20 June 2012

Who is Dr Helen Wright really talking about?

Today's Times (£) trails the speech of a Headteacher at a private boarding school for girls, to be given tomorrow at the Institute of Development Professionals in Education:
Girls are pressured to think that being the hottest woman in the world is more important than academic success, a leading headmistress will say this week.
Dr Wright lambasted a recent men’s magazine cover, featuring (Kim) Kardashian posing provocatively in skimpy lingerie.
She said: “It is not too strong a statement, I venture to suggest, to say that almost everything that is wrong with Western society today can be summed up in that one symbolic photo.
“The descent of Western civilisation can practically be read into every curve (of which, you will note, there are indeed many). Officially the hottest woman in the world? Really? Is this what we want our young people to aim for? Is this what success should mean to them?”
I wonder what the pupils (and the fee paying parents, for that matter) of St Mary's Calne school in Wiltshire think about their most senior educator, Dr Helen Wright, offering this sort of analysis of world history? I suspect that, for £21k-£30k a year, they would hope for something a little less simplistic.

I am only peripherally aware of the Kardashian family and their various forays into celebrity. To be honest, when I first heard of the TV programme that launched them, At Home With The Kardashians, I thought it was a Star Trek spin-off. So I have not studied, as Dr Wright has, the bodily contours of that clan's most famous daughter. Nor am I a young woman. So there's at least two reasons, right there, why I am unable to speak authoritatively to Dr Wright's claim that the effect of images of a semi-naked actresse/model on teenage girls is correlated with the crumbling of civilisations.

But then I also don't happen to subscribe to Dr Wright's central assertion that the West is in some sort of absolute, terminal decline. Let's just run with the idea, though. For argument's sake. For there are those, from former cabinet ministers to Astronomers Royal to well-meaning but counter-productive urban campers to sections of the press, for whom this is a core belief. Various reasons given for our supposed descent include:
  • rapacious capitalism
  • catastrophic climate change
  • conflict in the Middle East
  • 'peak' oil
  • risk-adversity
  • political correctness
  • family breakdown
  • abandonment of religion
Maybe it's overly presumptive of me to question somebody of such vision and experience, but I find it a little difficult to find any of that (never mind all of it) inextricably symbolised in a magazine cover featuring a charismatic socialite in her undies. 

Of course, I don't think that Dr Wright really does either. She is employing hyperbole to underpin a more basic point: that young people, particularly young women, are overly influenced, and made less happy and healthy and ambitious, by the pressures exerted upon them by such images. Her world is, apparently, full of otherwise intelligent, aspirational, confident girls who are reduced to simpering, sexualised, celebrity-obssessed wasters by Zoo, Nuts, lingerie advertisements, those videos which accompany songs currently in the Hit Parade, and 'reality' TV.

Now maybe all these things are destroying the will and well-being of our nation's female youth and maybe they aren't. I'm sure if I were a parent, that my attitude towards such images would be a lot less liberal. I am happy enough (for the moment) to defer to the media studiers, psychologists and feminist theorists amongst my readership (you're both familiar with these areas, aren't you?).

However, reading about the second half of Dr Wright's proposed speech, in which she calls for less state interference in schools, a solution struck me: she and her staff should just do their job.

For is it really the case that "this is what young people see around them all the time: online, in magazines, on TV". Really? ALL THE TIME? Even for the seven or eight hours a day that they're in your classrooms? I do youthwork two hours a night, two nights a week in one of the most deprived wards in the country. On those evenings, I help 12-18 year olds, both boys and girls, learn some new things, apply for qualifications, and generally shape their ideas of what they want their training and education, and future careers, to be. Now maybe the boys are just humouring me and they all intend to be Premiership footballers, and maybe the girls are highly skilled at masking their true desire to be the next star of The Only Way Is Essex. But I doubt it.

The good teachers of St Mary's Calne have far greater opportunites to influence their charges than just about any other educators or mentors in the country. If they're concerned about 'bad' role-models for their pupils, then why not use the expansive curriculum to introduce them to some good ones? If they think that Zoo and Nuts are too prevalent, why not stick some copies of Wired (with its excellent coverage of female entrepreneurs) or Intelligent Life in the library? Surely a learning support fee of £30.90 per lesson would stretch to the subscriptions? Why not use your critical thinking and personal development lessons to address the issues you have raised?

Of course, all this is predicated on the fact that Dr Wright is talking about St Mary's Calne pupils. I mean, that's who she means, doesn't she, when she frets about youngsters turning into superficial, undisciplined adults? She couldn't just mean the less privileged young women of the world who don't have the benefit of experiencing her school? She surely could not be stereotyping girls from more urban and lower-income backgrounds. Could she?

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