Dumbing down: role models and the dangers of easy affluence

The grass is always greener and the past is always golden, (though in future the summers will be longer and hotter, but that just goes to show, doesn’t it?)

Where was I? Oh yes.

Attention spans are shorter these days, exams are easier, people are fatter and lazier, and we are all going to hell in a web-enabled Wii HDTV-ready handcart.

Three things I read recently and one thing I heard made me feel that this view could be true.

The history of Radio 3 and of its predecessor the Third Programme says that when it was founded in the late 1940s it was “very attractive to” 4% of the working class. Not a high proportion but still a large number of people, people who by their own accounts included Sir Peter Hall, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and Harold Pinter. I was listening to Sir Arnold Wesker on Radio 4, talking about his working-class childhood in the East End, a childhood which was full of love, ideas, discussion and debate. These days when working class kids make good we get Victoria Beckham, Jade Goody and, goddess help us all, Ant and Dec.

Then I read these two blogs.

About half way through a post about something else, Diaphanous quotes article in Der Spiegel.

The main premise is that while a lot of people who are “poor” today have as much material as the middle classes of an earlier era did, they are poor in a different sense.

The modern-day member of the underclass is not hungry … it is not material poverty that separates him from others.

Rather, what stand out are the symptoms of intellectual neglect. The poor of today watch television for half the day. These days, television producers even refer to what they call “Underclass TV.”

But the main thing that sets the modern poor apart from the industrial age pauper is a sheer lack of interest in education. … He likewise makes little effort to open the door to the future for his own children. Their language skills are as bad as their ability to concentrate. The rising rate of illiteracy is matched by the shrinking opportunities to integrate the underclass.

When you read about poor people in times past, it seems like there was often an insistence by the parents that their children get more and a better education than they themselves had. When I see rural poverty cycling through generations today I don’t see that; instead I see one generation shoving over on the couch so that the kids can watch monster truck rallies. On cable – of course, they have cable. There’s no money for books or music lessons but there’s always money for cable TV or a satellite dish.


The eerie apricot says that that this is not just about low expectations and a lack of ambition at home, she says that schools like the one she teaches in are also responsible:

… it’s that all the adults in their lives … do not encourage them to achieve. When the students do only the minimum, we all shower them with praise and attention. Later, in advanced classes or the real world, when they are asked and expected to give one hundred percent, suddenly the students are overwhelmed and their self-esteem suffers. No one has ever asked or expected one hundred percent from them before. Every task becomes “too difficult” and they give up without a fight. We do a serious disservice to these kids …

How do we expect the children to learn to take things seriously when the school and the parents do not?

the eerie apricot

I urge you to both posts in full – the eerie apricot in particular describes the most shocking and depressing school concert I could ever envision.

I don’t have any answers but I am sure that both the eerie apricot and Diaphanous are asking the right questions. There are other questions of course.

Surely ambition needs you (a) to dislike where you are now, (b) to know that there is something better, and (c) to believe that it is possible for you personally to get from a to b? These days “something better” is celebrity rather than achievement. Young people now want to be famous. They don’t want to be famous for anything, just famous.

Education used to be the route out. The advantage of a meritocracy is that it rewards people who are able, and education is the quickest and simplest way to improve your capabilities. It is a system which rewards academic and sometimes artistic achievement. It isn’t quick and simple, but it used to be quicker and simpler and more likely that a working class boy would get a degree than, say, to marry an heiress.

Now we have a pulchritocracy, the rule of the beautiful. Why bother working at school when a pubic wax, a fake tan, a reality TV show and maybe an opportunist celebrity bonk can give you all the designer labels your bedazzled heart desires?

The spiralling ironies of the story of Chantelle Houghton illustrates this perfectly. She was a pretty but not a successful girl who got her 15 minutes on Celebrity Big Brother. She succeeded in fooling the real celebrities that she was a singer in a girl-band, even though she wasn’t. She looked vaguely familiar to them though because she looks like Paris Hilton. So what we are talking about here is a woman whose route to vacuous fame is being a cheaper and even chavvier version of Paris Hilton. The mind reels.

But if the problem is the fatuousness of the role models provided by our all-pervasive celebrity culture, what is the answer?

I wish I knew.

