Young people today
The latest revelations of junior illiteracy should be treated with caution.
Prophets of doom have been banging on about this for years, and there is
little evidence that things are getting worse. There have always been children
who can't spell 'car' at seven, and the vast majority are able to do so
by the time they leave school. The first law of British politics is that
'standards' continually fall: always have done, always will. I have never
felt any temptation to join in this chorus of alarm - at least, not until
now. Maybe I'm getting old, but I can't help feeling that our kids really
aren't being set the right example.
A new survey shows that most teenage schoolchildren drink about three pints
a week. That's right, three pints a week. Maybe my memory is playing
tricks, but when I was at school, and a pound was still a pound, the pub
opposite was packed, lunchtime and evenings; and the only time anybody drank
less than three pints a day was when they couldn't fight their way
through the mass of school blazers between them and the bar.
And what are we to make of David Roe, the English teacher who told his class
to shout out 'wanker' and other rude words while he wrote them on the blackboard?
Surely, if teachers have to use valuable lesson time teaching 14-year olds
basic swearwords and obscenities, it is a clear sign that role models are
failing in their responsibilities.
We are used to pop stars and footballers lecturing us about smoking, drink,
drugs and sex. However, at the root of the problem are modern parents. Misguided
people like the Guests of Edinburgh, who have 'taken a stand' by getting
rid of their television, and are now a cause celebre after refusing
to buy a licence. A typical evening chez Guest involves Simon (12) playing
violin, Nicholas (15) on cello and mother Alison on piano.
Mr and Mrs Guest claim that their sons are quite happy about this, and who's
to say they are not? Quite possibly they will turn out as normal well-balanced
adults - we'll have to wait and see.
The Guest cult reportedly has a million followers already, and the press
are working hard to convert more parents to the cause. One potential recruit,
writing to Sun agony aunt Deidre, despairs of her son, who 'is only
happy when he's given something, or going to a football match'. She has
tried sending him to bed, stopping his pocket money, preventing him from
watching TV or going out, and various other punishments, yet still he is
unhappy. Deidre sympathises, and recommends Parentline.
As with all radical experiments, there are potential dangers here. Inevitably,
other important areas of life will be neglected. By all means let kids collect
stamps, play violins and so on if they wish, but they should be expected
to show a basic knowledge of traditional subjects. What kind of a school
life awaits a child who can't swear and smoke, or display a normal healthy
interest in TV, sex, drink, drugs, Nintendo, shoplifting, vandalism, etc?
Who will take responsibility for the resulting bloodshed?
Another study revealed that teenagers believe people who drive big cars
to be more intelligent than those who drive small ones. Support for this
depressing theory comes from a police officer recently accused of harassing
a man after a gay festival. The officer's representative explained that he
had been upset at the time, because he hadn't been allocated a bigger car.
This can now be added to other officially recognised syndromes, including
the psychological strain caused by sitting in riot vans, and 'post-traumatic
stress' (suffered by police after shooting people).
This sensitivity extends to public relations too. Certainly, nobody who
was present at the Bow Street police station 'fun day' with its truncheon
race through Covent Garden could accuse the police of neglecting their image.
After the eighties riots, the home office even looked into the possibility
of a friendly looking truncheon for use in sensitive areas (geographical
areas, that is). This is an idea whose time has now come. American-style
nightsticks (as used during the angry scenes at the Grand National) are
now to be joined by telescopic 'ASP' truncheons, which cause 'bouncing trauma',
a condition which affects the person holding the handle rather less than
the one at the other end.
If all this sounds a bit, well, heavy, don't worry. Home secretary Kenneth
Clarke has resisted police demands for side-handled batons (as tested on
Rodney King in LA) because they look 'too aggressive'. And thorough market
research will be done on the ASP before it is introduced, to make sure it
has the full support of inner-city populations. At least, I assume that
is what the Metropolitan Police mean when they say they will be 'carrying
out tests this summer'. So if you happen to be randomly selected as a guinea
pig, be sure to let them know what you think. Policing is a two-way thing - it
can't work without your co-operation.
Finally, on the subject of discipline, a postscript to last month's comments
on corporal punishment. Anybody still under the illusion that good behaviour
can be beaten into children should consider the examples of Bruce Dickenson
and John Selwyn Gummer. Dickenson describes the regime at his expensive
school as 'Whacko! Mass floggings everywhere....' Upon leaving he set a poor
example to younger boys by wreaking havoc around the world as a member of
the heavy metal band Iron Maiden.
John Selwyn Gummer (later an outspoken member of the Church of England's
general synod and now Secretary of State for Agriculture and Fisheries)
went straight to Cambridge. Freed from the constraints of his school days
(and funded by profits from his father's Pulpit Monthly magazine),
he soon made up for lost time, earning the nickname 'Rowdy Gum-Gum'. Varsity
Magazine reported that the former union president had been fined for
his antics, and quotes one member as saying: 'This had to happen. Gummer
has been misbehaving in the Chamber all term, and thoroughly deserves this
imposition.' It is interesting to reflect that despite his lucrative garden
pond arrangements and all the other perks of office, Gummer's fine remains
I suspect that certain hardened cases are beyond redemption. Even if they
are fined at rates corresponding to their income, as magistrates have now
been instructed to do, they simply refuse to pay. I fear that birching would
only make troublemakers like Gummer rebel more.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 56, June 1993