Friday, April 13, 2007

For somebody who didn't go to a 'proper' University to do my Undergrad, and didn't do a 'solid traditional' course for my MA, I feel alienated about most of the discourse that exists around Higher Education and the people who navigate the system. This has been compounded by three articles published in the Daily Telegraph over the last two days: one by Boris Johnson on Grade Inflation; one by Bryony Gordon on a generation of young men; and this morning's article by Jeff Randall on the cheapening of degrees

Certain things never get mentioned: a chosen course should be the subject that one finds most interesting and stimulating, not most difficult; many young people are imaginative, innovative and irrepressible, exams are always stressful, but to be able to sit in a library and study all day is, to some, a pleasure and a privilege; most so-called "serious" courses of what many Conservatives believe to be the Golden-Age of education (the 50s to the 70s) are more impractical for industry than much-maligned courses like Media Studies and Sociology.

Here is an article from The Times that I cut out 2 days before A-Level results day 2004. It was a time when I was absorbed in my studies and other disciplines but knowing that a hard rain was gonna fall.

The Times Tuesday August 17 2004

Good luck, kids. There’s a lot more to making the grade than A-Levels.
Libby Purves

It’s A-Level results week. Rituals will take place. Newspapers will carry pictures of girls in tight, strappy tops, shrieking attractively. Education pundits will chunter about grade inflation. Ministers will say that whatever happens just proves what a good job the Government is doing.

Meanwhile, university admissions officers will sweat over figures praying that they were not so over-generous with offers that they end up with insufficient tutors or accommodation. In families where someone didn’t make their grades, determined parents will stand over sons and daughters while they phone the faculty in quavering voices to beg for clemency. There will be a political row about private schools.

And, most dispiriting of all, there will be a rush for “clearing”. This is a grim business whereby universities – desperate to get bums on seats – publish lists of vacancies, and students with bruised egos calculate whether Business with American film at Grubthorpe will prove an adequate replacement for Modern American History at Rummidge. Actually, it might. But it might not: and such decisions are over-hasty. You are 18 and terrified at being left out of the loop and not at “uni” like your mates, so you plunge. One in six of you then drops out, in debt and still without a degree.

By and large, it ought to be a hopeful week, a mass launching of keen teenagers into the first phase of adult life. Sadly, it often isn’t. There is unease in the air, born of the widespread questioning of exam standards, university admissions and degrees themselves. There is also healthy, but depressing, scepticism about the Government’s unsupported conviction that however much you expand Higher Education, a degree will confer higher earnings. In the name of this belief it insouciantly throws young people into enormous debt, and some cases endorses three years of drifting and dissipated idleness.

Moreover, hanging over even the happiest students is the uncomfortable knowledge that, on present trends, some eight million will be back home in three years’ time, living with weary parents and applying for even duller jobs.

It is not education politics I want to focus on, but something more primitive and individual. If the difficulties and decisions of this week make anything plain, it is the need for those setting out in life to have the best sort of confidence. This does not mean the insanely high self-esteem, all too familiar to employers, in which children are so overpraised that they come to believe that the world owes them a fabulous job just because they passed some exams. I mean a realistic confidence: self-knowledge, balance, a quiet awareness of what natural talents you have and how much you need to refine them.

It means intelligent observation of the real world – not the TV screen – and respect for the experience of your elders. It means a willingness to go on learning. It means being steady enough in your own emotional life, even during interludes of broken-heartedness, to endure slights at work without internalising them and wailing that you are a failure.

Real confidence means – well, just about the whole of Kipling’s If, really. It’s a lot to as. But you do see it from time to time, and its owners are blessed. They will not collapse in tears over their A-level results, or sign up for some pointless course and spend the next three years lying in till noon, alternately despising themselves and fantasising about being discovered by Steven Spielberg. They will stand aside, think carefully, then take their own path.

How can we grow such realistically confident people, willing to step away from the lemming mainstream, and trust both themselves and life? When I look around at the way we manage children from birth onwards, it seems to me that almost every trend makes us less likely to produce such steady beings. We have our babies in an atmosphere of febrile anxiety over everything from IVF to MMR; then we bombard them with material goods but with ever less parental time.

We send them, increasingly in their earliest infancy, into day nurseries whose basic flaw is demonstrated in that horrible BBC undercover film last week. It showed that where you have low-paid, low-status, pig-stupid employees, who don’t love your children, they will treat them badly. There have been various defences attempted – claims that the filming was unrepresentative, that hygiene flaws were no worse than many homes and that many mothers shout. But the sound of those girls’ loveless, contemptuous barking at confused babies was so real and frightening that even our dog got seriously upset, and came to sit shivering next to my chair for the whole programme.

What are these infants learning? That you must conform, sit on the correct mat, eat and sleep at the correct time, and never express your fear or loneliness.

Then we send them to school. Where we repeatedly test them on a rigid curriculum; this has its advantages, but conducted in large class groups it means that teachers are hampered in their instinct to respond with joyful humanity to children’s individual curiosity. Lessons are “delivered”, increasingly often by untrained classroom assistants, so there is less scope for questioning than there should be. Yet it is permission and time to question which best breeds confidence.

We lightly cause them grief by divorcing; yet at the same time we are so terrified for their physical safety that we barely trust them to go out alone, certainly not to converse with interesting strangers. Trash TV and aggressive computer games are their companions. Small wonder if fantasy grips adolescents as the family erodes. I sometimes think that the best hope for the next generation is that this lot watch The Simpsons: they at least do family life con brio and con amore.

As they grow older, we do allow them out, there to be exploited by cynical pop and fashion industries. We kowtow to an ersatz teen “culture” which is heavily sexualised. Many, in consequence, have full sex too early, assisted by sex educators handing out condoms and morning-after pills; again there is damage to developing confidence. You might think that such affair would be a maturing experience, and maybe where true love is concerned, they sometimes are. But social research proves that boys do it to prove they aren’t gay, and girls do it because the boys put pressure on. The result is that before the age of 18many children have suffered at least one full scale sexual betrayal, given themselves totally and then been dumped and traduced as a bad lay. This emotional battering may harden them outwardly, but I do not think it builds the kind of realistic, relaxed confidence which carries you happily through the transition from to adult life.

These are social trends; of course there are exceptions. There are happy, preoccupied geeks, swots, bookworms, nerds, Goths and hippies; there are children whose upbringing has been steady – or eccentric – enough to make them immune to the cruelties of fashion. There are adolescents lucky enough to have adult mentors who help them to real satisfying mastery – whether of a guitar or of a boat or a charity fundraising effort or a poetic form. There are young people who would please Kipling: who fill the unforgiving minute, trust themselves, can dream without making dreams their master, handle disasters and keep their heads – even about A-level results – when all around are losing theirs.

Of course there are. May they flourish. All I am saying is that an awful lot of verifiable social trends militate against the rising generation turning out that way. Our culture reflected in our media, is nervous, materialistic, petulant, self-indulgent, emotionally incontinent, ignorant of its roots and morbidly obsessed with appearances.

To emerge from it calm, graceful, generous, modest and hardworking is quite an achievement. More than any A grades. Good luck, kids: it’s you that count, not the label.

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