An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum

by Stephen Spender
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An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum Themes

The three main themes in "An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum" are poverty, communism and education, and knowledge and revolution.
  • Poverty: Spender exposes the widespread neglect of children of all nationalities, races, and ethnicities, and how poverty harms the students due to the oppressive power of capitalism.
  • Communism and Education: The poem provides a case for why a Marxist solution to the educational crisis caused by poverty is the only choice.
  • Knowledge and Revolution: When children are empowered by a substantial, honest education, they can free themselves from obscurity, poverty, and pain.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1034

Poverty

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The theme of poverty is principal to the poem "An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum." Spender creates a crisp image of children in poverty through his descriptions of dire situations and mal-nourished students, revealing a sad, hidden segment of society that was prevalent throughout the world. He is not commenting directly on any particular nation in his poem; instead, he exposes the widespread neglect of children of all nationalities, races, and ethnicities. It is poverty that has caused the students in "An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum" to be "weighed-down," "paper-seeming," diseased, and "twisted." Spender believes this poverty is created through the oppressive power of capitalism.

This poem was written during the American Civil Rights movement, and although Spender was British, the injustice that occurred in the United States was a global issue that affected the entire world, especially close English-speaking allies like Britain. Spender was affected by the struggles for equality in the United States because of his staunch dedication to social and political reforms. Although this poem was written during this time of oppressive racial injustice in America, Spender does not directly focus on a select group of underprivileged children, based on race, religion, or creed. Instead, he hones the content of his poem and remarks about the social injustice imposed upon all children, making it much more difficult to ignore. When the spotlight is cast upon a select group of individuals, certain members of particular groups are able to shrug their shoulders or cast a doubtful eye at the authenticity of the group's plight. However, when the spotlight is cast upon children writ large, no one can turn a blind eye. Regardless of their upbringing, history, race, or ethnicity, children are innocent beings dependent on the helping hands of humanity. Without aid, children are effectively left to die, and adults who do not help are left with an undeniable sense of guilt and worthlessness. Spender cultivates these emotions in his poem and uses them to his advantage, delivering a powerful message about poverty, its effect on children, and the oppressive power of money.

Communism and Education

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Latest answer posted April 23, 2015, 2:19 pm (UTC)

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Karl Marx firmly states in The Communist Manifesto that education is "social, and determined by the social conditions under which you educate, by the intervention of societ1y, direct or indirect, by means of schools." Spender thoroughly supports this statement in "An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum" and asks for a complete subversion of the dominant social model with regard to its direct and indirect intervention in schools. Although this poem may not be perceived wholly as a Communist poem, a keen dissection of its parts clearly reveals a Marxist solution to the educational crisis caused by poverty.

Spender does not appreciate the "donations" given to the children, because he sees them as an indirect intervention of capitalistic society in schools. These donations are not given for the good of the children's education but for the sole purpose of keeping them in position as lower-class citizens. This end is achieved in that the donations project a world outside the slum that is seemingly unattainable and thus press the children into lives of unfulfilled dreams or of crime—the delusional last resort for gaining wealth and escaping the slum. Spender asks for a pragmatic shift in the way these donations are given and used—a Communist approach—in which money empowers the children to truly explore books, maps, the world, and themselves. In other words, it would give them the chance to pursue education without the pretense of temptation or a future of unfulfilled aspirations.

This changed use of "donations" is a Communist attitude to education. "An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum" pictures the children as proletarians and the donors as bourgeoisie. Spender does not wish to remove education from society, but he aspires to transform it into an institution managed by a Communist, not a capitalist, society, where all children are given the opportunity to excel, with no favoritism given to their social starting point. This change demands a proletariat revolution, shifting the social tides, because Spender, like Marx, still believes that education is social and that the only society that should be intervening in education is a Communist one.

Knowledge and Revolution

Knowledge and its effect on revolution is a key theme in "An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum." As shown earlier, this poem strongly embraces Communism and its ability to transform education and uproot poverty, yet Spender's undying embrace of education stands above everything else as the most empowering and most important influence on the future of humanity. For Spender, the children's minds possess the power of the sun and the ability to clear the fog from the bleak future. As he puts it, "History theirs whose language is the sun." These children, empowered by a substantial, honest education, can achieve a mental prowess that will free them from futures "painted with a fog." With knowledge, the children can change the future. They can raise their educated arms in revolt and overturn the oppression that desperately tries to keep them in place.

Spender has placed himself in a bind with these proclamations. Although it may be true that knowledge is empowerment, empowerment is the only hope for change, and change is predicated on revolution, it still appears that education cannot change without a new society. A vicious circle presents itself. Education is social, and the capitalist society intervening in education does not benefit proletarians. Thus, education benefits only the bourgeoisie. In order to change this dominant paradigm, proletarians must become educated, but with the bourgeoisie controlling society, the ability to become educated is difficult, if not impossible, for them. This, of course, leads into a much larger discussion of a worker revolution and the institution of Marxism in society, to overturn the dominant, capitalistic paradigm. Spender does not provide an answer to the struggle between proletarians and bourgeoisie, Communist and capitalist, in his poem. His theme of knowledge and revolution in "An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum" is intended to shed light on the power of education and the necessity to reform the way society delivers knowledge to all people, regardless of social or economic position.

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