Submitted by AWL on 14 August, 2019 - 11:05
group learning

Defining away impairment

My exchange with Janine Booth (Solidarity 513 and previous) started with a comment by me, in an interview with Judy Singer previewing the neurodiversity session at Ideas from Freedom.

Some neuroatypicalities, I suggested, are just “differences”; others are also “impairments”. (There’s a big grey area, as with physical atypicalities).

I cited examples from my experience as a maths teacher. Some autistic students are “just different”. Others, maybe impaired.

Example: “student B” spent most of his school time in the Special Education Unit. The SEU asked him to go to my mainstream lessons to diversify his experience.

They told me that B was autistic in such a way that it would be hard to include him in general class work (I did try, and succeeded just once). An SEU worker would come into class to work with B.

Both in class and when the students were gathering outside the building before class, B interacted with the other students scarcely at all (they were, by the way, friendly and uncensorious towards him). B spent almost all his time knitting, and occasionally shouting out on issues nothing to do with the class.

My point was not that B did poorly at maths. It was that it was good, and not unnecessary fuss, that the SEU did special work with him.

Janine agrees that some neuroatypicalities involve impairment, but is not convinced that B’s did.

She does that partly by saying that “‘collective learning’ is only one form of learning. I’m not sure that there are sufficient grounds to assume that learning in large-ish groups is such a superior form of learning that it warrants ‘hard-wired’ preference for learning alone or one-to-one as ‘impairment’.”

With B it was not just “preference” – that’s common enough – but (as yet) severe impairment at collective learning. And that is so inconsequential as not to qualify as impairment at all? Seems to me a bit like saying that hearing impairment is really no impairment at all because I could read instead.

I’d argue that collective discussion is more important in maths than elsewhere, but leave that aside. That a lot of learning, and for example workplace organising, is done in classes, seminars, lectures, study groups, meetings, picket-line gatherings, etc. is not a crime of capitalism.

It is common to many societies, and it is virtue rather than vice that there is more of it in capitalism. Or the pre-industrial aristocratic mode of learning by individual tutor should be the norm? That seems to me both impractical and undesirable. In workplaces, the chief capitalist misdeed is not excess of collective group discussion, but the substitution for it of one-by-one “consultation” of individual workers by managers.

It’s good, rather than bad, that the school recognised B’s impairment and tried to help. Maybe the SEU could have done better.

I’m fairly sure what they did was better than saying “just different. No problem”.

Martin Thomas, Islington

Williamson and Willsman

It’s true, I think, that Chris Williamson MP has acted as a channel into the Labour Party for fundamentally right-wing politics (pro-Assad, “anti-Zionist” conspiracy theories, etc.)

Political integrity demands that Labour does not allow him to become an MP or be seen as “representing” Labour.
I am still unconvinced that socialists should go a step further and be for Labour expelling him altogether from membership.

In a Labour Party where the Leader’s Office is run by people of a Stalinistic turn of mind not very far politically from Williamson, our chief concern is to establish political norms by debate, education, political battles; and to defend rights of dissent.

If the Labour Party machine decides to throw Williamson overboard in order (they hope) to save their more prudent core operators, we will not have gained. And we may have lost, in that the machine gets more authority to expel people because they have “offended” X, Y, or Z, rather than because they have had specific breaches of Labour Party integrity proved against them.

Whatever the balance in Williamson’s case, comparison shows that we should oppose expelling Pete Willsman. Willsman is guilty of an off-the-wall outburst in a National Exec meeting and of repeating similar ideas in what he thought was an off-the-record conversation with a journalist who had set out (and with some skill) to coax him into that position. Garrulous? Offensive? Shaped by ill-thought-through “loyalism” and “knee-jerk” reactions? All those, maybe.

But nothing comparable with Williamson’s consistent and unrepentant track-record.

Rhodri Evans, London

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