This week IEN features an email interview with Andy Hargreaves about his new book, Moving: A Memoir of Education and Social Mobility. Hargreaves is a Research Professor in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College and holds Visiting or Honorary Professorships at the University of Ottawa, Hong Kong University, Swansea University, and the University of Stavanger in Norway.
IEN: Why this book, why now?
Andy Hargreaves: Like one of Ernest Hemingway’s characters who went bankrupt, this book came upon me bit by bit, then all of a sudden. As you’ll understand if you read it, for decades, I intuitively felt that my life and lives like mine weren’t necessarily worth writing about. The children of famous families or who hold down big jobs often make a point of keeping a journal of their experiences, because they feel they are or will be notable and become someone whom people will want to read about in the future.
Like one of Ernest Hemingway’s
characters who went bankrupt,
this book came upon me bit by bit,
then all of a sudden.
My life never had that kind of plan. In a working class mill town, keeping a journal was not a luxury we could afford or an affectation we could even countenance. But slowly and surely, while I have always cared about social justice, I began to sense that I was also a part of what I was writing about. So bit, by bit, here and there, I would insert short passages into my writing to explain how my research was in some ways connected to my own life. We would now call this positionality.
If there was a key moment, though, it was probably sitting with my Mum during her dying days, at the age of 93. My Mum had lived a working class life. She left school at 14, worked in factories, got married during World War II, lived in rented housing then public housing, raised her children through austerity, and then became widowed at the age of 43. Trying to raise three boys she was what we would now call an “essential worker”. She had three jobs cleaning people’s homes, working in local stores and looking after other people’s children. When I was in my early teens, she eventually collapsed with a nervous breakdown, and we moved onto welfare.
In the memoir, I describe this moment when I found her life to be an inspiration, like this:
After she lapsed into apparent unconsciousness, I sat with her for the best part of nine days until her final breath. I thought the time would pass slowly, but the hands raced around the clock at the end of her bed. Over many hours and days, I wrote a short piece about her life—the stories she told, the experiences she had, the things she did—at first, just for its own sake, and because, as a writer, I knew it was one of the few things I could usefully do.
The narrative took on a shape, and I sent it off to the Lancashire Telegraph that my mum used to have delivered every day—a widely read daily paper across one of the most populated counties in England. I submitted it not as an obituary but as a tribute to my mum and also to a way of life shared by women and families like her throughout the region.The editor wrote back, asked for some photographs (which we had luckily already collected for Mum’s ninetieth birthday, her last big bash), and announced they would publish it as a major feature. Just a couple of days before Mum died, when all the fluid had practically gone from her body, I leaned right over her with family members gathered around. I had no idea whether she could still hear.
“Mum,” I said, “I’ve something to tell you. I’ve written a piece about you for the Lancashire Telegraph. They say they are going to publish it as a double-page spread complete with pictures. It’s all about you and your life, Mum. A double-page spread. Here’s how it starts.” I turned to my text. “Here’s the headline”—the one the editors had assigned to it—“How a Loving Accrington Mum Scrimped and Worked for Her Family.” And then I began, “Doris was born in a commode at the back of a sweet shop in Accrington, two years after the end of the Great War . . .” Barely two sentences in, something happened that we thought was no longer physically possible. From the corner of my mum’s eye, out of a tiny frame that had received no fluid in over a week, a single tear fell slowly down her cheek. Then I stopped. She understood. She knew. And so did I. This life, these lives—lives like ours—are absolutely worth writing about, as many people appreciated when they wrote back to me about the piece in the weeks that followed.
This was really the impetus, the moment when I felt there was something worth saying not just about myself and my Mum, but about ordinary people like us everywhere, of all races and identities within the working classes, who struggle and sacrifice, and give things up so their children can have a better chance in life.
The challenge was now to find the time to write and perfect it, to develop it not as just a nostalgic memoir, but as a literary narrative about something in particular – the experience of working class upbringing and social mobility. This was an experience, I felt, with which many educators and other readers all across the world could identify. Some of this time I created myself, when I was in the midst of a very stressful and quite draining senior leadership responsibility. Taking an hour or two a day away from the escalating crisis I was trying to resolve, helped me create something that felt positive and renewed my energy in my daily work. Then, a perverse twist of fate came about when I broke my ankle hiking the Appalachian Trail, and could not travel for three months. This gave me the time and intense focus I needed to craft the memoir over countless drafts to the standard it really required.
