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.
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?
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.