Ideas for Scotland
No 7

The proper use of hot air

Alison Prince

When the banking disaster struck, some of us said we had reached the end of a corrupt epoch and must seek a radical change. But the bulk of the public ran barking after the offered scapegoats of bad Sir Fred and a duck-house, then returned to its usual state of grumbling confusion. No panic. Job done – spin had won.
     Can this be the same public that bred the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Jarrow marchers? No doubt there were many, then as now, who would not risk protest, but it does seem that a push towards democracy has happened across the centuries. And those pushing tended to be people who had got themselves an education. Learning was closely connected with the power of self-expression, and they knew it. The early 20th-century saw the setting-up of institutes such as the WEA, and as late as the close of world war two, the army was educating its squaddies for the future they expected to inherit. So what happened?
Tertiary education is now commonplace, but the power of self-expression is much reduced. As an editor I know how few people under 50 can deploy effective written English, and I spend a lot of time writing books for teenagers with a reading age of six. It is not the teachers' fault. Many of them feel trapped in a system that prevents them from doing the job as they would like to. Schools are judged, like businesses, on records of measurable success. Educational administrators have grabbed enthusiastically at the notion of the 'business model'. And yet, the people we recognise as 'well-educated' tend to be those who also seem 'civilised' and 'cultured'.
     Are these attributes the product of privilege? Too often, yes, but people from all backgrounds have long found through study how, for instance, history connects closely with their own hopes and anger. It can usefully show precisely why the proposed destruction of old buildings in Pitlochry and the Union Terrace gardens in Aberdeen will be vandalism. Any person who is fluent and assured can convey his or her considered opinions and be listened to, even if disagreed with. Authority is not the preserve of the rich – that's a blown illusion, and it was never wholly accepted in Scotland anyway. But it's hard to develop the skills of full and coherent expression, particularly if your school isn't interested in that.
     Expressive abilities are of course hard to evaluate. Where an educational system is based on statistical success, it means you don't teach anything that can’t be marked. I found this out the hard way as a tutor in creative writing at Jordanhill College. Nobody had thought to validate creative writing as part of the B Ed, so the only students signing up for it were a few disenchanted post-grads.
     And yet, the urge to communicate is stronger than ever. The young tend to have a mobile permanently clamped to the ear. Texting, tweeting and fiddling about on Facebook are ever more compulsive. Older persons tend to see this torrent of chat as worthless hot air, blown off like any other bodily gas, and maybe it is. And yet, look at the potency of hot air in a steam engine. Channelled into a constructive form, human hot air can be equally powerful – but only for those who have learned how to express what they think and feel.
Both physically and conceptually, hot air is our essence. It is the breath that carries our dreams and the gentle power of rhymes and jingles learned by babies, with tickle-you-under-there for laughter, along with the growth of a sense of cadence and rhythm. Such early communication confirms the wonder of being a self, and it starts the idea of making new patterns out of one’s own thoughts and feelings. Psychologists agree about the importance of this pattern-making, but current educational theorists ignore it, or in many cases, fear it. The slick concept of education as a linear function is far more seductive. Yes/no. Tick/cross. Right/wrong.
     So I offer this idea: we must ditch the binary methodology and establish a constructive, creative approach to education. Now that all of us, children included, have access to boundless knowledge at the click of a mouse, fact-learning per se is a waste of time. What matters is how to use the ocean of information surrounding us. The skill we most need is effective deployment of our personal 'hot air'. I'm not talking anarchy – quite the reverse. An internalised discipline of one's life-force is essential, both for effectiveness and stability. Too often, discipline concentrates on the suppression of hot air, and the natural head of steam blows off in the escape offered by booze, drugs and rowdyism. Meanwhile, the spin doctors and ad-men tighten their perverted grip on creative thought, and the resulting public cynicism reduces democracy to a meaningless media circus. There is no time to waste.

Alison Prince is an author and editor in Arran


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