Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Clever Isn't A Dirty Word

by India Knight from The Sunday Times

I spent quite a lot of time on holiday cajoling my eldest son (he’s 13) to at least attempt to make inroads into his reading list for next year. He sat on the beach reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which was encouraging, and then decided he’d done plenty and needed to devote much more of his time to surfing and hanging out.

What about Waugh, I cried. Greene? Siegfried Sassoon? Oh look, Selections from the Aeneid — I’ll pay you to read it. But he was gone.

When I dropped this same son off to go on a school trip to France last year, I was amazed to see one of his friends, who’d got there early, sitting on a wall doing the Telegraph’s cryptic crossword, if you please. I felt a stab of purest envy.

This paragon is no doubt spending his summer holiday reading Riddles in Mathematics by Eugene P. Northrop, also on our reading list and doomed, I fear, forever to gather dust in our innumerate house. I bet this child devours Virgil and can quote from Decline and Fall.

Whenever I order my son to be more like him, which I do at least twice a week, he smiles beadily and says: “But he’s a boffin.” So? So, being a boffin is a fate worse than death, apparently. The only thing that saves this child from gross unpopularity and ostracism is that he is also a) funny b) nice-looking and c) crucially, good at games.

I have explained patiently to my son that if he were to make a small effort academically, Stephen Hawking would probably still manage to sleep at night, but to no avail. Being seen as actively clever is now apparently socially unacceptable, and his friend is the lone and freakish exception to the overwhelming rule.

Last week, delegates at the 35,000-strong Professional Association of Teachers’ annual conference were told they should stop telling their pupils they are “clever” because it is “uncool”. They should instead use the more thrusting, businessy term “successful”.

Simon Smith, a teacher from Essex, told the conference: “A culture has developed that mocks being clever... I have talked to various pupils. They said being clever meant you were boring, lacked personality, were a teacher’s pet and other things not polite to mention in company such as this. With a few exceptions, including sport, academic prowess is in many eyes not ‘cool’. We need to change this, perhaps by changing the language we use.”

Another teacher said pupils often failed to turn up to collect their awards at prize-giving “because it is not cool”, and a third pointed out that achievers and Nobel prize winners were not considered celebrities, unlike people who’d made a virtue out of undistinguished academic careers, such as Alan Sugar or David Beckham.

Other teachers spoke of clever pupils deliberately making their work second-rate “because of peer pressure not to appear bright, clever or hardworking”.

Now, we all had a class swot, hand permanently up, panting with their love of knowledge, keen on double maths and given to a little light dissection of mammals in their spare time.

Nobody’s suggesting we need more of those: being the class geek, or nerd, or boffin, is not necessarily a number one priority when you’re 13, and a trip to the cinema is always going to be more fun than impromptu revision. However, there used to be kudos attached to cleverness, especially for those who developed the trick of making it seem effortless.

That seems to be a thing of the past: at school, as increasingly throughout society, thickness, or the appearance of thickness, is where it’s at.

It doesn’t seem to occur to David Beckham’s admirers — or Alan Sugar’s, for that matter — that working hard at school might have meant their hero was a clever football player, as opposed to a notoriously dim one, or that Alan Sugar might have made even more money than he has already if he had got a few qualifications.

Nor does it occur to them that for every Richard Branson there are a thousand undereducated miserable people, massively chippy more often than not (and with good reason), who wish they’d stayed on at school. Maybe they should take to heart the sobering statistic that 40% of criminals in our jails are illiterate.

We also heard last week that schools may soon no longer be required to teach children the difference between right and wrong, if plans to revise the core aims of the national curriculum are to go ahead. Teachers would instead be asked to encourage pupils to develop “secure values and beliefs”, though what those values might be is anyone’s guess. The draft proposals also delete any reference to promoting leadership skills, and remove the requirement to teach children about Britain’s cultural heritage.

Barmy, isn’t it. It’s bad — and loony — enough that we exist in a culture that encourages all school children to feel “special” and “equal” in terms of talent and opportunities: a really stupid lesson to teach them, given that it is a fact of life that some people are demonstrably cleverer than others, and demonstrably more likely to succeed, and some people, despite their best efforts, are just thick.

But no: all must have prizes and pats on the head, and the demoralised stupid children must be made to struggle terribly in mixed-ability classes while the understimulated clever ones yawn and look out of the window.

Never mind: in the instant gratification society we live in, every one of those children genuinely believes that success and riches are their due and will land on their lap by magic, either through reality TV or, well, just like that. We are raising a generation that is going to be massively disappointed.

The world of school increasingly bears little or no resemblance to the real world: no streaming, no competitive games, and now nobody being encouraged to develop leadership skills, to want to be clever, or to familiarise themselves with ethics. Instead we get ignorance and moral relativism for school-age children, who are too badly educated to even make sense of the concept. No wonder we’re dumbed down.

Victoria Beckham, who’s made a career out of being skinnier and more ill-looking than a famine victim — nice — has had her hideous hair extensions chopped off and replaced with a strange, studenty bob. Hold the front page! Many tabloids did, last week, to heap praise upon this most unlikely of “style icons”. Meanwhile, poor old Zara Phillips went somewhere wearing a boob tube — a green cotton strapless top — and got bashed for it all over the Daily Mail. Phillips is a super-fit Olympic-quality horsewoman, who dresses like an ordinary girl and has an ordinary, athletic shape. Posh is a pin-up for pro-anorexia websites and, according to Grazia magazine, has the waist-size of a seven-year-old girl.

Why does anyone bother maintaining the crazy fiction that she is any kind of role model, or that her slightly simian, emaciated size 0 looks are aesthetically pleasing and somehow worthy of being aped, and that anyone who’s a size 12 or 14 is a gigantic heifer? Is everybody mad? I mean, who is abnormal here? It’s certainly not Zara. But all this is just unbelievably depressing.

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