Be afraid, it's good for you

5th September 2008 at 01:00

"Computing for the Terrified" is a fabulous title for a course. It's meant to reassure technophobes that they're not alone in fearing that the computer will blow up or that a terminal error message really is the end of the world. I like to imagine, though, that the title is designed to scare them witless. The course information leaflet would begin "Scaredy- cat? Too frightened to have a go?" and end "Dare to come and join us. And be scared. Be very, very scared", in that sneery, movie trailer voice.

Would it entice learners? Probably not. We have been living, it appears, in a risk-averse society and the result is that we're a bunch of big fearties who cannot stand on our own two feet.

You may well have smiled at the recent press stories of daft calls made to the Japanese police: "My fork seems to be bent" or "I think there may be something on my head." No weirder, surely, than the collection of emergency messages my other half compiled during his career as a firefighter: "Lady may have burnt toast" or "hamster behind wall" or "mop stuck up tree". It's good to know that there's no problem so small that someone else won't deal with it for us, while we wail and wring our hands in the background.

In education, we promote skills such as enterprise, initiative and problem solving, but it's often difficult to develop these skills in a real and risky situation. At the end of last session, the HNC class was tasked with producing work to professional standards to a real deadline involving real costs and real responsibilities.

As the project went on, it began, as it does every year, to look flaky. A colleague panicked and wanted to step in and sort things out. "They'll be fine," I said. "There's time. They'll do it." Did I know that? No. Was I worried? Yes. But having worked in the industry, isn't that how it is? Dead scary, as my learners defined it.

More often, though, we wrap our young people in cotton wool, it's suggested, and are becoming a society of lily-livered wimps, afraid of our own shadows.

Well, even if that's true, the signs are the pendulum is swinging back and we're embracing risk. Pre-schoolers in Fife have the opportunity to join an outdoor nursery where they can take risks and learn by experience. One mum said: "No one wants them to come to any harm, but they've got to learn - in as safe an environment as is possible."

And while we worry about imposing too many psychological stresses on our youngsters, there's Eros Vlahos, a 12-year-old who's just done comedy stand-up on the Edinburgh fringe. Yes, his mum worries. "When he's standing up there alone, you can't do anything for him", she's said.

That's why he does it, Mum.

Many of our adult returners walk through our doors for the first time because they, like young Eros, have the courage to take a risk - for them maybe a life-changing risk. But I accept we're not all in Eros's league yet. Perhaps I would tone down that course leaflet a tad. "Come and join us," I would say nicely. "And be a little, tiny bit scared."

Carol Gow lectures in media at Dundee College.

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