The little emperors have grown up. The babies of the late 90s – mollycoddled by their parents, spoon-fed by their teachers, indulged by society – have now reached university. Some of the brighter ones are now at Oxford, demanding that the Cecil Rhodes statue at Oriel should be torn down, because of his imperialist, racist views.
We shouldn’t be so surprised. If you’ve had a lifetime of people saying “yes” to you, of never being told off, you remain frozen in a permanent state of supersensitivity. I wasn’t offended by the Rhodes statue when I was at Oxford 20 years ago. But, even if I had been, I wouldn’t have thought my wounded feelings should be cured by tearing apart the delicate fabric of a beautiful university.
Universities are reaping the whirlwind of two decades of child-centred education. That whirlwind has imported imbecilic trigger warnings – when academics have to warn students that western European literature, from the Iliad on, is full of sex and violence. It has also brought the pernicious idea of “no-platforming” – when students refuse to give a stage to anyone who doesn’t fit with their narrow view of the world.
We shouldn’t blame the student emperors for all this. Their warped supersensitivity is the fault of the generation above – the teachers and parents who have so indulged them. I first noticed the disaster of child-centred education six years ago. Near my childhood home in north London, there is a late-Victorian school. According to the noticeboard outside, it didn’t have a headmaster. Instead, Mr MJ Chappel was called the “lead learner”.
The implication was clear. Mr Chappel wasn’t placed in authority above the children but was ranked alongside them. Children have as much to teach the teachers as the teachers have to teach them – an idiocy that’s difficult to attack because it sounds so charming; and because people like me sound so evil when we disagree.
That idiocy is now endemic through the primary, secondary and tertiary education sectors. I resigned from a provincial university lecturing job recently, when the disease struck my department. My colleague said it was my fault if the less clever, less hard-working undergraduates did worse in exams than their brighter, harder-working contemporaries. I was told not to penalise undergraduates for bad grammar or spelling mistakes. And I had to dumb down the exams.
The last straw was when I was told to cut down on facts in lectures. “You’re here to teach them how to think, not what to think,” the head of department told me. The tragedy was that the undergraduates weren’t little emperors. They were longing to learn facts, spelling and correct grammar but they had had precious little exposure to these things at school.
And so they sailed on serenely into the world of work, blissfully unaware that employers would throw their applications straight in the bin because of their bad English. I saw the final punishment for child-centred education a decade ago, when I worked on the Comment desk of the Telegraph. One of my jobs was to keep an eye on the interns.
A charming bunch they were, too. What was astonishing, though, was how some of them took to having their grammar corrected. Because they’d never been told off about bad grammar at school or university, they logically assumed it didn’t matter; that I was some dreary old pedant, enforcing a code that died out some time in the Middle Ages.
I didn’t mind. It was no skin off my nose. But they should have minded – it was only the interns who either knew their grammar, or were chastened and informed by correction, who ended up getting jobs on the paper. Why should they have thought any differently? Throughout their education, they had been repeatedly encouraged to think their wounded feelings must trump the teacher’s, or employer’s, right to instruct.
The same applies to the row over Rhodes’s statue. The authorities at the university have, so far, continued to pamper the student emperors. Every time the authorities are accused of racism, they bend over backwards to soothe the offended egos of the little, tinpot dictators – rather than telling them that they, the teachers, are there to tell the students what to do; and not the other way round.
Harry Mount is author of How England Made the English (Viking)