There are few things more likely to shrivel a teenager quite so effectively as adults being enthusiastic. When uttered by a teacher, the phrase “this is going to be fun” is as welcome salt to a slug.
I had a taste of this recently helping out at a secondary school on an ‘arts training day’. This involved 80 or so 15-year-olds being given a nominal budget of £100,000 to spend on putting together a pop group, organizing their first gig, putting together a national and international tour for them and at the end of the day getting up on stage and performing a song of not-their-choice to an audience.
Sounds like fun, right?
It was Hell. The teachers cavorted around – capered would not be overstating it – urging the teams to “get that budget sorted, orright?!” while the clock on the wall counted down the seconds for each task. The children had been divided into teams, so a cut-throat competitive edge jacked up the already chaotic beat-the-clock vibe.
Words like ‘team-building’ and ‘natural leader’ were bandied about as my little group of teens struggled to maintain their hard-won air of ennui while simultaneously not wanting to let the side down. It was painful to watch.
There’s no more guaranteed extinguisher of childish fun than an adult pointing it out. Or, even worse, joining in. At one point, two teachers dressed as wine-sozzled Daily Mail hacks staggered in and tottered around the hall saying “yaah, lovely daahling, yaah.”
Edutainment is an ugly portmanteau. Two perfectly serviceable words in a violent head-on collision resulting in a disturbing chimera, half-chipmunk half-lion, which neither educates nor amuses. I googled the word and got this as an example sentence: “this edutainment video has a unique blend of comedy and chess instruction.” I defy anyone to come up with a more potent prompt for auto-defenestration.
Twenty-two years ago, media theorist Neil Postman saw all this coming. In his book, Amusing ourselves to Death, he argued that as a result of the cultural shift (in America) from print to TV, “politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce” had all been “transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business.”
The business of teaching has never before been so showbiz. Teachers have to perform, to entertain, to make lessons fun. Which would be all very well, except that it is coupled with an invidious and insidious need to hit the targets, make the grades, tick those all-important boxes that keep the whole business – and make no mistake, it is a business – of education running. It’s the audience participation schtick (isn’t this fun kids?) softening you up for the kangaroo punch (exams, homework, grades, reports, hierarchies – what Tagore called the ‘education factory, lifeless, colourless, dissociated from the context of the universe.’)
Students these days are increasingly encouraged to complete feedback questionnaires, to rate their teachers – and this is true in secondary schools as well as colleges and universities. Again, like the ‘customer satisfaction surveys’ that we are endlessly bombarded with, it is coercion posing as choice, impotence pretending to be powerful. Nothing really changes – because you are given just enough slack to think that it might. This lesson may be monitored for quality and training purposes.
“Children, strangled by ties and regimented by soldiers, are learning a covert curriculum of power relations and normalized militarism,” argues Jay Griffiths in her impassioned plea for a radically different approach to childhood, Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape. “They are learning a right-wing political ethos that hierarchy is inevitable, that obedience, discipline and control are all-important.”
What Griffiths doesn’t say is that that might be no bad thing (she thinks it is a Very Bad Thing Indeed). I mean, at least you know what you’re up against. I remember when we were growing up in the 70s and 80s, you knew what to kick against – exactly that right-wing political ethos that Griffiths is talking about – and, boy, did we kick.
But how can you rail against ‘edutainment’? It’s like throwing darts at jello. How can you maintain your all-important, fifteen-year-old, individual insouciance in the face of teachers who, in their wigs and heels and ‘yaah dahling lovely’ are tripping over themselves to amuse you – above all, for the ratings?
It’s not so much that I think learning can’t be fun, or isn’t. It’s just that when it needs to be pointed out, it exposes the statement as a lie. We treat our children these days as imbeciles who couldn’t possibly learn anything unless it was accompanied by the bells and whistles of institutionalized play. I can’t help feeling that they deserve better.