Has the British character declined in the past 100 years? If so, what can be done about it? Click here to listen to my Radio 4 documentary on good character and whether it can be taught, either by parents or schools. Includes an interview with the Behavioural Geneticist Robert Plomin.
I’ve just finished making a one-hour documentary about character for Radio 4 that’s due to be broadcast on Saturday at 8 p.m. It starts with the premise that there’s been a decline in what we think of as British values — honesty, fortitude, duty, modesty, charity, hard work, good manners, a sense of fair play, etc. — and asks whether anything can be done to restore them. Should they be taught in schools? Do parenting classes help? Or is the younger generation doomed to sink into a morass of indolence and vice?
I was originally commissioned to present it because I’ve written about character before, as well as helped set up some schools. But that was before my spot of bother at the beginning of the year when the Prime Minister appointed me to the board of the Office for Students, a new public regulator. My detractors started to trawl through everything I’d ever written dating back 30 years to prove I wasn’t a fit and proper person to serve on this board. I went from being a participant in the debate about whether the British character has declined to Exhibit A in the case for the prosecution.
Luckily, that didn’t mean Radio 4 ditched me in favour of someone more anodyne. All I had to do, explained the excellent producer Pauline Moore, was address the issue at the top of the programme — acknowledge that I have some character defects and give the impression that it was this disability that gave me a vested interest in the subject. Almost as if it was a programme about the search for a hair loss remedy that I was well-qualified to present because I’m bald. (To read more, click here.)
I don’t hold out much hope for Drink Free Days, a new campaign launched by Public Health England and the alcohol industry to persuade people to abstain for two consecutive days a week. That was also the recommendation of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee in 2012, as well as the advice of England’s Chief Medical Officer in 2016, but it doesn’t seem to have had much impact. According to a recent YouGov poll, more than 20 per cent of UK adults ignore the government’s drinking guidelines and are consuming more than 14 units a week.
That may be an underestimate. A recent study published in the Lancet, which looked at alcohol use and its health effects in 195 countries, found that British men and women consume, on average, three drinks a day. Even if we assume that one drink equals one unit — which is unlikely, given that a glass of wine or a pint of beer contains two units — that still means the average Brit is drinking at least 21 units a week. It’s a safe bet that they aren’t taking a day off every week, either, let alone 48 hours. Two thirds of the respondents in the YouGov poll said they would find it harder to cut down on their drinking than if they tried to exercise more or reduce their smoking.
That would have been my reaction, too. (To read more, click here.)
According to Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, America’s universities have succumbed to ‘safetyism’, whereby students are protected from anything that might cause them anxiety or discomfort. In their book The Coddling of the American Mind, published this week, they attribute the spread of ‘trigger warnings’, ‘safe spaces’ and ‘bias hotlines’ on campus to a misplaced concern about the psychological fragility of students. In their view, millennials aren’t ‘snowflakes’, but imagine themselves to be on account of having been surrounded by over-protective parents and teachers. The fact they are the first generation of ‘digital natives’ hasn’t helped, since it has left them marooned in echo chambers, unaccustomed to challenge. In addition, students’ familiarity with social media and their ability to whip up outrage mobs to shame university authorities into doing their bidding has shifted the balance of power in their favour.
No doubt there is some truth in this, and from a tactical point of view it may be the most sensible way of getting university authorities and students to engage in a dialogue about free speech. It enables Lukianoff and Haidt to draw on a wealth of research showing that the suppression of dissenting views is, in fact, bad for students’ psychological wellbeing. That’s more pragmatic than complaining about left-wing bias or a culture of political correctness, which is likely to result in the authors being dismissed as ‘alt-right’ or, worse, ‘white supremacists’. By focusing on mental health — a big concern of millennials — they will at least get a hearing.
But reading between the lines, it’s clear that the real problem on college campuses is not the whiny, neurotic students, but the post-modern neo-Marxist professors who are manipulating them. (To read more, click here.)
Cassian Harrison, the editor of BBC Four, told the Edinburgh International Television Festival last week that no one wants to watch white men explaining stuff on TV any more. ‘There’s a mode of programming that involves a presenter, usually white, middle-aged and male, standing on a hill and “telling you like it is”,’ he said. ‘We all recognise the era of that has passed.’
