As you may have noticed, the Labour Party has rediscovered the Blairite virtue of aspiration. Indeed, the Labour leadership candidates speak of little else. However, George Monbiot of the Guardian is unswayed:

“We know that our conditions of life are deteriorating. Most young people have little prospect of owning a home, or even of renting a decent one. Interesting jobs are sliced up, through digital Taylorism, into portions of meaningless drudgery…

“The political system that delivers these outcomes is sustained by aspiration: the faith that if we try hard enough we could join the elite, even as living standards decline and social immobility becomes set almost in stone. But to what are we aspiring? A life that is better than our own, or worse?”

He goes on to document the absurd lengths to which some parents go to prepare their children for future success:

“In New York, playdate coaches charging $450 an hour train small children in the social skills that might help secure their admission to the most prestigious private schools. They are taught to hide traits that could suggest they’re on the autistic spectrum, which might reduce their chances of selection.”

Monbiot believes that pushy parenting is blighting young lives:

“From infancy to employment, this is a life-denying, love-denying mindset, informed not by joy or contentment, but by an ambition that is both desperate and pointless, for it cannot compensate for what it displaces: childhood, family life, the joys of summer, meaningful and productive work, a sense of arrival, living in the moment.”

He then accuses the British Government of spreading this elitist culture of “self-advancement” to the country as a whole:

“Where the elite goes, we are induced to follow. As if the assessment regimes were too lax in UK primary schools, last year the education secretary announced a new test for four-year-olds… The education and adoption bill, announced in the Queen’s speech, will turn the screw even tighter.”

The implication is that our young people are cracking under the strain:

“An international survey of children’s wellbeing found that the UK, where such pressures are peculiarly intense, ranked 13th out of 15 countries for children’s life satisfaction, 13th for agreement with the statement ‘I like going to school’, 14th for children’s satisfaction with their bodies and 15th for self-confidence. So all that pressure and cramming and exhortation – that worked, didn’t it?”

But hang on, a closer examination of this report – ‘Children’s views on their lives and well-being in 15 countries – reveals that the UK is at the bottom of the league for the frequency of “doing homework” (page 121) and for “taking classes outside school time” (page 119). The UK is also third from last for the frequency of “learning together with family” (page 116) and for “meeting to study with friends” (page 117). Whatever it is that’s making British children unhappy, it’s not excessive studying.

Does that mean that Monbiot is completely wrong on this issue? Not necessarily, because the ‘hothousing’ of some children could easily be concealed within the overall picture. There’s a parallel here to the statistics on childhood obesity, which conceal the fact that some kids are underweight.

And yet one must beware of focusing on one extreme at the expense of the opposite extreme – especially when the latter presents the bigger challenge. In this country, many more children are harmed by being overweight than underweight – and I believe that many more children are harmed by the absence of goals and boundaries than by being pushed too hard.

In these liberal times, there’s an appetite for stories of conservatism gone wrong, of ‘the vigorous virtues’ taken too far. But, for the least advantaged children the problem is too little aspiration, not too much of it.

23 comments for: The dark side of aspiration – a response to George Monbiot

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