Why we will always need our Atkins diets

30th June 2006 at 01:00
I vividly remember trying to lose weight around 1974. I cut out potatoes and bread, and ate steak. I had never opened a diet book; I was following what, at the time, seemed the generally accepted method of slimming down.

Only years later, as the low-carb Atkins diet swept the world, did I realise I had been following his regime. Indeed, I discovered Dr Atkins' Diet Revolution first topped the best-seller lists in the United States in 1973.

Atkins worked for me. So did the low-fat diet I adopted on another occasion. Make of that what you will. Nowadays, I avoid cola and crisps and otherwise eat what I like. I regard all diets as fads.

Food is particularly associated with fads. But fads come and go in many areas of life - management, medicine, politics and education. The idea, currently exciting the media, of giving children fish oil capsules to improve performance is one example. I am almost certain the exclusive teaching of synthetic phonics is another. I am absolutely certain that the "brain gym", recently a subject of intense argument on the TES website, is a fad.

Fads are defined in a marvellous new book, Flavor of the month: why smart people fall for fads, by Joel Best, an American sociologist.

Fads are distinct from fashions, he argues, because the latter have a fairly predictable cycle. Nobody expected padded shoulders to continue for ever. Each fad, however, is promoted as an enduring solution to a significant and stubborn problem. Diets claim to cure obesity, alternative medicine therapies to cure cancer, synthetic phonics to cure reading failure. The Blair government has been notably faddish, taking up and then dropping ideas such as communitarianism and stakeholding. But each was initially presented as "the big idea" to reshape politics and society for all time.

Since there are not many different ways of teaching reading, the favoured method tends to oscillate between phonics and look-and-say, although "real books", Reading Recovery and, indeed, fish oils have all had their moments.

According to office folklore, quoted by Professor Best, most new projects, after the first phase of wild enthusiasm, go through phases of disillusionment, total confusion, search for the guilty, and persecution of the innocent. Look-and-say is now well into that final phase. The difficulty is to distinguish between fads and solutions that will endure.

Teaching the masses to read at all was probably regarded in some quarters of Victorian England as a fad. But I suspect phonics will eventually decline and look-and-say will be back.

Is education particularly susceptible to fads? We tend to think of fads as rather silly things. But enthusiasm for new ideas is just a way of re-asserting our belief in progress and perfectibility. Fads are inventions of Western modernity. You didn't get too many of them in the Middle Ages, and you still don't in Saudi Arabia.

Teachers, like politicians, have to believe they can make the world better if they are not to plunge themselves and everybody else into depression.

They will always, therefore, embrace the new. But the professions keenest on new ideas are also the ones most susceptible to the later stages of disillusionment and confusion. In a capitalist economy, it is impossible for all businesses to succeed all the time.

In management an audience eager for the next big thing will always exist.

Likewise, in education, it is impossible to make every child an above-average reader. There will always be teachers somewhere struggling with lagging seven-year-olds and convinced pupils could read War and Peace if only someone found the right method. And though I have often mocked the latest educational fads, I don't think I would want it any other way.

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