Monday, 28 February 2011

The life-lessons they should be teaching in schools

A friend writes: “…my main beef about Kings was that it was just assumed that, with such a high proportion of parents coming from the professions, their sons would know how to conduct themselves in an interview.

I think it was when the [college] interviewer asked me to remove my boots from his desk that I sort of got the picture. And he didn’t seem to like my leaning back in the chair whilst filing my nails.”

I’m pretty sure the last half of this is ironic - my friend may subsequently have sported a unique Mohican hair-do (half-punk cockatoo and half-mullet) but at the time of his interview I’m pretty sure he would have been the picture of sober industriousness: he also had innate good manners and diffident charm. (Given that he was irritatingly good-looking, and given that his interview was at a college that was as camp as a row of tent-pegs, I’m amazed they didn’t let him in on sight.)

But I know what he means. 

England, in those days, was a country where – unless you were working class - you were supposed to just know stuff:  no one ever taught you anything practical. I seem to remember the only preparation for an Oxbridge interview was a series of wild stories about senior tutors throwing rugby balls at you as you entered the room, or being judged on how you disposed of your cherry stones when there was no obvious place to put them (I presume they were looking for the candidate canny enough to insert them up his fundament). 

There may have been careers advice at school, but I don’t remember it.

A commenter on an earlier post reported that when he went off the rails a bit, Kings didn’t do anything to help.

I don’t remember any sort of warning that university would be very different from school: I was lost for most of my time there – enjoyable enough, but I had no idea what I was actually supposed to be doing. While companions arranged sensible careers, I spent far too much time mooching around the Arts Cinema and Andy’s Record Stall or trying to figure out how to add Marvel to coffee without it turning lumpy. Like my correspondent, I had no father to bark at me to pull my damned socks up and bloody well sort myself out – and no one at the college seemed eager to play that role (undergraduates were just a temporary distraction – I doubt that’s changed much). 

My first two jobs in publishing were the same – training consisted of doing the job. As for writing novels, there is no training -  despite a plethora of creative writing courses and self-help books: I suspect you can be helped to do it better, but no amount of instruction or advice will affect whether you can do it in the first place. Then distribution manager for a publicly-subsidised magazine – on yer own, son! Then radio – no training there. Then TV News. Finally, after fifteen months, a training course! For the first time since school, I felt I knew what I was doing (my bosses probably disagreed!).

It was only in my early-to-mid 40s that I got some “life-training” (brief pause while everyone sniggers), consisting of a BBC “leadership” course, two Stephen Covey residential courses (he’s the scary, bald, Mormon, “Seven Habits” chappie) and a management coach. I found all of these helpful, but I couldn’t help reflecting that I’d have benefitted enormously from this sort of thing twenty years earlier, when I was, frankly, a bit of a mess.

Nowadays, things appear to be changing. My teenage son has already enjoyed an excellent work experience week at a major financial institution, has done some “community” work experience (poor soul!) and is booked to do ten days’ work experience abroad later this year. In some subjects, there’s lots of course-work (about to be scrapped because – boo! hiss! – it favours middle-class pupils), which gives kids a sense of what might be expected of them at university. They all have careers advice coming out their ears. When there’s a danger of someone going off the rails, the school tries to help before selecting “ton of bricks” mode.

As a grumpy old right-winger, I suppose I should be against all this nambie-pambie “advice” and “training” culture – “You’ve got to make it on your own in this life, lad!” And yes, having to stand on your own two feet and figuring it out for yourself probably does separate the innately talented go-getter from the “could do better” plodder. But given that we’re only too eager to indoctrinate children and employees with race and gender “awareness” training, and endless advice on healthy eating and how babies are made – all of them an expensive and rather sinister waste of time as far as I can tell – I don’t see that training people to do their job better or generally to cope with life better are a bad thing. As we seem to be heading into an era where people will be given university places and jobs based on their parents’ lack of income, the colour of their skin or their gender (or – Jackpot! – all three) rather than on demonstrable ability, I would have thought training them up will be all that’s standing between this country and total catastrophe. 

There’s a whole bunch of stuff I wish I’d known by the time I left school. First, there’s all the practical gubbins how to prepare for interviews, and how to behave during them; how to prepare for life at university; how to compose a formal letter; what a mortgage is, and why it matters; how deposit accounts, bonds and the stock market work; how best to deal with “the authorities”; that starting to smoke at 13 isn’t a good idea, and that excessive drinking – in fact, excessive anything - will not guarantee life-long happiness. 

