Sunday, November 28, 2004

The march of the nannies

In a recent post on a column by Polly Toynbee I suggested that a tendency to treat adults like children and children like adults is typical of modern life in general and New Labour in particular. Two more examples have come my way in recent days.

The first comes from Margaret Hodge's defence of the nanny state as reported in Saturday's Guardian. According to that article, Hodge said:
critics of the nanny state misunderstood the role of nannies. "Good nannies don't just tell you what you can't do ... [or] must do. They are about ensuring that you can make real and informed choices for yourself."
Again there is no sense here that children need nannies but adults do not. It is hard to escape the conclusion that, to New Labour, we are all children and all in need of nannies - albeit enlightened New Labour nannies who do not rely on the back of the hairbrush to get their way. In direct contradiction of what she says, Hodge's meaning is clearly that adults are not competent to make choices for themselves.

The second example comes from the Spiked website and an article discussing attempts to foster media literacy in children. Its author Sandy Starr describes a session run by James Park, director of Antidote, the campaign for emotional literacy, and Barry Richards, professor of public communication at Bournemouth University. In it, those taking part were shown:
a video recording of six-year-old pupils in east London discussing the question 'Is Africa a free country?' (itself a politically illiterate question since Africa is a continent, but that was apparently part of the point of the exercise). The children's emotionally literate teacher sat with them in a circle, inviting them to contrast and reflect on the differing accounts of Africa in a picture book they had just read, in items they had seen on the news, and that they had received from members of their family.
Starr comments that:
While this might be a useful exercise for getting children to think about the world, how it constituted an emotional education escaped me. But what was disturbing was Richards' assertion that the video demonstrated a valid model for fostering political understanding in general. Here we see the infantilisation of the public that lies at the heart of projects to promote new forms of literacy.
Starr's "infantilisation" is the right word to describe what is going on here and in the views expressed by Polly Toynbee and Margaret Hodge. In Starr's example, however, the reverse process is taking place - we are demanding that children as young as six have an opinion on African politics and develop a sophisticated ability to weigh evidence. An ability which, incidentally, relegates what they learn from their parents to being just one more source of information.

This tells us a great deal about what enlightened opinion expects children to be like, but it is hard to see that the children themselves are gaining much from it. And it reinforces my belief that our infantilisation of adults goes hand in hand with a demand that children become more like adults.

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