Perspective: A (re)education for Great Britain?

Perspective: A (re)education for Great Britain?

Last week, I picked up a copy of Educating Rita, a text I studied in high school, after spotting it on the library's $1 book stack. The story is one of a working class, 26-year-old Liverpudlian hairdresser trying to better herself and her prospects by way of an education in English literature. [Her alcoholic tutor, Dr Frank Bryant, hides his bottles of liquor between his volumes of Milton, Wilde and Shakespeare.]

Rita is frustrated by her situation and the depressing state of life in Liverpool, telling Frank, "There's like this sort of disease, but no one mentions it; everyone behaves as though it's normal, y'know, inevitably that there's vandalism an' violence an' houses burnt out an' wrecked by the people they were built for. There's somethin' wrong. An' like the worst thing is that y'know the people who are supposed to like represent the people on our estate, y' know the Daily Mirror an' the Sun, an' ITV an' the Unions, what are they tellin' people to do? They just tell them to go out an' get more money, don't they? But they don't want more money."

It's timely to reflect on the play, particularly this week, as the UK Telegraph reports that UNICEF has found materialism has come to dominate family life in Britain to the detriment of children. While British parents work themselves silly, they are compensating for the long working hours spent away from their children by showering them with stuff, which is spoiling them rotten. The Telegraph reported:

Families across the country, irrespective of social class or race, are less likely to spend time, eat or play games together, with children often left to their own devices.

In British households television is increasingly used as a "babysitter”, while children's bedrooms have become “media bedsits” with computers, games consoles and widescreen TVs taking the place of dolls houses or model aeroplanes.

The report found that children from poorer families were also less likely to take part in outdoor activities than those in the other countries, opting for a “sedentary” lifestyle in front of the television or computer games. The trend was more marked in teenagers...

The original Unicef report, which published in 2007, ranked Britain bottom out of 21 developed country for child welfare. It was third from bottom for educational standards, bottom for self esteem and second from bottom for the number of teenage pregnancies.

British children were twice as likely as the average to have been drunk by the age of 15, and significantly less likely to be in two parent families than those elsewhere, were more likely to have tried drugs and had one of the worst diets in the developed world.

Sue Palmer, author of the book
Toxic Childhood, said: “We are teaching our children, practically from the moment they are born, that the one thing that matters is getting more stuff.

“We are probably the most secular society in the world, we do not have the counterbalance of religion but at the same time we are a very driven society very into progress and making money.”

Unicef also said that materialism was "one of the underlying causes of the riots and widespread looting which gripped the UK last month, as teenagers targeted shops for the designer clothes and goods."

While class warfare, created by the "class chasm", isn't unique to Great Britain, and it's been shown that in the case of the riots working-class citizens weren't only to blame: middle-class teens and young adults were willing participants. So it appears this materialism sickness – triggered by a number of factors – is not unique to one's social standing, but traverses traditional class divides in a game of trivial pursuit.

Perhaps this is simply an extension of the grab-and-go consumer ethos that has pervaded the world with its cheap goods from China, or representative of some youths' ill-formed psychological capacities for rational decision making, or an en masse lament that Harry Potter is no longer. But it also speaks of a root cause: a creeping discontent common to all with the commensurate media message that it can be filled with stuff (preferably with designer labels).

In the British lifestyle TV program Gutted, which started airing last year, one woman who comes under the microscope is Sarah Jane, a commercial risk manager for The Royal Bank of Scotland, who, we are told, is "always perfectly presented and dressed in designer clothing".

Her house, on the surface, looks clean and tidy and normal, but every inch of space is occupied to house as many items as possible. "Sarah is a self-confessed shopaholic and will regularly spend $300 a week on clothing," her profile reads. "Sarah is desperate to find ‘Mr. Right’ but first needs to de-clutter her home to make space for him. At present 'he couldn’t even bring a toothbrush round'."

What part does the women's media play in the state of such affairs – of normalising amounts of consumption that make girls' bedrooms look like more glamorous versions of garbage dumps? A significant part, I would venture to suggest.

As Jennifer Shewmaker, professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University, notes in 'Does media matter?': "Where are all the women and girls who care so much about their appearance and who they can attract? Where are those who think it’s more important to be pretty and desired than anything else, who view themselves as objects? For the most part, they are on the screen. But as young people consume media, they begin to adopt this idea as reality. Their view of reality is, in fact, built not just on what they see in real life, but what they see in media. Yes, media matters."

And what of the waste when this energy and finance and thought could be expended in more productive ways... like rescuing poverty-stricken children through child sponsorship? It doesn't add up. But to get with the program, you might have to go against the grain – saying no more and reigning in the spending to something sustainable, no easy feat in the face of the world's more-more-more mentality.

As Rita says, "It's really temptin' to go out an' get another dress y'know, it is. Cos it's easy, it doesn't cost anythin', it doesn't upset anyone around y'. Like cos they don't want y' to change... I haven't has a new dress in twelve months. An' I'm not gonna get one either, not till – till I pass me first exam. Then I'll get a proper dress, the sort of dress you'd only see on an educated woman, on the sort of woman who knows the difference between Jane Austen an' Tracy Austin."

While Educating Rita doesn't provide the answers, as both Frank and Rita grow disenchanted with the system (he laments Rita's adaptation of university conventions and student pretensions at the expense of her unique personality, while she calls the whole exercise into question when her educated flatmate tries to commit suicide), it does speak to the need to have something to strive for, some purpose, in life beyond material acquisition.

See also:
The costly pursuit of popularity
Work an iBeing

Girl With a Satchel


thea said...

sounds intriguing! PLUS thanks for the educating rita poster! reminded me about that FAB movie and I think I might rewatch it :)