Thursday, 26 February 2009

Clever Clogs

We have had one of those evanescent media bubbles here in the UK media in the last week. It has centred on a long-running TV series called University Challenge, which is in essence an inter-university general knowledge competition, in which the universities put up teams of four individuals to compete in a superior pub quiz. It has been running since 1962, and has entered the national consciousness at a number of levels. If nothing else, it is a gauge with which to measure the nation's interest in and view of higher education (for example, the programme was cancelled between 1987 and 1994 ...)

The hoo-hah has centred on a young woman called Gail Trimble, who has attracted attention to herself and her college (Corpus Christi, Oxford) by steering her team to victory over Manchester University in the final, along the way making a disproportionate personal contribution from her own amazingly well-stocked and well-ordered store of general knowledge. So what's the problem?

The problem is that certain parts of the UK population -- let's say that modish, moderately well-informed but often disaffected stratum that haunts the blogosphere, and in particular the male part of it -- have "issues" with (a) cleverness, (b) social class, and (c) women. Put all three together, and a nasty, hypocritical, anti-intellectual, misogynist sneerfest ensues.

Now, I couldn't care less about University Challenge. And, beyond admiring her composure and breadth of knowledge, I don't much care about Gail Trimble, either. I don't think we'd ever have been friends, to put it mildly. But I do care about higher education, and I care a lot about certain regressive tendencies I see at work in our society. So I'm simply going to get on my soapbox here, and have a rant:


One of the more dismaying trends of recent times has been the extension of the school playground mindset into adult life, especially in the entertainment world, and particularly in the comedy scene. This sets the tone of the blogosphere, where, after all, people are trying to be entertaining. Comics who ought to know better, and who have often emerged from the "alternative comedy" scene, get cheap laughs by exploiting easy caricatures and stereotypical views. Except that the targets are not black or Irish or gay -- that would be unacceptable -- but the "uncool."

The clever, the "nerdy," the unfashionable, the serious-minded, the aspirational -- these have been declared uncool, and therefore easy targets for a collective, playground laugh. Harmless enough, you might think, and when was it ever different? But laughter is very powerful: nothing is more calculated to turn off the ablest children in school, or to depress levels of achievement among minority and white working-class kids, than making these things the easy, automatic object of ridicule. Adults who earn a living by cultivating these toxic attitudes should be publicly flogged. I have names, if anyone wants them.

Another dismaying trend has been the rise of the "post feminist" woman -- women who, allegedly, have taken advantage of the victories of feminism to choose to obsess over shoes, leg shaving, makeup and appearance in general. I suppose these same women must also be choosing to subordinate their wishes and ambitions and domestic role to those of the unreconstructed men they choose to associate with, and choosing to be good sports relative to the "harmless" and "empowering" things their menfolk induce them to try like lapdancing and pornography. Damned strange choices, with damned strange consequences.

It seems to me we are experiencing a revival of oppressive gender stereotyping on a level that has not been seen since the 1950s. Everywhere you look, it's "Men are like this, Women are like that." Oh, really? Add to that a degree of hyper-sexualisation that poisons the well of gender relations (and is a form of socially-sanctioned bullying), and we really do seem to have gone into reverse. Who does any of this serve?

I suppose that leaves social class. That "elites" exist is surely not in itself a bad thing; after all, few people seem to have a problem with elite football teams. In education, however, the nagging suspicion persists that educational privilege can be bought*, and therefore cannot be truly earned in a meritocratic way. And, of course, that is true, and truer today than it was when I was at school.

Just look at language teaching: it seems almost incredible that I, at a typical state "grammar" school, learned French, German and Latin as a matter of routine, with a side order of Russian, taught by dedicated, highly-qualified linguists. My own children, however, have had to make do with one language each, poorly taught to a level of bare competence. I somehow doubt this is the case at Eton.

So the "chippy" view (I do hate that word) has triumphed: down in Cool World academic ability is not something to be admired and cultivated like athletic prowess, because it smells a bit posh -- it's a marker of social ambition, getting above yourself, not knowing your place. Uncool. And thus under-achievement doth beget under-achievement, for ever and ever, amen.

Who'd ever have thought that "knowing your place" would re-emerge in Britain, not as a repressive ideology, but as an own goal of the working class against its own best and brightest? Or that a clever, slightly posh, slightly arrogant-seeming young woman can become the object of a barrage of leering, sexually-aggressive put-downs, simply by doing well on a TV quiz show?

OK, rant over. But somehow I'm not feeling better ...

* I'm aware that elite status for a team can be bought, too, but you don't see many public schoolboys in the Premier League, do you? Are there any, despite the scale of the financial rewards?

No comments: