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Public Education: After Enclosure

Written by Eden Haythornthwaite Monday, 01 May 2006

Working as a school trustee in Cowichan, I have observed the intentions for the devolution of public education that is clear among those in power and odd as it may seem, I have been reflecting on the history of enclosure. Briefly - these were the measures by which the common lands in parts of England were divided and seized by the wealthiest landowners and churchmen for private use, depriving farmers of pasture and cropland. Access to these common resources was an essential part of the economic life in these rural regions. This process sped up during the 15th and 16th centuries as sheep farming grew more profitable due to high demands for wool. In some areas, large riots broke out over the proposals to enclose common fields. In the 16th and early 17th centuries, the practice of enclosure was denounced by the Church and the government, particularly what was seen as depopulating enclosure, and legislation was drawn up against it. However, the tide of elite opinion swept these concerns away and the rate of enclosure increased catastrophically. The result was a great concentration of wealth, emptying of the countryside and the rise of crime.

In his 1516 work Utopia Sir Thomas More, suggests that the practice of enclosure was responsible for many of the social problems affecting England at the time.

The nobility and gentry, and even holy men not contented with the old rents which their farms yielded, nor thinking it enough that they, living at their ease, do no good to the public, resolve to do it hurt instead of good. They stop the course of agriculture, destroying houses and towns, reserving only the churches, and enclose grounds that they may lodge their sheep in them.

I thought of this quote and reflected on how in that early time the forces of privatisation gathered strength and how this mirrors our own time. Everything we hold collectively is under great threat and that must be the concentrated focus of our political organising. Even the tattered artifacts of representation in the spirit of our bland little school boards are soon to be carried off and replaced with overseers who do not have to seek election from their communities.

The rulers of our nation -to paraphrase Sir Thomas More- are not content with their fabulous returns and fine style of living, are not ashamed to take so much for so little, and are now intent in doing harm to the public good and erecting enclosures around everything we need so that they may profit from our bedrock requirements. All management and direction is tailored to a bottom line of finance and performance measurement.even in such places as the public schools. It is high time that we push back and urgently declare that these motivations are not appropriate guidelines for learning, for nurture or for human life. Our schools are emptied, closed and converted to private use even as our standards for public service principles are dictated by people who enjoy the greatest material rewards for their efforts. Year after year, programs and people are slashed from the schools while we are ceaselessly told that it is all for the kids. The small schools that ask so little to provide so much are swept away under ministry mandated population guidelines that oppress all small communities with their sharp practice. Our valley is silenced by exhaustion, intimidation and hopelessness.

We must never accept our lot as that of being victims of the arc of history. We can decide as part of our common condition that our most critical commonality is our strategy to hold dear what we hold in common - our public services and in particular our public schools. We must build this strategy with our diligence, intelligence and courage in order to meet the cool gaze of the powers who would deprive us of our common assets.so that it can truly be said we have fought not just for ourselves but for each other.

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