Saturday, 19 July 2014

Neat, neat, neat: Teachers, tests and lies

There's a thing going round the internet. Well, there's always a thing going round the internet. It's divided opinion more than most, and nearly made me fall out with someone I love. Which wasn't nice.

It's a letter from a teacher to children in her school about not worrying about their test results. A sort of consolation prize. I think her heart's in the right place but I also think she is feeding the children a lie.

We've always been fed lies, of course. Growing up in the 60s, the lie was that we are living in a meritocracy. I was told that with brains and hard work you could get anywhere. Turned out that was only part of it. In real life, it needs brains, hard work, self-confidence, a financial safety net, and knowing the right people.

The lie is different now. The story is that achievements don't matter as long as you are a nice person. Funny, though, how it hasn't resulted in more nice people than there were before.

The lie is in this letter going round the internet. I thought it was a fake at first: it rang my bullshit detector very loudly. Some people whose opinion I respect thought it was great.  Some people whose opinion I respect thought it was awful. I did too.

It felt so phoney. I got the same feeling I get from looking/reading/listening to Bad Art. And Bad Art is one of the things in the world that makes me angry. (Yeah, I know, priorities and all that but that's just the way it is.)

Nothing rang true. The Americanisms, for a start ('neat', 'smart'). Turns out she'd plagiarised it. The sweeping generalisations (there was nothing personal about the child - so whose benefit was this for, really?). And the lies. The lie that 'there are many ways of being smart'. No, being nice is not being smart. It's a good thing, but it's not the same. The lie that failure doesn't matter. The lie that fuzzy feelings are a good thing in themselves. The lie that 'self esteem' is more important than the truth.

It reminded me of what happened during the 90s when my nieces and nephews were growing up. And children were sent home from school with certificates and badges more or less every day. For doing more or less nothing. Has it made them more confident or successful than my generation? I doubt it. Has it done any harm? Well, my nieces and nephews have turned out well as adults but I would say that, wouldn't I? I have friends, though, who work in graduate recruitment who believe they are dealing with a generation that has an unrealistic sense of entitlement.

It reminds me too of the creeping sentimentalisation of our culture. It's coming, I think, from American mass entertainment and I don't know why we listen to it because that country is not, after all, a bastion of equal opportunities.

We're getting the lie that we can all get along because fundamentally everything's lovely and everyone's lovely. Then there's the lie that all we have to do is share inspirational messages and the world will suddenly become a heaven on earth. (And anyone who challenges this is 'negative'.) And there's the lie that if you have 'a dream' you can get anywhere. You don't even need brains or hard work any more, just a wishlist.

Life is more complex, and tougher than that. The world, as today's news broadcasts are telling me loud and clear, is not a nice place, and  humans are not necessarily nice people. So why pretend?

Don't get me wrong, I hate Michael Gove as much as the next person. And I agree with the basic idea behind that teacher's letter. That tests aren't everything and there are other things that matter about people.  But there are better ways of saying it than this inauthentic, sentimental posturing. As for lying to children – I've never believed in that.

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