Monday, 30 June 2008

Bastard Headmaster

Having recently had my words (if not my name) printed in the august publication that is the Oxford Times Education Yearbook, I was keen to peruse those articles appearing alongside my own.

In which pursuit, I had the misfortune to encounter Michael St John Parker's piece 'Who do they think they are?'.

Here's a link to my photographed and pdfed copy of the article in question, if you want to read the whole shebang. I'm afraid it's a little less than premium-quality.

But no matter. As Ralph McTell might've put it: let me take you by the hand and lead you through the [Oxford Times Yearbook]. And we'll start with the first paragraph:
"A quarter to four in the afternoon, and the school bus stops outside my window to disgorge its load of feral youth, returned from their brief sojourn in the groves of academe – they lurch along the street, catcalling and throwing the odd plastic bottle, while their elders and better withdraw discreetly into shelter to avoid the possibility of a happy-slapping."
Ever feel as if you're being manipulated? "Disgorge". That's from old French: desgorger. To remove from the throat. Throw up. Thanks. I'm not going to point out the obvious linguistic hatchet-jobbery of phrases like 'feral youth', 'lurch' and 'elders and betters'. Here is a man who obviously has a balanced, moderate and affectionate view of the younger generation.

Shall we try a re-write?
"A quarter to four in the afternoon, and the school bus stops outside my window, to liberate its load of captives, released from their day's drudgery in the portakabins of academe – they stream down the street, whooping and throwing the odd plastic bottle, while their timid elders cower in their homes to avoid the possibility of confrontation with this terrifying ebullience."
Not to say that my version, there, is necessarily any the more truthful. But just to, y'know, prove a point. You can do an awful lot with language. Including ramming home your small-minded prejudices.

Parker's "argument"

The whole of Parker's argument is trash. Junk. He draws a link between Britain's lost imperialism and the fact that "Britain's youngsters [are] the unhappiest in the developed world" – that figures for alcohol and drug abuse are "indices of despair":
"How has this proudly self-confident imperial nation so quickly lost its pride and its self-confidence? Partly, no doubt, because of the loss of its empire."
Now, Mr Parker, let's think about this, shall we?

Is there one nation of the developed world that has maintained a kind of imperialism?

One nation of the developed world that has explicitly voiced its commitment to enforcing and promoting ideals beyond its own borders – through force if necessary?

Why, yes, there is one, isn't there? The good ol' US of A.

And, Mr Parker, what would you say about youth crime and disillusionment in America? Oh, sure, you don't get catcalls and plastic bottles a-flying in the land of the free. No, they're all well and truly buoyed up by the confident pseudo-imperialism of their motherland, aren't they?



How dare you – you pompous, bile-swollen, right-wing demagogue – how dare you class your nauseating rhetoric as the voice of reason, behind which to sweep the detritus of your irrational opinions? How dare you implicitly include me when you write:
"But who can doubt that this is, in general, a seriously disaffected, even alienated, generation of adolescents?"
"Who can doubt"? Who can doubt, indeed? Only those able to withstand the prejudicing effluential torrent emitted by those such as yourself.

Now, I do not object to Mr Parker's airing of his noxious views. Provided I am free to oppose them. But I do object to his dressing them as a moderate synthesis – as if he'd adequately represented both sides of an argument, and were simply drawing a moderate 'middle way' between them.

What he actually does: base his entire opening thesis on appearances – then include a single acknowledgment that "appearances may be deceptive", before returning to his opening thesis, in any case. That's not a balanced argument, Parker.

Parker's "conclusion"

As we read on, we find Parker acknowledging – in curious reversal of his "Who can doubt ...?" paragraph – the fact that "the youth of England have always ... been notorious for what we should now term feral tendencies". The difference nowadays, it seems, is that their "elders" are less "robust" in responding to said feral tendencies.

From this point, the focus of Parker's argument begins to dissolve, as he concentrates his full intellectual might upon the task of easing his shoehorn further into what's already an astonishingly ill-fitting (and shoddily cobbled) item of footwear.

As far as I'm able to find a section of the article that summarises his closing position, it is this:
"It may be too late to save the English, or even the British identity ...

"But if we are to give some sense of purpose, some system of values, to those feral youths ... we must have a vision, and prophets to proclaim it.

"Perhaps it is time for England to take education seriously at last. Could this be the cue for a rediscovery of those values which once reigned supreme in our schoolrooms ... namely the rigorous study of learning, the resolute inculcation of manners, and the unflinching pursuit of philosophical and religious truth?"
What a mendacious conclusion, in the context of the which has preceded it. How despicable, to round up a poisonous, hysterical rhetoric-fest with this semblance of a 'reasonable conclusion'. Like a man ranting his endorsement of capital punishment – before seguing into a lyrical appeal that his fellows should seek to take their children's welfare seriously, and to give them firm examples and role models to whom they may look up.

Retreating to a position of glib, platitudinous exhortation does not justify or prove his preceding bile.

And, for god's sake, he doesn't even do this well. Look at his words: "the resolute inculcation of manners".

Inculcate. That's from Latin - the verb calcare: to tread. So: to tread in. Forcibly to embed. Inculcate is a strong, and pretty uncompromising, violent, authoritarian word. Stronger, in this light, than 'indoctrinate' (from Latin 'docere', merely 'to teach').

Sounds so much more like the path of European liberalism that Parker has elsewhere elevated, doesn't it?

Oh, and some background ...

I was intrigued to discover, via the blessings of Wikipedia, that this Michael St John Parker is none other than the headmaster of Abingdon School about whom Radiohead wrote the song Bishops' Robes. Read the lyrics here. They obviously thought highly of him – and his enlightened European liberalism – too: "Children taught to kill / Tear themselves to bits on playing fields"; "Bastard headmaster".

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