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Winter 1995
City Journal Winter 1995.
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NEW BOOK FROM THEODORE DALRYMPLE:
The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism.
NOT WITH A BANG BUT A WHIMPER:
The Politics and Culture of Decline

by Theodore Dalrymple
Not With a Bang But a Wimper.
 
Oh, to be in  E ngland

We Don't Want No Education
Theodore Dalrymple
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Education has always been a minority interest in England. The English have generally preferred to keep the bloom of their ignorance intact and on the whole have succeeded remarkably well, despite a century and a quarter of compulsory schooling of their offspring.

In the past their ignorance was purely passive: the mere absence of knowledge. Of late, however, it has taken on a more positive and malign quality: a profound aversion to anything that smacks of intelligence, education, or culture. Not long ago, there was a popular song whose first lines successfully captured this widespread mood of hostility: We don't need no education,/We don't need no thought control. And a couple of months ago, I noticed some wall posters advertising a new song: "Poor, White, and Stupid."

I wish I could say that some irony was intended, but the cult of stupidity has become in England what the cult of celebrity is in the United States. To call someone clever has never been an unequivocal compliment in England, but it takes a special kind of perversity for students at the high school situated 400 yards from my hospital to say to one of their colleagues, who took an overdose because of the constant bullying to which she was subject: You're stupid because you're clever.

What did they mean by this apparent paradox? They meant that anyone who tried hard at school and performed well was wasting his time, when he could have been engaged in the real business of life, such as truanting in the park or wandering downtown. Furthermore, there was menace in their words: If you don't mend your ways and join us, they were saying, we'll beat you up. This was no idle threat: I often meet people in their twenties and thirties in my hospital practice who gave up at school under such duress and subsequently realize that they have missed an opportunity which, had it been taken, would have changed the whole course of their lives much for the better. And those who attend the few schools in the city which maintain very high academic standards risk a beating if they venture to where the poor white stupids live. In the last year, I have treated two boys in the emergency room after such a beating, and two others who have taken overdoses for fear of receiving one at the hands of their neighbors.

Just as it was impossible to go broke underestimating the taste of the American public, so it is impossible to overstate the abysmal educational depths to which a large proportion of the English have now sunk, boding ill for the country's future in the global market. Very few of the 16 yearolds whom I meet as patients can read and write with facility; they do not even regard my question as to whether they can read and write as in the least surprising or insulting. I now test the basic literacy of nearly every such youth I meet, in case illiteracy should prove to be one of the causes of his misery. (I had a patient recently whose brother committed suicide rather than face the humiliation of public exposure in the social security office of his inability to read the forms he was required to fill in.) One can tell merely by the way these youths handle a pen or a book that they are unfamiliar with these instruments. Even those who are under the impression that they can read and write adequately are utterly defeated by words of three syllables, and while they can sometimes read the words of a text, they no more understand them than if they had been in Church Slavonic.

I cannot recall meeting a 16yearold white from the public housing estates which are near my hospital who could multiply nine by seven (I do not exaggerate). Even three by seven often defeats them. One boy of 17 told me, "We didn't get that far." This, after 12 years of compulsory education (or should I say, attendance at school).

As to knowledge in other spheres, it is fully up to the standards set in mathematics. Most of the young whites whom I meet literally cannot name a single writer and certainly cannot recite a line of poetry. Not a single one of my young patients has known the dates of the Second World War, let alone of the First; some have never heard of these wars, though recently one young patient who had heard of the Second World War thought it took place in the eighteenth century. In the prevailing circumstances of total ignorance, I was impressed that he had heard of the eighteenth century. The name Stalin means nothing to these young people and does not even evoke the faint ringing of a bell, as the name Shakespeare (sometimes) does. To them, 1066 is more likely to mean a price than a date.

Thus are the young condemned to live in an eternal present, a present which merely exists, without connection to a past which might explain it or to a future which might develop from it. Theirs is truly a life of one damned thing after another. Likewise, they are deprived of any reasonable standards of comparison by which to judge their woes. They believe themselves deprived, because the only people with whom they can compare themselves are those who appear in advertisements or on television.

Mere semiliteracy and ignorance do not necessarily disqualify young people from passing public examinations, at least lowerlevel exams. Since failure is now regarded as fatally damaging to self-esteem, anyone who actually presents himself at an examination is likely to emerge with a certificate. I recently encountered a boy aged 16 in my clinic who wrote Dear Sir as deer sur, and I'm as ime (and whose grammar was fully consonant with his orthography), who had passed a public examination—in English.

Clearly, something very strange is happening in our schools. Our educational practices are now so bizarre that they would defy the pen of a Jonathan Swift to satirize them. In the very large metropolitan area in which I work, for example, the teachers have received instructions that they are not to impart the traditional disciplines of spelling and grammar. Pettifogging attention to details of syntax and orthography is said to inhibit children's creativity and powers of selfexpression. Moreover, to assert that there is a correct way of speaking or writing is to indulge in a kind of bourgeois cultural imperialism; and to tell children that they have got something wrong is necessarily to saddle them with a debilitating sense of inferiority from which they will never recover. I have met a few teachers who disobey these instructions in an atmosphere of clandestinity, in fear for their jobs, rather reminiscent of the atmosphere which surrounded those who secretly tried to propagate truth behind the late Iron Curtain.

