You would say that

30 January 2010 by Jennifer

On the discounting of first-hand voices in favour of external “experts”. This is an obstacle to determining ethical and effective courses of action.

There’s a quote which I’ve often found myself remembering lately in connection with the Children, Schools and Families Bill. It’s from a book by Jonathon Green, and the interviewee is Marcus Riggs. The interview was from a time after the Church had done some kind of report on gay people, although I don’t remember the details of that part.

… when people are trying to explore an area of human life – for instance, if you wanted to bake bread, you’d ask a baker; if you wanted to know how to put an electrical circuit in, you’d ask an electrician – but if you want to know what the experiences of gay people are like, they’re the last ones to be asked. ‘They would say that wouldn’t they, they’re gay.’ … The assumption in that report is that if you sat and talked to me, I’d give you a biased viewpoint.

But what I’d say is, ‘I’m a Christian and I’m gay and it’s caused me a lot of heartache to work through what all this means and come to some sort of way of living my life that has personal integrity. And that also enriches my relationship with God and the people around me. That I have worked very hard on.’

Who listens to whom?

The pattern is that if you’re from an oppressed or stigmatised group, people don’t want to listen to your version of your life. They want an “expert” to speak on your behalf, and “explain you” to them.

This means that other people who aren’t from your group can make a career of being an expert on your group. And the experts talk to each other and say “what do you think, Other Expert who isn’t from this group either?”

It’s a radical thing to allow someone from within the group to be in the “Expert” position. It’s a radical thing and an essential part of activism to be within the group and claim an “Expert” position.


I’m thinking here of how cissexual doctors and policy-makers and “experts” go to conferences and talk about transsexual people, and make up rules for who should and shouldn’t get what kind of medical assistance to change their own bodies. It’s not my field, but I’m pretty sure that even now, after many years of campaigning by trans people, listening to transsexual people’s lived experience is only a small factor in making up those rules.

People with disabilities have been pioneers in challenging “experts'” opinion about them, saying “Nothing about us without us” (a slogan which many other groups have used too).

While writing this, I also remembered some writing by Charlotte Cooper, from a story about how she and a friend/colleague went as fat people to a couple of events about obesity:

I don’t think that you have to be fat to be able to say intelligent things about fat people or fat experience, there are people within the Fat Studies community for example who are not at all fat. What they have is empathy and respect for fat people, a capacity for self-reflection, a commitment to social change. They support other fat scholars, they use their power and privilege to include us … and they are not interested in building careers that denigrate fat people.

… most obesity researchers, including those I saw speak this week, are so alien to this kind of ethical position that they don’t even recognise that they themselves are part of the problem, they truly believe that they represent the solution, that they are the good guys.

When fat people are absent from events such as Body Image: The Impact of Magazines and Size Matters, we are abstracted and made Other. No wonder Ogden referred to fat people as “those people” throughout her presentation. …

… Who on those panels would be able to listen to somebody who they have already stereotyped and dehumanised?

Similarly, from an article about an academic book on fatness:

… works like Fat Economics make fat people abstract. These are works that do not include accounts by fat people, they are not written by fat people, and fat people have absolutely no voice in these works. … Research like this contributes to the notion of fat people as passive and stupid, people whose lives need mediating and explaining by thin ‘experts’ who arrogantly eye us as interesting scum in a petri dish.

Living it

I feel that some of the CSF Bill’s supporters are relating to people from unschooling families in a way similar to what Marcus Riggs describes:

“You would say that, you’re home educators”.

Our first-hand experience is being dismissed as bias unfitting us to perceive the issues correctly.

Not like “Well, you are the people actually living this, so we should listen deeply to what you have to tell us from your rich and varied experience of how it all works.”

At the Bill Committee

Chloë Watson, 17-year-old Chair of the Home Education Youth Council, put the challenge to the Bill Committee on 19 January:

… why not listen to the people who know what they are talking about – the people who are doing the home educating, who live it, who live with the consequences of what they do?

… Why not listen to the people who are saying, “This will wreck my child’s life”? Why not take notice of that, over and above the people who think, “Oh well, maybe in a few cases something might go wrong”?

(In Gill’s commentary on the Bill Committee, she includes a clip of Chloë speaking – second clip from the bottom. It’s worth a listen; there’s a wealth of additional meaning in the off-hand tone in which Chloë does the “Oh well, maybe in a few cases…”.)

What if…?

If the DCSF had employed someone from within the EHE communities to write what became the Badman Report, that person would still have had to do research to establish the facts. It’s not that being part of a community automatically gives you all the answers.

But what would be different?

  1. A researcher from within a community might well include different questions.

    In the home ed world, the research of someone familiar with the territory might include

    • qualitative research into children’s experience of Local Authority staff visits.

    • “good” and “bad” LA practice.

    • the scale of LAs’ existing ultra vires interference.

    Fat people might (and do) direct attention to the health costs of anti-fat prejudice (especially the effects of prejudice from medical professionals).

  2. From their familiarity with the field and their depth of understanding, that person is likely to be better at perceiving the implications of their results and their suggestions.

  3. And there are mistakes they simply wouldn’t make – like the way Mr Badman dismissed autonomous education as “out of scope” of the Enquiry. It’s not just that Mr Badman “doesn’t get it” about how AE works, he doesn’t even get how important it is.

    (OK, only a few families go 100% AE, but nearly everyone in EHE incorporates elements of the child’s curiosity leading the way. It’s a vital strand running through the non-school world. Personally, I don’t think anyone who doesn’t “get” AE can legitimately be called an expert in home ed, and arguably they’re not even an expert in education.)

Our input is vital

We – the unschooling families, collectively – have a close-up view of both non-school education and the existing system for interfering with it. As Kipling famously put it,

The toad beneath the harrow knows
Exactly where each tooth-point goes.

That insight is vital if the Government actually wants to create a workable system.

8 thoughts on “You would say that”

  1. The book “Black Like Me” by John Howard Griffin is an autobiographical account of a white man who, in 1959, decided to take some skin-darkening tablet and use a sunlamp to make himself look black. He lived as a black man for several weeks and kept a diary of his experiences. It’s a fantastic book. Of course, after he published it, he received death threats from white racists for the rest of his life.

    Anyway, the second edition of the book, released in 1977, contains an extra chapter called “Epilogue” that provides fascinating details of the author’s work in human rights since the book was originally published. One of the topics discussed in that chapter ties in with your blog article. The author had countless experiences of him and a black community leader going along to a meeting at which everyone else (politicians, police chiefs, and so on) was white. The purpose of such meetings was invariably for the white people to figure out why black people were rioting in the ghettos, and decide upon tactics to peacefully end the rioting. His black colleague would stand up, explain why there was so much frustration within the black ghetto. And the white people there just wouldn’t “get it”. The black person’s words literally went in one white ear and out the other. Then John Howard Griffin would stand up, say the same things his black colleague had said, and he would see the faces of the white people light up with understanding. This happened repeatedly.


  2. Thanks for the comments, people :-)

    Just a note to say that I changed a word just now. In the last section I had written “the unschooling parents” and then I realised it should be “the unschooling families”, including the insights of the younger generation.

  3. Thanks for this – it’s just what I need to back up my letter (still unwritten!) to Lord Lester.

  4. Pingback: Give me evidence

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