Frank Furedi

Sociologist, commentator and author of Culture of Fear, Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone?, Paranoid Parenting, Therapy Culture, and On Tolerance: In Defence of Moral Independence.
 
       
 

Review: Frank Furedi’s ‘First World War - Still No End In Sight’
This isn't another example of Paxman-like, shouty revisionism about the First World War, but a brilliant essay in the history of ideas, and in the decline of ideas as a shared currency.

At first glance, Furedi’s argument seems extremely well-trodden.

The idea that the Great War ended in 1945 rather than 1918 was clearly enough stated in Maréchal Foch’s mournful warning that the Armistice was merely a 20-year ceasefire. There’s nothing particularly new, either, in the notion that two world conflicts simply segued into Cold War. And it’s nearly 40 years since Paul Fussell in The Great War And Modern Memory showed that the Western Front has become the paradigm of paradigms, the vast collective trauma that shaped the 20th century.

So what’s new? Well, Frank Furedi is an able controversialist, but also a brilliant historical sociologist, and it’s the latter role that predominates here. This isn’t another example of Paxman-like, shouty revisionism about the First World War, but a brilliant essay in the history of ideas, and in the decline of ideas as a shared currency. Furedi makes clear that the war was not just about sovereignty, empire, markets or even militarism, but was a war between cultures which continues today in what we call the Culture Wars. He rather scoots past the obvious point that the Great War, like its successor, should probably be described in the plural, as a concurrent series of conflicts with global implications, rather than a “world war”; and also that nationalism, demonised in just about every schoolbook as one of the “causes” of the First World War, was instead the most dangerous outcome of Versailles.

He does state, though, that the real trauma of the war was what happened after it, rather than what happened at Passchendaele, and he makes clear that the paradigmatic experiences tracked by Fussell were the result of what might be called a cultured exaggeration by an intellectual elite which was losing its “natural” (i.e. post-Enlightenment) role and adopting a tragic and apocalyptic view of life instead.

Furedi’s argument hinges on three main concepts, usefully emboldened in the text. The first is “existential insecurity”, which he sees as extending throughout Western society. The second is “exhaustion”, which is more than battle-weariness and closer to the “end of everything” theses that have fuelled cultural studies since the oil crisis in the 1970s. The last is an “intellectual crisis experience by Western capitalism ... recast as the crisis of the intellectual”.

He could have gone further in identifying the weirdness of the inter-war years, which saw the rise not just of fascism and fortress Bolshevism and Freud, but also of table-rapping and - much more influential than Einstein - JW Dunne’s Brief Experiment With Time, a book that could only have come out of a seriously messed-up society. Furedi points out the oddity of a political landscape in which liberal (actually, neo-liberal) ideas have little or no foundational logic and in which right-wing ideas are criminalised and driven to the “lunatic fringe”, masking the obvious point that while the Western democracies play at being liberal and democratic, they function according to a deeply conservative reliance on the market and on government as gendarmerie.

The emergence of apathy, convergence (“they’re all the same”), political passivity and pragmatism are well covered, as is the fate of capitalism, as both idea and practice. Somewhere in the disconnect between ideologies and actual experience, we live our confused lives.

In fact, there’s too much in this remarkable book to summarise. The text is marred by shaky proof-reading but despite the avoidance of anecdote and historical colour, it’s a riveting read and probably the one essential read of this centenary year.

The impression is of a culture shell-shocked, PTSD on a historical scale. And as Furedi concludes his narrative with 9/11, the “War against Terror”, it’s hard not to think of Chou En Lai’s overquoted response when asked about the French Revolution. The real impact of the First World War? Too soon to tell.

First published by The Herald, 8 February 2014

How the west was lost: Frank Furedi’s First World War
The Great War’s greatest legacy is uncertainty and a never-ending search for meaning. Review by Richard Overy.

First World War: Still No End in Sight. Frank Furedi. Bloomsbury, 288pp, £18.99

A century ago, the First World War tore apart western claims that peace and progress were the fruits of its civilisation. We are still suffering from the fallout of the loss of certainty and cultural self-belief that the war provoked. That, in a nutshell, is the thesis of Frank Furedi’s provocative assessment of the current state of the west, as it struggles to find a set of agreed values, even a common vocabulary, to overcome the loss of ideology and the fragmentation of culture.

