Children understand more than adults. Once their education is over we will have succeeded in making them as superficial as we adults have become. The suspect drive to make knowledge and research 'more relevant' and to criticise it for not containing those journalistic features is a view nicely encapsulated in Blue Labour's insistence that the humanities must have instrumental utility to society and make money for the business sector in it directly. That political ideology continues under all current UK governments, so great is the power of the business lobbies over governments in the modern world.
That cliché, namely the implicit dogma of a hegemonic group's sense of its own indispensable relevance, represents the mind's institutionalised thinking, hoping to win favours from business, and more widely support a rampant consumer culture. We have become deeply committed to relations of dependency with the for-profit sector. The latter has become so powerful that it is a sign of being normal to share with others that one is 'going shopping'. Shopping is the new normal. It is a mainstream form of social cohesion through commerce.
That privatisation of 'leisure' will soon be followed by a public sector where the public is the sector buying their 'goods', including spaces to undertake outdoor sports, from private owners. Shopping, not mountain walking or sitting chatting freely in face-to-face conversations without any definite goal, drives the UK economy so how can we ever reject it such is the depth of our economic commitment to transitory consumption? It is truly amazing how often one hears that phrase 'going shopping', or 'shopping' and leads the anoraks amongst us to wonder whether people's homes are a secret tardis which have an infinitely flexible space to fill with 'stuff'. The rapid growth of charity shops suggests that even the tardis is limited.
Children learn how to fill this tardis. They too become obsessed with shopping, the new opiate of the people. Children learn to base their self-esteem, as adults do, on what they shop for and of course the 'bargains' achieved. It beggars belief that as the dominant political culture we then take on the role of telling others how to live in distant places.
Schools and other places of education are being told to calibrate all that they develop in terms of educational resources, including how they speak to communicate them, in business-friendly terms. This right-leaning political position is a strand of neo-liberalism which privileges competition and corporate markets whose rationale lies in a perpetual desire to boost the bottom line, above all else.
Through seeking to turn educational cultures into capitalist business cultures we find a proliferation of advertisement, almost as an end in itself. The project to sell carries with it the project of self-promotion and reputation management. That 'lifestyle' to survive and be plausible can only succeed through strategic deception. As Machiavelli in 'The Prince' advised his powerful patrons, to tell lies is a necessary evil. Deception enables the ambitious individual to maintain power. While ultimately hollow, that doctrine has filtered down into the heart of education systems, where a culture of complicity rides roughshod over authenticity and truth-telling.
Social theorists remind us that in order to appreciate why some things become important, why other things are not promoted, we must look carefully at dominant zeitgeist. The dominant thinking is bureaucratic suffused by a passion for defining worth or value only in terms of what can be measured through the tools of capitalism. Relevance frames those tools. It is convenient that it happens to rule out putative subversive ideas and lifestyles. In being excluded by its narrow and deeply prescriptive criteria alternatives, differences are automatically deemed not worth support. To achieve support one must admit defeat by transforming one's vision into one where it has the real potential to generate income. The success of the reality TV shows such as 'Dragon’s Den' and 'The Apprentice' testify the extent to which we have become imposters to decent values.
In John Wyndham’s 1957 science fiction novel 'The Outward Urge', an astronaut develops the delusion that his colleague is a Martian. Known as the Capgas delusion, this is a misidentification syndrome named after Joseph Capgas (1873-1950), a French psychiatrist. The fact is that adults are now experiencing just such a delusion. They are incapable of finding that out because their systems prevent listening to the voice of the child who has yet to develop this pathology. But we are well on our way to ensuring that children are suitably educated in order that they misperceive education and value.
That misidentification is conjured through the language of advertising being used to promote school and higher education. In schools we find the linguistic framing of knowledge as the 'Curriculum for Excellence'. Other formulations designed to mould a corporate intellect include 'Schools of Ambition'. Is there any school where teachers are promoting 'Schools of No Ambition'? But maybe we are being compelled through the deceptions foisted upon us by clever linguistics to blame ourselves as we compare what we do with those 'ambitious' schools.
Teachers in the 'Schools of No Ambition' might be thought to teach about growing your own, and never doing things that exploit others, even if it is legal to do so, and that many adults do not shy away from those practices, using people as a means to secure personal advancement. But the truth here is behind the meaning of the concept of ambition itself. The semantic of ambition does not seek to conjure tropes of critical thinking and challenge to any existing status quo. Instead it amounts to an acceptance of those for-profit ideologies into which the child must, to use Althusser's terminology 'interpellate', namely identify. It then follows their educational trajectory becomes synonymous with training to be a successful business man or woman. As in most things the sooner that process is running the less likely that it will encounter resistance.
These US discourses emphasise relevance exclusively, and one where global capitalism is the privileged underlying idea of relevance despite its recent systematic and massive failings. It is as though we adults are so far gone that the depth of our Capga delusion is all embracing and stops us from even imagining other ways of doing things.
The death of depth comes about as a result of the profound trends to which I allude. In relation to books it means that reading is itself a dying art form. I admit skim reading exists and is the main style of reading engagement today. Those who seek to truly deep read will face massive barriers. Of course as in all things the very affluent have the luxury of resources to design their lives differently, if they so desire. But for the rest of us, the majority, the way in which time is now structured and defined for particular tasks, especially those involving formal education, means that reading will inevitably be superficial.
Deep reading is a dying cultural activity. It stands in a profound opposition to 'shopping' with its immediate and self-promoting gratifications. Deep reading is the new subversive because is holds the potential for the individual to escape and live alternative imaginings. I suspect the solitary reader will very soon become conceptualised as an 'oddball', and akin to life in a dystopian science fiction novel, will be arrested if found spending too long 'reading', even if the space of a street corner is not being used.
It's odd the way that things have turned out for us. Some argue we have all become middle class, more affluent and less status-conscious. But the more valid analysis is that we have all become more working class, in the most pejorative sense. We have ceased to value deep reading and instead that previously intellectual and often political engagement has become enveloped and normalised into a type of consumer culture. Once this hits the children it will be too late for them to know that it was coming their historically innocent way. Consumer culture will have nothing to fear from new generations. They will have been highly prepared to play their tardis-completing life function.
Chris Holligan is an academic, and formally an English school teacher. He writes here in a personal capacity