Too empowered by half?

An enduring social theme in recent years has been the need to empower people to take more control of their lives, and for education to provide the ‘horsepower’ they need to do so. We need people, so we are told, who will be more economically productive and more socially self-sufficient than ever before, in order to compete in a globalised world.

The area where I have worked for over a quarter of a century in some ways provides a template for this: it was one of the best-placed to benefit from the economic revolution of the Thatcher era, and when I arrived, Yuppiedom was in full fling. Many people from traditionally modest backgrounds were finding it possible to make very large amounts of money in the voracious environment of The City. Their new wealth was further enhanced by the property bubbles that sent house prices in the area through the roof.

Aspiration was the name of the game, and the area where I work has always been characterised by its extrovert materialism – and also its rather bad taste, which became a national joke. Being who they are, many locals were more than prepared to stare down the mockery and bask in their new-found fortunes, while metaphorically sticking a finger up at those parts of the country which they perceived to be losers. And given that this area, unlike much of the rest of country has a positive balance of payments, they might have had a point.

In the context of the empowerment agenda, the area has been a resounding success – though, for all the competition to get into the best schools, I doubt whether education was really perceived as an essential part of the process so much as another way of out-doing the Joneses. It also responded with relish to the view that education is a consumer service, with an attitude towards teachers sometimes not dissimilar to operatives at McDonalds.

The children I teach today are the offspring of the generation described above; very many of them come from homes where it is taken for granted that life’s every luxury only needs to be paid for. A lesson this week about global footprints done with several classes, revealed material wealth beyond what even I expected – with huge eco-footprints to match. What was, however, vanishingly small was the concern shown when the global consequences of this were pointed out…”Somebody else’s problem”, one twelve-year-old observed.

According to everything that successive governments have said they wanted education to do, these people are successes: they are the future of society in Britain. And yet to say that many of their children exhibit utter indifference to education is an understatement. Regrettably, the effect of their materially-privileged birth seems only to have been to breed a level of complacent but groundless self-belief that often seems utterly undentable.

They have very little understanding of what it means to strive for anything. When asked, they are in the main adamant that they do want a good education – but the idea that this means personal effort and self-discipline is not even on the radar of many. It’s just another thing that they think will fall into their lap, well below the next top-end gadget or luxury holiday. There is very little that will gain traction with children who implicitly consider themselves already their teachers’ superiors, whose material wealth has given them nothing more than the belief that they are entitled to everything but need to work for nothing, to say nothing of an utter disregard for the life of the mind.

I would not normally write in such critical detail about the specific pupils I encounter – but as time progresses, I find myself increasingly doubting the outcomes that we are being told to work for. Increasing opportunity is one thing – but empowerment seems to come at the price of the complacency, economic snobbery and anti-intellectualism that I witness daily.

I know from my experiences elsewhere that affluence does not inevitably bring with it anti-social attitudes – but that does seem to be the case in the U.K. When one prioritises success above effort, and when that is couched in material terms amidst  a wider societal vacuum, the results are quite unpleasant. They are also, I believe ultimately self-defeating – for how many of these children with their grand sense of entitlement will actually make the effort that is really necessary to go on to where they think they deserve to be?

Call me old-fashioned – but what value a policy that leads the supposedly-successful to scorn the very society that provides the opportunities ostensibly to help them?

 

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