Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Sunday 30 September 2012

Jeremy Forrest and the Faustian Pact

Back in the high-and-far-off-times when I first approached the chalkface, there was an unwritten code.

A new teacher is an anomaly; placed in a position of unquestionable authority, in loco parentis, he or she requires obedience and respect from pupils who may be only three or four years younger.

The trade-off for this and for the benefits of the profession - long holidays, a good starting salary and several dozen intelligent and articulate colleagues - was once clear; whatever you chose to do outside the classroom, you never socialised with pupils outside the school setting or allowed them information about your private life. After the heady freedom of your student years, it was time for teaching to claim your soul.

In a small town like the one where I first worked, this had clear implications; most teachers avoided certain places or types of recreation as a matter of course. The consequence of a keen-eyed sixth-former regaling his classmates with accounts of your extra-curricular activities was too much of a risk, however innocent your conduct.

To avoid being mistaken for pupils - a common occupational hazard for recent graduates when academic gowns ceased to be the norm - many young teachers adopted the mannerisms, dress and conduct of their elders while at work. In effect, in many ways, we stepped straight into middle age, as befitted adults expected to set an example of good behaviour to the young people under our literal tutelage.

It was a pact entered into willingly by many who chose the profession - a sacrifice, but also a valuable way to reinforce the pupil-teacher divide as much for our own protection as for that of the pupils. While a few teachers flaunted their grasp of youth culture and their close relationship with pupils, the majority realised that they had to be as far above suspicion as Caesar's wife.

The intervening years, however, have brought temptation in the form of electronic media and thus far greater sacrifices. The same constraints that cause me to hide behind a pseudonym here render it highly inadvisable for me to appear anywhere online under my own name - and, as for facebook, the case is best summed up in the words of JuliaM (who has written several interesting posts on the subject): 'Facebook and teachers - like matter and anti-matter'.

It's not exactly an overwhelming temptation for grizzled veterans like me, I must admit, but I find something worrying in the way a new generation of teachers seems to have abandoned the idea of sacrificing certain aspects of social life as a result of their choice of profession.

When somewhere between 15% and 30% of teachers claim to have been subject to cyberbullying (depending on your source), you have to ask what they are they doing leaving themselves open to it in the first place. In the same way, one has to wonder about the level of commitment of teachers who allow their drunken holiday snaps to appear in facebook.

Teaching, like monasticism (or, perhaps more pertinently, the Roman Catholic priesthood), once had a dual intake - those with a clear vocation and those who drifted into it for want of something better; the latter were often weeded out within a few years unless they could develop the sense of purpose necessary to cope with the demands of what can be a highly stressful job. It is not unreasonable, I think, to suggest that they would also be more likely than highly committed staff to engage in inappropriate relationships with girls or boys in their care.

Take a closer look now, though, and the waters are somewhat muddier. The DfE is currently advertising bursaries of up to £20,000 for graduates who train as maths teachers - a sore temptation to a debt-laden twenty-something finding today's job market a challenge, even if he or she is temperamentally unsuited and ill-equipped to cope with the unique pressures and demands of a life in secondary education.

The sad truth of the matter is that, even allowing for media exaggeration, a man who tweets pictures of his latest flowery tattoos and expresses himself in overblown song lyrics, with his guitar-playing alter ego and his 'fairytale wedding', 'dream holidays' and romantic gestures, sounds as if he was neither ready nor willing to sign away the trappings of his youthful lifestyle in exchange for a successful career.

Monday 24 September 2012

'Be good, sweet child, and let who will be clever'

Hot on the heels of recent musings on the insult to adult consumers offered by products in primary colours comes an infuriating unsolicited mailshot from an insurance company.

"Want a sweeter deal?" it enquires, as it describes yet another financial product I don't need, "Sound tempting?"

It's not just the siren words that are irritating in the extreme, it's the accompanying illustrations; three card inserts featuring photographs of brightly coloured jelly sweets.

I'm over 40 years old and - last time I checked - in full possession of my faculties; why should I be attracted by pictures of a pile of fruit gums?

I admit I'm partial to the odd square bar of chocolate in moments of stress - which is, I supppose, quite understandable if there is any vestige of truth in the recent 'scientific findings' summarily debunked by the supremely rational Leg-Iron (in a post with the inspired title 'Chocolate - the opium of the massive'). 

I do not, however, find anything remotely appealing in the sight of a pile of possibly e-number-ridden jelly bears.

