'Agree With Everything - Deny Nothing - Embellish All

Sunday, May 21, 2006

If . . .

To St Bees with La V & her daughters to enjoy Speech Day at my former place of detention. Sadly, there were no smoke bombs during the speeches, and I scanned the chapel roof in vain for the sight of a leather-jacketed Malcolm McDowell letting rip with his sten gun (all things eagerly anticipated yet never actually experienced back in the 1970s). As with all rituals of public display, this was a wonderful chance to decode and understand the values of an institution en fete. Back then, the boys and parents were subjected to a long harangue about academic standards by the possibly bonkers headmaster, an authoritarian classicist whose ruling obsession was his fear that the Red Army, arriving in St Bees with snow on their boots, would force us all to learn Russian and, crucially, change the street names to 'October Revolution Boulevard' &c; the prizes were given out by a peer of the realm with tenuous local connections whose day-job involved running the publicly-owned coal industry (West Cumbria, in those distant days being a mining district). Now, pupils & parents are reassured about academic standards by the clearly lucid headmaster, the head of school makes a short speech about how she will take the values she learned at St Bees back to life in her native China, and the prizes are handed out by a peer of the realm with tenuous local connnections who lives in a grace-and-favour theme park actually owned by the National Trust. It's not my intention to sound mean: some of the differences were cloying, some shocking. The 'leaving statements' read by selected pupils were replete with the assumption that the dominant American sentimental narrative of personal development - the overcoming of adversity leading to fulfillment of dreams - is the highest goal of education. But to find a prize being offered in memory of a brilliant contemporary who died cruelly young was viscerally disturbing (a year after his death I went up to the same college to read the same subject). Overall, it was notable that the insistence, 30 years ago, upon the virtues of team spirit and the elision of individuality for the greater good (against which I kicked furiously) had been replaced by an ideal of individual fulfillment and personal entitlement. For this I suppose we must thank that low-down and despicable decade of third-rate delusions the 1980s. Some things were notable for their persistence: the board of governors, alas no longer graced by the late Willy Whitelaw, was almost as male pale and stale as its predecessor. The headmaster's speech still had the air of the report of a chief executive to his small shareholders - the parents. He was notably at pains to record the exceptionally high level of 'A' level passes & A* grades achieved by the school. A sound investment in rising standards. Of course, when such statistics are rehearsed in the state sector, they are seen as incontrovertible evidence of falling standards and easier examinations. Pass the sten gun Malcolm.


Blogger Lampy said...

begs the question, why?

23/5/06 10:31 pm  
Blogger Nick said...

Errm, assuming you mean the private/public disparity in perception of academic achievement, I'd suggest it boils down to a simple prejudice in favour of valuing something you're buying, but despising something you're taxed for . . . (needless to add, I am not takng that position myself).

24/5/06 12:25 am  

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