Friday, June 1, 2012

The difficulties in brain-washing children

Here are some British members of parliament calling for lessons in finance to be made compulsory for students to address a gap in young people's knowledge about avoiding debt. Here the father of deceased British singer Amy Winehouse calls for school drug lessons to be compulsory. Just days ago British MPs called for compulsory body image lessons because 'body dissatisfaction' is on the rise in the UK.

Add to these various other demands for sex education, citizenship education or other social and personal skills that schools are increasingly expected to provide. I've long had my doubts about this push for an educational cure-all: centralised, state-designed lessons that would address all social ills. Partly this is because every second spent learning about body image is a second not spend on literacy or numeracy, on the basic educational necessities we need for functional economies.

Also, though, there is my doubt that top-down education works in changing how individuals behave. I have strong memories of secondary school teachers attempting to impress various values and beliefs in us, and failing. In one class a teacher carefully talked us through the constituent chemicals of tobacco, describing the damage done by tar, carbon monoxide and nicotine, leaving me more determined than ever to never touch the stuff. The school chime tolled for lunch, my classmates slouched out to the lunch hall, and then to the ball alley for a surreptitious smoke. It made no difference.

New evidence that makes me strongly question the ability of schools to imprint their values on students comes from 2011 Census document on births in Ireland. We are experiencing a huge baby boom at the moment - thanks to fairly high fertility among a relatively young population - but the nature of these new families is drastically different from the past. In 1959 the proportion of births that happened to parents outside marriage was 1.9%. By 2011 it was 33.4%.

The Catholic Church runs a great majority of Ireland's schools (I read '3,032 out of a total of 3,280 primary schools' but I can't be sure of the source), yet a third of all births today are happening outside marriage - a big rejection of Catholic teaching on sexual morality by its former students. All those decades of indoctrination lead to mass-abandonment of Catholic values.

This should be obvious! I went right through that Catholic educational system and by the age of 18 few of my peers were remotely interested in religion. Their efforts at filling us with religious belief were very hit and miss.

For there were other pressures and influences coming from sources beyond the classroom, and most were far, far stronger than anything teachers could impress. Students were getting completely contrary messages from television advertisers and pop musicians, from their parents and from each other. My peers knew that smoking was bad for them and would make them sick. They didn't care. The trade-off added up: certain peer respect right now versus uncertain long-term sickness was an acceptable exchange in their eyes.

An example that really makes me smile happened in my class when I was 16, and we had some members of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children give us lessons about personal development and sexuality. The class was a horror of discomfort, with the boys cross-armed and alarmed, the girls blushing and staring at the floor. The ISPCC women wanted to challenge ridiculous myths about sex that probably none of us believed anyway, one of which was the old myth that masturbation makes boys lose their eyesight.

'So it's not true,' said one of the ISPCC women. 'Masturbation actually doesn't make you go blind. It's perfectly natural.'

Now it happened that on that particular day, one of our classmates was not in school. This boy, I'll give him the pseudonym John Dungannon, happened to wear thick glasses. In a flash of comic genius, one of the other boys absorbed the ISPCC woman's wise words about masturbation with the cry: 'DUNGANNON!'

We all cracked up laughing! In one swift stroke my classmate had turned the enlightened ISPCC argument on its head: masturbation does make you blind, and Dungannon must be at it night and day!

So well-intended calls to add more and more social and personal skill classes to school curricula may be unwise. Top-down instructions from teachers have to compete with the vast marketing campaigns of popular culture, against the ingrained traditions and norms of local culture, and against the often destructive and sense-resistant machismo of youth culture. My peers deliberately undermined the messages of our teachers and flipped their values upside down. It may be vain to expect that extra lessons will transform cranky teenagers into citizens.


  1. I was watching the start of Prime Time the other night and Richard Crowley opened the show with the growing problem of child obesity and asked what the government are going to do about it. It is extraordinary that we expect the government to do the job of parents.

    You're perfectly correct, the government should only be spending taxpayers money on an academic education and the social side of things should be left to the parents and the larger community. The government's role in the diets of the nation's children should be confined strictly to the economic cost of paying for the health services that these children will eventually need as adults. So banning things like advertising shit food between kids programmes and having schools under their control ban shit food being brought in in lunch boxes etc.

    I was talking with a friend last night who was saying that in England, to encourage children to eat vegetables at school, the government were providing toys as rewards! What a waste of money! And does it even change anything? I doubt it.

  2. True enough David.

    When I used to freelance for the Metro some years back I would often phone up some member of the opposition for a quote on some government policy. I often asked a question I hear many journalists ask: "Do you think the government should do MORE?" Took me a long time to wonder about this. Neither I nor other journalists were saying: "Do you think the government should do LESS?" I feel now that this was a mistake. The attitude that only the status quo or MORE intervention are worth considering is rather blinkered.


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