IEN: What did you learn in working on this book that you didn’t know before?
AH: I learned a lot about social mobility. I discovered who invented the concept (the Russian-American immigrant Pitrim Sorokin, in 1927), and what baggage it brought with it. For Sorokin, social mobility – aka the American Dream – isn’t just about helping individuals move on and up through the various levels of social stratification. It’s also about greater equity – about moving those levels closer to each other. I consolidated my existing knowledge that the UK and US (unlike Canada), have two of the worst rates of social mobility in the world, and that these rates have been deteriorating from the golden age of social mobility during the 1960s and 1970s when I was growing up, right through to the present. I learned that there are many different subjective experiences of being socially mobile. There are:
- Individually heroic and triumphant ones like in Tara Westover’s Educated; · scornful ones about the culture one has escaped from like JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy;
- Ambivalent and angst-ridden ones about living being between two cultures and belonging to neither, like most British narratives of mobility;
- In-your-face defiant ones, like Canadian rap-star Drake, who “started from the bottom”, now his whole “team’s f****ing here”;
- Ironic and satirical ones like US talk-show host Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime;
- Brilliantly irrepressible ones like the sheer achievement of working class figure-skater, Tonya Harding’s triple axel, which overcame the prejudices against her held by elite judges (as depicted in I, Tonya).
I also learned a lot about myself and about how to come to terms with who I once was and how this had profoundly influenced the way I go about my work today. For the first time, I addressed what it was about a selective education system that eventually sent me across the country to university, while my two brothers went to work in factories at the bottom of the street. For the first time, I thought, wrote, and spoke about the fact that I had been a child with ADHD (known as “highly strung”) at the time. I credited the one teacher who intuitively understood this about me for helping to shape the path of my entire life. And I learned that mental health issues I have faced as an adult from time to time – depression, feeling utterly overwhelmed, completely disorganized, taking too much on, and getting distraught about letting other people down, have their roots in these childhood years.
For the first time, I addressed what it was
about a selective education system that eventually sent me across the country to university while my two brothers went to
work in factories at the bottom of the street.
I have confronted issues that were difficult for me as an adolescent. I had to hide the fact that for many months after my Dad died, I had to raise my family instead of my family raising me. I felt ashamed about the trouble I had with the local gang when I was the only one left in the neighbourhood who was still going to high school on the other side of town. I had to endure homophobic insults (that I didn’t really understand at the time), and physical violence (I’m talking boots, studs and belts) that I had not only to survive, but find a way to surmount so I would be left alone. I have learned to look back on all this with acceptance, irony and even humor – not just to come to terms with who I was and who I am now, but also to find a way to connect these experiences to countless numbers of people like me. And that’s one more area of learning. For my quest as a writer has not been to compete with the upwardly mobile narratives of unbelievable survival by the likes of Westover and Vance. It has been to use and develop my skills in language and storytelling, to help others with their ordinary but very real struggles to see something of themselves and the children that they teach in the experiences I describe. As I write in the memoir:
this book could never have been written without the existence of the lives that it describes—the everyday and often invisible lives of ordinary citizens who drive our buses and taxis, make our clothes, fix our appliances, clean our homes, keep us safe, serve us in the local store, and look after our children. The book is meant to speak especially to all those who have made sacrifices, given things up, left behind homelands, or taken on extra jobs so that they or their children could have the best-possible chance in life.
IEN: What do you hope those working on education around the world will get out of this book?
AH: I hope readers will feel that this book will resonate with realizing that social mobility doesn’t just happen by developing grit and resilience in individuals to help them navigate unchanged systems. There also need to be systems of culturally responsive pedagogy, inclusive curriculum, wraparound schooling that supports the whole child, and an end to discriminatory high-stakes testing, so we can support children who grow up in challenging circumstances. I hope educators will come to see that their task is not just to help kids beat the odds in a rigged system, but also to change the odds so that the system’s no longer rigged.
