I think I caused some offence at school this week by saying that the death of Prince was about as significant as the loss of any other pop star – i.e. almost not at all. The talk was of his genius and, perhaps more understandably, nostalgia for a certain period when some were young. But the pupils, with the exception of the sixth form, seemed large unaffected: the distress was amongst my colleagues.
I could not resist citing a letter in The Independent, with whose sentiment I agreed: given the fact that he died at almost the same time as ermm, who was it? Oh yes, David Bowie, then where were the whole-edition tributes to that giant of Twentieth Century classical music, Pierre Boulez? Or the actor Alan Rickman or the architect Zaha Hadid? I was met with blank faces.
Please don’t think me heartless. Any death is sad, but it is also a fact of life. Deaths only really affect us deeply when they are of someone personally known. The disproportionate outpourings that seem to accompany the deaths of celebrities are indicative of a rather sad trait in our lives, that people are being deceived that they ‘know’ these media constructs, and that these lives were somehow more significant than the ordinary but real ones of everyday life.
I simply cannot see why one would be more saddened by the loss of a pop star, whose main achievement was the amassing of a large fortune by means of a somewhat questionable lifestyle, than those of artists in other more technically and creatively demanding disciplines, let alone those who did more easily-identified good in their lives – or indeed of ‘ordinary’ people.
Prince made minimal impact on my life, beyond a dim awareness of one hit single. But I have witnessed the loss of musicians in other genres, who were probably just as ‘great’ despite their lack of general acclaim. There was of course sadness, but it was kept in perspective; great outpourings of public distress, whipped up by the media there were not.
Possibly the main authentic purpose of education should be to help people deal with the world they encounter. Wisdom is a state hopefully acquired as a result, which allows one to put life’s events into perspective, and perhaps as a result to respond to the more distressing ones with some fortitude and sense of balance. Strengthened critical abilities allow us to assess the value of things in a more considered way – and to see through the distortions created by the vested interests of others.
Much of modern education is predicated on the idea of progress: the notion that we ought to be getting better at it. This is indeed the premise on which many progressives operate, by arguing that traditional methods were mostly a product of ignorance and a lack of resources, and that we now know better. And yet in terms of society’s critical abilities, I fear that at best we are making no headway, or are even heading backwards.
There is a large fly in the ointment of educational progress, namely that each generation of children starts from scratch. But the idea that we ought to be getting better at what we do with them is seductive, as is the notion of societal progress, whereby each generation is a little more enlightened in the way it brings up its young. From the teacher’s point of view, it is appealing because it validates the hours we put into trying to improve our pupils, and indeed our own practice.
But I fear it is not happening.
Were it so, then I suggest people would have more realistic expectations of life, and be better able to separate the wheat from the chaff. The willingness to endorse the media-sown hysteria about the death of individuals of questionable worth (and indeed of death in general) suggests the opposite, somewhat like the reaction of a young child deprived of a favourite toy.
Admittedly Prince, like Bowie, was integral to the growing-up of a certain generation – but so were many much less famous individuals for those who knew of them. But the deeply partisan nature of who is publicly mourned and who is not is both uncritical and narrowing in the recognition of the achievements of our society as a whole.
I suspect that hero-worship also says something about the lives of those who give themselves to it. While one can of course admire inspirational people, the vesting of so much personal capital in the life of a distant other makes me doubt the inherent self-worth of the people who engage in it. One might hope that effective education would help people become stronger agents in their own lives and value real lives well-lived above media illusion. One might hope, at very least, that the more educated would be immune to such delusions.
I am not against the public expression of loss for those who have indeed done great things, nor those who were of genuinely stupendous talent for the inspiration they provided. But the choice being made of who those people are – and who is more or less ignored in comparison – speaks loudly of a society that lacks the priorities and proportion to know what is truly worth celebrating about human life.
At very least, an educated society should be more pluralistic in the treatment accorded to those who stood out in all sorts of fields; it should also accept that blanket coverage with such visibly ulterior motives is not credible. Yet as a society we seem more content than ever to let the media dictate our opinions, eagerly allowing ourselves to be whipped up into hysteria out of all proportion to the event. It speaks of our inability to deal with the inescapable realities of lives – even those of celebrities – such as the fact that people die. That even the intelligent are hoodwinked is especially worrying.
And that, in the widest sense, is arguably a failure of education.