Intelligence? Intellectual courage? You won't hear that from anyone in TV

Some of the most exclusivist people I know are populists: they'll kill to prevent the dissemination of anything else
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The Independent Online

Headmasters of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but the nation's disregard. And stand up straight while I'm talking to you! Yes, you, Dr Arnold. And I'd be grateful if A S Neill would put that frog back in his pocket. Today's lesson, headmasters - if you would be so good as to grant me your concentration - is taken from Ecclesiasticus, Chapter 44: "Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us," and will be read by Wackford Squeers, Principal of Dotheboys Hall.

Headmasters of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but the nation's disregard. And stand up straight while I'm talking to you! Yes, you, Dr Arnold. And I'd be grateful if A S Neill would put that frog back in his pocket. Today's lesson, headmasters - if you would be so good as to grant me your concentration - is taken from Ecclesiasticus, Chapter 44: "Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us," and will be read by Wackford Squeers, Principal of Dotheboys Hall.

"Let us now praise famous men ... such as did bear rule in their kingdoms, men renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding ... wise and eloquent in their instructions..."

Myself I have never encountered a headmaster wise and eloquent in his instructions. The last headmaster I had as a schoolboy threatened to strip me of my prefectship for singing "Nessun Dorma" in the library. "You know the rules about silence in the library, Jacobson." "Yes, sir, but this was opera, sir." "I don't care what it was. It could have been Puccini for all I care." "It was Puccini, sir." "And you think that makes a difference, do you?" "Yes, sir, I think Puccini is more suitable for a library than Elvis Presley, sir." "I decide what's suitable for a library, Jacobson." "Yes, sir." "And if you think you can tell me that imitating Puccini singing 'Nessun Dorma' is more suitable for a library than imitating Elvis Presley singing 'Nessun Dorma', you are making a big mistake." "Actually it wasn't Puccini I was imitating, sir. Puccini wrote the opera. He didn't sing it." "So who were you imitating - Gracie Fields?" "No sir, Jussi Bjorling, sir." Whereupon, because he thought I'd made up the name Jussi Bjorling to humiliate him, he stripped me of my prefectship.

The headmasters I worked for during my brief and unfortunate forays into supply teaching were no better. One had been in the job for so long he called everybody boys, without regard to the gender of the child he was speaking to, or the age or gender of the teacher or the parent. Not so bad for me, a 22-year-old stripling, but for Miss Horsfall, aged 59 and head of chemistry, being addressed as "Boy" was galling. The other, nominally in charge of a crumbling Victorian school in Bethnal Green where the children were routinely handcuffed together at school assembly to prevent them from handcuffing the staff, was never seen in the six months I taught there. According to the school caretaker, who had never seen him either, he arrived at five in the morning, so as to escape notice, made his way to his attic office at the top of the building, and left at nine at night. It's possible, for all I can vouch to the contrary, that he'd been dead at his desk for six months. That's assuming he'd existed in the first place.

But all that's of no consequence. The odd rotten headmaster doesn't mean you have to throw away the bunch. I might just have been unlucky, attracting bad headmasters in the same way that supermodels attract bad husbands. Besides, we are speaking of the idea of headmaster, headmaster conceived philosophically, rather than headmaster as he actually is. And without the headmaster so conceived, the ideal heavenly headmaster to which all sublunary headmasters aspire, I don't believe a civilised community can survive.

The astute reader will already have guessed that we are pricked into defending headmasters by something Mark Thompson, the BBC director general, said in an interview with this paper last week. Explaining why he had changed his mind about the BBC's commissioning Fame Academy - first thinking that it shouldn't have, and then realising it was valid because it was focused on talent (so what did he originally think it was focused on - hermeneutics?) - Mr Thompson seized the opportunity to parade his politics: "You have to be very, very careful about standing there like a headmaster saying we're not not going to have anything like this. I try not to be prejudiced about any particular genre."

I have long given up expecting to hear anything either intelligent or intellectually courageous from anyone in television, particularly from anyone at Channel 4 or the BBC, and Mr Thompson, having laid waste to the one, now presides over the other. But even by broadcasting's prevailing standards of egalitarian vacuousness, this is scraping the barrel. Careful not to be "standing there like a headmaster" indeed! If you are going to be uncomfortable standing there like a headmaster then how are you going to feel standing there like a director general, which isn't, or oughtn't, to be very different, the odious taint of authority sticking as much to the second job description as to the first? A headmaster heads, a director directs, and what kind of direction does that man offer who is afraid to say "We are not going to have anything like this"?

In fact, behind the pretence of open-mindedness the most ruthless selection is afoot. Try selling Mr Thompson a 20-part series on the status of the proposition in Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and you'll quickly come to the end of his careful avoidance of prejudice in the matter of any particular genre.

Non-judgementalism is always a lie. Let it be practised no matter how conscientiously in the name of what is popular; you can be sure it will fall into a lethargy around what isn't. Some of the most exclusivist people I know are populists: they will kill to prevent the dissemination of anything else.

That they are all tyrants of non-tyranny in television should not surprise us. It is the temper of the times. Crappy books appear on the school syllabus and crappy food appears in the school canteen, because we hold it to be invasive to attempt to improve our children's taste. Gone, our praise for those "famous men" who give counsel by their understanding, and who are wise and eloquent in their instructions.

Instructions? How dare they!

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