The last product of civilisation

“To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilisation and at present very few people have achieved this…” Bertrand Russell.

How we spend our leisure is not immune from general societal influences, and in surprising ways we can learn much about the nature of society from how people choose to spend their elective time. As Bertrand Russell observed, what we do with our free time is in many ways a significant challenge for society – and one which we still seem widely poor at addressing in any productive sense. The current answer seems to be “fill it with more work” – which I am not convinced makes for either a balanced life, or indeed effective workers. And the alternative, for most of the past hundred years, has become increasingly passive and commercialised.

My previous post outlined the ways in which hobbies can be seen as the epitome of ‘learning for learning’s sake’ – and I used a couple of examples of excellent model-making to show what determined individuals can achieve purely for the pleasure of it. In this post, I examine some of the less encouraging trends which may be seen as expressions of wider societal developments, and ask what we might learn from this as educators. I suggest that non-railway folk bear with the following and treat it as an extended metaphor!

Railway Modeller magazine has been around for about 60 years; I first took an edition in October 1974 (cost 35p), since when I have been an almost continuous reader. I still have some of my earliest editions, and it is interesting to compare them with the latest edition (cost £3.95).

Some changes, such as the shift to full colour simply reflect developments in publishing, and the amount of technology on offer blows the mind. Yes, you can now control your model trains from your mobile phone, or even by voice command…

What interests me more though, are the subtler changes. For example, the font-size has increased noticeably when compared with the dense pages that I used to peruse aged eleven. The articles tend to be shorter too, while the size and number of pictures have increased. The amount of advertising has increased dramatically too. From an educator’s point of view, the modelling press is clearly less demanding of the reader than it used to be.

More subjectively, the pitch of the text seems to have been lowered; gone are the erudite discussions of the arcana of real railway practice or demanding modelling techniques, to be replaced with tabloid-speak. Much of the writing is both basic and formulaic, and as I know from bitter experience, any attempt to write more distinctively will meet with liberal use of the editor’s blue pencil. Also largely gone are the complex architectural and engineering drawings that used to be provided monthly for the scratch model-maker; what we get instead are page upon page of nit-picking product reviews, not only for what is currently available but what is coming next. Many articles resemble extended adverts for certain products; the tone is resolutely one of a rather bland kind of ‘fun’ rather than anything more considered.

I’m afraid to say that the mean quality of the model making seems to have fallen too. Much of what we now see is simply the plonking of commercial products, and boring homogeneity has set in. Each month, I pass by much of what is presented, in search of something that has at least a little originality.  What constructional articles remain generally seem to assume a much lower level of technical competence than used to be the case. It’s not so much a matter of tolerating those still developing their skills, as being exposed to the completely artless – who for some reason still seem to think their efforts at retail therapy are worthy of national exposure; in a small way, it’s part of the celebrity famous-for–five-minutes culture.

Ironically, the quality, range and detail of the commercial models (all now made in China) has gone through the roof in recent years – as has the price. A fairly standard Hornby model locomotive now retails for well over £100. Then there is the cost of all the advanced electronics. The effect of this has been to change railway modelling from a creative hobby into an expensive branch of retail consumption. This is all the more evident when one compares these exquisite commercial products with the crudeness of the model settings they are actually being run on. As purchasing power has increased, so proportionately have self-help practical skill, knowledge and creativity seemingly decreased. What we are seeing here is the usurping of an eccentric, homespun, individualistic craft-hobby by just another aspect of retail therapy, the modeller being reduced from an autonomous, intrinsically motivated individual to a mere shopper, passively consuming what the market conspires to provide.

What’s more, unlike in 1974, when there was one magazine, there are now five – all pushing the same homogenous material each month – a true triumph of quantity over quality. A further development has been the emergence of an online community, and this gives much wider exposure to what people are doing in the hobby. Unfortunately, the general level is about as far from Pempoul as can be imagined, most models resembling giant toy train sets than anything more realistic. Regrettably, one sees vast numbers of comments of the type “…far beyond my capabilities…” – and I know from others’ experience that this divide between the (perceived) expert few and the vicarious, almost sycophantic majority is not restricted to railway modelling. The growth mind set seems to have been usurped by a fixed one, where people start from the assumption that they can’t do any better, while a few individuals seem to have almost become online hobby-superstars.

As an educator, I find this concerning. We seem to be institutionalising ignorance and helplessness, and it appears to be infiltrating even the most democratic, self-help orientated of activities – our hobbies; of course, it suits commerce to have it so – but are commercial profit margins really what hobbies are about? Sadly, it is by no means uncommon for those who speak out in favour of higher aspirations to be labelled as ‘elitist’ and subjected to the abuse found on many internet forums. Likewise, the one journal that still refuses to lower its sights is also widely dismissed as elitist.

Here, we have a wider philosophical point: what are those who do aspire to high standards to do? While a hobby should of course be all about people doing absolutely what they enjoy, there is a world of difference between someone ‘playing trains’ á la Scalextric and someone painstakingly crafting an accurate scenario. Those who aim high are, if they are not careful, stigmatised for doing so, and then are effectively forced to hive themselves off into an enclave which then only reinforces the impression. Here, we have an uncomfortable aspect of human psychology at work: the tendency to agglomerate into tribes, and to excoriate anyone who chooses to be different. This is particularly regrettable when the dominant ‘tribe’ tends to be founded on ignorance and low expectations. Excellence, it seems, upsets a lot of people.

