Monday, February 2, 2009

A Good Childhood? or a Good Life?

The Children's Society published its report into children's upbringing in the UK, parading around the same old chestnuts about split families, rubbish schooling, excessive advertising and so forth as the causes of the UK's failure of its children - we stand 21st out of 26 European countries assessed for their treatment of children.

Naturally, there was lots of handwringing in the Sunday papers and on the radio, but what interested me about this were the two questions that children were asked in the survey the CS carried out in 2005 on which this report is based:

1 What are the most important things that make a good life for young people?
2 What things stop young people from having a good life?

The phrasing of these questions strikes me as likely to produce a set of responses from children that reflect very much the fundamental malaise of not just British childhood, but Britain in general - which is that we receive very little training in understanding the nature of a really, genuinely good life, in the sense that Epicurus or Augustine, or Plato, frex, might have thought of such a thing. Those of middle age and above will think of a sitcom about a couple of suburbanites taking up subsistence farming in Surbiton, and everyone else will think of what they would do if they won the lottery or married a footballer or were in a band better than the Arctic Monkeys.

My children are being raised in an international school environment where right from the start of their schooling, they have some form of ethical training - in the primary years, this often covers such key elements as why we need to brush our teeth and feed our guinea pigs, but it does evolve, until eventually, they take a compulsory course in Philosophy. While you can see a rudimentary start to this in primary schools, the PHSE course in which this probably naturally slots is already crammed with useful titbits on citizenship and binge drinking and 'pass-the-penis' games with condoms - PHSE tells you enough about the British approach to thinking about ethics, which is to create an acronym for a weekly timetable session in which we can shove all the non-curriculum issues for which the government suddenly wants us to take responsibility since it is clear no one else is going to face up talking to the students about them.

The whole business is further obfuscated by the nonsensical Brit tendency to have denominational schools where narrow religious perspectives are fostered. But the real issue in the UK is that we are uncomfortable with abstraction. We are race of pragmatists who prefer lovely crisis situations where we can demonstrate sang-froid and stiffen our upper lips, or in the post-Diana era, let ourselves go and sob uncontrollably while muttering about our sense of devastation and loss. So it's impassivity or wallowing that seem to be our current models.

The problem with the UK is not that we provide bad childhoods for our children, but that we are utterly unclear on what a good life is and should be for any of us. We've been seduced by the raw capitalism on show in the US, but that has turned out to be a pup, we give longing glances at Europe but reject (with some justice) the compromises necessary to fit in wholly with the European project (whatever that nebulous thing is), and we sit shivering in our island fastness conscious of malaise but unable to dispel it.

At present, you cannot access the Recommendations that the Children's Society has in mind in response to its report. But here are my recommendations for Britain:

1 Make time to sit and talk to people, especially your family. Turn off the phone and the TV, eschew the internet, lose the Playstation and retire the Wii, make a nice cup of tea and sit with your family and ask them about proper stuff. Not have they had the car exhaust mended, or where shall we go for our next holidays, if indeed, we can afford any, but why do we do the things we do, and what are the ways in which we could improve our lot in life. Spend time with the people you love and spend that time doing fun things.
2 Do something for someone else. Water your neighbour's plants while they are away, a sponsored walk, the shopping for your elderly auntie, cover a colleague's essential tasks while s/he is looking after their chicken-poxy child.
3 Examine your own prejudices and confront them. We all have them. Intellectually, we may know they are wrong, we may not know that they are wrong at all, but go out of your way to talk to that person who is different from you and who gives you the heebie jeebies.
4 Read a book - ah, it was bound to get in there sooner or later. Or go to an art gallery, or listen to a different sort of music to the sort you normally listen to, watch some dance, anything that removes you from the place where you are and opens a door to another place. That is one of the essentials of art.

The article I read this weekend which gave me much more to celebrate was Matthew Parris's account of how he got back into reading and finally read Middlemarch, including George Eliot's fabulous sentence:

“If we had a keen vision of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of the roar which lies on the other side of silence”

It is not that we in Britain set out to shortchange our children - it is that we have already short-changed ourselves. But it is possible to develop that keen vision and to survive the roar - in fact, it is essential, if we are to live a good life.


FJL said...

Very interesting; I think you're right about a British non-understanding of 'A Good Life', and you're certainly right about 'that PSE rubbish' as Peter Hitchens called it on 'Today' yesterday.

Rowan Williams has been writing/campaigning about what he has called 'the erosion of childhood' for some time. He's released a response to the report which I've posted here:

[I received it as part of the CofE Daily Briefing pack]

I think it's really good; or should that be Good?

Madeleine Conway said...

Thank you for this link - I found Williams's comments to be subtle and much richer than the soundbites and summaries that have been used in the media to get a rise out of the reader/listener.

He is right - the fundamental issue is changing adults, and also developing a coherent vision for all of us to achieve maturity.