Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Unhelpful Pressures on Education (1) - Consumerism

I buy therefore I am. Or even I consume therefore I am. As the car bumper sticker puts it, ‘He who has the most toys wins.’

At a time when shopping seems to have become our national sport and obsession – the investment in new shopping centres is even greater than the investment in new football stadiums, and possibly  greater even than our transitory investment in the Olympic movement – and at a time when our country has got itself in to difficulty because the size of our income has been no constraint on the amount we have sought to buy, consumerism seems to have become a universal way of thinking. Consumerism can scoop up even the most recalcitrant and influence us insidiously. A generation which spends money we don’t have, to buy things we don’t want , to impress people we don’t like cannot pretend that education has somehow escaped the consumerist plague.

The consumerism epidemic has three principal symptoms, even for those who resist it fiercely:
First, consumerism makes the most important question: do I like it? Not, is it beneficial? Enjoyment has become the most important, or certainly the dominant, consideration in our lives. The appraisal of lessons has become much more influenced by the question floating in the senior manager’s head (or in the inspectors) ‘Are the pupils enjoying themselves’. If education is training of the mind, why do we expect the hard yards of learning calculus to me made fun, in a way that an Olympic athlete’s first training session of the day, at 6 am,  outside, in November, never could be.

And so our world is high on entertainment, low on challenge, high on instant results, low on deferred gratification. Try reading that sentence again and inserting ‘our schools’ for ‘our world’, or even ‘DfE initiatives’. Even churches seek to entertain the congregations before trying to teach them. And we are all doing this because of consumerism, and we don’t even realize, day to day, that is happening.

Secondly, consumerism teaches us that if it isn’t right just throw it away and get a new one. A few years ago someone said to me that they didn’t want to buy a television which lasted for more than 3 years, because they found the whole experience of going out and buying a new television so exciting. The trouble with this is that it means that pupils think that if they are finding learning hard, they should just get a new teacher, managers think that if their workers aren’t delivering, they should just fire them and hire new ones, rather than training or helping them, and husbands and wives often think that if their marriage isn’t working, they should just get rid of their husband or wife and get a new one. Treating all things as disposable cons us into thinking that people are too. And they aren’t. A message of education should be that we can change people, otherwise, why bother teaching them. Isn’t teaching people changing them?

Thirdly, for a person in a consumerist society, their identity comes from their brands. People are defined by what they buy. They are a Jack Wills person, or Quiksilver, or Burberry. They are Apple, or Samsung, Mercedes or BMW, Bose or Beats. People long to get closer to the being the very epitome of their favourite brand.

There is no belonging because the brands turn over so fast that no one can ever rest, and of course it ensures that clothes can be thrown away long before they are worn out – which is the purpose of fashion. Belonging to a brand is no help in a crisis. Not like belonging to a village football club, or a Rotarian club, or a sailing club, or a book group.

During last summer my stepfather died, and my mother found that people from all the clubs and associations in their small seaside town were kind and helpful to her. Some from the allotment association, some from the Rotarians, and some from the sailing club. When that kind of thing happens to our generation, no one will call round from H&M, or Apple, or Mercedes Benz. Where will our belonging be? If we are defined only by our brands, where will our roots be in a crisis?

Even schools have become brands – as they try to create a sense of belonging in the young which can keep up by multinationals being advised by the best branding agencies in the world. Unsurprisingly, the advertising agencies, and the multinationals they advise, are winning. And a generation of young people are lovin’ it. It’s a race schools can’t win.

Consumerism poses educators serious problems, and some good questions. We need to address them head on.

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