Far from being a unifying force, such pressures can result in division; on the one hand we have the ‘great unwashed’, pandered to in their ignorance by the vested interests of the mass market, but without access to the higher skills and individuality of mind that are the true source of self-realisation – and on the other, ignored minorities who may struggle to endure in a mass-society, given the waywardness of their interests: a microcosm of contemporary society at large.

This brings us to a second irony: the mass market has indeed democratised the hobby. All-comers can now aspire to owning models of a quality previously only available to the wealthy few who could afford to commission the best engineering; on the other hand, this may well have lowered the general standards and aspirations of the hobby as a whole. It has certainly made the ‘special’ rarer. It has also taken power out of the hands of the individual and placed it in the large businesses that provide the products. Which is preferable? Just as in education, widening the market has not really led to the mass-availability of best-quality (was that ever a realistic dream?), but simply the dumbing-down of the mean – while those sufficiently determined or with sufficient resources have hived themselves off into perceived cliques, if only for self-preservation.

I am certainly not blaming the education sector for this: what I am describing is the result of far wider trends in the way our needs are met and the world organised. But I would argue that the effect is indisputable: the relative decline in the ability of the ‘small’ individual to plough his or her own furrow, and an increasing pressure to conform to externally-defined norms – even where this results in a lowering of quality or diversity.

This is where education does have significance. The education world itself has been subject to the same pressures of standardisation and mass-production, and many parts of it have chosen to co-operate rather than resist. The ‘product’ we offer is today more homogenised than at any time in the past; does that guarantee minimum standards or destroy high ones? It has become harder for individual teachers to practise in they way they choose, and to infuse their work with their own values rather than imposed ones. They are being forced to play toy trains, even if they are fine modellers at heart. Quite a few have chosen to leave, or to hive off into the private sector where more flexibility arguably remains.

And what of the pupils? When we homogenise their experience in the same way, when we give the impression that education is simply the passage along a mass-consumption conveyor belt, what are we doing to their perception of the world? When we define targets for learning that remove the scope for individual thinking and interpretation are we unconsciously reinforcing the conformity effect? When they do see excellence, do they see it as something they can achieve, or something unattainable?

When we emphasise pupils’ positions as de facto consumers of educational qualifications, what are the deep impacts on their perceptions? When schools endorse the commercial world (in ways they used not to do) by selling overtly-branded food and drink, or by playing the latest pop music over the tannoy during Christmas lunch, we are sending powerful educational messages, not the least of which is to reinforce young people’s central perceptions of themselves as passive consumers of stuff, rather than active agents of change with a potential for autonomous self-direction.

As I have mentioned before, I have encountered numerous students who, when asked about their free time either reply that they spend all their time on their school work – or else look at me in blinking incomprehension.  I do think that the current educational climate is partly to blame for that. That, and the overwhelming dominance of the T.V. in their lives. This is not the same everywhere, as I have observed with Swiss students, many of whom have impressive lists of personal interests and achievements – so why are some cultures seemingly less passive than others?

This homogenisation is not the fault of education – but education is surely one of the most powerful tools that society has with which to shape itself. When the effects of these trends become apparent in a field as obscure as railway modelling, it becomes pretty clear what is going on. If any blame does fall on the education world, I suspect it is for emphasising education purely as a means to work and money, and downplaying its wider benefits; that at least could conceivably be a culture-specific factor.

Do we really wish the education system to perpetuate this – or to challenge it?

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3 thoughts on “The last product of civilisation

  1. (Slightly belated) thanks for your posts through December, because they’ve put a finger on a point where several things-that-don’t-feel-right overlap each other.

    It was possible to have scholarly values in a non-selective environment; my great but ordinary (in all the best senses of that word) sixth form college managed it brilliantly in the early 90s. I’m not sure if it would be so easy now. I think the key ingredient was undirected time- both in the weekly schedule, and also in the sense that there wasn’t a need to be obviously on track by the December of year 12. It was possible to digest chunky ideas over time, and also to have fun with ideas for the joy of it.

    Whilst some of those pressures are external, schools aren’t always great at modelling good scholarship. So many things are presented in staff meetings and CPD sessions with a label saying “research shows…” where the research wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny, if the scrutiny were ever part of the process. Organisations like ResearchED, and the whole teacher-blogger community must be moving conversations in a positive way, but I’m not sure how far they have really reached into schools as a whole.

    At least, though the conversation is being had; best wishes for Term 83.

  2. Thanks for your comment – good to hear from you again. I don’t think scholarliness need necessarily correlate with ability – I can think of quite a few middle/less able children whom I would say exhibit signs of it – and plenty of able ones who don’t.

    I’m not sure what to make of ResearchED and the like – my gut instinct is that education is a humanistic (inter)action and I’m not convinced that ‘researching’ it will ever tell us any more than researching, say, what makes a friendship work. There are a few basic common sense (?) principles and then it’s basically make it up according to circumstance. That’s what the researchers really can’t abide – it all comes down to individual human instinct and little else. I suppose there’s not harm in trying, though.

    My concern (and this includes quite a lot of the blogosphere too) is that it’s really about researching what delivers Results – which is not at all the same thing. It would be ironic, not to say tragic, if the quest for results actually destroyed real education in the process.

    Best wishes to you for the new term, too.

    T.P.

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