Education: Who is the greatest of them all?

What happened when a teacher asked his pupils to name someone truly 'great' should worry us all
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I was covering a class of 12-year-olds for an absent colleague. By some fluke I hadn't taught or covered them before, so there were no particular expectations on either side. It was a registration period when one does "useful" personal and social education tasks.

With nothing prepared I had to improvise on an idea I last tried with a similar group about 15 years ago. I asked the class to write down, quite privately, on a scrap of paper, the name of someone, living or dead, British or foreign, whom they thought to be truly great - so renowned that everyone in the class was likely to have heard of him/her. After that they were to write one line about why this person was great and why the student would like to become like them. I then invited each student to write the chosen name on a grid on the blackboard so we could discuss the different kinds of greatness and consider the talents and qualities involved.

Fifteen years ago we had almost as many different names as there were individuals in the class. They ranged, as I recall, from current stars of sport and music through to scientists, writers, human rights campaigners, and spiritual leaders; Gandhi, Guru Nanak, Shakespeare, Marie Curie, Einstein and Martin Luther King all appeared in the list of perceived "greats".

Today the total list was much shorter - about 12 names only, all alive, all British or American, all footballers, pop or soap stars.

Even more worrying was the linguistic poverty of one girl who at first objected to giving a name because she had chosen the name of the boy she "fancied" and that to reveal who she thought was "great" was too embarrassing. After explaining again what I meant by "great" she settled for the name of a pop group of boys.

Several thoughts struck me. Why has there been such a change over this period of time? Do children not know about achievements of the past? Do they have no awareness of people working in science, medicine, space exploration and so on? Do they not know about individuals in the news, outside sport and pop? Or is there simply a culture trap which prevents them from admitting to such knowledge?

Such matters aside for the moment, what did the youngsters find to admire in members of the Spice Girls, David Beckham (this was prior to the World Cup; you can bet his name wouldn't be there now) and Hollywood soap starlets? There was unanimous agreement that these people were admired because they were attractive and rich. As to what their talents were and why the students would like to be like them, the answer was also because they were attractive and rich. There was no suggestion of skill or ability.

I am talking about children in a school where academic achievements are very good and the social mix almost exactly a microcosm of English society. Most homes are affluent and aspirations are reasonably high.

This set me wondering why there should be this lack of general knowledge about one's own culture and history. After all, hasn't there been a national curriculum in place, allegedly to inculcate just such ideas? It also seemed alarming that there were no individual, idiosyncratic choices.

Further talk with the children revealed that very few really had any knowledge of names such as Marie Curie, the Wright Brothers, Yuri Gargarin, Neil Armstrong or other names one might expect to be part of the language.

How was it that previous generations did have a smattering of such thinking - and I don't think that is a nostalgic, naive thing to assume. It couldn't all have come from The Boys' Big Wonder Book of Famous Names or the over- feted Children's Hour on the Home Service. But I do conclude that children now do read less widely. Comparing my records of children's individual reading 15 years ago with the present day, there is a slimming down of range, though quantity has not fallen as much as some claim.

Parental discussion and reading too, I suspect, has declined. The demanding lives of busy middle class parents with their own pursuits, denies much family discussion. Satellite TV watching is a major occupation for youngsters - cartoons before and after school and films at night. Time on computer games and the decline of social activities for young people, must have taken their toll on the swapping of ideas.

Now, don't get me wrong: I am not bemoaning the passing of an illusory golden age or trying to put the clock back. Whatever it is, has arrived. We have to live with it. Family habits and the commercial world which spawns them won't change and nor will cable TV disappear.

But schools can make a difference. We can consciously offer students the chance to see beyond the commercial culture which intrudes into every pore of their potential mental being. Schools can offer the chance to open minds through visits, activities, discussion and projects that take children beyond the curriculum and from the pap those outside school offer them.

Given a free choice about presenting a talk on a topic of personal passions, children today opt for the safe, predictable and media-friendly topic of the moment. It would be refreshing to have again the students who, 15 years ago, talked about the thickening qualities of onion in Sri Lankan cooking, maggot-breeding, or the origins of R&B.

We can assert the value of qualities other than wealth and beauty. We can introduce a perspective on their own lives, which is currently so narrow as seeking to be rich and famous. In presenting the passions and endeavours of others we can allow young people to reassert for themselves the inner interests which have been brow-beaten by a pervasive, unifying culture which separates in contest, rather than draws together in interest.

Who is, or was,

the greatest...

It's not as bad as it seems. This group of Bedfordshire children had a better idea of greatness:

Sophie, 12: Diana, Princess of Wales - "She helped a lot of people when she was alive. She took a lot of risks. She was a very special person."

Marcus, 14: Winston Churchill - "The things he did in the War were very great."

Michael, 12: Albert Einstein - "Because he came up with the theory of relativity and had a brilliant mind."

Verity, 12: Martin Luther King - "He stood for what he thought was right."

David,11: Robert the Bruce - "Because he gave Scotland freedom."

Leon, 12: Diana, Princess of Wales - "She was always visiting people who needed help and did a lot towards banning landmines."

Lucy, 14: Martin Luther King - "Because he never gave up."