And why should I? What has persuaded a company dealing exclusively in money to go to the trouble and expense of sending me pictures of confectionery in the hope it will induce me to sign up for - of all things - health insurance?

The only answer I can come up with is the spreading infantilisation of our society. The default expectation, universally spread and promoted by the media, is that women like pretty, colourful things and men like toys and games and other reminders of their younger selves - the mailshot presumably hopes to catch both.

From the cartoon characters in television adverts to catchy slogans in bank windows, the financial sector has followed the retail one and dumbed down to a frightening extent, just as customers need more knowledge and understanding than ever before to negotiate the complicated range of products and services on offer.

And need we ask who benefits from a populace fixated on trivia and self-indulgence? The obvious answer is that the economy needs us to see life in terms of consumer treats. Mature adults plan ahead, they save money rather than spending it - or borrowing - which doesn't help at all if you see economic growth as a necessity. 'Carpe diem', chorus the media; 'it's for the common good'.

But more to the point - and more sinister - is the inevitable conclusion that an infantile population is easier to control. As long as the people concentrate on the pursuit of pleasure or the latest playground craze, our political and financial masters can carry on deceiving and exploiting us and living it up at our expense.

Friday 21 September 2012

Mind that child!

(image: BBC News)

The price of child safety is - or should be - ceaseless vigilance.

Sadly, it's not always possible. Accidents happen; this month has seen calls for something to be done about children accidentally biting into or bursting liquitabs of detergent and suffering chemical burns as a result.

Parents have called for child-proof boxes, although many manufacturers (or, to be accurate, the handful of multinationals behind myriad brands) claim their packaging is already too difficult for young children to open. In any case, this seems to be evading the issue of the child having access to the box at all.

Constant supervision, of course, should prevent such occurrences but even the most vigilant parent looks away sometimes. The elephant in the room - and an important one - is that the risk is greatly reduced if the supervising parent has the intelligence, maturity and common sense to predict and anticipate hazardous situations before they occur.

Having raised a hyperactive child with the climbing skills of a marmoset and the levels of self-preservation once wrongly attributed to the lemming (not to mention his older brother, an infant Houdini who escaped onto a main road on his first day at playgroup and could extricate himself from any harness or car seat in 20 seconds flat), I am only too aware of the astonishing potential of toddlers to get themselves into trouble and of the precautions necessary to protect them.

Out and about today, I am constantly amazed at the sight of small children running loose in town centres; what happened to the reins that were - briefly - everywhere after the abduction of James Bulger? Cursory research tells me that they are now seen as unwanted restraint, an attitude perhaps imported via media coverage of 'celebrity mums' in the freedom-loving USA, where a woman once threatened to report my sister to the authorities for having her child 'on a leash like a dog'.

Meanwhile, the wooden playpen - that staple of the 50s and 60s nursery - seems to have vanished, leaving in its wake the occasional mesh-sided modified travel cot. This may have been a result of accidents caused by limbs caught between bars - though that doesn't seem to have stopped ordinary cots - or because parents were leaving children unsupervised in them for hours.

Though any such device is open to abuse, there is surely far more risk to the child in the lack of a safe place to put it while you answer the door/phone/call of nature. It may be a good joke in 'Back to the Future' when the hero realises that the infant in the playpen is his future jailbird uncle - "Better get used to those bars, kid!" - but I wonder whether its demise genuinely is in part due to cultural disapproval of an archaic form of restraint.

However, if we are to dispense with these aids to child safety, they need to be replaced with constant attention and, more than that, the ability to foresee what a child is likely to do. There have been plenty of cynical comments about Darwinism to accompany the stories of children eating detergent, but it can't be denied that the child of an immature or careless mother is more likely to encounter such a hazard.

There is another dimension to this particular story; the qualities that attract the children to the liquitabs in the first place. They are certainly eye-catching - brightly coloured, translucent and squeezable; just the sort of thing that small children want to put in their mouths - but these unnecessary bright colours are aimed fairly and squarely at the target consumers - adults.

It is, frankly, an insult to the consumer's intelligence. We are looking at a market so infantilised that manufacturers turn out products based purely on visual appeal, even when selling detergent. There's no need for it to be bright pink, or purple or yellow for it to do its job; the signals these products send out are aimed straight for the shopper's inner child.

They aren't the only ones; we are bombarded on all sides by advertisers encouraging us to indulge ourselves in chocolate, ice-cream or prettily-coloured shampoo (not so far removed chemically from the liquitabs, I'd guess) or treat ourselves to new gadgets and CDs - a world of entitlement to pursue childish tastes and pleasures with no place for adult responsibilities.