Some fellow right-wingers might disagree that this is the job of schools – but if you’re not getting this sort of advice at home, where are you going to get it?

Who should be giving you a heads-up on the less practical stuff – more wide-ranging life-lessons - is a trickier issue. I suppose they should be implicit in your upbringing at school and at home – but if they were, some of them passed me by. The one I wish someone had mentioned is that how we react to events is entirely down to us. In other words, the mind, as Yeats put it, is “ self-delighting,/ self-appeasing, self-affrighting”.  Church might have helped – but we weren’t religious. Even three years of Philosophy failed to reveal to me why it’s possible to be miserable when everything is going your way – and to be happy when that isn’t the case: in other words, external circumstances aren’t that important. 

I’m ashamed to say I’d turned 40 before I grasped this key concept. What a difference it might make if our schools – and parents - started trying to get the point across: it’s not easy to grasp (well, not for me anyway) , but it might help the current generation of schoolchildren gradually come to see that blaming their circumstances for their unhappiness and their bad behaviour is delusional. We always have a choice – “it was doin’ my ‘ead in!” is never an excuse. Neither is that other favourite of the feckless: “That’s just what I’m like, yeh?” You – and you alone - are responsible for your actions: race, class, gender might act as a reason, but never as anexcuse.

But first, I suspect, you’d have to teach this astonishing truth to parents and teachers – and that might prove even harder! 


  1. Who would have thought you’d end up agreeing with an LSE professor:

    "Teachers should give pupils lessons in how to cope with life and be happy, a government adviser says.
    Professor Lord Richard Layard, from the London School of Economics, believes the central purpose of schools should be to teach "the secrets of happiness".

    He is calling for a new generation of teachers specialising in what is known as "emotional intelligence"."
    Saturday, February 26, 2011 - 06:05 PM

  2. Especially as the LSE was such a keen supporter of Gaddafi.

    To be honest, Tony (I hope you don’t mind if I call you Tony?) I don’t think there’s anything particularly controversial about schools teaching pupils the benefits of self-control, the need to take responsibility for their own actions, and, ultimately, their own thoughts – in fact, the last strikes me as the most important thing you can teach anyone. Currently, many schools seem to be teaching pupils to see themselves as the passive victims of fate. I don’t think you can teach “Happiness” – but I think it’s possible to suggest some of the behaviours that might lead to inner peace. I’m not against passing on tips about “emotional intelligence”, but I suspect that, in the hands of an LSE type, and filtered through what passes for the minds of your average liberal schoolteacher, this would be twisted into a load of multicultural mumbo-jumbo about “respecting” everyone’s beliefs and traditions but your own. Still, anything that stops kids joining gangs, doing drugs, getting legless several times a week and popping out babies before they’ve sat their GCSEs, or looking for some form of guidance via stone-age death cults is surely worth a try.
    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 - 12:23 PM

  3. According to the many studies on human happiness,the most heterogeneous countries are the happiest-yet another nail in the multi-cultural coffin.
    .As for personal happiness,Epicurus and Zen philosophy have something to offer.The latter is perhaps the main reason why Chinese parents (they don't particuloarly like being called Asian) push their kids so hard.
    Achievement, learning to be really good at something,(not the heavy hand of affirmative action) makes kids happy,and adults too.Teachers please note.
    Friday, March 4, 2011 - 08:53 AM

  4. Interesting point about the benefits of heterogeneity, Southern Man – I suppose that’s because it allows people to celebrate and take pride in their culture rather than having to defend it against constant attacks by incomers egged on by the politico-media elite (Nick Clegg was on his multiculti high-horse again this week, despite Cameron signalling time on the whole ruinous experiment two weeks ago). Having your beliefs and traditions constantly challenged would get anyone down after a while.

    I couldn’t agree more with your point about happiness resulting from absorption in meaningful activities which make you forget yourself – and I can’t think of anything more corrosive of happiness than being rewarded (salary, job-title, seniority, whatever) for something that you’re not necessarily any good at, or which doesn’t genuinely absorb you. Our society seems hell-bent on teaching the young that the only important thing is getting there, rather than how you get there, which is the source of meaningfulness (Glasshopper!).
    Saturday, March 5, 2011 - 05:10 PM