Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The BBC carries a story that children are damaged by materialism... then when you visit the page, it appears that the story is not that children are damaged by materialism, but that parents think that they are. They blame the advertisers. The people commenting are prone to blame the parents.

I don't feel this is a new story. We have a mess of cultural values and society isn't any surer about what messages should be conveyed than schools or parents. Often, the message which gets conveyed isn't one which is agreed and disseminated, it is the spirit of the age which comes across.

In my teens, the message appeared to be "Don't be just a wife and mother! Don't work in Woolworths!" I thought I knew all about being a wife and mother: my brother and sister we 13 and 15 years younger than me respectively, and my mother was ill forsome years after my stepfather left. It was years before I discovered how fulfilling children could be, that it is a two-way relationship with a lot of love in return, and how challenging and how amazingly interesting it can be. And I worked out that we needed shop assistants and road sweepers just as much as we needed professors of English or Physics.

As a society we pump children with the idea of aiming for academic success from the moment they step through the door... and we quietly ignore the fact that people are complex organisms with complex talents and abilities, in favour of a world where only your academic ability is important. Children and teenagers are given a one-dimensional rule to measure themselves against, and no matter how loving, creative, helpful, astute they are, if they do not attain in that one area, they are made to feel like a failure and on the road to ruin.

Children adopt their own measures of success, and those generally are materialistic, because they measure their own happiness and success in materialistic terms quite early on. They are deluded of course, because being given what you want when you want it doesn't turn out happy human beings, it turns out spoiled ones. Being given what you need doesn't necessarily equate with what you desire. Often the opposite is true.

Children though, reflect our values and we all have to take the blame for that. The heroes who are revered in our society are generally not the people who are up in the night looking after the elderly, or the people who visit the sick. They are footballers and film stars and rock bands. They are people with money, and things.

The values of our world are not something separate from us: become the change you would like to see in the world, as Ghandi said. There is no way of imposing what you think children should be like, if you cannot attain that for yourself. That's how it appears that what our society says it values and what it actually values are two different things.

To change the way things are, we actually have to value everybody, and to recognise that not everyone will be an academic success, but that doesn't mean they can't be a success. We are rapidly evolving a world where lack of academic success will prevent a child from achieving success in every arena, because nursing, and art, and even becoming a mechanic or a plumber have been woven around with so many academic requirements that people with a vocation for nursing or art or mechanics or plumbing will be prevented from achieving success in those areas too.

Changing society's attitudes means acknowledging everyone as important to the whole, and recognising that the most important, most effective and most valuable member of an organisation may just be the cleaner and not the managing director. Who would want to use a hospital that wasn't clean?

My feeling is that we sleepwalk our way through life, unaware of the influences upon us, and accepting as our own beliefs things which are only propaganda. In many ways I see mass schooling as an essential part of that process. Much of what it teaches has nothing at all to do with qualifications and fitting us for adult life. A great deal has to do with striving to be somewhere else, able to consume more, constantly wanting to be better and more than we are at present. In moderation that can be positive, in excess it leads to people burning themselves out in the city in order to make ever more money.

In the end money has been the aim and end of education for a very long time. Why not work in Woolworths? Because it is a waste of talent and you don't earn much. It is like working at McDonald's, shorthand for a dead end job. This assumes that everyone is equally able, and everyone should be equally ambitious for something other than working in Woolworths... as does our school system.

We'd need to work on some fundamental assumptions to be able to overcome the drive to attain and the drive to be more, earn more, get more than other people. We'd need to understand that people are all different and have different roles to play, and we'd have to acknowledge that academic ability isn't the whole story. I don't know that we're ready for that yet. I don't know if the educational experts we've put in charge of education are ready to acknowledge that yet.

I do believe that the rise of virtual worlds will lead to a shift in our values and I think this is already reflected in the virtual worlds that exist today. People are surprisingly helpful, generous and kind. People can be individuals and pursue their own type of world (as long as legal). Helping others is seen as positive, rather than cheating by the person being helped. I think we are more ready to acknowledge the differences between people and to be tolerant of them than in real life. My hope is that as the virtual worlds evolve, in a place where material goods can't help or hinder, people will wake up to the sort of place we are making in the real world, and change it.

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