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.