Jemima Lewis: Stop trampling on young people's dreams

It is true that modern children are strikingly materialistic, but we can hardly blame them

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Why should it matter if children just want to be famous? A new survey by the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) has provoked much tutting because it states the obvious: teenagers admire celebrities.

Fifty-six per cent of the 16-19-year olds surveyed said that becoming a celebrity was a good route to money and success. Twenty-six per cent said their main reason for wanting to be famous was to prove other people wrong. One in six felt quietly confident that they would find success through celebrity, and more than one in 10 said they would leave education or training if they got the chance to be on television.

What a sensible bunch they are. At least one in 10 children isn't cut out for academia anyway: why shouldn't they seize the opportunity to do something fun, profitable and good for the ego? But the killjoys of the LSC are having none of it. Fame for its own sake, they caution, offers little by way of job security. "If making money is the reason a young person wants to become famous, then by staying on in education or training they can significantly increase their earning power by gaining these essential qualifications." Inspirational words indeed.

The odds of hitting the big time through reality TV are, admittedly, poor: around 30 million to one, which makes it rather less likely than winning the National Lottery. But the chances of becoming an astronaut are also slim. Since when did childhood aspirations have to be realistic?

One of the most loathsome characteristics of school career advisers is the relish they take in bringing children down a peg or two. Constance Briscoe, one of Britain's first black female judges, has just published an autobiography describing her struggle to escape from a violently abusive home life. It was her impossible aspirations that kept her sane.

After watching a TV drama called Crown Court, and being deeply impressed by the wigs and gowns, she resolved to be a barrister. "But when I went to see the careers teacher at school about it," recalls Briscoe, "she was not encouraging. Had I thought about Boots the Chemist?"

Later, when the school organised an educational trip to Knightsbridge Crown Court, Briscoe buttonholed a young lawyer - later to become Michael Mansfield QC - for career advice. On the way home, she was ticked off for being too forward. "As for being a barrister," opined her teacher, "it is good to have dreams, but they have to be realistic. Dream about something you can achieve."

Statistically speaking, the teacher had a point. Girls from Briscoe's background - savagely beaten by a psychopathic mother, molested by an illiterate step-father, consigned to a mediocre secondary modern because her parents didn't want her getting ideas above her station - rarely make it to the top. But Briscoe did (with the help of one Michael Mansfield QC) and I'm sure it is a great satisfaction to her to have, as the teenagers would put it, "proved other people wrong".

Wanting to be famous is a more problematic career goal because it is so amorphous. How, worry the grown-ups, will Little Timmy go about it? Is there some kind of work experience he could do? Once upon a time - even within our lifetime - being famous was not a career at all, but a side effect of being good at something. Socrates called it "the perfume of noble deeds". Of course, he never saw Celebrity Big Brother.

The invention of reality TV has changed the nature of fame. It has turned ordinary people into celebrities, and made celebrities seem ordinary. This is one of the conceits of the current Celebrity Big Brother: one of the contestants is a promotions girl from Essex pretending to be famous, and none of her housemates had noticed the difference. In any case, by the time they get out she will be a celebrity in her own right. "Famous for being famous" used to be an insult: now it's just another branch of the entertainment business.

The unspoken fear behind the LSC report is that teenagers are aspiring after the wrong kind of fame, and for the wrong reasons. They want to get rich with a minimum of effort, and think they can achieve this by taking part in a televised orgy in a hot tub. It is true that modern children are strikingly materialistic (in a recent survey of under-10s, money topped the list of the best things in the world, closely followed by pets), but we can hardly blame them for that. They have been brought up in a culture that worships money, and that rewards celebrities far more lavishly than brain surgeons or barristers.

Yet somehow, they have clung to some residual good sense. The teenagers in the LSC survey never specified that they wanted to be on reality TV. On the contrary, when asked whom they aspired to be like, they picked people whose fame is firmly rooted in talent or hard work: Tony Blair, J K Rowling, Stephen Hawking, David Attenborough. Reality TV may have whetted their appetite for fame, but it has not curtailed the scope of their dreams - and neither should we.

jemima_lewis@dennis.co.uk

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