Competing with the cult of celebrity

29th November 2002 at 00:00
TEACHING has always had an image problem. Many people regard it as a worthy but dull occupation, pursued by earnest individuals who lack the drive to do anything more adventurous. Certainly in the eyes of the young it lacks glamour and excitement, and the fact that the financial rewards are modest doesn't help.

These perceptions are not new, but at a time when the cult of celebrity is dominant they make the job of teaching even more difficult than usual.

Television daily features people of limited talent who are highly paid for being outrageous or offensive or prepared to subject themselves to public humiliation. It is easy to rail against a trivialised media culture with its tacky game shows, self-promoting "personalities" and dumbing-down of serious issues. Such condemnation cuts little ice with the young who are avid viewers of Fame Academy and Popstars - the Rivals, programmes which hold out the prospect of instant success in the entertainment world.

Even the intellectual position of teachers is now challenged. In a recent survey of situations that young people find funny, the most popular joke among 11-15s involved a teacher who asked her pupils: "Everyone who thinks they're stupid, stand up."

After a few seconds, Johnny stands up.

"So you think you're stupid," says the teacher.

"No," Johnny says, "but I hate to see you standing there all by yourself."

There have been one or two ill-advised attempts to rebrand teaching and give it a racier image. An ITV programme designed to find "Britain's sexiest teacher" drew a union comment to the effect that it was "a demeaning performance which undermined the professional reputation of teachers".

Fortunately, there is unlikely to be a market for "kiss and tell" confessions by leading educationists - another common route to celebrity.

Against this background, what can teachers do? They are well aware that, although a tiny minority of their pupils may achieve fast-track success through sport, music or acting, the vast majority will have to find less glamorous routes to personal fulfilment. The kind of learning that teachers seek to promote involves sustained effort over an extended period.

It is often difficult and frustrating. The rewards, when they come, are more likely to be psychological than material. The fact that they may have lifelong benefits is unlikely to be a persuasive argument for those youngsters who find school "boring" and who are impressed - some would say taken in - by the allurements of public recognition, however achieved.

The shelf-life of many celebrities is short - often because they have a remarkable propensity to press the "self-destruct" button through drink or drugs. Even that is unlikely to be a deterrent. While some youngsters recognise that to remain at the top in any field requires real talent and hard work, many would be happy to settle for Andy Warhol's "15 minutes of fame" if it meant a temporary escape from the tedium of their present existence.

There is, of course, no quick fix to these dilemmas. Teachers rightly concentrate on values that are enduring rather than ephemeral. And we should not be over-pessimistic. Schools do their best to celebrate individual and collective success, and encourage ambition grounded in real achievement.

Moreover, in education - unlike many of the fields where celebrities hold sway - it is never too late. The vastly increased opportunities for people to take up education in adult life mean that, whatever their experience of school, they can pick up the pieces and see what learning has to offer. With luck, they may even come to think that teachers are not so dull after all.

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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