way the world works. Surely he cannot believe that they should be instructed in Marxist theory! No other known social theory can adequately articulate this reality. This is what would need to be done, and I would be all for it. It would pose pedagogical problems, no doubt. But it could be done. Perhaps Marxist mentors might be a solution.

Their Dreams, Not Ours

As Simon Frith (1980) pointed out a quarter of a century ago, employers do not actually want young people to know about the reality of capitalist work per se. They want them to accept a view of it that is wholly positive and in their favour. They want the kids to love capitalist work, and if love won’t come easy then to fear it. The last thing they would want would be Marxian critiques of capitalist work which uncovers its nature: exploitation, surplus value production, inequalities and oppression – with the realm of freedom denied in the shadow of money.

Sherman, Hughes and their co-conspirators seem to want the kids to dream only those dreams consonant with capitalist work. If this is so, then surely they are the real dreamers and fantasists.


[1] Altogether, 542 students were surveyed. The sample included many who were on part-time day (21%) or Part-time Day/Evening (9.4%) or Evening Class Only (3.5%) study.


Frith, S. (1980) Education, Training and the Labour Process, in: M. Cole & B. Skelton (Eds.) Blind Alley: Youth in a Crisis of Capital, Ormskirk: G. W. & A. Hesketh.

Green, A & Rikowski, G. (1995) Post-Compulsory Education and Training for the 21st Century, Forum for Promoting Comprehensive Education, Vol.37 No.3, pp.68-70.

Hill, A. (2005) Five-year-olds to be given careers advice, The Observer, 2nd October, p.12.

Rikowski, G. (1996) Higher Education Aspirations: A Study of Two Colleges in Birmingham – Aims, Sample Characteristics and First Findings, December, Birmingham: Birmingham Training & Enterprise Council & University of Birmingham.

Rikowski, G. (1999) Nietzsche, Marx and Mastery: The Learning Unto Death, in: P. Ainley & H. Rainbird (Eds.) Apprenticeship: Towards A New Paradigm of Learning, London: Kogan Page.

Rikowski, G. (2000) The Rise of the Student-Worker, in: K. Moti Gokulsing & C. DaCosta (Eds.) A Compact for Higher Education, Aldershot: Ashgate.

Rikowski, G. & Neary, M. (1997) Working Schoolchildren in Britain Today, Capital & Class, No.63, pp.25-35.

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