In The Wild

This was one of two Scottish Learning Festival events generously sponsored by Channel 4 – the other being TeachMeet07 later that evening. The threads running through what I saw of the presentations and debates were:

  • The recent UNICEF report in which the UK’s young people were described as the least happy in Europe
  • Young people’s creative relationship with media – especially digital forms
  • Young people’s engagement, or lack of it, with education

The panel consisted of:

Carol Craig – Chief Executive of The Centre for Confidence and Well Being
Pat Kane – musician and author of The Play Ethic
Ewan McIntosh the UK’s leading education blogger
Matt Locke – Commissioning Editor, New Media Channel 4
Stuart Cosgrove (Chair) – Channel 4’s Director of Nations and Regions

Carol Craig opened the session by setting young people’s frustrated search for happiness within the context of our own. The dilemma faced by many grown-ups had been summed up to her by a taxi driver who described his life as “feeding a monster of my own creation.” The dilemma of working many hours to finance a consumerist lifestyle, the enjoyment of which is at best a shadow of expectations, is familiar to many. Carol Craig posited the idea that our inherent adaptability is partly responsible for this. If meaning is not to be found in materialism, then where might it reside? What I found most resonant in the description is the idea of playing a meaningful part in something which is bigger than ourselves. Nobody who is happy in teaching, family life or teamwork of any description can be a stranger to this. I have lost count of the number of times that this ingredient has been described as essential to mental health. Its opposite, described as narcissism, compounded by the paradox of choice in a materialist society certainly hasn’t produced the goods. For example, nobody I know is truly convinced that the mobile phone package they have chosen is really the best – it’s just too much hassle to do the math and change provider. Life’s too short.

Pat Kane followed on speaking very eloquently on a number of issues, the most pressing of which seemed to be a vacuum in proletarian culture in a post-industrial society. He seemed convinced of and enthusiastic about young people’s engagement with music even although a laissez faire attitude to copyright must surely affect him financially. Throughout his presentation his passion for etymology helped to place ideas in a deeper linguistic context e.g. the word happiness sharing its root with happenstance. There can surely be no greater example of happenstance than the cultural collaboration which has grown out of the internet. He mentioned the prescience of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who’s notion of the Noosphere appears to have come into being. Another interesting name flagged up was that of Michel Bauwens whose ideas on “peer-to-peer human evolution” and “non-representative democracy” have found their best chance of fruition in the realm of Web 2.0.

There then followed some tensions between his and Carol Craig’s interpretations and applications of choice and ideas of self-regard. I felt this tension to be a great pity as essentially they, like us, are interested engaging young people. It seemed for example that Pat Kane imagined that Carol Craig in using the word narcissism was referring to what he would call confidence e.g. the confidence to upload one’s work/thoughts on the net. My own interpretation of what Carol Craig meant by narcissism was more to do with anxiety about one’s worth. I found myself stuck somewhere between the two. I’d agree with Carol Craig that the moments in life where I have felt most alive are those where “the self” is momentarily eclipsed (no easy task) – where the task is all and the person nothing. However, I’d be the first to acknowledge that I have lived a privileged life. Having worked in schools for 25 years, I’ve seen sufficient examples of low self-esteem to know that some young people simply need to feel good about themselves – about their achievements. A sense of self is clearly necessary for this. Having the confidence to participate in the sort of teamwork likely to result in sacrificing the self to the bigger picture seems paradoxically to require it to be built up in the first place. Fortunately Stuart Cosgrove had the light touch necessary to minimise tensions between the two, but it was interesting to note that neither returned to the stage after the interval.

Ewan McIntosh’s presentation on young people’s inclination to snack on media (Meat & Two Veg vs Poptarts) was extremely interesting and entertaining. Fittingly, it used nearly every form of media known. Following a short history of snacking (I think I missed that pun at the time) Ewan outlined the young people’s digital inclinations e.g. widget-based as opposed to website-based; moving effortlessly between one medium and another; exhibiting an acceptance of transience in their constant change of platforms and passwords. Sceptics might have imagined that we, the teaching profession, were being asked to pander to a short attention span. However, I felt that Ewan was encouraging us to consider the gulf between young people’s out of school reality and standard classroom existence – and to help them cope with this gulf.

Another interesting strand to the talk concerned the culture of commenting. Some blog posts, or video uploads receive staggering amounts of hits and comments. Contrast this with the odd comment on a jotter or test or the annual 5-minute chat at a parents’ evening and it’s not difficult to see where some young people might feel more resonance.

Crossing the Clyde with Don Ledingham, I commented on what I perceived as a danger in live blogging. Had I been trying to keep up, knowing that I was required to be elsewhere very shortly, I might have been tempted to assume my way to what seemed like an obvious conclusion i.e. that we need to become more like them – and to post it. Only at the end was it obvious that Ewan was urging us to consider a combined approach featuring both meat & two veg and poptarts.

Sadly, I missed Matt Locke’s presentation, as I had booked in to Sergio Della Sala’s talk – Tall Tales about the Mind and Brain. However, those I spoke to who attended were very enthusiastic about it.

May I recommend Clive James writing eloquently on happiness here