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Podium: British culture is dumbing down

From a talk by the co-publisher of `LM' magazine, given at the Edinburgh Books Festival
IT WOULD seem to be a truism to suggest that British culture is dumbing down, as plenty of examples seem to prove the point. In the print media personal musings and human interest stories take precedence over hard facts and analysis. Voyeuristic fly-on-the-wall real-life soaps and Diana-style confessional interviews have all but replaced serious documentary- making.

Here at the Edinburgh Festival there is a hint of the kind of modernised Shakespeare currently being commissioned for television: OJ/Othello, the African Julius Caesar (Third World dictators - you get the picture), Shakespeare's Mums (I kid you not). Academic courses in universities are being marginalised in favour of vocational courses and sexy subjects such as film studies. So what is going on?

What all these things have in common is an avowed intention of becoming more relevant and accessible: to newspaper readers, young TV audiences and students. Relevant and accessible they may well be. But I am concerned that this present day preoccupation with chasing the "relevant" is the very thing that leads to dumbing-down.

Take the example of education, about which, as a former English teacher, I feel passionately. Confining your teaching to what is relevant to the average teenager would make filling in DHSS forms a more likely subject on the curriculum than King Lear. If forced to teach Lear, teachers dominated by the notion of relevance always look for contemporary parallels - leading to essays on homelessness, community care and the need to update the monarchy. My principal objections to this trend are best illustrated in the field of literature.

The attempt to invest authors with a spurious degree of Nineties relevance in fact ignores one of the main reasons for reading literature in the first place: its beneficial effect on the human imagination. A reluctance to broaden the imagination has ramifications not only for the scope of fictional writing, but also for the readers' ability to envisage their capacity to be transformed. The act of reading elicits a degree of imaginative effort that can only be stultified by the pressure to point out crass contemporary associations. Today however, educators often opt for texts that describe lives similar to those of the reader. There was great excitement in the nation's staffrooms at the thought of adding Trainspotting to the curriculum: great; the kids would get it.

The notion that what counts is how easily pupils will immediately grasp a text betrays a patronising assumption: that the audience is incapable of stretching itself beyond its present situation and getting to grips with iambic pentameter or international news. Once this assumption has been made, it rapidly becomes self-fulfilling, as no challenge is posed to people's intellectual horizons. It assumes that the mass of people will never be able to "get it" - and it is so much easier to accommodate down than to wise people up. The obsession with making culture relevant so as to make it accessible ironically gives less access to profound ideas and works of great art, instead selling pulp fiction as an available substitute.

Finally, the justification for many of the dumber aspects in society today is that they are giving the people what they want. In despair journalists note higher viewing figures for Kilroy than for Newsnight, Oasis selling better than opera. So maybe it's the audience's fault. However, what this attitude really reflects is a profound loss of nerve among educators, cultural curators and the media. What of their responsibility?

As a teacher I knew that initially I was less popular than colleagues who played safe with modern "relevant" fiction while I taught Henry IV Part 1. But my job was not to entertain and win Brownie points for my street cred, but to take my pupils into new worlds that required rigour, study, research and concentration. By the end of the course, these young people were often bored by yet another rendition of a rites-of-passage novel or a poem about child abuse, and preferred the challenge of a sonnet.

If those in a position of authority continue to refuse to take the initiative and accommodate to the obvious attractions of pandering to the lowest common denominator, we are in trouble. Ask any class of 17-year-olds to choose between Chaucer and Bridget Jones's Diary, and they go for the latter. But when teachers look to students for relevance, and students have nothing profound to look to teachers for, the tendency is towards mind-numbing stasis. The tyranny of relevance can lead only to a culture of Teletubbies for adults.