Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Sense and Sentimentality

Several stories in recent days have served as reminders of the immense, repressive power of sentimentality in modern life, especially, but not exclusively, where children are concerned.

First, we learned that a primary school in Sheffield, Watercliffe Meadow, no longer wished to describe itself as a "school". Rather, it was to be "a place of learning". This, we were solemnly assured by headmistress - or perhaps that should be "lead learning facilitator" - Linda Kingdon, was because the word "school" had "very negative connotations" for some children and their parents. And it isn't only in name that Watercliffe Meadow wished to avoid comparison with a school. Kingdon, who sounds the very model of a modern educational bureaucrat, added that:


We want this to a be a place for family learning, where anyone can come. We were able to start from scratch and create a new type of learning experience. There are no whistles or bells or locked doors. We wanted to deinstitutionalise the place and bring the school closer to real life.


If only "real life" were so un-school-like as Watercliffe Meadow. Real life will come as a tremendous shock to youngsters bred up on this sort of tweeness.

There was also - still in the world of "school" - the story that "hundreds" of establishments had banned their teachers from correcting pupils' work with red ink, in favour of "more soothing shades like green, blue, pink and yellow". Red has connotations of negativity, of bossiness, of hierarchy, which may have its place in an old-fashioned schoolroom but is surely inappropriate in a place for learning. The headmaster of an Orpington primary told the Telegraph that red pen could be "quite de-motivating for children." He claimed:

The idea is to raise standards by taking a positive approach. We are no longer producing clerks and bookkeepers. We are trying to provide an education for children coming into the workforce in the 21st century.


Quite, quite bizarre. One would have thought that a far higher proportion of the population work in offices today than did fifty or a hundred years ago - and for all their pretensions at open-plan egalitarianism offices are no less hierarchical than they ever used to be. Continuous monitoring and assessment of staff, on an increasingly formal basis, is today's norm. But then so is the monitoring and assessment of schoolchildren, red ink or no. It could be that what children are being inducted into by these well-meaning drips is the corporate/governmental culture of hypocritical sentimentality, in which "caring" language and overt non-judgmentalism is a subtle cover for ever greater social conformism.

Just as the Watercliffe Meadow affair came in for criticism from the local Labour MP Richard Caborn, so the red-ink idea has been huffily dismissed by Tom Harris, the transport minister and worryingly prolific blogger. "Where are the “victims” of red ink?" he demands to know. "And do they blame their own failures in life on the colour of the pen their teachers used? Well, if they do, they’re morons. And so are the half-wits who came up with this latest idea." In the 1980s, he writes, tales of "loony left" councils did immense damage to Labour's credibility. Now, "It’s almost as if Labour (and other) councils are looking at their archived press cuttings from the ’80s and saying: 'Hmm, that’s a good idea - why didn’t we think of that before?'"

All of which does rather make you wonder where Harris has been for the decade-and-a-bit of Labour's time in office, during which time not merely local authorities but almost the entire public sector (and not a small proportion of the private sector) has been colonised by the sentimentalists. Harris may declare his belief that teachers "should be concentrating on teaching kids to read and write, to learn stuff instead of worrying about whether the wee souls are going to burst into tears because there’s a red instead of a green cross on their jotter." But if his expressed views reflect those of many of his colleagues in the government, it's strange indeed that the education system should have become quite so bogged down in trivia. Forgive me for sounding unconvinced.

It's not just "schools", though. A piece of research commissioned by a website for new mothers, and mentioned in several newspapers, suggested that for many parents traditional fairy-tales were too frightening - and, in some cases, insufficiently "poltically correct" - for their little darlings. Supposedly, "a third of parents refused to read Little Red Riding Hood because she walks through woods alone and finds her grandmother eaten by a wolf." A good modern Red Riding Hood, bearing in mind the dangers associated with being out-of-doors without proper adult supervision, would presumably have connected with her grandmother via Facebook or some such. But then how could she possibly tell if the "grandmother" with whom she was interacting wasn't in fact a wolf?


Bruno Bettelheim's classic study The Uses of Enchantment argued that fairy tales provided vital psychological resources for the modern child. Today, wrote the psycho-analyst (in 1976)

Children no longer grow up within the security of an extended family, or of a well-integrated community. Therefore, even more than at the times fairy tales were invented, it is important to provide the modern child with images of heroes who have to go out into the world all by themselves and who, although originally ignorant of the ultimate things, find secure places in the world by following their right way with deep inner confidence.


From more than 30 years in the past, Bettelheim managed to skewer the sentimentality of those who believe traditional tales are too scary for sensitive modern kids, although the precise charge of "political incorrectness" didn't exist then:

The deep inner conflicts originating in our primitive drives and our violent emotions are all denied in much of modern children's literature, and so the child is not helped in coping with them... More often than not, he is unable to express these feelings in words, or he can do so only by indirection: fear of the dark, of some animal, anxiety about his body. Since it creates discomfort in a parent to recognise these emotions in the child, the parent tends to overlook them, or belittles these spoken fears, believing that this will cover over the child's fears.


