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Culture Wars: Can mentor moms make Kevin cultured?

Government proposals to provide teenage boys with 'cultural mentors' are juvenile, argues Mark Ryan

'Extending young people's access to cultural venues' is the aim of a new report issued by the Arts Council and the Gulbenkian Foundation. The report, Crossing the Line, aims to get more 14-18 year olds (especially boys) to visit theatres, art galleries and to attend concerts. This sounds innocuous enough. But as I listened to its presentation, I was reminded of what somebody once said about living in a totalitarian state: the frightening thing was not the overweening intelligence of the system but the joining of power with the most bovine stupidity. So when the police come to take you away they are genuinely perplexed as to why you don't want to help them reach their quota of executions for the week. In a totalitarian state everything is reduced to number or measurement without any concern for the nature of what it is that is being numbered or measured.

This mentality is evident in the report, though to less murderous effect. The authors probably drew two little boxes on a flipchart - one marked cultural venues, the other marked 14-18 year olds - and tried to bring them together without asking the most obvious questions: what is the nature of an art gallery, and what is the nature of 14-18 year olds? Anybody who has ever met a teenage boy will know that an art gallery or a theatre is probably not the best place for him to be. Teenage boys are awkward, sullen and restless. They take a long time to grow into themselves. They can best do this if they are left alone to chase girls, play football or just to fight with each other. They should only be encouraged into the adult world once they have got all that adolescence out of their systems and have started to behave like adults.

Likewise, anybody who has ever visited any institution devoted to the higher arts will know that it demands a certain level of reflectiveness and contemplation, which for most people comes with maturity. When you are young you live life in a more immediate and physical way than when you are older. The silence and stillness which any genuine arts venue will demand can only heighten that sense of physical awkwardness which adolescents experience.

The report contains some truly comical accounts of young people's views on the institutions they visited: comical not because of what the young people said so much as for the light they cast on the stupidity of their questioners. 'The labels were too high', 'the entrance was intimidating', 'the cafe was too expensive'. Just picture the scene: group of teenagers dragooned into gallery by Pious Worthy; on the way out, cornered by Earnest Dullard with clipboard. Most escape, but one does not. Earnest Dullard peers through her spectacles at awkward prisoner, while prisoner's friends pull faces at him. 'What's wrong with the gallery?' Prisoner has no idea what she's talking about. 'Get this creep off my case!', he thinks to himself as he shuffles and scratches his head. 'Say something to her, say anything!' - 'The labels are too high'. Earnest Dullard is delighted with her research and lets prisoner go.

One can only conclude that the authors of Crossing the Line gave no thought to the development of the powers of reflection because they are bereft of such powers themselves. Otherwise they would have reflected on the consequences of asking kids to pass judgement on something about which they can have little or no understanding. Imagine again the impression left by something like that last encounter. The teenagers pile out of the gallery, having understood very little, but the more intelligent ones are perhaps becoming sensible to the gap between the world of culture and their own paltry knowledge. Yes, that gap is intimidating, but without it there can be no search for knowledge. Along then comes Earnest Dullard, begging the kids to tell her what the gallery is doing wrong. All of a sudden that promising gap is closed, the art is cut down to the size of the kids' verdict on it, the kids' conceit is puffed up and that awful adolescent whine 'It's boring' receives the vindication of authority. After that, any belief that there might be something more elevated out there beyond the miserable little world of adolescence will be well and truly scuppered.

The authors advocate a system of cultural mentors for the young whereby teenagers would be initiated into the arts by the encouragement of a system of mediators. It is of course very rare that a real love for a subject is picked up out of the blue through solitary endeavour. 'Everywhere', says Goethe, 'we learn only from those whom we love'. Like love itself, our innate love of knowledge is most powerfully charged when we see it embodied in another human being. This is particularly true of the young, whose natural energy and enthusiasm can be given focus and direction through contact with somebody older and wiser. For a young person to come into contact with somebody consumed with passion for a subject is perhaps the greatest thing that can happen in his life, the effects of which will remain with him forever.

To recognise that a young, intelligent mind can be powerfully assisted through contact with a greater one is a sensible perception into human nature. But then to propose that this sort of encounter should be systematically organised by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is to turn truth into absurdity. Even under the old Oxbridge tutoring system, which was devoted to the cultivation of a small, dedicated and cultured elite and had some of the best tutors in the world, fruitful and inspiring relationships between master and pupil were a case of hit and miss. Like love itself, intellectual kinship is something which can only come from the two people themselves. Even the most enlightened and cultured system could no more legislate for such a thing than it could legislate for who should fall in love with each other.

A mentor can enable or disable, depending on the motive. If the relationship is driven by the search for truth, for knowledge, or at least for answers, great things can happen. Such a bond will be possessed of strength, intellectual rigour and moral honesty. The pupil will discover those inner powers which would otherwise lie dormant. But if the motive lies somewhere else - like fulfilling targets laid down by the DCMS - the consequences can only be destructive. The relationship between master and pupil is a means towards the attainment of the goal - the development of a free and all-rounded individual. In the priorities laid out by Crossing the Line, the object of the exercise is the act of mentoring itself; knowledge, culture, art are no more than instruments to justify the act of mentoring. What young people might be going to see or hear is a matter of total indifference to the authors of the report. As long as they are going to something and being mentored, that is all that matters. Process is everything. Ends and objects, nothing.

The model of mentoring which the authors fall back on is not that of master and pupil. That would be far too hierarchical. Instead we are offered the model of mother and child. The report's chapter on mentoring uses the concept of 'motherese': a 'language and communication system between mother and offspring that naturally adapts, changes and grows to match a child's linguistic stage of development'. Whereas the master-pupil relationship assumes the clash of wills and the sometimes painful intellectual confrontations which alone can awaken the critical faculties of the mind, the nurturing model is one of adaptation and non-confrontational growth, in which 'the child' finds his learning environment forever moulding itself around him, in much the same way that the amniotic fluid in the womb moves to provide a secure and comfortable cushion for the fetus. I can think of nothing more guaranteed to deaden the minds and the spirits of a generation.

Reproduced from LM issue 127, February 2000



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