The value of youthful opinion

This could have just been a tweet but I felt compelled to argue in my own way with this article from the other day in the Sydney Morning Herald Heckler by guest columnist Lynn Van Der Wagen, ‘I want out of Generation I’.

Obviously given the title Heckler it’s meant to get people a bit heated up and its quite the generalised rant so it is a column easy to object to. However, it was this bit that I particularly took umbrage to:

TODAY’S teenagers are shaped by a multitude of weighty issues – high levels of teenage obesity, a heavy binge drinking culture and a social media landscape with hefty consequences.

But pause for a moment and consider the corresponding gargantuan rise in the younger generation’s confidence in the value of their opinions. The sheer weight of their viewpoints is growing exponentially as parents and teachers alike are counselled to hold a young person’s opinion in the highest regard.

As a society we’ve been infatuated by youth for some time. And as a capitalist consumer culture we’re obsessed with what teens think, feel, buy and how to influence them. We depend on them. Our economy is driven by them. Is it any wonder they think their opinions count? They do! We’ve been courting their good opinion their whole lives. For the past 25 years plus we’ve been focus grouping them with ever increasing statistical and computer modelled accuracy.

Why? Because our economy has become utterly skewed towards emotional urge and impulse. It’s actually an imperative to the consumer culture that people don’t think too much. Otherwise they might not feel they need that many jeans, shoes, handbags, you name it.

What’s worse is how many adults in our society rely on, spend their working days and energy, have jobs, are in industries, that are utterly dependent on teenage and youthful whim. We know households decisions on clothing and retail products, electronics, a broad swathe of general household expenditure through to major purchases such as cars are influenced by children and young people.

And if we’re not marketing to kids it’s to adults, particularly women, that they should be trying to stay young, youthful and keep buying all the products that promise to make them so.

The columnist’s gripe, however, as they go on to argue, is largely an educational standards one. Kids don’t come out of school with the skills they once did. That is a shame. But to blame the kids is petty.

The continuous devaluing of the teaching profession by governments of all persuasions, the downgrading of the skills they require and the wages they are paid has taken a huge toll. But worse has been the endless rounds of consultancies, reviews and revisions that have tried to make education more ‘industry and workplace’ focussed. It’s been the business sector whinging that simple things like history, geography or the arts, were not ‘real’ life skills that has driven much of the decline. No one seems to reprimand the business sector for the fact that teaching ‘real life’ skills used to be a responsibility that business bore, with on the job training and investment in employees.

Students now seem to spend an inordinate amount of time creating powerpoint presentations that make them ‘ready for the real world’ instead of developing their general knowledge, reading from books or being instructed in skills that the teacher has researched, structured and articulated. Sadly getting the kids to ‘look it up on the internet’ is a hell of a lot easier than actually teaching a subject in a structured way, a skill the teachers themselves are rarely being taught to do.

Then the columnist belted out this pitiful lack of insight:

Having recently spent time teaching students in China, I can’t help but draw stark comparisons to my local teaching experience. Students there expect that they will be given a tonne of information and will be assigned extensive homework involving engagement with the instructional material. Invitations to express opinions are met with puzzlement. Rather, they expect and welcome direction.

Wow. All this really tells me is that Van Der Wagen should have left the teaching profession a long time ago, much like Professor Binns at Hogwarts. Apparently Van Der Wagen thinks it’s better students be autotrons, robotic education feeders that don’t think or question, are inarticulate and uncreative. What a backward step that would be.

I have considerable concerns about the state of education, about the way my daughter is being taught and the capacities and talents she has that are being under-utilised and undeveloped. I want her to be able to argue on fact, with evidence to back it up and with authority. But there’s hardly anywhere I can look to in our culture as a role model for her. Certainly not to politicians. Certainly not to the media. We live in an age where undisputed facts, science, international laws, are ridiculed by those they inconvenience or who’s profits might be threatened.

So keep the opinions coming, keep the Gen-I’s challenging and let’s hope they find teachers along the way that can guide them toward backing up their emotional reactions and hunches with fact, evidence and logical argument.

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