Schools are losers in the cult of fame

4th August 2006 at 01:00
Reality television undermines our efforts to create a society where achievement matters, says Ewan Aitken

y family has become used to me being stopped in the strangest of places by constituents, church members and folk whose path I have crossed through the "hatch, match and dispatch process". I once was hailed at 11.30pm as I put the bin out by someone wanting to discuss a local problem. A woman in a bank queue was adamant I had married her and she said so loudly.

And a taxi driver was confused that I couldn't remember him because I had buried his brother; the fact that that was five years and 400 funerals ago and that I could only see the back of his head didn't seem to cross his mind.

Recently, however, I had probably the most bizarre such experience. I was in the Royal Commonwealth Pool in Edinburgh with my son, known locally as "the Commie pool". Swimming is free for all under-12s in Edinburgh pools, and it is therefore a cheap (and healthy) activity which he enjoys - so we are regulars.

I was greeted by a group of kids from my ward, some of whom knew me from the local school. We had a bit of banter, but then one of their friends I didn't know asked: "Are you famous?"

"No," I said.

"Yes you are," says he, "I've seen you on the telly."

Then he turns to his pals and says: "That's cool, being famous and still coming to the Commie pool!"

I am not famous nor shall I ever be so. I have certainly never seen myself, nor have I ever been described as "cool".

What happens to me in terms of people stopping to talk to me is a reflection of doing or having done two jobs with a public face in a small city. My role as education spokesperson at the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities adds another dimension but it's the role, not me as a person, that is of any significance.

What struck me as particularly worrying about this wee lad's comments was the idea that just being on the telly was enough to be famous and therefore "cool". I know how unreal his comments were in relation to me, but how does he see what is real and meaningful for the rest of his existence if he could say that of me?

The Big Brother phenomenon, along with many of the other so-called reality television shows, take this understanding to its logical, and in my view, destructive conclusion. Big Brother is about as manipulated an experience as could have ever been imagined. Its product tells us little about the human condition or the reality of 21st century living.

Yet its winners seek, and in some cases achieve, fame for doing nothing of significance. Talent-free fails adequately to describe them. But it feeds this idea that public exposure is enough to justify fame.

Many of the participants, when asked why they are on the show, say simply "to be famous". That is such an unreal ambition. It used to be that people were famous for something, the application of a talent or their wealth or status (elected or otherwise). Whether all justified fame was debatable, they were at least identifiable as real reasons for fame. Being on the telly was not enough.

We look to schools to inspire young people to achieve the best with the talents they have. We create initiatives like Determined to Succeed for enterprise education. We describe outcomes for education such as "confident individuals, successful learners, responsible citizens and effective contributors", which attempts to be meaningful in a way that does not see fame as an objective.

Instead, we encourage schools to celebrate achievement in the widest sense.

All of this is based on a paradigm which says that, among other things, fame is not an end in itself; other things in life and in living are much more significant, and worth much more in reality.

Yet schools now have a powerful competitor which claims to be real and offers a different view of what matters - fame and recognition without hard work, the nurture of talent or the achievement of great things. This is not healthy for pupils or for society as a whole. This trend heralds a reality that, I believe, holds many dangers, not just for those fooled by the ephemeral nature of fame but for what we as a society see as a meaningful life.

If what we create is a world view that says it is not what you do that matters but simply how well you are known, we will lose the potential that is in young people. The result will be a reality where all of us, not just young people, will be worse off - all for the lure of fame.

Ewan Aitken is education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and executive member for children and families on Edinburgh City Council.

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