Leave the kids alone!

I’ve been annoyed ever since I woke up this morning because there was an item on the 7am news that irked me. A person called Claire Tomalin was quoted as saying, among other things, that

Children are not being educated to have prolonged attention spans and you have to be prepared to read steadily for a Dickens novel and I think that’s a pity.

She goes on to lay most of the blame for this shortcoming on television, as such people tend to do.

It’s a facile argument. For one thing most of Dickens’ novels were originally published in short installments, so reading them  that way seems quite a sensible approach to me, and one that should probably be encouraged not criticized.  There’s no getting away either from the fact that some of Dickens’ output is very heavy going indeed. Dare I say that not all Dickens is particularly good? Not liking Dickens is a matter of taste, not a mental defect caused by watching Big Brother.

And another thing: what fraction of children in Dickens’ time could read at all? Much lower than today, I suspect.

Claire Tomalin’s comment is  not just a lazy generalization, it’s also yet another easy shot at the  younger generations who have to put up with this sort of gibe from middle-aged grouches over and over again.

Examination results usually provoke similar outbursts, related to “dumbing down”. I actually do think that, at least in some subjects, examinations are much easier than they were “in my day”, but I don’t think that’s a reason to criticize the examinees. It’s more a fault with the examiners, who have decided that the young can’t cope with difficult challenges. That’s an insult in its own right. I maintain my view that education, especially higher education, is not about making things easy.  It’s about showing students that they can do things that are hard. Most importantly, though, dumbing down examinations is not the same as dumbing down people.

It’s not just young schoolkids that attract such ill-informed invective. I come across it quite regularly with respect to the (alleged) lack of skills possessed by the young adults (usually 18-22) we teach as undergraduates, some of it even from colleagues.

I was thinking the other day what a boon it is for a middle-aged fogey – and obvious potential grouch – like myself to have the pleasure of actually talking to so many younger people at work, and listening to what they have to say. That way I’ve come to my own conclusions about what they’re really like. You know, like you do with people. Most folk  of my age don’t have jobs that bring them into contact with younger folk, so they have  to rely on articles in the Daily Telegraph to tell them  what to think. That, sadly, even goes for those lecturers who have fixed ideas about the inferiority of “students nowadays”.

I think I’ve been very lucky, especially over the last few years, to have had the opportunity to work with a wide range of students as, e.g., project supervisor or tutor. Interactions like this provide a constant reminder not to generalize about the generations. There is of course a range of ability and commitment, but there was in my day too. The majority  still work hard,  learn quickly, and are friendly and courteous. There’s also no doubt in my mind that the best students nowadays are as good as they have ever been, if not better.

It’s the oldies who are the problem.

22 Responses to “Leave the kids alone!”

  1. Well said. Complaining about the kids these days, and imagining that one’s own youth was incomparably better, is very satisfying for the complainer (and I confess to indulging in it from time to time), but like other self-indulgent pleasures it’s best done in private.

  2. telescoper Says:

    I’m not sure it is actually satisfying for the complainer, or if it is it’s a very unhealthy way of being satisfied.

    What’s infinitely more satisfying is helping people realise their potential, and celebrating their success when they do.

    • You’re right, of course, and I want to be clear that I absolutely do take great satisfaction in working with students and helping them reach their potential. I’m not above *occasionally* indulging in whining about my students, but only occasionally. If I get to the point where such complaining is a big part of what I do, then I should get out of the education business.

    • telescoper Says:

      Whining about colleagues is still much more satisfying, however.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    “Examination results usually provoke similar outbursts, related to “dumbing down”. I actually do think that, at least in some subjects, examinations are much easier than they were “in my day”, but I don’t think that’s a reason to criticize the examinees. It’s more a fault with the examiners, who have decided that the young can’t cope with difficult challenges. That’s an insult in its own right. I maintain my view that education, especially higher education, is not about making things easy. It’s about showing students that they can do things that are hard.”

    Agreed that it is not the fault of people passing through a system, run by others, that the system is dumbed down. But, since it’s not the students’ fault, whose fault is it? I don’t agree that it is the fault of higher ed examiners, who for a generation now have regretted that science students (at least) coming from school to university know less than they used to. There is a problem in the schools.

    I used to believe that teacher training courses needed revamping in order to tackle the problem. I now think that the very existence of such courses is the problem. If you know your subject and enjoy teaching it, and you can keep discipline, then I believe everything else you need to know can be learned in a few weeks of on-the-job mentoring. Degrees in ‘education’ and the 1-year teacher training course are run by the people who wrecked English language learning for a generation by ditching phonics, and wrecked maths learning by throwing out the multiplication tables, all in the name of change because such things were supposedly old-fashioned. OK, you learn something about child psychology on those courses, but that’s about as necessary as teaching the Newtonian mechanics of projectiles to tennis players. I say close the education departments, because they *are* the problem. (They are never going to admit that they should be closed, are they?) The mentoring scheme I have proposed would also cost far less.

    • telescoper Says:

      To answer your first question I don’t think it’s the fault of examiners in universities, but the cartels of GCSE and A-level examiners who make their courses easier in order to compete for business. Let universities set the A-level exams.