Although it is not Furedi’s main purpose, his argument also helps to explain the ambiguity behind current plans to mark the anniversary, which cannot be an uncontroversial celebration or commemoration, because it must confront awkward issues about pacifism and anti-war sentiment both at the time and since.

Ever since 1914, claims Furedi, the west has faced a “perpetual war in search of meaning”. The efforts to discover meaning, particularly the rise of ideologies that violently insisted on just one common set of values, proved self-defeating. Fascism and the far right were entirely deflated by the Second World War (though they are more alive in modern-day Europe and the US than Furedi realises); the communist enterprise fizzled out in 1989 when even the leadership realised that there was no value left in the parroted slogans of Leninism

What is striking, Furedi argues, is that even the more benign ideological movements of the past century, from Keynesianism to social democracy, have lost their power to inspire. Indeed, ever since the First World War the west has been drifting towards a position where culture wars cancel out any certainties and beliefs, and leave people cynically unprepared to accept anything at face value. For proof, he cites an American opinion poll that found at least a third of respondents willing to agree that 9/11 was the result of a government conspiracy.

Furedi examines the search for meaning across the whole 20th century. Wars, he argues, are an important way of cementing at least a temporary sense of meaning, since victory in the world wars and cold war was seen as an important end in itself. Wars can also give definite, if brief, endorsement of a nominally shared culture, whether that is the German pursuit of a new Germanic civilisation to protect its cultural values (perhaps the greatest irony of all for a state bent on genocide), or the vague Anglo-American pursuit of a fresh democratic start in 1945 after dropping millions of tons of bombs on the very peoples they hoped to liberate. The cold war was even more important as a source of proxy meaning, since it provided the west with an instant enemy and fuelled the assumption that anything the Soviet bloc did must by definition be the opposite of what the west stood for.

Furedi sees the attempt to find certainty in war, in the most violent of centuries, as simply a postponement of a wider crisis of meaning and identity for the west. Moreover, the current war on terror has shown the limits of the use of war as an instrument to summon up a shared cultural identity. The war on terror divides communities, provokes internal tensions and is not demonstrably about preserving “our way of life”, even if a common agreement could be found about what that is.

He highlights the efforts to find a language to mask the reality of this war by shifting the acronyms from Bush’s GWOT (global war on terrorism) to Obama’s OCO (overseas contingency operation). The war on terror paradoxically needs its own terror to function effectively, whether that is concentration camps at Guantanamo Bay or drone strikes on Pakistani villages. This is a war devoid of real meaning, a long war with no end in sight, mimicking the crisis that Furedi believes the First World War opened up a century ago.

The end of the real wars in 1989, with the collapse of communism, allowed the perennial culture wars of the west to take centre stage. In the absence of ideologies in their earlier 20th-century sense, the west has faced a crisis of self-belief and authority. Culture clashes expose the absence of any consensual agreement about the values that animate modern western societies, while the shift from a “way of life” to the current obsession with individual “lifestyles” is evidence, Furedi believes, of a flight from politics and old-fashioned civic culture. Belief in progress, economic individualism, the family, the virtues of the parliamentary system and the rational character of modern institutions might still be used occasionally as rhetoric by the political elite but people now see through it.

Furedi identifies a profound cynicism and self-absorption as characteristic of modern western populations, leaving people with a failure of meaning in their lives beyond the mundane and the hedonistic. He might well have added that the revolution in just the past decade that has put tablets and smartphones into millions of hands has accelerated the western retreat into the inner zone and the collapse of real-world civic or political engagement. Virtual worlds construct a new and potentially dangerous reality. In video games such as Call of Duty, youngsters now zap the Taliban electronically while having no understanding whatsoever of why small numbers of western soldiers are zapping the Taliban for real.

