The students enter the classroom. I watch as they place their history folders on the table around which we all sit. I notice that many of these students seem to see specific possessions as an extension of their identity: a particular hat to be worn at all times; a lucky charm attached to the zipper of a pencil case; glitter eye shadow; a T-shirt with a portrait of Mao printed on it. Yet there are the others: a girl from East Asia who has no posters on the walls of her room, no adornments other than two small teddy bears; a boy who decided years ago he wasn’t going to be part of a consumer society and who washes his clothes by hand, with just a brush and some cold water; another girl who devours innumerable books, scores high at exams, and seems to have no concern for her physical appearance.

The Cambridge International Exams AS/A-Level syllabus for the International History 1945-1991 module allows us to spend some thirty 50-minute periods on the Development of the International Economy and the Third World. This part of the course is mainly about explaining why some countries were successful and why others failed to meet the basic needs of their populations. After looking at some success stories of economic growth, we assess the achievements of the IMF, World Bank and GATT, on the one hand, and of the Non-Aligned Movement, UNCTAD and New International Economic Order, on the other. We discuss the merits and demerits of free trade and we study the role of multinationals, the 1980s Debt Crisis and the rise and decline of OPEC. There are no set texts, so the teacher has to select the reading material.

What follows is a short narrative of what we have done in class around this syllabus. I have tried to strike a bridge between the syllabus and students’ personal lives at the physical and emotional levels. They are already players in the economy and will become more influential as they get to spend more and acquire the vote. So we lay bare some of the links between ourselves and the international economic structures that have been created.

We explore whether there is a way to understand the meaning of poverty directly.

First, it seems important that we understand what poverty is. We talk about it, sharing what we know about it, trying to get the facts right as far as possible. And we explore whether there is a way to understand the meaning of poverty directly, whether there is a state of mind and heart that taps into consciousness in such a way that poverty becomes real to us, so that it is not just an idea. To ask this question one needs a sense of space in the class, a sense of silence around the words of the discussion. There are times when the mind has become somewhat disconnected from the physical world, when the chattering of thought is less and ideas have lost a lot of their immediacy, when there is a more direct perception of the immediate physical surroundings. At such times the thought of poverty appears to become more real, simpler and closer by, more within reach. Then it is as if poverty is always present.

I ask the students whether they have noticed what happens in the queue for lunch when lunch is late, and whether they can ever see the memory of food shortage active in themselves. We discuss greed, but make sure there is a lightness to the discussion so that insights do not become moral judgements. I tell them how, as a young boy, I used to go for walks with my grandfather, who had known poverty during the economic depression of the 1920s, and how you could sense the memory of that time, the pain and fear, still being active in him, even though he rarely spoke about it.

The students are asked to make lists of the things they have bought because they really needed them and the things they have bought because they wanted them, because they fulfilled a psychological need. Then they are asked to describe for each item what need it fulfilled. I explain how it appears that after World War I American business, afraid of industrial overcapacity, started to consciously persuade the public to buy things they did not strictly need. This was the birth of modern advertising. People began to buy in order to feel better about themselves, to emphasize their individuality or as an act of ‘creativity’. Together we discuss the connection between one person’s drive for psychological security and another person’s physical hardship.

Economic history is a good place to explore how our knowledge and ideas of the social world are themselves agents in that world. We note that in our syllabus there is no mention of the environment, as environmental science is seen as a separate discipline, and we explore what this may mean. We discuss how the syllabus establishes the West as the norm and the ‘developing nations’ as falling short of that norm. We see how, in the post-war period, different historical explanations have given rise to different economic policies.

We look at how in most western European countries and the United States the illusion of political choice is kept alive by the main parties, as they exaggerate their differences but have largely identical policies. We discuss how, with globalization, power is taken away from the public sector and elected politicians and ends up in the hands of multinational companies that are accountable mostly to their shareholders. We look at how the media are increasingly in the hands of a few large corporations and how the media stories help legitimize the status quo.

As the class becomes more aware of the scale of global poverty and how the rich are implicated in it, we explore how the status quo is legitimised. We discuss how even such ideas as equal opportunity and meritocracy have legitimized inequality, starting with competition and the examination system in education.

We discuss how in popular music and films the affectionate, caring relationship between man and woman is idealized, and the loving family is the cornerstone of society. We see a contradiction in this: we are supposed to be caring at home, but compete with and be indifferent towards those who are outside our inner circle. It is stories from our daily experience that provide the context, the wholeness, in which the syllabus content swims like a fish.

As we reach the end of this part of the course, the students interview people in the school. They try to find out how people perceive the economic reality they live in and how they see their own role in it. The main aim is to find out how people come to terms with living in a world that seems in many ways to be deeply contradictory and cruelly indifferent to the suffering of others. The students are often surprised by how little many adults know about the international economy.

Every now and then there is a nagging voice in my head: ‘Am I indoctrinating the students with Left Wing propaganda?’ and ‘It can’t be as bad as all that, surely the world is a fairer place than I am making it out to be.’ But then I am reminded of the simple reality: as a human race we are technologically very advanced and yet so many lack the basic necessities of life, and this does raise serious questions.

One wonders whether it is true that we have the choice either to live a life in pursuit of pleasure or to live a life dedicated to understanding ourselves, the deep structures of our consciousness. The two seem to be very different movements, which are perhaps even mutually exclusive. In the pursuit of pleasure we wish to see life as it is fades and we are more willing to buy into the myths of society, and become indifferent to the suffering of others. Finding out the truth about contemporary economic history, and how we are part of it, may require shedding the illusions we have about ourselves, and coming face to face with the truth of what we are.

When the students leave the classroom at the end of the lesson, some are already focused on what is to come next. Some are still taking time to pack up, as if reluctant and not quite ready, as if they need some time to integrate what they have discovered. I wonder what it is they are learning. Are they learning to be critical thinkers? Are they getting a solid knowledge about the world? Are they learning to reflect on their actions and to connect these to other aspects of life, to society as a whole? As I sit observing how they take their belongings, their folders, coats and pencil-cases, and make for the door, I find myself listening for something, intently, listening not for a word or a sound, but for the students to carry with them a sense of attention.