The trouble with this culture - however much it may delight those seeking to encourage economic growth - is that it leaves little room for such important matters as bringing up the next generation safely.

Monday 10 September 2012

"Too Much Too Young"

A few days ago, A K Haart wrote about the sudden mental twinge caused by a momentary glimpse of the human condition:

It’s very brief and not a reasoned reaction or coherent thought.[...] Something just clicks into place then life goes on. It’s not a flash of anger at how things are, but more like a peep into a well of infinite disembodied sadness. But it's not sadness either - just recognition. After all, many sad things aren't worth being sad about.
There were three of them standing outside Topshop, dressed much like the window mannequins - typical young teenagers. An experienced teacher's eye would put them at 14 or 15 years old, no more. And one of them was proudly displaying to the other two a pushchair occupied by a very new baby.

I don't know if it was actually hers, but my local town is a notorious teenage pregnancy hotspot and her demeanour was distinctly proprietorial. Though it may not have been 'worth being sad about', it was enough to give that shock and momentary pause for thought.

With the average age for a first-time mother in the UK hovering around 29,  the high number of court cases involving teenage mothers and their offspring suggests a strong correlation between early pregnancy and involvement - direct or indirect - in crime (see my post 'Underclass Arithmetic').

This may well be because the early pregnancy itself implies a chaotic or unstructured home life, in which case the new baby is likely to be starting out in life at a significant disadvantage with a young mother struggling to manage the difficult task of bringing up a child without the help of a supportive and well-organised family.

Even in families where there is support, it's likely that the priorities of a girl in her teens are very different from those of a mature woman. True, babies don't come with instruction manuals and every first-time mother has to learn from experience, but when the mother's biggest challenge to date has been a mock GCSE, she is surely less likely to be able to cope with the demands of a crying baby or toddler tantrums.

And if the comments of those girls outside Topshop are anything to go by, the baby is likely to be seen more as a fashion accessory than the manifestation of an overwhelming moral and social responsibility. Oddly enough, this is apparently something to be encouraged, at least as far as the government is concerned; Britain's tottering retail edifice is being propped up by the self-indulgent spending of literal and metaphorical adolescents.

Like F Scott Fitzgerald's Jazz Age generation, who grew up to find 'all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken' and lapsed into decadence as a result, today's Britain is full of people who have failed to progress beyond infantile self-gratification and dependency because they have never been expected to behave as adults - good news for retailers in the youth and leisure sector* but not for society as a whole.

The end result of children brought up by parents who are hopelessly immature themselves is a culture where trivial and infantile priorities in spending and activity are matched by childish conduct even on the part of those supposedly exercising parental authority; added to a deliberate erosion on the part of the media of what were once seen as 'respectable working class' values, the end result is appallingly chaotic.

Small wonder, then, that today's media treat us to an unending parade of court cases dealing with what are, in effect, overblown tantrums and crimes of childish carelessness and indifference; lashing out at the slightest provocation, overindulgence in alcohol or drugs, mindless property damage or pets and babies mistreated and neglected once the novelty has worn off.

And, while some of those involved are clearly old enough to know better, a disturbingly high proportion of perpetrators and victims are either teenage parents or the offspring of such. There seems to be no obvious way to break the cycle of early pregnancy and emotional immaturity that fuels this endless pattern of selfishness, ignorance and crime.

It seems ironic that, back in my feminist activist days, there were campaigns to increase early and effective access to birth control in third world countries to enable young women to complete their education or training and restrict the size of the family they had to feed and support. If Save the Children wanted to do some real good here rather than playing politics, that would surely be the place to start.

I could, of course, be wrong. That new baby I saw in the shopping centre may be raised in a secure and loving home with responsible adults ready to encourage the developing child to reach his or her full potential. I sincerely hope it will be, but I can't escape that fleeting moment of sadness at the thought that, statistically, the odds are against it.

*Last night's Dragons' Den (BBC2) showed the usually cynical 'dragons' competing with each other to invest in a fledgling company selling decorated phone covers and headphones; a telling indication of where the smart money expects future spending to be concentrated in 'Austerity Britain'.

(Inspiration for the title is courtesy of James Higham's recent post on Ska, where the Specials video can be found.)

(Update: Nourishing Obscurity (again) has a thought-provoking post on a similar topic by shrewd observer Seaside Sourpuss.)