Thursday, January 14, 2016

David Bowie, economics and education

I have come across two reactions to the death of David Bowie that take us well beyond the world of music.

Stumbling and Mumbling - written by Chris Dillow and always interesting - quotes Danny Finkelstein before rightly taking issue with him:
He [Finkelstein] writes: 
David Bowie – undoubtedly one of the artistic geniuses of the past 50 years – was the great product and great producer of consumer capitalism…He was subversive because capitalism is subversive, overturning the status quo, restless, and profoundly democratic. 
I disagree. It is markets that are subversive; capitalists would much rather keep the status quo and the profits rolling in. Danny says that Bowie “was possible because in a consumer capitalist society nobody can ultimately stop anybody doing anything.” But surely the word “capitalist” is superfluous in that sentence?
Chris goes on to draw a very different moral from Bowie's career:
He only became wealthy after setting up his own management company. This tells us a lot. People don’t become rich by merely by being creative. They get rich from ownership rights: in was only when Bowie claimed these that he prospered. In this sense, capitalism is a means of exploitation. 
The conflation of capitalism with markets irritates me because I suspect it is a means whereby the right smuggles in support for inequality. Many of the virtues it claims for capitalism are in fact the virtues of markets, and in conflating the two the right thus gives the impression that the case for capitalism is stronger than it in fact is.
Kevin Maguire, writing on Politics Home, also questions modern pieties (and incidentally introduces our Trivial Fact of the Day):
There’s a lesson in the likelihood that a young David Bowie would today be considered an unfortunate teenager failed by his school, with Bromley Technical High’s staff fearing a dreaded visit from Ofsted’s inspectors. 
His single O Level, in art – a subject taught by fellow rocker Peter Frampton’s father, Owen, self-evidently an inspirational schoolmaster – fell a long way short of the five good GCSEs, including English and Maths, or its equivalent, that is considered by many of us, never mind officialdom, as a pretty good yardstick ...
I raise Bowie’s less than sparkling academic qualifications not to dismiss the importance of GCSEs, NVQs, Baccalaureates, Highers, A Levels, Degrees or A N Other certificate you care to name if it signifies achievement. Everybody, from pupils and parents to teachers and Education Secretaries, deserves applause if they’re striving to raise standards and, especially, improve the prospects of kids from poorer homes who too often are left behind. 
But Bowie, the boy from Brixton born into a working class home who finished school with that single O Level, is a reminder that passing exams isn’t everything; a dearth of formal qualifications is not the end of the world.
I do wonder how many of today's IT millionaires were chided for "messing about with computers" by their teachers in the 1980s.

1 comment:

Matthew Huntbach said...

It's always difficult to get the balance right between persuading those who are capable of getting the qualifications to put in the effort needed to do so, and consoling those who aren't with the message that there are other options in life, so it isn't the end of the world if you don't get high grades.

One has to be a little cautious about using the line "Look at X, he had no qualifications but now he's a millionaire", and point out that the number who didn't have qualifications and didn't become millionaires is somewhat larger than the number who didn't have qualifications and did. Once also has to be cautious about not closing off the possibility of a glamorous career, but not feeding the very common idea among working class youngsters "Oh, I don't need to work hard at education, I'm going to become a star one day".

A rather important political point that has been missed here is that Bowie came from an era where people with working class backgrounds could get into the entertainment business. There has been a significant change since those days, with now far fewer of entertainment stars having non-privileged backgrounds.