Phlip Hensher: Students who think they can do no wrong

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The student was in his third semester at university. He hadn't turned up to half the seminars he was supposed to and I hadn't seen his face more than once or twice at the compulsory lectures. Now he had made an outraged appointment to see me to ask why I'd given his end-of-module assignment a third.

I explained that it was full of mistakes in language, without any kind of structure, and showed no real signs of planning, thought, or revision. I had been generous, I thought, in not failing it altogether. He looked at me, muttered "Unbelievable," three times, and then made his case. "But that," he said, "is just your opinion."

There may be many problems evident with students and pupils in the education system today, but one of them is certainly not self-esteem.

Self-esteem, so trailed in the wider culture, seems to have taken the place of estimation in importance. It genuinely didn't seem at all funny to my student that he should consider his own valuation of himself as much more important than what older, more distinguished and more experienced people thought of his efforts. So long as he admired himself – and no-one has ever explained how "self-esteem" differs from amour-propre – all would be well.

Carol Craig, a distinguished child psychologist, warned a headteachers' conference at the weekend that the encouragement of self-esteem as a primary aim of education was wreaking a terrible toll on children's achievement. Schools which have started teaching "social and emotional skills" might be well-intentioned, but inevitably education can't avoid making children feel bad from time to time.

I mean, if they fail an exam, there's not a lot of point in concealing the fact. It is certainly possible to turn failure into a positive by explaining to a student how they could improve, but a blow to self-esteem seems inevitable, and not necessarily a bad thing.

Absurd stories springing from a juvenile with an inexplicably shored-up self-esteem abound. At the same conference of the Association of School and College Leaders, the headteacher of Kilmarnock Academy told a story of a student who, shown an error in a calculation, replied without joking: "Thank you, but I prefer it my way."

We like to think these curious events arise from some vaguely envisaged Californian psychobabble. Perhaps that does play a role. But perhaps a more crucial factor is the way market forces are falsely factored into education. There is an entirely deluded concept, among students and some educators, that students are in some sense "customers". Students or their parents pay fees, directly or through government agencies, to the institution. In exchange, they are entitled to individual attention, feedback, access to resources, and so on.

Where the service-industry model breaks down is at the point where you have to consider that one of the things they might be entitled to is to a third-class degree, no GCSEs, or total failure. Taught to regard themselves as "customers", students and their parents can grow annoyed at this. After all, if you paid your money to a supermarket, and they refused to give you any goods or return the money, you might grow a little irate.

The truth is that if there are customers in the system, they are not the students, but the employers who will acquire the system's products. The education industry spends a great deal of time trying to find out what students think of their experience, but almost none finding out what the employers think of the quality of the end product. No wonder students believe their opinion of their own achievements of considerable importance and interest.

Comedy halfwits are already anachronisms

One of Catherine Tate's straight men and the fat unfunny one from The History Boys have been given their own sketch show on BBC3, called Horne And Corden. In it, they present a war reporter who talks in a stereotypically gay manner. That's the joke. At the same time on ITV, Al Murray's equally lamentable sketch show includes a Nazi in a pink uniform, who wheels out a string of camp and obscene innuendo, flapping his wrist. That's the joke, too.

I'm not offended, exactly, and I think there's too much flaunted offence around these days, but the whole thing does seem remarkably half-witted, as well as evidence of complete talentlessness. Had Al Murray forgotten, or never knew, that the Nazis sent tens of thousands of gay people to their deaths in concentration camps, and that, unlike other victims of Nazi persecution, surviving gay victims were not eligible for compensation after the war?

Do Horne and Corden really believe that a gay war reporter is so unlikely an idea that we would all laugh at it? Well, times move on, and I rather think that in 10 years, we will be looking at these programmes with the same kind of wonderment with which we now look at Love Thy Neighbour.

Decency: the answer is blowing in the wind

If you saw £400 blowing around in the wind, what would you do? A group of randomly assembled people in Alresford in Hampshire gained their town a reputation for honesty when this happened; they gathered it up and then handed it in at the police station. The key fact here may be that they were in a group. Few people can resist the temptation to behave well in the company of strangers.

The case of Kitty Genovese, who was murdered in 1964 in the plain view of 38 separate witnesses, none of whom did anything to intervene, has encouraged psychologists to think that in a group, selfless action always tends to devolve upon someone else. Perhaps they might like to examine the Alresford Incident, where selfishness went as far as picking up someone else's money, but not as far as sacrificing the good opinion of a stranger in pocketing it. Or perhaps it was the calculation that they would walk away with no more than £50 each. At what financial point does a group of strangers coagulate voluntarily? Four thousand pounds? Forty thousand? There must be a rational answer.

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