The Precise Nature of the Catastrophe

Moral reforms and deteriorations are moved by large forces, and they are mostly caused by reactions from the habits of a preceding period. Backwards and forwards swings the great pendulum, and its alternations are not determined by a few distinguished folk clinging to the end of it. — Sir Charles Petrie, The Victorians

This weekend, I’ve watched Robert Altman’s Gosford Park and skimmed through Melanie Phillips‘s All Must Have Prizes.

Gosford Park is an entertaining comedy/murder mystery set in an English country house, with a cast of just about every British actor you’ve ever heard of. The film is set in the 1930s, when the country houses in England had already begun their decline, and is interesting for its accurate portrayal of the relations between the servant and landed classes at the time. It’s a little long, but is gorgeously filmed. Recommended.

The title of All Must Have Prizes comes from the Dodo in Alice in Wonderland, who, after a nonsensical running race in which the participants stopped and started as they pleased, declared that “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes”.

Phillips’s burden is the decline of the educational system in the UK, which she places in the context of a wider moral decline. Phillips herself is quite a character. During her career as a journalist and columnist, she’s made the transition from newspapers traditionally associated with the political left to the Daily Mail, a nasty right-wing tabloid. But fear not, for the book was first published in 1996, before this transition, and, on the subject of the decline in educational standards, she’s right.

What strikes me as odd is that employers and university teachers (or indeed, anyone who has looked at old O-level papers) know that GCSEs and A-levels have been reducing their content for years, and yet apparently nobody is allowed to say so because it would devalue the work put in by the children taking the exams. Unfortunately, the time spent on work isn’t necessarily proportional to how much a child learns, especially with the amount of make-work kids are given (things like project work, making posters, and often coursework fall into that category).

Phillips places the blame for this on a politicised educational establishment in the Department of Education and in teacher training colleges, who are more interested in making ideological points than in preparing children for work or university. As the title of the book suggests, she believes that their main errors are to insist that children should direct their own learning, that they should not be given work which they may see as hard or boring, and most of all, that they should never be allowed to think they have failed at anything. This leads to everyone being equally mediocre, like in that Kurt Vonnegut story.

But Mom broke up with Brad; she didn’t like craftsmen, she said, because they were too much like actual Victorians, always spouting all kinds of crap about how one thing was better than another thing, which eventually lead, she explained, to the belief that some people were better than others. — Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age.

The later, and more controversial, chapters of the book link the decline in educational standards to a wider decline, characterised by an emphasis on rights rather than responsibilities and a lack of respect for authority. Phillips is especially concerned with the decline in conventional family life: while she does not make the mistake of saying that parental divorce always leads to delinquent children, she does argue that it makes such delinquency more likely. Phillips thinks of herself as a left-wing liberal, and pins the blame for shirking of responsibility on Margaret Thatcher’s “me generation”, pointing out that the name “Conservative Party” is a misnomer for an administration which was in fact dedicated to making sweeping changes.

It’s here that I part company with Phillips to some extent. She seems to have moved further to the right these days: on her website, she makes it clear that, for example, she does not approve of the Government’s moves to allow civil partnerships for homosexuals, despite the fact that people who wish to form such partnerships presumably wish to express commitment and responsibility, two of the things which she sees as lacking in modern Britain. Similarly, she laments the decline of the Church of England but doesn’t quite have to the courage to say that she supports religion as a source of social cohesion: if not, then why lament its decline? Phillips teeters on the edge of the faith-based community, somewhat worryingly for her readers in the reality-based one.

On her wider point, though, I find myself agreeing with her. As I’ve said before, people without a culture which makes value judgements are mightily screwed. The current backlash against chavs and suchlike is a reflection of a wider culture which is running out of patience (oddly enough, this entry from epsilon_moo appeared while I was composing mine). Almost everyone on my friends-of-friends list who lives in London appears to have been mugged or burgled at least once. Meanwhile the Government invests in the white elephant of identity cards (Phillips’s prediction that without corrective action we risk tribalism or facism seems quite prescient for 1996) and promises to make more laws which will not be enforced.

In many ways we are better off than we were in the days of Gosford Park, when the rich few lived like, well, gentry, and the lower classes were humble and Knew Their Place, and I know that Greek or Roman bloke also said that the youth of his day had no respect, but these days, talk of Stephenson’s phyles and burbclaves is also looking prescient (the Londoner I know who hasn’t been burgled lives behind a gate and a security guard). So, are we doomed?

4 Comments on "The Precise Nature of the Catastrophe"

  1. The current backlash against chavs, however, is directly caused by people over-reacting to a tiny minority, and has been caused by a general lack of respect _for_ children in the first place.

    The fastest way to cut the burglary rate by over 50% is to legalise heroin, as most thefts come from drug addicts trying to pay for their latest fix – legalise it and the price drops by around 90%.

    On the other hand, I’m with you on schools – what we really need is a national debate on what they’re there for.


    1. I’m not sure I agree that the chav thing is entirely media over-reaction. Certainly, chavs aren’t a problem to me, but that’s possibly because I live in a nice middle class area and avoid the area of Cambridge which contains all the cut-price drinking barns (Wetherspoons and the like) at closing time. But I’m receptive to people who live in rougher areas complaining about gangs who commit what are largely minor offences with apparent impunity, leading to an oppressive atmosphere. The bile received by chavs seems to be a way of venting frustration about crimes which affect people’s quality of life, whether or not those crimes are actually committed by people wearing Burberry baseball caps and Argos jewelery.


  2. yet apparently nobody is allowed to say so

    Apart from every single year when the exam results for both sets of exams come out, you mean?

    This feature was quite interesting on the topic.


    1. Apart from every single year when the exam results for both sets of exams come out, you mean?

      Well apart from that, yes 🙂 I know that the same things are said every year, but it usually goes something like: “A levels are getting easier”, to which the response is “How dare you devalue children’s work, and by the way what about this person with 6 A’s who didn’t get into Oxbridge”, and that seems to be as far as it goes.

      I’m not at the coal face of education, but speaking to people who do supervise undergrads, my impression is that the intake knows less and less each year (which is not a judgement on their intelligence, of course, but merely a statement that they’re ignorant). Something Must Be Done, dammit.


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