Poverty as Social Injustice
When Spender wrote "An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum," the world was in the midst of major cultural and political change. In 1954, in the landmark case of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in the schools was unconstitutional. In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat at the front of a bus to a white passenger, inciting a bus boycott by the African American community that ultimately led to desegregation on buses in 1956. Beginning in 1960, student sit-ins and other non-violent protests became a popular and effective way of desegregating lunch counters, parks, swimming pools, libraries, and the like. In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, and President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The year Spender's poem was published, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination of all kinds based on race, color, religion, or national origin. This legislation was unprecedented.
Behind these major historical events, countless lives were changed or ended during this tumultuous time. The late 1950s and early 1960s unearthed an America that had been kept hidden for centuries. Although slavery had been abolished, African Americans were dying every year at the hands of racists. Equality was a seemingly futile hope not only in America but also across the globe. Poverty...
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Allegory is a literary technique that employs characters as representations of ideas that are used to convey a message or to teach a lesson. Spender uses the classroom and the children in his poem as an allegory about the struggle between proletarians and bourgeoisie. The children in "An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum" are clearly under-privileged, lower-class proletarians. The classroom donors are wealthy, upper-class bourgeoisie. Without directly using either term—proletarian or bourgeoisie—Spender weaves a descriptive, allegoric vignette about capitalism and its dependence on an oppressed working class. He vividly depicts the hardships and struggles of proletarians through his descriptions of the tired girl with her "weighed-down" head, the paper-thin boy, and the "unlucky heir" of "gnarled disease." The exhausted students are equivalent to the oppressed working class. The children of this class are doomed to inherit their parents' diseased position in society.
Although the future holds little promise of fortune for the children or the proletariat they represent, Spender sees a glimmer of hope in education. The students represent the working class, but they also hold the answer to a changed society. If the students can achieve an education, then they may be empowered to topple the bourgeoisie hold over society. Spender writes, "Break O break open till they break the town," offering hope that education will break...
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Compare and Contrast
- 1960s: Communist countries are considered the greatest threat to the United States and the free world, with Vietnam, Cuba, and the USSR at the helm.
Today: Although Communist countries like Vietnam and China still exist, most are looked upon favorably as allies and trading partners. Now so-called rogue states, or regimes that sponsor terror or are thought to be developing nuclear weapons—such as Iran, North Korea, and Syria—are viewed as threats to the Western world.
- 1960s: Socialism is frowned upon as a vile off-spring of Communist ideologies. Capitalism is the driving force behind which democracy accelerates throughout the world.
Today: Although capitalism is still a driving force, socialism is far more widely accepted, with many developed countries in the Western world offering socialized medicine and adequate welfare for the needy.
- 1960s: The American Civil Rights movement to end segregation and discrimination in public accommodations, employment, and education is in full swing, focusing on equal rights and protections for blacks. Three Civil Rights Acts are enacted during this decade.
Today: Related civil liberties movements have spurred change for women and the disabled and have begun to make inroads in rights for gays. Massachusetts has become the first state to allow gays to marry, with Vermont and...
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Topics for Further Study
- Stephen Spender used his poetry to express his political ideology and to voice his support of Marxist ideals. Write a poem expressing your personal political ideology, or, if you prefer, write a poem from the standpoint of a political theorist, such as John Locke, Alexis de Tocqueville, or Niccolò Machiavelli.
- Spender uses an allegory to present the struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Other writers and thinkers have used allegories to convey complex social struggles and concepts. Compare and contrast Spender's allegory to another. You might choose, for example, Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" in the The Republic or George Orwell's Animal Farm.
- Research Karl Marx and write a short paper on his role as an educated proletarian. Was Marx a wealthy man? How did he support himself? What was his relationship to the capitalist society he so wished to overturn? Make sure that your paper addresses Marx's forced position within a capitalist society and that you examine how he interacted with a social structure he despised.
- "An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum," though it is heavy with Communist allusions, still focuses primarily on education. Examine the modern education system and try to pinpoint similarities and differences between it and the system about which Spender wrote. Do you think there is still a difference in the quality of education offered at wealthy schools as opposed to that...
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What Do I Read Next?
- Letters to Christopher: Stephen Spender's Letters to Christopher Isherwood, 1929–1939 (1980), edited by Lee Bartlett, is a collection of letters Spender sent to his great friend the poet Christopher Isherwood during their early years as writers and political activists.
- World within World (1951; reissued in 2001) is Spender's autobiography. The book explores his life, his friendships, and his unspoken bisexuality.
- W. H. Auden's Selected Poems (1989), edited by Edward Mendelson, provides the original versions of many of Auden's poems, which he revised later in his career as his ideologies matured. Auden and Spender met in their twenties and maintained their friendship throughout their lives.
- The Berlin Stories (1946) combines Christopher Isherwood's two finest novels, The Last of Mr. Norris and Goodbye to Berlin, in one volume. These stories of exile, which meld Isherwood's real life with an imaginary life, formed the basis for the Broadway musical Cabaret.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Freadman, Richard, "Ethics, Autobiography and the Will: Stephen Spender's World within World," in The Ethics in Literature, edited by Andrew Hadfield, Dominic Rainsford, and Tim Woods, Macmillan Press, 1999, p. 35.
Marx, Karl, and Engels, Frederick, The Communist Manifesto, International Publishers, 1948, pp. 27, 44.
Slavitt, David R., "Poetic Justice," in Boulevard, Vol. 18, No. 2 and 3, Spring 2003, p. 94.
Spender, Stephen, "An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum," in Collected Poems 1928–1985, Faber and Faber, 1985, pp. 46–47.
Huntington, Samuel P., The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Simon and Schuster, 1998.
Huntington analyzes world politics after the fall of Communism. Much of what was at the heart of Marxist revolutionary theory still remains, with an increasing threat of violence arising from renewed conflicts between countries and cultures that base their traditions on religious faith and dogma.
Marx, Karl, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1, Penguin Classics, 1992.
Capital, an influential book considered by many to be Marx's greatest work, details the faults of the capitalist system and is based on Marx's thirty-year study of capitalism in England, the most advanced...
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