Social mobility touches on deeply personal issues of self-understanding, authenticity and identity that policy alone can't address. I would know—I've lived itby Hashi Mohamed / January 16, 2020 / Leave a comment
The fantasy children’s books author Philip Pullman said once that his single best idea was equipping his human characters with a “daemon” as seen in his trilogy, His Dark Materials. The daemon is an animal: it could be a monkey, a bird, a rat, a snake, or any other creature—and it represents that particular person’s character, a clue to their nature.
A child’s daemon is constantly shifting and assumes different shapes. First it could be a crow, then it could instantly turn into a small fox, or perhaps an even smaller animal in order to fit into its human’s pocket. It’s only when that young person reaches full adulthood does their daemon—and by extension their character—“settle.” For me, this idea has a strong connection to the ideal of social mobility. The daemon shows the endless possibilities that ought to be available to every child, the boundless ways in which they grow. Regardless of what daemons happen to be carried by your parents.
Social mobility is about a great deal of things, as I noted while writing my own book, People Like Us: What it Takes to Make it in Modern Britain. In Prospect’s latest issue, editor Tom Clark made a comprehensive and wide-ranging analysis of the core issues. He considered the pitfalls which come with placing too much emphasis on education as the great leveller. There is the continuing cross-party political obsession with giving “everyone the best possible start.” There are concerns over whether the status quo will actually ever change, no matter what processes are adopted at government policy level or in the boardroom. There are no easy answers to these questions.
Against this background, let me state my position clearly. I think that social mobility can work. It worked for me. But I am an anomaly, not a good example of how it may be replicated. In my book I articulate the less discussed and potentially more consequential issues. Two are worth exploring here. The first is our understanding of character and the notion of “self,” particularly as it relates to an impoverished child whose fate may be decided—whose daemon may be settled—before they’ve understood what’s happening. The second is related to the power of harnessing the right language to bring you towards a different future.
A shifting sense of self
Character involves how people feel about what they’re doing, consciously…