PS – in reading the Wikipedia entries I’ve linked to I found this:

[Jade] Goody competed in Celebrity Mastermind in 2006 for Sport Relief. Her specialist subject was EastEnders, but she was beaten by Chantelle Houghton, whose specialist subject was Coronation Street.

I am now speechless.

4 responses to “Dumbing down: role models and the dangers of easy affluence

  1. You cannot imagine how pleased I am that I missed that Celebrity Mastermind. I even feel as though I should be making those annoying quote marks in the air as I type both the word Celebrity and the word Mastermind there. I feel nervous just imagining the general knowledge round.

    People are definitely fatter and lazier. I don’t know about hell in a handcart just yet, but it is distressing. Aside from money, what are the benefits of being famous for being famous? Surely there aren’t any. If you become famous for sleeping with a celebrity, how long can it be before the ‘my dirty night of passion with…’ stories are about you?

    Nobody seems to want to think any more. It’s too much like hard work.

  2. love the post…and/but….education is not necessarily the answer anymore…it may have been when the elite boys where at it, but everyone has a chance at it and now all a 4 year undergrad will get you is in the door. It’s no longer about grad school but which grad school and with whom you studied, etc. And then there’s the on-going gal vs guy pay scale. And the good ole boy network (at least here in Ama where we still haven’t elected a female President and heaven help us Hilary is all we’ve got – my hopes are on Obama). If you see no one that looks like you who’s found a way out, you’re liable to believe there isn’t one.

  3. Education was wonderful if you were part of the 1-2% who took part in it. That left 98% of tyhe population to do the necessary drudge work. Growing the food to feed your thoughts, cleaning your house so you had an uncluttered space to think, making your clothes so you could show that you were of the educated class.

    Universal education has created a group (like 98%) of people who, because of their education, know that they will not make it to the heights. There is no Nobel for them, not even a PhD or a BA. Unlike their ancestors who knew nothing better, the modern generation of educated drop-outs know that there is something better than running the sewerage works, or driving a truck, or taking in ironing. They know there is something better and they know they will never have it.

    Why not go for cheap celebrity as a way of making quick money? It may be the only way out for a loser.

    Sorry for the cynicism but the current drift to the right in the Western World gets to me on occasion.

  4. Thank you all for reading and for giving me much food for thought.

    Hello again Mr Librarian. 🙂 You ask “what are the benefits of being famous for being famous?” – I guess it is about recognition and acknowledgement.

    Hi Tammy, thanks for dropping by. You are so right in all that you say. There are only so many knowledge workers that we need, I guess. Then we hire students and even graduates and put them in call centres, pay them peanuts and give them scripts to read. That is soul-destroying work. You are also right about needing role models. That could divert us off onto all sorts of conversations about what we call positive discrimination in the UK, (I think in the US you call it quotas). Of course, the most accessible and believable role models for pretty and talentless girls are other pretty and talentless girls, so the celebrity culture breeds celebrity wannabes.

    Hi Archie. Welcome to my blog. I think you are right, that universal education is pointless if it doesn’t lead anywhere. But I found myself wondering if part of the problem is that we don’t have skilled artisan jobs any more because factory based manufacturing is so much cheaper.

    In the good-old-bad-old days there was a huge need for skilled artisans, to make shoes or clothes, to shoe horses, to make furniture, and so on. We do still need skilled tradesmen to build houses, plaster walls, and fix our boilers, but as the plumber said to me last night – the paperwork takes longer than the job.

    If you had spent five or seven years learning a trade you had your living in your hands, status in the community, and a degree of self-respect. you were also reasonably well off, as plumbers are today. Of course, the downside was that necessities were so expensive that no-one could afford luxuries, and that huge numbers of people, women in particular, had to go into domestic service.

    I dont want to romanticise the past, but surely what is missing is a sense of security within the world, and a sense of personal ability and self-respect, which a lot of people got because they had a trade even if thet did not have an education. Factory work was dangerous and exploititive, but if you were a cobbler, or a tanner, or a blacksmith, or a tailor, or a stonemason you had a portable skill, and a certain amount of independence compared with a factory worker or farm labourer for example.

    Anyway, thank you all for prompting me to think further on the subject, and thank you all for taking the time to say what you think.

    Alll the best


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