Furedi puts much of the blame for this situation, which he clearly regrets, on the feebleness of liberal democracy’s efforts to define itself. This was conspicuous in the interwar years, when fascism and communism seemed infinitely more exciting and exacting than old-fashioned liberalism. Furedi cites a meeting in Paris in 1937, called to form an international network that would define what the modern liberal stood for and save it from extinction. The particpants argued about neoliberalism, individualism, liberalism of the left – but could find no agreed definition.

In the 1960s and 1970s, when liberal politicians were confronted with youth rebellion (or, in Germany and Italy, hard-headed youth violence) and economic slowdown, it was even more evident that liberal democracy had a poorly articulated sense of its core values. Today’s liberals find it difficult to square the circle of extensive and obtrusive state control with the old-fashioned utilitarian liberalism inherited from John Stuart Mill. In the absence of that certainty, Furedi suggests that we have what Alvin Gouldner called a New Class (though class may not be the right word) that wants to control everything in a narrow, technocratic sense. We face government by a fussy, rule-obsessed administration rather than through a liberal and liberalising consensus.

This is certainly a thesis worth taking seriously. But it is not without some evident drawbacks. Though ostensibly rooted in the history of the century since the First World War, the argument is, in reality, historically abstract. There are obvious differences in the way western societies have responded to the challenges posed since 1918. Furedi’s account is too general to absorb these contrasts and, for all the references to a range of nations, his argument fits best with Britain and the US and their prolonged crisis about the core values for a pluralistic, apparently democratic state.

The abstraction extends to the populations under discussion, which, as he well knows, were and still are socially, ethnically and culturally diverse. It may well be the case that anxiety about meaning is the condition of the main body of the western intellectual elite but it is by no means clear that it extends to all sectors of the population, many of whom would not be pre­occupied with the way that identity is shaped by intellectual discourse or, in the case of authoritarian states, by the many manifestations of propaganda.

There is also the problem of how the “west” is defined, since its consumerist ambitions and policies of human-rights entitlement are exported globally, though not always with success. Does the search for meaning include Japan, with its strong links with global consumerism? Does it include Turkey, keen to become a European member but distrusted by many Europeans precisely because its “identity” is regarded as alien? The west in Furedi’s discourse is also something of an abstraction while the other, the “non-west” is surely important in shaping how western populations now view their own identity.

Indeed Furedi’s insistence that the current crisis is a domestic problem – caused by internal culture clashes about meaning and value – sidesteps the most important issue today, which is how the west will define itself in relation to the new power bases in China, India or Latin America. The attempt to export “western” democracy to the Middle East has been one long story of disasters; now the west will have to think about how new global players may try to export their culture to the west, an ironic reversal of the world a century ago.

Finally, what is not clear from Furedi’s argument is why a plurality of cultures or the absence of meaning should be a concern at all. The figure hanging over all this discussion is the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (oddly absent from this account), whose challenge to the bourgeois values and Christian hypocrisy of his age still informs intellectual life today. Shared values and political consensus can be stifling and coercive. If millions of Americans believe in creationism and millions do not, this does not mean that liberal consensus is doomed. It simply means that in a democracy where tolerance (the keystone of Mill’s liberalism) is a central value, there ought to be real differences.

It is worth reflecting on what might have been if the First World War had not happened and western certainty and self-assertion had remained unchallenged. A perennial uncertainty and self-awareness may not have been such a bad legacy after all.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Morbid Age: Britain and the Crisis of Civilisation, 1919-1939” (Penguin, £16.99)

First published by New Statesman, 6 February 2014

Review: The first world war, 100 years on
It may be passing from living memory but 1914 still divides us. By Peter Clarke.


Clarke reviews three books:

The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century, by David Reynolds, Simon & Schuster, RRP£25, 544 pages

First World War: Still No End in Sight, by Frank Furedi, Bloomsbury, RRP£18.99, 288 pages

Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! A World Without World War I, by Richard Ned Lebow, Palgrave Macmillan RRP$17.99 / RRP£27, 256 pages

About First World War: Still No End in Sight, he writes:

‘The sociologist Frank Furedi is likewise concerned with distant as well as immediate consequences, in a process that we still cannot declare finished; hence his title First World War: Still No End in Sight. In a broad-ranging survey, he takes 1914 as the starting-point in a series of interlinked and ongoing crises that successively fashioned the 20th century. The first world war, far from being a “war that will end war”, as HG Wells had hoped, was to be succeeded within a generation by a second; and then the cold war, in Furedi’s analysis, itself led to the culture wars of the late 20th century.

