An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum

by Stephen Spender
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Historical Context

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Poverty as Social Injustice

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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 was rampant among African Americans, especially in the South. They were often undereducated and perpetually oppressed by white southerners bent on thwarting and hampering African American progress.

When the injustice of society's oppression is revealed, it is usually forced to end. Sometimes, however, such injustice takes new forms. For example, after Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery, the oppressive conditions of slavery were converted into racial segregation and the denial of civil rights to African Americans. American society in the South had exploited African Americans as slaves and reaped economic benefits; after Reconstruction, society subjugated them once more, this time as an underprivileged working class without civil or human rights. During the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement—led by Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy—struggled to free African Americans from segregation and discrimination. With civil rights, though, came another type of oppression: widespread poverty that affected African Americans in particular. The new social imbalance was touted as a struggle between rich and poor rather than as a racial issue. The U.S. economy still had its underprivileged working class, and the oppressors were off the hook because the so-called oppressed now had civil and human rights. The oppressed people's low place in society was said to stem from their own lack of ambition or intelligence. Poverty as a tool for social subjugation became extremely powerful, far more so than blatant racism.

Spender recognized this power. As a professed Socialist during the 1920s and 1930s, he was well aware of the oppressive power of capital. Much of his work conveyed the heavy politically charged ideologies of Communist and Marxist thought. The shifting perception of oppression from the 1950s into the 1960s fueled Spender's political commentary. In "An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum," he focuses on the power that capitalism holds over the children in the slums, rather than on race. Although some readers may assume that the students in the poem are African American, Spender was far more concerned with the economic and social implications of the new face of oppression than he was with its possible racial implications. Spender was first and foremost a leftist and a Socialist. His writing was influenced by global injustice and during the years before he wrote "An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum," there was no greater social injustice than lack of civil rights in the United States. His exploration of the social change occurring in the 1950s and 1960s reflects the turbulence not only of this era in American history but also of this era in global history.

Literary Style

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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 open the minds of the children. Once their minds are free, empowered with learning, Spender believes that they will have the power to change the social hierarchy. He effectively uses such imagery to explore poverty, education, and the Communist-capitalist struggle.

The Unidentified Narrator

When reading "An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum," it is difficult to pinpoint the identity of the narrator. It may be deduced that there is no narrator and that the entire construct is built wholly around Spender and his desire to examine and pontificate on politics and its effect on education. Other readings of the poem have led educators to believe that the narrator is a teacher. Spender delivers the crux of his message on poverty and education through the use of this unidentified narrator, a narrator who, in the vagueness of his identity, appeals to a wide variety of people in society. He focuses on imagery that describes the children and the classroom, that is upsetting to the reader, and that fuels a desire for change.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 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 Connecticut legalizing civil unions between gays. Some believe, however, that the USA Patriot Act, enacted to combat terrorism, threatens civil liberties in the name of national security.

  • 1960s: The annual salary of a minimum-wage worker is equal to the U.S. federal poverty line for a family of three.

    Today: The annual salary of a minimum-wage worker is 30 percent below the U.S. federal poverty line for a family of three.

Media Adaptations

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  • Two audiocassettes of Stephen Spender's poetry are available: Poetry of Stephen Spender (1964), published by Audio-Forum, and Stephen Spender Selected Poems (1994), published by Spoken Arts.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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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.

Further Reading

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 industrial society of Marx's day.

Richardson, R. Dan, Comintern Army: The International Brigades and the Spanish Civil War, University Press of Kentucky, 1982.

Richardson explores the history of the International Brigades, the volunteer army that fought on the side of the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War. He contends that the brigade was an instrument of the Soviet Communists. Spender served for a short time in 1937 as a member of this brigade.

Sutherland, John, Stephen Spender: A Literary Life, Oxford University Press, 2005.

Sutherland uses information gleaned from Spender's private papers to create this insightful biography of Spender's life and the literary society in which he was immersed.

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