Bettelheim wrote that he was "deeply dissatisfied" with modern children's literature, "because it fails to stimulate and nurture the resources children need to cope with their difficult inner problems." It's true that such books might help the child learn to read, but "the acquisition of skills, including the ability to read, becomes devalued when what one has learned to read adds nothing of importance to one's life."

Today's education, of course, is mainly concerned with the acquisition of "skills".

Finally, something really scary - the Horsham Crucifix. A West Sussex vicar, Rev Ewen Souter, considered that a 1960s sculpture of Christ Crucified outside his church was too depressing for the bright, modern image he was trying to convey - so he has had it moved to a local museum. He described it as "a scary image, particularly for children" and complained that

Parents didn't want to walk past it with their kids, because they found it so horrifying. It wasn't a suitable image for the outside of a church wanting to welcome worshippers. In fact, it was a real put-off. We're all about hope, encouragement and the joy of the Christian faith. We want to communicate good news, not bad news, so we need a more uplifting and inspiring symbol than execution on a cross.


To which it is tempting to retort that if Mr Souter doesn't find crucifixion to be uplifting and inspiring - and let's face it, it's not - then perhaps he ought to try a different religion. The crucifixion is, after all, the central event in the Christian story.

A parishioner, who preferred not to be identified, told the Telegraph "Next they'll be ripping out the pews and putting sofas in their place, or throwing out all the Bibles and replacing them with laptops. It's just not right." But ripping out pews or replacing Bibles with laptops strikes me as a fairly minor modification when compared to what Souter has actually done. No doubt he would argue that Christianity has more to offer than a sado-masochistic wallowing in pain - as memorably (for those who could bear to watch) evoked by "Mad" Mel Gibson in his Passion of the Christ. His words, though, suggest someone more concerned about boosting numbers than about the integrity of his message. His desire for a "more uplifting and inspiring symbol" is couched in the language of an advertising campaign.

The phrase "political correctness gone mad" expresses the bewilderment that many people uninitiated in postmodernity feel when confronted with this kind of idiocy, but it doesn't really describe it. All these stories, in their way, demonstrate the modern denial of reality, the desire to over-protect children (whether from the word "school", the psychological damage caused by red ink or the reality of death) and the smug desire to infantilise evinced by anyone who gets into a position of authority. They share the contemporary belief that reality can be altered by reshaping appearance, whether through language, imagery or even colour. They are also stories about psychology, and about how psychological ideas of esteem and positivity have become culturally dominant. Yet the society they reveal is, in psychological terms, deeply disturbed, unable to face the world as it is.

13 comments:

Edwin said...

What a frightening picture - the one with the red hoodie I mean. If I were the rabbit, I'd trust the wolf rather than that child. The toadstools are rather startling too - to adapt Marianne Moore, this is perhaps an imaginary garden with real toadstools.

I'm afraid I sympathise with the good reverend re the crucified Christ. I quite like the idea of those bland, peaceful Georgian congregations opposed to enthusiasm in religion, though often surprisingly open to social change. Dr Johnson was not alone in seeking placidity in church while invoking Christ in fiercely advocating the ending of slavery.

Aristophanes told us to worship first the customary gods, and Christians no longer find that tortured Christ a customary one - the resurrection itself isn't a problem, people can believe in any number of impossible things (flying horses etc) but they don't necessarily want suffering shoved in their faces.

If society collapses, no doubt that Christ figure will re-emerge from the museum.

lost causes said...

Couldn't agree more - except regarding fairy tales. I recently went through all the Brothers Grimm stories on Wikipedia as research for my job and they really are meaningless nonsense. A modern narrative is not just a series of events, but needs a message, a meaning, and not one that is read into it by psychoanalysts, but one that is the explicit and intentional. Stories for young children are meant to be educational. Maybe the Grimm tales were a good education for the harsh world of the 18th century, but today Aliens Love Underpants has far more resonance. And it's hilarious.

That said, pantomime is genius, but for other reasons.

Chris said...

If nothing else the Reverend Souter has a modicum of aesthetic sense: that is a depressingly lazy piece of modern sculpture. It's the sort of pseudo-symbolic, poorly sculpted tosh that belongs in a polytechnic quad or a public park.

"...the corporate/governmental culture of hypocritical sentimentality, in which "caring" language and overt non-judgmentalism is a subtle cover for ever greater social conformism."

Impeccable observation. Kudos.

The Heresiarch said...

I'm sure you're right, Chris. However, Souter didn't make your excellent points about the poor quality of the work: he concentrated on its depressing, unwelcoming image. Edwin's point about people not wanting that sort of image shoved in their faces is no doubt correct - and there's no reason why they should. I can't help thinking, though, that a church that wants to de-emphasise its central message to fit in with delicate modern sensibilities has already given up.

I'm not too sure about "stories for young children are meant to be educational", LC. Meant by whom? Education - which of course takes many forms - is one purpose of stories, but often stories simply answer an innate human need for narrative, that needn't be edifying. As for the work of the Brothers Grimm - your comment reminds me of Tom Lehrer's complaint about folk songs, that they were written by "the people" and would have been much better in the hands of professional song-writers.

