Thursday, 31 May 2012

You want me to get that? Why we don't need Sunscreen and Body Image on the curriculum.

'You want ME....' etc
Readers of a certain demographic will recall Benson, the sardonic, rebellious butler played by Robert Guillaume in the daytime soap-satire ‘Soap’ and then in his own spin-off ‘Benson’. The concept of having a black butler for a wealthy WASP family might provoke discomfort in denizens of the 21st century, but we’ll glide over the vulgarities of our forebears.  His shtick was that he, servant to a family of hypocrites, adulterers and liars, was dismissive of them all.  
He expressed this perfectly with his catch-phrase; whenever a phone or a door bell would ring, everyone on the sofa would look at the eponymous underdog expectantly, and he would pause dramatically, look around, touch his chest with his finger, and say, ‘You want ME to get that?’
Cue laughter tape.
Every now and then I know how he feels. Because every now and then, some working party, or steering group, or commission, or sub-committee investigating some social ill or community horror concludes with a finding as inevitable as a Leveson witness developing early-onset Alzheimer’s:
Schools must do more to teach students about ‘x’ (where ‘x’ is anything wrong with humanity, ever.)
Sometimes this finding is described as a ‘way forward’, by which point I’m already plucking my left eye out like Odin seeking wisdom. This week was particularly fertile ground for such well-meant suggestions about what kids need to know. For a start a charity has proposed that children are given lessons on avoiding sun damage, and on Monday, MPs ‘called for body image lessons.’:
Ah, they don't make 'em like this no more. Thankfully
'All school children should take part in compulsory body image and self-esteem lessons, MPs have recommended. It comes after an inquiry by the All Party Parliamentary Group on body image heard evidence that more than half of the public has a negative body image. Girls as young as five now worry about how they look, the MPs' report said, while cosmetic surgery rates have increased by nearly 20% since 2008.

Media images of unrealistic bodies were said to be largely to blame, they said.

The MPs released the Reflections on Body Image report after a three-month inquiry, involving an online consultation and oral evidence given to the cross-party group.'

Hmm, so media images are to blame, are they? How about you go clobber them instead, eh?
Now it may seem churlish not to support these kinds of enterprise; I think our society vilifies and ridicules people for their body types in a vicious manner. It’s an odd world where one can be jeered for being too fat OR too thin, as if, like Goldilocks, there existed some Platonically ideal Body Mass Index. Of course, it doesn’t stop at corpulence or inanition; too pale, too tanned, too close together, too far apart, too hippy, too heavy, too top-heavy, too busty, too flat, too damn anything that doesn’t please someone. How many hours of misery are wasted in the contemplation of one’s deficiencies? The news that Cindy Crawford, Sophie Loren and Robert Redford worry about their looks should unpack a primitive truth, though; few people are happy.
But the constant suggestion that schools ‘must do something about this’ is laziness on both intellectual and practical levels. To begin with, these are complex problems with hydra-headed origins. Feeling shit about the man in the mirror doesn’t come about because of a lack of information; it comes about because of a complex web of inputs, influences, norms and values projected a million ways by society, and amended, ameliorated or exacerbated by a million other factors. To say that the solution to this is a few measly lessons in school is bunny-hugging of the most moronic level. It isn’t a lack of information that promotes low body image, it’s an entire set of values and cultural filters.
You want a solution? I’ll give you a solution, although some may not like it: raise children to view differences as acceptable; to understand that there are many ways to think and many ways to look; to be aware of our own imperfections before we criticise the imagined flaws in others. How do we do that? A lifetime of modelling good behaviour; of demonstrating those values themselves; of exposing them to difference in contexts that encourage them to accept rather than revile.
Bit tricky, isn’t it? Boy, that sure does sound like a lot of work. That sounds like it might take a bit of time. Sounds like you might have to constantly provide support for your children, and help them to adjust to the myriad ways society can teach us to judge others. Oh, and that’s without even considering that some forms of ridicule and body criticism might be hard-wired into us somewhat as a form of obtaining  a pecking order in our groups, which would make things even more difficult to amend.
What this doesn’t suggest is that shoe horning a few lessons called, inevitably, something like ‘We’re all beautiful;’ into an already crowded curriculum is the answer to a complex and textured problem. But then, suggesting that schools ‘fix it’ is the inevitable, obvious answer, for people who lack the vision to see beyond the reductive solution of the magic bullet. You might as well try to solve poverty by giving everyone ten grand.
There are a million things that I think that kids should know about the world; I look at the wolf-infested forests that we send our Hansels and Gretels into, and like any adult who cares, I fret. I look at my own life and I shudder at the traps I fell into, the crashes I caused and to which I fell victim. But we cannot prepare them for the complexity of the future by trying to TELL THEM EVERYTHING.

Where have all the Golden Eggs gone? says butcher.
And schools already have a primary job: it is our sacred mission to teach them the best of what humanity has learned so far, so that they can surpass us, or at the very least match our generation. The second that schools don’t do this, we condemn our descendants to a civilisation less enlightened, less wise, less informed than our own. It isn’t simply an accumulation of facts, but the bequest of culture, scientific and aesthetic to our children: the most valuable gift of all. The more we attempt to DIRECTLY teach children to vote, to not riot, to love the skin they’re in, the less time we have to teach them about how the world was made, how science works, what our common history is, how the planets roll, the beauty and efficacy of numbers; the shimmering, transformational power of language and communication. This taxonomy of subjects is core and key. It is the sign of an over indulged society indeed that we choose to crowd out these precious jewels so carelessly, in favour of other things.
The analogy of the Goose that lays the Golden Eggs is edifying here: teachers and schools do one of the most important jobs in society- and I mean that. We are the connective tissue between yesterday and today; remove our role, and in fifty years, civilisation retreats to the cave, and I am NOT fucking with you here. We are the connective tissue that tethers the human race to irrigation, law, and mobile phones. I want children to grow up eating in a healthy manner; I want kids to refrain from taking a toffee hammer to the crystal decanter of civilisation; I want them to respect themselves and others, not automatically, but because they are worthy of respect.
Is this what you want? IS IT?
But teaching these values directly in a three part lesson is the myopic, utopian response of a fool. It’s cheap, it’s almost worthless, and it does a massive disservice to these problems. Worse, it pretends that something is being done, when something isn’t. So it becomes part of the problem itself, by deterring further intervention.
And as usual, teachers are encouraged to bear this burden, this mule-pack of responsibility for solving every social ill no matter how unrelated to schooling, when we already have the most enormous burden of our own. Which, tacitly, makes us responsible for when the ills are predictably unremedied by the paltry tinctures we can provide.
Which inevitably creates the headlines (which could have been written before the project itself was even launched) ‘Schools failing pupils in ‘y’’ (where ‘y’ is equal to the value of ‘x’).
You want me to get that?


  1. Tomorrow I am going to print this out and stalk the corrisors, jamming it down the throat of every "senior" "leader" I see. Those in charge of PSHEE(?EE) are going to get it on red, 250g/m2 card stock.

    It may sound extreme but I can't think of any other way to get them to understand the enormity of their crimes against teaching :) (I've put a smiley in so that people know that I am not really a sociopath and have never force-fed paper to anyone in education.)

    Spot on as always Tom and so well written. Cheers.

  2. I could not agree with you more, Tom. You have hit the nail right on the head. I am setting myself the task of writing to every lazy thinker I hear suggesting that "Schools should do more" about their particular hobby horse.