Harry Mount: Time to say no to pampered student emperors

December 31, 2015 10:30 pm

Has a lifetime of hearing “yes” spoiled the current crop of students? Photo / iStock
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.
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 M J Chappel was called the “lead learner”.
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 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 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.

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