I wrote much of this memoir in the years of Brexit and Trump, and during the rapid growth of racism, populism and xenophobia around the world. The people I come from are some of the hardest working, deeply loyal and most welcoming you could possibly meet. They are also suspicious of outsiders, and resentful towards condescending elites. We cannot and must not write off the white working class by renaming it euphemistically as middle class, by associating it only with pitiable poverty, by removing all its claims for sympathy or advocacy because it also possesses undeniable racial privilege, or by looking down on it as a “basket of deplorables” and tasteless white trash. (For more on this see my piece on Leadership Ethics, Inequality & Identity)
If it is regarded as invisible or deplorable, the white working class will and does react by stigmatizing others – being prejudiced toward immigrants and racial outsiders and displaying inverse snobbery towards liberal elites. My narrative, and the narrative I think we need now in America and across the world, is not to rank the various struggles of marginalized and oppressed groups and pit them against each other, but to develop empathy among the many among us who struggle. My purpose is to help us all to draw on and face our own suffering so we can understand the even greater suffering of others, so that we can all strive together for shared equity and common dignity. For as Adam Smith once wrote, “sympathy is the basic emotion of democracy”.
IEN: What’s happened with you since you wrote the book?
AH: The pandemic happened. We had to cancel multiple book tours and writers festivals for groups up to 5000. We delayed publication for two months so we could figure out how to bring the work to people’s attention in the new environment. I am now discussing this memoir in book clubs of up to 1000 in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and elsewhere. Although I miss face to face teaching dreadfully, I am enjoying these more intense interactions around the book that are bringing other people’s lives and struggles to the fore, as well as my own. Even in a pandemic, we have to think about the opportunities as well as the problems before us. My mother, Doris, was named after the nurse who saved my grandfather’s life by caring for him in hospital during the 1918 flu pandemic. And now, all of a sudden, this book seems to speak to the lives of all the essential workers and their families on whom we have been relying so much. In the book, I wrote a passage that could well have been a tribute to all the essential workers and their lives today:
As you move up, on, and out, you hope you’ll continue to stand up for and stand with others against injustice and exclusion. Despite all your travels across different countries and cultures, you hope that when you open your mouth, people will still know where you come from. You hope you’ll retain some of your interests and TV-viewing habits, however unsophisticated and unfashionable they may be amongst the intellectual elite. You hope you’ll remember to treat all people with respect and dignity and acknowledge their humanity by thanking and conversing with them—the driver who lets you off the bus, the waiting staff at a conference dinner who never get noticed or receive any tips, and the people cleaning the toilets in the train station or the airport—because you remember how your mum used to clean people’s houses and how, when your own children were small and you were struggling financially, your wife was a waitress in the local pub and sold Avon cosmetics door-to-door in the evening. You also hope you do all this simply because it’s the decent thing to do.
It’s not enough just to clap for our essential workers now. It’s essential we rethink how as educators, we connect with and include their lives and cultures in the curriculum, and even in how they can have a space on their CVs to talk proudly about their family lives and responsibilities compared to the travel, hobbies and internships enjoyed by their more privileged peers.
IEN: What’s next — what are you all working on now?
AH: In terms of my research and writing, Dennis Shirley and I have just completed a book on Student Engagement: Beyond Relevance, Technology and Fun. It draws on our research work in the US Pacific Northwest, Canada, and the UK, to help educators rethink student engagement as being not just a psychological or individual challenge, but also as a social issue that requires changes in cultures, institutions, and policies too. This is especially true, we argue, during and after the pandemic. Organizationally, I am co-founder and president of ARC, a group of 6 nations (7 systems) and their Ministers and teacher union leaders who support and promote core values of broad excellence, equity, inclusion, wellbeing, democracy and human rights in professionally run systems. We have an annual summit and have found that peer interaction among the systems has provided invaluable learning and solidarity during the pandemic. We have produced several papers and op-eds coming from this work including one in the Washington Post and one for the Albert Shanker Institute (that originally appeared in The Conversation).
I hope readers enjoy the book and see something of themselves and the people they teach in it. Some of it is meant to be poignant and moving in places. But there are more joyous and funny parts as well. It only goes up to age 22, so perhaps one day there will be one or two sequels, if demand warrants it. If you read it, please write back and let me know what you think.
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @hargreavesbc