An episode of ‘Tipping Point’ or ‘The Chase’ any afternoon on ITV; standing at the podium is James from Winchester, who tells us he is in his final year at university, where he is taking a degree course in media studies.
“The capital of the United States is…
1. New York
“OK… I’m not too sure on this one… Geography isn’t my strong subject…”
“You said that about history and literature too!”
James laughs, nervously.
“OK, I’ve heard of New York and Washington, but I don’t think either is the capital. I’m going to go with Stoke-on-Trent. Yes. Definitely Stoke-on-Trent.”
“Are you sure? You’re selecting Stoke-on-Trent?”
“Yes, Ben. Stoke-on-Trent.”
“Light it up… Oh, I’m sorry James, it isn’t Stoke-on-Trent. We’ve found your tipping point, and I’m afraid you go home with nothing.”
“Thanks Ben, I’ve had a lovely day.”
Another pleasant young person walks away, as they do every day, after showing that they know almost nothing at all. About anything.
Last Friday, at the National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner and Tom Stoppard discussed Stoppard’s new play ‘The Hard Problem’. Stoppard said that one of the worst aspects of writing plays in the 2010s is “being forced to dumb down jokes so that the audience understand them.”
It is possible to consider Sir Tom to be rather guilty of pomposity here as he is considering an audience’s ability to notice references to the plays of Shakespeare, rather than the sort of jokes one might encounter in a Ray Cooney farce. However, I’m standing shoulder to shoulder with Stoppard here. We are allowing generations to leave school with almost no knowledge of a wide variety of subjects – some of aesthetic value, some essential, yet seemingly ignored in the modern era.
“I’m not sure what they do in the schools, but they get it right.”
I have a friend who is a teacher. She tells me that her days spent attempting to teach Year 7s through to ‘A’ Level students are: 50% crowd control; 40% counselling; 10% teaching. This is not in some inner city, troubled environment, but the Home Counties, with children dropped off by parents driving 4x4s. Parents who take their children to Barbados in the school holidays and buy them expensive gifts at Christmas, but who don’t ensure the children eat breakfast, do their homework, or take up hobbies that might engage them further than Candy Crush Saga.
I am pleased to be English, and at times, proud of my heritage (there’s a ‘but’ coming here, isn’t there?) but I’m not proud of the dumbing down, referred to by Tom Stoppard.
I spend time in Ireland each year. I’m not sure what they do in the schools, but they get it right.
Driving through any town in the south of England during the week, at about 3:00 pm, I see dozens and dozens of children of all ages, meandering along pavements having been let out of school – why?
In Ireland, they would be still in class, and learning – possibly about Shakespeare, about geography, history, language – all the subjects that our young people no longer seem to study.
Young people throughout Ireland (and France, Holland, and Belgium in my experience) speak confidently but respectfully. Most are usually able to converse in languages other than their home tongue. They will know which city is the capital of the United States. They will know that if Tom Stoppard makes a reference to King Lear, he is not writing about a Disney character.
We are now almost two decades forward from those words, “Education, Education, Education.” How hollow that pledge seems now.
Like us all, I have no idea if it will be Tristram Hunt or Nicky Morgan who will be taking responsibility for the education of British children from May 2015 onwards. I have little faith in either of them.
What I do know is that unless we strip our approach to schooling back and start afresh we are consigning yet another generation to a world where they know nothing of Shakespeare, literature, or the great poets; nothing of the wider world other than their holiday destinations, and nothing at all that will give them knowledge and pleasure in their lives, let alone set them up to be attractive propositions to employers.
And they’ll all be going home empty handed from Tipping Point, too.
Terence Dackombe – February 2015