Culture / Kirstin Fairnie

Down With the Kids

If Madonna released a 11th anniversary version of her 2001 hit, with the catchy title Do you know what it feels like for a ‘young person’ in this world? it really wouldn’t get to number one. For starters, what does that toe-curling term ‘young person’ actually mean? We’ve introduced an intermediary stage into the growing up process: children grow up into young people who grow up into adults. Nobody cares, nobody listens to me might sound like the script of a stereotypical rent-a-teen, and that’s not the kind of shrill point I want to make here. It seems that ‘young people’ are like Marmite: you either love them or you hate them. I think that nebulous group- ‘young people’- have become rather too big for their boots, but I think it’s thanks to the way the ‘old people’ have spoiled them.

It’s really not PC to call a seventeen year old a child, but nobody really seems to be quite able to pinpoint when you gain ‘young person’ status. It strikes me that the reason that ‘middle-aged’ people who try just a weensy bit too hard to seem I-is-down-wit-da-kids-man-innit are so enamoured of the phrase is that essentially they’re frightened that if they call an eighteen year old a child, they’ll end up in the court of human rights. Essentially, an ever-growing number of adults have such survivors’ guilt about having lived through the good old boom years of the 80s and 90s that they reckon it’s easier to pander to the demands of those of us who missed out on those liquid lunch years. Which would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that obviously the pampered young people will all grow up into adults with the same sense of self-entitlement.

So it’s worrying that the headteacher of a private school in Cambridge is prepared to let off his pupils provided they come up with a sufficiently charming excuse for ‘minor misdemeanours’ within ten seconds of being caught in the act.

Roll on a generation of smarmy boys coming out of that initiative. In this post-expenses era, it seems unbelievable that anybody is seriously advocating telling ‘little white lies’ to wriggle out of trouble, a behaviour the headteacher described as nigh on an essential life school in an interview with the BBC.

As if it wasn’t bad enough that 29,000 English teenagers have the reading age of a 10 or 11 year old, the London Festival of Education, which surely ought to be the platform for encouraging improved educational provision in this country, seemed to support Eton’s Mike Grenier’s ‘slow learning’ movement His own comparison between his educational ideas and the ‘slow food’ movement concerns me: do middle-class parents chop and change their children’s education styles with each new fad as readily as they flit from nouveau cuisine and sushi to pulled-pork sandwiches, farmers’ markets and Hunter wellies? In principle his idea is very appealing, our education system is churning out pupils who are good at sitting exams, and that does need to be changed. But in reality only a very small proportion of schools can afford to provide the kind of creative, cross-curricular learning experiences that he is advocating, and if it were to be rolled out across the country it would probably just become an excuse for laziness (both of teachers and pupils). Twenty-five years on it would be just as outdated s the current system is.

Meanwhile, to try and gain back power from what their apparently unruly children, parents at the old-fashioned end of the scale will be rejoicing at the invention of a frighteningly Orwellian app that allows them to remote control everything on their children’s phones through a website. At least it would make sure their kids aren’t so distracted from revision that they can’t read their GCSE papers. Just as Mr Grenier said of the exam system, society is ‘dehumanising’ pupils, students, children, ‘young people’- whatever you want to call them- by presenting them from polarised viewpoints: either illiterate, rioting louts or the forgotten victims of a broken society. I don’t think either of these representations is accurate, but by popularising these stereotypes, society is slowly starting to persuade under-18s that they should conform to one of them.

Kirstin Fairnie

Interact UK –

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