      There is something clearer wrong with teacher-training. Drop-out rates are high, largely owing to the huge amounts of paperwork and the difficulty of actually being able to do anything original within today’s constrained syllabus.

      I have no direct experience of such courses, but the equivalent training given to new lecturers at university is similarly useless. I don’t know what the answer is, but wider recognition of the problem would be a start.

    • Alex McMurray Says:

      To be fair though, multiplication tables are arithmetic not mathematics, and precisely how valuable they are in a crowded curriculum is far from obvious.

      As for phonics – we need to experiment with different education methods etc. in order to be able to scientifically determine the optimum method, unfortunately not many parents like to think their children are the subjects of some educational experiment even though it is the only way to truly improve things (you need a large sample size of students obviously)

      I agree with you about the mentoring, I mean you just have to learn the mechanics of the curriculum and the school life etc. and get experience actually teaching the children. It seems that it could take a few months, but a year of academic style study for it seems excessive.

      But then it appears we have a fetish for the academic style of study at the moment, requiring degrees for everything from nursing to sports journalism.

      • I know a number of people who have undergone teacher training – the ones who dropped out all cited the same reason of no support from management when they struggled, instead they were expected to be able to do the job on day 1 and if not were simply bullied by management. I am sure if properly supported by mentors some of these people would have become good teachers, but they don’t want trainees in schools, only people good at the job on day 1, which means unless the teacher has a high natural ability they won’t last long. Given how many teachers we need I am not sure this is realistic, and instead they ought to support and help struggling new teachers to improve so they can do the job well.

        I wonder how much money is spent training all these people who leave the profession after a few years?

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Alex: The experiment has been done – phonics was dumped and children became less literate. Parents of children of that generation are in no doubt that one led to the other. If all that knowledge of child psychology and the theory of learning was any good it should have predicted that.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Peter: You wrote: “I don’t know what the answer is, but wider recognition of the problem would be a start.”

      The problem I am talking about was recognised by just about every parent in the country once phonics got axed. You can’t get much wider than that. But it was impossible to do anything about it because of the iron grip of the New Thought on the educational establishment.

      One of the ironies in this story is that the people wqho brounght in the new ways of teaching were generally leftwing, or regarded as such – yet the communist countries never fell for this nonsense and retained a good public education system.

  4. I wholeheartedly agree! Just last week one of my project students explained that they’d solved the difficult problem of turning on a calibration unit on the radio telescope in the Physics Department out of hours by communicating a message to it via twitter. I doubt I or any of my peers would have been that inventive back in the 80’s!

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    In the mid-1970s a poll was taken at one of the best schools in the country of who was the most boring author. The results, which caused a public stir, were – of course – the authors that the pupils *had* to read as part of their education. Shakespeare was not exempt, and Dickens, despite not scooping the “most boring book” award (I think Little Women won it, deservedly), was by far the most boring author.

    • telescoper Says:

      I love some of Dickens’ books, and found some of them a pleasure to read. But others were definitely not worth the effort. I never really minded being told to read certain things, even if I concluded that I didn’t like them. I would have objected if I’d been told what to think.

      It seems to me perfectly reasonable for a person (young or otherwise) to give up on a book they find excessively boring. You don’t have to like it just because Ms Tomalin says you should.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      That’s interesting Peter, that you liked some Dickens books but not others. Are you aware of any correlations with their content?

      • telescoper Says:

        Not sure what you mean. I can say, however, that I loved Great Expectations (which I think is one of the greatest novels by anyone, never mind Dickens) but hated Little Dorrit.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        In less pompous English, do you know why you liked some and not others?

      • telescoper Says:

        I think it was primarily a matter of style. In some books Dickens seems mannered and self-conscious, to the effect that what he writes feels very forced. A Tale of Two Cities, for example, is written in a style that’s extremely heavy-handed.

  6. I agree, Dickens should be read in instalments, if at all. Even by the sesquipedalian standards of his own day, his writing is turgid and heavy going. Maybe it’s possible to be a great author without being a great writer.

    Wonder what the young people Tomalin actually knows are like, and what they make of her ranting. Most of the ones I meet tend to be funny, polite (to the extent of humouring the old fool) and horribly talented but I couldn’t generalise from what is hardly a random sample.

  7. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” … then continued in a paragraph re-stating the same sentiment in six further ways. Does anyone else sense the signs that he was paid by the word?

    (The fact that he sold orders of magnitude more books than mine will ever sell, in an age where the UK population was about a third of the present size, is of course entirely irrelevant.)

  8. It must be that you read a different article from the one you quoted. Where exactly is Ms. Tomlin ‘blaming children’ or ‘taking shots at the younger generation’, rather than blaiming the education and culture they are subjected to?

    Talking about cheap shots, the literacy rate in Dickens’ day is hardly relevant to anything we might say about children at present. No-one is claiming the early Victorian era as a golden age of education… least of all Dickens.

    But is literacy improving or declining *right now* compared to (say) 20 or 40 years ago? Is this something we should be concerned about? Or is everything All Right and any rumour to the contrary an insult to the much-abused young?

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