I was told of one school where the teachers were allowed by the headmaster to make corrections, but only five per piece of work, irrespective of the number actually present. This, of course, was to preserve the amour propre of the children, but it seemed not to have occurred to this pedagogue that his fivecorrection rule was likely to have unfortunate consequences. The teacher might choose to correct an error in the spelling of a word, for example, and overlook precisely the same error in the next piece of work. How is a child to interpret correction based on this headmaster's principle? The less intelligent, perhaps, will regard it as a species of natural hazard, like the weather, about which he can do very little; while the more intelligent are likely to draw the conclusion that the principle of correction as such is inherently arbitrary and unjust.

Alarmingly, this arbitrariness reinforces precisely the kind of discipline which I see exercised around me every day by parents whose philosophy of child rearing is laissezfaire tempered by insensate rage. A small child rushes about noisily, creating havoc and wreaking destruction about him; the mother (fathers scarcely exist, except in the merest biological sense) first ignores the child, then shouts at him to stop, then ignores him, pleads with him, ignores him again, laughs at him, and then finally loses her temper, screeches abuse at him, and gives him a clout on the ear.

What is the child supposed to learn from this? He learns to associate discipline not with principle, and punishment not with his own behavior, but with the exasperated mood of his mother. This mood will itself depend upon many variables, few of them under the control of the child. The mother may be irritable because of her latest row with her latest boyfriend or because of a delay in the arrival of a social security payment, or she may be comparatively tolerant because she has received an invitation to a party or has just discovered that she is not pregnant after all. But what the child certainly never learns is that discipline has any meaning beyond the physical capacity and desire of the mother to impose it.

Everything is reduced to a mere contest of wills, and so the child learns that all restraint is but an arbitrary imposition from someone or something bigger and stronger than himself. The ground is laid for a bloodyminded intolerance of any authority whatever, even should that authority be based upon patently superior and benevolent knowledge and wisdom. Authority of any kind is experienced as an insult to the self, and must therefore be challenged because it is authority. The world is thus a world of permanently inflamed egos, trying to impose their wills on one another.

In the schools, young children are no longer taught in whole classes but in little groups. It is hoped that they will learn by discovery and play. There is no blackboard and no rote learning. Perhaps the method of teaching by turning everything into a game can work when the teacher is talented and the children are already socialized to learn; but when, as is usually the case, neither of these conditions obtains, the results are disastrous, not just in the short term but probably forever.

The children themselves eventually come to know that something is wrong, even if they are not able to articulate their knowledge. Of the generations of children who grew up with these pedagogical methods, it is striking how many of the more intelligent among them sense by their early twenties that something is missing from their lives. They don't know what it is, and they ask me what it could be. I quote them Francis Bacon: "It is a poore Center of a Mans Actions, Himselfe." They ask me what I mean, and I reply that they have no interests outside themselves, that their world is as small as the day they entered it, and that their horizons have not expanded in the least.

"But how do we get interested in something?" they ask.

This is where the baleful effect of education as mere entertainment makes itself felt. For to develop an interest requires powers of concentration and an ability to tolerate a degree of boredom while the elements of a skill are learned for the sake of a worthwhile end. Few people are attracted naturally by the vagaries of English spelling or by the rules of simple arithmetic, yet they must be mastered if everyday life in an increasingly complex world is to be negotiated successfully. And it is the plain duty of adults, from the standpoint of their superior knowledge and experience of the world, to impart to children what they need to know so that later they may exercise genuine choice. The demagogic equation of all authority, even over the smallest child, with unjustifiable political authoritarianism leads only to personal and social chaos.

Alas, the age of 20 is not the age at which to learn either to concentrate or to tolerate effort which is in itself not enjoyable. Never having experienced the pleasures of mastering something through disciplined effort, and with minds profoundly influenced by the swiftly moving and superficially exciting images of television, these young adults find that a sustained interest in anything is now beyond them. And in the modern urban world, anyone who cannot concentrate is truly a lost soul, for the only communities in such a world are those which grow up around interests which people hold in common. Moreover, in an age of increasing technological change, those without the ability or inclination to learn will be left farther and farther behind.

The gimcrack pedagogical notion that education should be "relevant" to children's lives gained currency in England in the sixties. The thought that this would confine children to the world that they already knew—and a pretty dismal world it was, too, as anyone with the slightest acquaintance with English workingclass life will testify—apparently never occurred to those educationists who claimed such exceptional sympathy with the relatively disadvantaged. The result was that a route—perhaps the one most frequently traveled—to social advancement was substantially closed to them.

Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to overturn these educational (or antieducational) developments even now, when the central government has belatedly realized their disastrous consequences. Why? First, the teachers and the teachers of the teachers in the training colleges are deeply imbued with the kinds of educational ideas which have brought us to this pass. Second, a huge educational bureaucracy has grown up in England (one bureaucrat per teacher, pullulating like admirals in a South American navy) which uses every subterfuge to prevent change, from falsification of figures to willful misinterpretation of government policy. The Minister of Education may propose, but the bureaucracy disposes. Thus it happens that Britain spends a higher percentage of its GDP on education than any of its competitors and ends up with a catastrophically illeducated population, whose lack of intelligence is evident from their ruminant gaze to be seen on every street in the country, and which is remarked upon by all my foreign friends.

Bad as educational policy has been, however, there remains an important and refractory cultural dimension to the problem. It is easy—conceptually at least—to see what should be done on the plane of policy, but the English disdain for education is not easily overcome even in principle.

In the neighborhood in which I work, there are many immigrant groups. The largest are those from northwest India, Bangladesh, and Jamaica. There is also a large and settled white working class. The children from all these groups go to the same bad schools with the same bad teachers, but the results are dramatically different. The children of poor and unemployed immigrants from northwest India are never illiterate or semiliterate; a very respectable number go on to further education, even at the highest level, despite overcrowding in the home and apparent poverty. The other groups vie with each other to achieve the lowest educational level.

The lamentable fact is that a considerable proportion of the English population is simply unaware of the need for education. It seems stuck with the Victorian idea that England is by right and divine providence the workshop of the world, that Englishmen by virtue of their place of birth come into the world knowing all that it is necessary for them to know, and that if there are no jobs to employ their unskilled (and, it must be said, rather reluctant) labor, it is the fault of the government in league with the plutocrats in top hats and tails, who have conspired to exploit cheap Japanese labor. One thing an unemployed young Englishman is definitely not going to do is to make a concerted effort to equip himself with a salable skill.

I have had the following conversation on innumerable occasions with young men of about 20 who have been unemployed since leaving school, and whose general educational level is outlined above:

“Have you thought of improving your education?”
“No.”
“Why not?”
“There's no point. There are no jobs.“
"Could there be any other reason to get educated?"
'No." (This after puzzlement as to what I could possibly mean.)

There are two things to notice in this conversation. The first is that the unemployed young person considers the number of jobs in an economy as a fixed quantity. Just as the national income is a cake to be doled out in equal or unequal slices, so the number of jobs in an economy has nothing to do with the conduct of the people who live in it, but is immutably fixed. This is a concept of the way the world works which has been assiduously peddled, not only in schools during "social studies" but in the media of mass communication.

The second thing worthy of remark is the complete absence of the idea that mental culture is a good in itself, that it has a value irrespective of one's employment prospects. Just as patients' responses to the same illness and disability vary according to their predisposition and character, so does a man's response to unemployment. A man with an interest to pursue, or at least with the mental equipment to pursue, an interest is not in such dire straits as a man obliged by the tabula rasa of his mind to stare vacantly at the four walls for weeks, months, or years on end. He is more likely to come up with an idea for self-employment or at the very least to seek work in places and in fields which are new to him. He is not condemned to stagnation.

There is one great psychological advantage to the white underclass in their disdain for education: it enables them to maintain the fiction that the society around them is grossly, even grotesquely, unjust, and that they themselves are the victims of this injustice. If, on the contrary, education were seen by them as a means available to all to rise in the world, as indeed it could be and is in many societies, their whole viewpoint would naturally have to change. Instead of attributing their misfortunes to others, they would have to look inward, which is always a painful process. Here we see the reason why scholastic success is violently discouraged, and those who pursue it persecuted, in underclass schools: for it is perceived, inchoately no doubt, as a threat to an entire Weltanschauung. The success of one is a reproach to all.

And a whole way of life is at stake. This way of life is akin to drug addiction, of which crime is the heroin and social security the methadone. The latter, as we know, is the harder habit to kick, and its pleasures, though less intense, are longer lasting. The sour satisfaction of being dependent on social security resides in its automatic conferral of the status of Victim, which in itself simultaneously explains one's failure and absolves one of the obligation to make something of oneself, ex hypothesi impossible because of the unjust nature of society which made one a victim in the first place. The redemptive value of education blows the whole affecting scene apart: no wonder we don't want no education.

In one sense (and in one sense alone), however, the underclass has been victimized, or perhaps betrayed is a better word. The educational absurdities foisted on the lower orders were the idea not of the lower orders themselves but of those who were in a position to avoid their baleful effects: that is to say, middleclass intellectuals. If I were inclined to paranoia (which fortunately I am not), I should say that the efforts of educationists were part of a giant plot by the middle classes to keep power for themselves and to restrict competition, in the process creating sinecures for some of their less able and dynamic members—namely the educationists. But if these middle classes have maintained their power, it is in an increasingly enfeebled and impoverished country.

 

 


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