Tom Hodgkinson: 'Why is cleverness frowned upon?'

The Independent | February 6, 2011

Having three children in the state primary system, I've seen the results of New Labour's Brave New World anti-intellectualism up close. Academic work has been largely dropped. Times tables, spelling, grammar and good handwriting are not taught. One teacher told us that correcting spelling might interrupt "the creative flow". In the playground, age-old games such as conkers and It are banned, as they might upset someone. The local authority, we are told, has also banned the ancient game of football, because it encourages competitive behaviour. Instead, pupils are treated to lavish praise, sex education and colouring in, plus a big dose of television via the whiteboards. The place is awash with laptops. There is a therapeutic ethos, and in "circle time", pupils are encouraged to talk about their problems at home. Cleverness is frowned upon: yesterday my daughter said she didn't like being clever and was considering doing bad work so she would be moved down a set.

As it gradually dawned on my wife and me that there was very little of what we would call teaching going on, we decided to step in and fill the gaps ourselves. (Mr Gove has promised a return to a more traditional agenda, but how long will it take?) So now at home we drill the children in times tables, teach them the rudiments of grammar, and we all learn Latin together with a tutor via Skype. We play competitive games and do wrestling. We tell them off. We praise them for good work, but tick them off for bad work. And in a sense this is all the wrong way round: schools are doing the parenting and the parents are doing the schooling.

The upside, it's true, is that children enjoy school. Our kids react with horror when we threaten them with home education. The downside is that parents are forced to take on the burden of educating their children properly, as the state has shrugged it off.

I hear similar anecdotes about the secondary system: one English teacher told a parent we know that they didn't teach spelling because pupils could use the spellcheck on their computers. Instead of books, "texts" are taught. A dumbed-down relativism has led to the idea that a web page or an advertisement is as worthy of study as William Blake. I blame Roland Barthes: I myself was briefly infatuated by the French post-structuralist writer, whose book Mythologies was a big hit with trendy undergraduates. We liked the way he used his considerable intellect to write about the Citroë* DS. But really Mythologies was just a cerebral game, and shouldn't have been taken as the basis for a whole education system.

Another culprit would be the journalist Toby Young. His magazine Modern Review, which flourished briefly in the early 1990s, celebrated the idea that you could write about Terminator 2 as if it was high art. All things were equal. There was nothing better or worse, and beauty was in the eye of the beholder. Mr Young has thankfully rejected this creed and is now attempting to set up a school which will concentrate on Latin and grammar rather than empathy and self-esteem.

Oh yes, self-esteem. If everyone has lots of self-esteem, the theory goes, no one will commit crime and everybody will be nice to each other. But the theory is clearly nonsense. When combined with an anti-academic education system, the result is children who are stupid, but who have a lot of self-esteem. And that is a worrying combination. My local landlord tells me that the graduates from the local comp who he employs in the pub not only cannot spell "gravy", but get upset when you point this out. We should remember that self-esteem under its old name, pride, was considered sinful.

The combination of stupidity and self-esteem, though, makes for very good consumers. Every child is taught shopping and spending skills to a high level. It is all summed up in advertising slogans such as "Because you're worth it". The commercial world continues to promote the self-bigging-up agenda through products. If you're feeling down, you go shopping, and because you have not been taught how to think, you don't realise that you are being conned.

I would dearly love to start an anti-materialist advertising campaign that featured a monk with his head bowed and the slogan, "Because I'm not worth it."

Self-esteem, or self-confidence, in any case, comes not from self-esteem classes, but from ability. "Competence is the foundation of happiness," wrote William Cobbett. Teachers, simply, should teach knowledge, or scientia, and skills, or arti. That sort of teaching, and not happiness lessons, will lead to a fulfilled life.