Back in the 1990s, when sociologist Anthony Middens proposed the influential ‘third way’ social-democratic approach, he warned about different types of social exclusion.
As he put it, social exclusion may take place due to policies which exclude persons from everyday social interaction because of their identity or social background. But he added that persons may also decide themselves to be excluded from mainstream society.
And these do not simply include those who, for some reason or another, voluntarily decide not to participate in the world of employment in order to become welfare dependent.
Voluntary exclusion may also take place by elites who exclude themselves from social communities within their own privatised high-class ghettos.
Middens suggested that social policy should prioritise social inclusion by acting as a trampoline, empowering people to be skilled for the opportunities and the risks of our times. His proposed social investment state would incorporate rights with responsibilities, public-private collaboration, voluntary associations and the strengthening of communities
The third way had its ups and downs and its supporters included statesmen such as Bill Clinton, Gerard Schroeder and Tony Blair. In today’s context, the adherents of this ideology include Matteo Renzi and Joseph Muscat.
As the narrative goes, persons having different identities are seen as meriting social inclusion whether in terms of civil rights or education and employment opportunities.
Which is why I was surprised, not to say shocked, when I read the latest proposal of Joseph Muscat’s government: the one referring to homeschooling.
This proposal forms part of other proposed amendments to the Education Act, proposed by the Ministry of Education, one of the government’s best performers.
In a nutshell, the homeschooling section allows parents to apply to the Commission for General Education to provide homeschooling for their children. If the application is approved by the commission, schooling would be carried out by ‘suitably qualified home educators’.
This proposal says that three categories of persons may apply for this facility: students in poor health, students whose parents are temporarily in Malta, and students whose family have diverse philosophies from those taught in schools.
Homeschooling for students in poor health could be of great benefit to such persons. But that is as far as my agreement with the government’s proposal goes.
Schools have a vital social function for the social integration of persons with different backgrounds
My position is based on the premise that schools do not only exist for the transmission of skills which are valuable for future employment, important as these are. Schools also have a vital social function for the social integration of persons with different backgrounds.
Granted, if integration is taken too far, it could result in authoritarian conformism that mortifies individuality and creativity. But education needn’t be like this, and in actual fact, Malta’s education system has actually been moving away from this direction.
When students integrate with other students and educators, they learn essential social skills. Such skills are not only learned in formal lessons, but also during breaks, games, outings, sports, and other activities. Students learn to live in society, as the school itself is a society in miniature.
In short, schooling is an investment in social capital, networks and community.
Government’s homeschooling proposal seems to offer the very opposite of this. Two groups came to mind as soon as I read the text.
First, ultra-rich business persons who do not want to mix with ‘common people’. Maybe this includes faceless purchasers of citizenship for cash. Or the ‘high worth’ individuals which Muscat’s government wants to attract to Malta through the exclusive projects by the rich for the rich. Maybe this complements the government’s fetish for high-rise development and similar investments.
Second, persons whose values and ideologies are totally out of synch with the spectrum of ideas found in everyday life. Rather than representing a multiculturalism of integration and mutual respect, Malta would risk encouraging multiculturalism of parallel isolationist ghettos that do not communicate with each other. Would this be beneficial to a democratic society? I think not.
Maybe Muscat’s adherence to the narrative of social inclusion exists only when it does not interfere with certain interests. And if he promised homeschooling to lobbyists before the 2013 general election, then the proposed education act is delivering the goods.
Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.