What price relevance?

25th March 2005 at 00:00
Dumbing down culture and 'difficult' subjects reflects a loss of belief in universal human aspirations, says Stuart Waiton

ost Government advertisements at the moment seem to do little but annoy me and the recent one for teaching has also managed to hit the mark. Being a teacher is promoted as a way of having fun with the crazy kids - kids who are apparently "the most exciting people in the world". Now love or loathe young people, surely the most exciting people in a school should be the teachers who inspire youngsters, while it is children in the playground who should be having "fun", not the teacher - shouldn't it?

This view of teachers inspiring pupils by imparting knowledge and culture is, my friend tells me, rather old-fashioned and, in a recent discussion with his boss at school, he was informed that teachers who think they teach "subjects" should "get their coats". What my friend's boss meant was that teachers are teachers of children, not subjects.

Part of this "teaching of children" means, of course, being relevant. This need to relate was most recently promoted by Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, who raised the possibility of black-only classes to relate more directly to black youth who are failing to achieve academically.

However, this discussion has also taken place around the issue of vocational training, where academic subjects are talked down by Government officials in their promotion of acquiring "skills" relevant to working class teenagers.

Both discussions come out of the confusion over what it means to be educated and cultured. Indeed, to argue for culture is today highly problematic and connected with denunciations of elitism. But this "anti-elitism" promoted by today's elites, and their attempt to be relevant, simply re-creates the divisions in society they appear to be so concerned about.

This was brought home to me a few years ago at a Royal Society discussion about education. The guest speaker showed a video of young people in America who had learnt about Shakespeare by relating his "stories" to their own lives. As an introduction to Shakespeare for children, this is not a problem. But such "education" of children was seen as a positive, inclusive thing in itself. Of course, the key to Shakespeare's longevity and place within culture has little to do with his "stories", but rather his use of language and the exploration of complex and universal human emotions - none of which was being transmitted.

Despite the audience applauding this method of teaching, it was clear that they themselves were highly cultured and wanted their children to learn about the real Romeo, not the rap Romeo. Similarly, despite their arguments about vocational education, I have little doubt that Government ministers will be pushing their kids to achieve academically rather than to learn a trade.

However, relevance is not simply a con to "keep the workers in their place" but reflects both an embarrassment of elitism by the new anti-elites and a loss of belief in social development and universal human aspirations.

Rather than culture, we are left with the promotion of cultures, where black youth is taught about black poets and how to play "traditional" instruments.

Similarly, with the loss of belief in the potential for social equality, working class kids are offered vocational education and a pat on the head from education gurus who promote its worth to ensure "parity of esteem" - an "equality" of feeling good about yourself.

Schools and teachers cannot overcome all the social inequalities that exist today, but knowledge and culture are the property of no class and should be celebrated and promoted to all. This means teaching subjects that are in fact irrelevant to the experiences of working class children - indeed to most children; by having a passion for knowledge and the subject being taught; and by relating not the subject to the child but the child to the subject.

To do otherwise would be simply to accept that "they are what they are" and follow the Government line of promoting good teachers as those who get down with the kids and make them feel good about themselves.

Stuart Waiton is director of GenerationYouthIssues.org.

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