Muscleguy said...

We have a delightful little book called 'Politically Correct Bedtime Stories' which in fact contains a 'modernised' Little Red Riding Hood. It is of course a satire but it is hilarious. If you can find a copy I strongly recommend it to you.

As for the crucifix I can sort of see the vicar's point especially if it was up outside the church. The figure does look like a dried up corpse, that sunken stomach and the jutting rib cage. It is a long way from freshly deceased or dying man.

The main problem I have with the xian hagiography of the cross is they forget or ignore that lots of people got crucified by the Romans.

The Heresiarch said...

In that, as in so much else, Life of Brian was stunningly accurate.

valdemar squelch said...

Up to a point, Lord Copper. Firstly, state schools are a crap idea, a bit of 19th century Utilitarian folderol that we're too lazy to sort out. Renaming them and prettifying them merely fiddles with the problem that kids need a lot of good, one-on-one coaching by enthusiastic experts, and they won't get that in any but the best fee-paying establishments. Maybe not even then. I'd have an army of brilliant peripatetic tutors visiting homes (with the power to taser parents who don't measure up). Or, since many parents seem to see state education as a way to get the little buggers out from under their feet, let's a have a single Island of Education for every kid on the planet, run by Educator-President Richard Dawkins. It'd be a bit like Sir Francis Bacon's New Atlantis but with more heavy petting and bulimia.

Secondly, the tendency to bowdlerise and prettify folk tales is - as any fule kno - a Victorian one and nothing whatever to do with Noo Labour. The original fairies were scary bastards who'd pluck your eyes out - see the ballads of Tam Lyn, and all that.

Thirdly, the crap Christ on the cross. Now, if a religion insists that it is 'true' because its (quite possibly mythical) founder was tortured to death and miraculously recovered, why not show him as he was 'all better' and about to fly up to heaven? Wouldn't that be a might more encouraging to the faithful? Kind of an After, rather than a Before sort of image?

MostEmailedNews.com said...

isn't a school a "place of learning"? huh? wtf?

- T

http://mostemailednews.com

Ailurophile said...

"To which it is tempting to retort that if Mr Souter doesn't find crucifixion to be uplifting and inspiring - and let's face it, it's not - then perhaps he ought to try a different religion. The crucifixion is, after all, the central event in the Christian story."

## Crucifixion "not uplifting" ? That is exactly what it is - in more senses than one. It was - is ? - also extremely uncomfy, malodorous, & all-round horrible; which is why it was reckoned "bad form" for civilised people to discuss it.

Which is exactly the point - by suffering an "obscene and clownish death", God identified Himself with the lowest of the low, with the trash of society. By doing that, He becomes "God-with-us", God is who is not spared anything man can do to Him; & He does this in earnest, not by pretty words (anyone can give good advice) but by action. He is not a God for the comfy alone - He is a God also for the utterly wretched; if He were not the God of both & all, He would not be any kind of Saviour.

By making Christianity Cross-free, pain-free, nice, Anglican & inoffensive, that silly man has evacuated it of all its meaning. Something so weak and watery has no strength for good or evil - it is no Gospel at all. :( So why bother with Christ at all ?

valdemar squelch said...

'So why bother with Christ at all?'

Excellent question. I, for one, have never bothered with Christ because the story is so unconvincing and full of plot holes. Especially the bit where he promises to return within the lifespan of people who met him the first time...

WeepingCross said...

No, had it been my church I would probably have ferreted the crucifix away as well. It's a dreary piece of work, redundant and pointless as modernist stuff very often is. Medieval Western Christianity was very big on the spirituality of the suffering Christ, but they didn't put crucifixes on the outside of churches because the sacraments of the Kingdom are about more than the Cross on its own, and you never see a crucifix at all in the Orthodox tradition. An empty cross, on the other hand, signifies both suffering and the transcendence of suffering. He's probably a twit, but on this occasion I wouldn't like to say he was wrong.

UK Expat said...

That's the trouble with Anglican Protestantism, innit?

All that dead, agonized Christ stuff and none of the sexy exposed-breast-feeding-baby-Jesus, excitingly-still-a-virgin Mary stuff. No wonder she's so popular with the plebs.

Not only that - she regularly appears to them! When has Christ ever re-appeared in a vision?

Funny that. Maybe he really IS dead.

McDuff said...

The "red ink ban" story is mostly bunkum, the kind of tired old stuff that the Telegraph and the Mail wheel out when they need some Nowtrage to get the harrumphers in middle england nicely worked up about. Seems to have done it's job, too.

Is railing against the scourges of modernism making us all soft really a heretical thought these days? Seems like fairly standard little england tropery to me. Which is a shame, because I subscribed to the RSS feed based on some truly excellent analysis. Unfortunately, even if you put caveats and nice words around it, "pc gorn mad" based on one-sided reportage from the right-wing press remains shallow and uninteresting. But I suppose they're not the BBC so they can't possibly have an agenda.

In any event, even if you're right and we are all soft, the financial crisis is bound to sort us all out and make hardy frontiersmen (and women) of us all. Nothing like a good dose of poverty to toughen a country up.