Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Educayshun for beginners

Yesterday I happened to be reading Margery Allingham’s last book (of which more later). It was published in 1965, and she describes, in passing, the post-war rebirth of London. Round the city’s knees, she says, ‘the educated children shot up like towers, full of the future.’ The general tenor of this passage is that the young are no longer ignorant like what they used to was, and that henceforth enlightenment will brighten all our paths.

Well, I guess in 1965 it was still just about possible to believe in education. There were still grammar schools, for instance. As a matter of fact, I was teaching in one in that year. Now, however, such faith is much harder to justify.

Margery’s comment struck a chord with me because in Monday’s post about bitterness (see below) I referred to Santham Sanghera. Before mentioning his name I was obliged to do a Google search to establish Santham’s gender (a matter on which, it turns out, it is easy to become confused), and I came across a post by Heath Row on Fast Company.

Heath Row took young Santham to task for admitting that he had never heard of Tom Peters, and offered the following advice: ‘You work for the Financial Times. A respected international business newspaper. If you don't know who someone like Peters is, you might not want to admit it in print.’

I must say I had to agree with that. Hell, even I know who Tom Peters is, and I don’t even work in industry or commerce. (You can’t class publishing as either; it’s more in the nature of a fiasco). But I wasn’t remotely surprised by Santham’s ignorance. It is not too long since I had reason to speak to the chief public-relations officer of a major city council, located at a point rather less than a thousand miles from where I sit. In the course of our discussion I discovered that this young lady (a university graduate, naturally) had no idea what an alderman was.

Both these young people, Santham and the p.r. person, are victims of what these days passes for an education. Come to think of it, they probably both read Eng. Lit. At Oxford.

If it’s any comfort -- and I suspect it isn’t much -- the position is no better in the United States. In his book on scriptwriting, Michael Straczynski describes how in one TV script he made passing reference to a certain Ahab. The producer wanted to know who this Ahab guy was. Straczynski explained, patiently, that this was a literary reference, and that Captain Ahab was a character in quite a well known novel, Moby Dick.

The producer was unimpressed. ‘Well, I’ve got an MBA, and I’ve never heard of Ahab, and if I’ve never heard of him, nobody else has either, so take it out.’

And so, says Straczynski, it went.

Not, I hasten to add, that I have read Moby Dick either, or have any plans to do so, but you take, I hope, my point. There is no longer any common frame of reference, not even for people who have undergone a so-called education.