Those chimps aren't so clever

21st January 2000 at 00:00
GUILT, that's what it is, pure guilt. No, don't deny it, that's the worst thing you can do. Just admit it, you curmudgeonly failure, you substandard piece of yak dung.

Like me you are guilty as charged. You and I have let down the whole human race. Woe is us, alas, alack . . .

Oops, sorry about that. Only I have been trying to work out why I feel a stab of guilt, a sweat of remorse, or whatever the term is, every time I read about yet another supposed failure by the nation's children. Kids simply ain't what they used to be.

Did you know that chimpanzees can count as well as children? It's a fact, because it said so in the papers.

A group of chimps were able to count up as accurately as primary pupils. Damn. Another failure by the teaching profession, unless of course they had been moonlighting with the chimps down at the local zoo to supplement their meagre income.

So much for the numeracy hour, I thought, until I realised that the report had come from Japan. What a relief.

Japanese teachers will now probably get the same stick as British teachers.

On the other hand, perhaps chimps are super clever in the Far East. Maybe they sit in rows chanting their tables, while avid western observers sit and watch open-mouthed, scarcely able to contain their excitement at the novelty of witnessing whole-class interactive teaching.

This was only the latest in a long catalogue of failure by teachers and parents, locked together in their collective guilt. There was another ill-tempered attack on the poor beggars charged with bringing up the next generation a few weeks ago. "Children don't even know where their food comes from," some pundit thundered angrily in a newspaper interview.

Yes they do. It comes from Sainsbury's. They are very smart shoppers. I see them in there with their parents on Sunday mornings grabbing the last double pack of bacon with the 200 extra bonus points. "Get off you little sod, I saw it first."

"Dad, that man's trying to nick our air mile."

I once went to a Council of Europe meeting at which MPs from all over Europe lamented the ignorance of their nation's youth. "Do you know", the man from Switzerland thundered, neck puce with rage, "children in my country can't even tell apple blossom from cherry blossom nowadays?"

Collective shock rippled around the chamber as the continent's elected representatives tried heroically to simulate rage at this utterly meaningless indignation.

But, to return to the guilt trip, the issue was made clearer for me by the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. He described eight stages in human development, each of which was accompanied by a potential crisis. The stage that many teachers and parents are in is the phase of "middle adulthood" when the tension is between "generativity" and "stagnation". For Erikson, "generativity" involves mentoring the next generation, hence the sense of guilt in middle age if you are accused of failing.

The retired generation of golden oldies in our society is seen as gritty and resourceful: surviving the war; for ever making nutritious soups and stews out of a carrot, a marrowbone and a pair of old socks; singing Roll out the barrel defiantly in cellars and tube stations, while flying bombs whistled overhead.

I once saw my 92-year-old great aunt running for a bus and missing it, two heavy bags in her hands. When she had finished shouting a mouthful of abuse at the departing bus driver, I asked her why she was so angry. "I do the shopping for the old folks", she said, "and they'll get upset if I'm late back." It makes you sick.

We middle-aged wimps are thus caught between envy of these elderly superheroes and our futile attempts to bring up younger generations that regard us as old-fashioned fogies, longing for our flares and round-toed sandals. Every perceived failure cuts us to the quick.

But if chimps are so bloody clever then perhaps they should be solving the teacher recruitment crisis. After all, if you pay peanuts you get monkeys.


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