I’ve been puzzling over this. Why would one of the Beeb’s most senior executives, himself a white, middle-aged man, say something likely to antagonise such a large number of the people who pay his £170,000 salary, i.e. licence payers? After all, 87.2 per cent of the UK’s population is white and I imagine the same is true of the 26 million households that forked out £150.50 for a TV licence in the past year. So, when Cassian Harrison says ‘we all’ agree that time’s up for white men, I don’t think he’s speaking on behalf of all the licence payers. Nor is he speaking for viewers more generally. Let’s not forget that the most popular British television programme of last year, with 14 million viewers, was Blue Planet II, which involved a white male (David Attenborough) standing in front of a camera and explaining stuff.
I can think of three possible explanations for this bizarre statement, although I should stress that I’ve never met the editor of BBC Four so what follows is purely speculative. (To read more, click here.)
Earlier this week, the Labour MP Dawn Butler ‘called out’ Jamie Oliver for ‘appropriation’. His sin, according to the shadow minister for women and equalities, was to launch a product called Punchy Jerk Rice. ‘I’m just wondering do you know what #Jamaican #jerk actually is?’ she asked him on Twitter. ‘It’s not just a word you put before stuff to sell products… Your jerk rice is not OK. This appropriation from Jamaica needs to stop.
The notion that it is problematic for white people to ‘appropriate’ the culture of other ethnic groups has become widespread on the left. Three years ago, Erika Christakis, a Yale lecturer, sparked protests after she questioned official university guidance telling white students not to wear ‘culturally insensitive’ Halloween costumes, such as feathered headdresses. Student activists were so enraged by her description of American universities as places of ‘censure and prohibition’ — and her outrageous suggestion that there was nothing inherently racist about blond toddlers dressing up as African-American Disney characters — that she was forced to resign. (To read more, click here.)
To listen to a podcast I’ve just done with Greg Gutfeld, host of the Greg Gutfeld Show on Fox News, about outrage mobs, inappropriate humour and the uncanny parallels between contemporary American and Soviet-era Czechoslovakia, click here.
Check out my interview for Triggernometry, the YouTube show co-ghosted by the comedians Francis Foster and Konstantin Kisin. It's the first time I've given an interview about being targeted by an outrage mob at the beginning of the year.
When I was 16 I failed all my O-levels, bar a grade C in English Literature, and concluded I wasn’t academically bright. Instead of retaking my O–levels, doing some A-levels and trying to get a place at university, I decided to pursue a career as a tradesman and enrolled on a residential work experience course. It was a bit like a boarding school, except it offered students a technical and vocational education rather than an academic one.
It was a miserable period of my life. The stench of failure hung over the institution like a toxic cloud and my fellow students and I were treated as if we were semi-delinquents who might at any moment go off the rails. I was apprenticed to a succession of skilled tradesmen, but they regarded me with suspicion and had little or no patience for teaching me the rudiments of their professions. Hardly surprising, given the premise of the school. In effect, the local education authority was telling these proud working men, most of whom were exceptionally competent, that their livelihoods were last-ditch alternatives for students of below-average ability. (To read more, click here.)
Across British politics, there is a recognition that technical and vocational education has been
badly neglected. The Government has recently made this one of its core priorities, via the
introduction of T-levels for students aged 16 and over and new Institutes of Technology. This is particularly urgent, given our imminent departure from the European Union. According to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, 43% of vacancies in skilled trades/occupations were due to skills shortages in 2015, and an additional 3.6 million vacancies in mid-level skilled occupations, such as advanced manufacturing, are predicted to arise by 2022.
Yet the existing technical and vocational schools are close to collapse. The University
Technical Colleges (UTCs) and studio schools that are meant to provide this type education for 14-19 year-olds have become dumping grounds for children struggling in mainstream schools. As a result, they are languishing at the bottom of the league tables and struggling to fill their places. Nearly a third of those opened since 2011 have already closed.
I've just written a report for the Centre for Policy Studies that identifies a key problem that has hobbled technical and vocational education in Britain for more than 100 years and proposes a radical solution. In the report, ‘Technically Gifted’, I argue that we must break the Gordian Knot linking technical education to academic failure by allowing these schools to select their pupils according to aptitude for their occupational specialisms, instead of being forced to take those rejected by their mainstream neighbours as not bright enough to cope with the ‘common core’ of academic GCSEs. Rather than thinking of technical and vocational schools as second best for children of below average ability, as they have been since the beginning of the 20th Century, we should regard them as schools of opportunity for children of all abilities who have a particular flair for this type of education. And the pupils at these schools should still be expected to do the ‘common core’, thereby ensuring they don’t become an ‘alternative pathway’ for those who cannot cope with a broad and balanced curriculum.