GCSEs: they want to say young people are no good.

A good deal of excellent things have been written about GCSEgate and it will be very interesting to see how Ofqual, the exam boards and Michael Gove manage to wriggle out of it. Most teachers and headteachers with direct responsibility for students sitting the English papers are convinced that what’s involved here is a conspiracy. . A key part of the government’s strategy in dealing with this wave of anger will be an attempt to trivialise the concerns of teachers, students and parents. Their other approach will be an attempt to suggest that these concerns are either mistaken and/or driven by self-interest. However, this is a high-risk strategy. Students, parents, teachers and headteachers are not in toto the government’s natural enemies. Of course, some are but many are not. No government that has to seek re-election can risk alienating tens of thousands of its supporters.

Leaving all that to one side, I’m becoming increasingly interested in the cultural agenda going on here. We read all the time of ‘grade inflation’, ‘declining standards’ along with the usual exaggerated nonsense about illiteracy and students being ‘unable to talk or write’ and so on. These complaints and others like them have been levelled by the older generation at the younger generation for hundreds of years. This is what has come to be called the ‘narrative of decline’ and it’s a narrative that usually (but not always) suits a conservative agenda. When politicians and commentators invoke this decline (‘broken Britain’ etc), there is nearly always an attempt to suggest that the supposed decline can be reversed by going back to when things were better and when, it’s claimed, people and society weren’t corrupted by ‘sex, drugs and rock’n’roll’ and/or the ‘permissive society’ and/or the ‘lack of morals’ and/or ‘lack of authority’ and so on.

Needless to say, this all comes with a massive dose of hypocrisy and lies. Politicians and media commentators show not even the slightest tendency towards being more moral (in their own terms) than anyone else. If there is any kind of ‘decline’ then they are all as much part of the problem as anyone.

Of course, I don’t buy into this decline narrative anyway, least of all when it’s directed at teachers, education and young people. The advantage of being 66 years old is that I can remember the 50s and 60s very well and no one is going to convince me that my generation were in any way ‘better’ than the present generation. As I’ve said many times, we must never forget that the majority of young people in that time were put into Secondary Modern Schools and booted out of fulltime education by 14 or 15 without any qualifications. We will never know what level of education this ‘cohort’ reached – or didn’t reach.

But now I want to make a speculative leap into what we might call ‘psychopolitics’. What kind of answer do we get, if we ask ‘why do politicians and commentators tell this decline narrative?’ Or, ‘If people in power and control really believe this stuff, what kind of psycho-socio-political gesture are they making?’ At one level, I believe it is crude and cynical manipulation. There is an understanding in politics that people are not only divided between each other along conservative-liberal, right-left divisions, but are also divided within themselves. That’s to say our lives and backgrounds produce within us ‘splits’. So, on one particular issue or matter, we might express a belief in change, progress, openness to others and another part of us on another occasion believes or behaves as if we are against change and progress, is fearful of others. Again, we might be in favour of, or capable of being active in some circumstances and in others very passive. Or again, we might be very good at co-operating and collaborating with others in some circumstances and very individualistic on others. Politics is in part about playing with these splits inside us. Conservative politicians are not only keen on recruiting or creating people who are conservative but are also keen on appealing to the conservative sides of people.

So, in this account, the narrative of decline is an attempt to recruit this conservative side of people. It’s an attempt to say that the world is indeed unsatisfactory, it has got worse since you were younger and that’s because others (not you) have bad morals and people younger than you are not as clever or as well behaved as you are. Of course, it’s not only conservative. It’s also flattering. You’re good. Young people (and the people who educate them) are not as good as you are.

That said, I think there is something else going on. Freud talked about ‘projection’. In daily life, this is the process whereby we ascribe to others what we are feeling ourselves. So I might be in a situation where I’m feeling very angry and instead of saying, ‘I’m angry’, I say, ‘You’re angry.’ And you can repeat that across any emotion or activity: ‘you’re possessive/jealous/shy/anxious/paranoid’ or indeed, ‘you’re lazy/duplicitous/lying’ etc etc. We all say these things, sometimes we’re right about the other person, sometimes, though we’re ‘projecting’. We’re simply hiding a feeling we have and telling someone else that they have that feeling.

So here’s a theory: what if this narrative of decline is in part a kind of projection? What if there are people who engage in this persistent bad-mouthing of young people and their teachers and carers because they themselves have a strong sense of their own failings? Let’s try this: have you ever heard a politician or mainstream commentator begin one of these speeches about what’s gone wrong with Britain etc with an explanation of how bad they are at spelling, or how it is their own lack of moral compass that is letting the side down? Yes, we get politicians and others talking about their pasts (eg Louise Mensch) but they’re all much better now, aren’t they? Apparently, none of them binge-drink, snort coke, smoke dope, are disrespectful to their superiors (whatever that means) or do things which jeopardise family life. And yet of course loads of them do. Now this is the important bit: though loads of them do, such politicians have an inner policeman-priest telling them how bad this is (bad in itself and bad for their careers), so you try various ways of denying that you are doing these ‘bad’ things, or of trying to explain them away. This of course is what Freud called ‘repression’. We all do repression but we don’t all go about telling millions of people how bad everyone has become – their spelling, sex lives, drinking lives, orderliness etc. Projection in the Freudian sense arises out of repression. As you repress and hide and conceal these ‘bad’ things, you feel the need to tell other people how wrong and bad they are. Shakespeare anticipates this with the character and actions of Angelo in ‘Measure for Measure’. Here is a modern political leader, carrying out a moral crusade in public, while trying to have sex with a nun as part of a deal to give clemency to her brother.

My speculation is that many of those in power over us have very similar feelings as we all do: feelings of inadequacy, feelings of guilt and shame, feelings of having done wrong, feelings of not living up to the standards asked of us by parents, teachers, religious and political leaders in our childhoods. Instead of being honest or even ironic about such matters, they project these feelings on to young people. They are the failures. They are the ones who are letting us all down. They are the ones who are eroding values.

Needless to say, I think precisely the opposite is the case. I believed that we are being ruled over by a venal, corrupt elite. Whatever failings may or may not be ascribed to any group of people without power and without wealth, they are as nothing to the gigantic theft of time, money, effort and resources which ends up as gigantic wealth and power concentrated in the hands of a tiny, tiny few. We must never forget that the dire financial situation the world finds itself in, wasn’t caused even in the tiniest, tiniest degree by young people not spelling or punctuating properly, it wasn’t caused by young people smoking dope or boozing their bums off or by rioting. It was caused by massively powerful, rich people selling each other debt (which, incidentally, they often hid from each other ie in their own terms, they behaved immorally with each other, acting in bad faith and lying.).

Yes, there is a crisis – that far along the decline narrative I go – but it wasn’t caused by a decline in standards of the least powerful, least wealthy because they didn’t have the means to cause the crisis. To say that they did, is to blame the victim. And that precisely is where psycho-social-political ‘projection’ gets you: a ‘narrative’ that blames those suffering the most. You people are poor because you can’t spell and you are immoral. As long ago as the seventeenth century, radicals had spotted that the notion of ‘sin’ was very useful if you want to people to blame themselves for their unfortunate circumstances.

All that may seem a far cry from the row about the GCSEs but I am of the view that it is very much part of the matter. That’s to say, every time someone goes on about ‘grade inflation’, lying behind it is an accusation that young people are not as ‘good’ as ‘we’ are. In reality, the fear is that ‘we’ are not very ‘good’ but as that can’t be admitted, ‘we’ accuse ‘them’ of being the ‘bad’ ones.

Michael Rosen

My Blog