‘The clash of ideas, rather than war in any military dimension, is Furedi’s focus. Though there is an intriguingly wide sweep to his arguments, his discussion remains at a high level of abstraction. In this reckoning, “the end of ideology” that sociologist Daniel Bell perceptively identified in 1960 was to be out-trumped by “the end of history” that another American, Francis Fukuyama, proclaimed after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. A lot of endings, then; and some of them more easily postulated than substantiated. But unfortunately, Furedi does not test his suggestive hypotheses in the kind of concrete historical situations that might have satisfied more empirically minded readers…’

Read the full article here.

First published by Financial Times, 24 January 2014

Furedi criticises ‘methodologically naive’ education research
A leading sociologist has attacked the application of so-called “‘evidence’-based policy” – and much of the research lying behind it – to education. By Matthew Reisz.

Writing in the online magazine spiked on “the scourge of scientism”, Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, argues that “the use of scientific evidence for political ends is particularly troublesome in the sphere of social policy…An area where this is most apparent is education”.

Particularly to be deplored, in Professor Furedi’s view, was the use of the term “intervention”, taken over from medicine, in an educational context, which he believed “reveals how much today’s cultural elite believes in the existence of educational pathology – that is, great numbers of children suffering from some form of quasi-medical educational deficit”.

Where educators ought to be asking “What do children need to know?” Professor Furedi claims that “the current obsession with what works distracts us from thinking about the intellectual and knowledge content of the curriculum”.

Asked where he sees the weaknesses of the academic research which feeds into such policies, Professor Furedi told Times Higher Education that it was often “very thin and methodologically naive – it doesn’t pay enough attention to context”.

He saw lots of research based on “small samples of very few students” and “one-off projects which don’t link up with other projects” but had little sense that the discipline was “generating an expanding corpus of knowledge”.

Instead of being “problem-driven” and open-minded in seeking solutions, education research tended to be “very much policy-driven, and often commissioned by Department of Education, which implicitly knows where the problem lies in advance”.

Both in schools and in universities, according to Professor Furedi, there was room for different teaching styles and no need for a single model to underpin the training and assessment of teachers and academics.

“I have a very distinctive teaching style, which I think is effective,” he said, “but I wouldn’t recommend it for everybody, since it depends on personality. There’s more than one effective teaching style. It’s not a science.”

First published by Times Higher Education, 15 September 2013

Compensation culture ‘putting curbs on school trips’
Growing numbers of schools are banning playground games and class trips as “ambulance chasing” solicitors swamp head teachers with compensation claims, according to research. By Graeme Paton, Education Editor.

The education system is being gripped by “excessive risk-aversion” because of concerns that schools will be sued if children are injured, it was claimed.

A study published by the Centre for Policy Studies warned that millions of pounds was being spent by schools and local authorities every year settling legal challenges.

It emerged that one council in Derbyshire was forced to pay £40,000 after a pupil broke a leg on a school trip. A further £30,000 was handed to a family in Cornwall after a pupil off a bench, £25,000 was paid out in Knowsley when a child fell out of a tree, a student in Medway was awarded £13,000 after being hit by a falling goalpost and £14,150 was paid out to a Plymouth pupil when a test tube shattered during a science experiment.

The study said the pay-outs underlined the extent to which the compensation culture was now “ingrained in the national psyche as a warped form of normal behaviour”.

Kent University’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, which carried out the study, said litigation was “bleeding the health and education services dry”.

Payouts by the NHS Litigation Authority alone have trebled in the last decade to £911m in 2010/11. The organisation’s potential liabilities now stand at £16.8bn, it emerged.

Professor Frank Furedi, the study’s co-author, said: “The increasing fear of litigation is extremely damaging to the professionalism of doctors, nurses and teachers. It erodes professional autonomy, stifles innovation, leads to defensive practices in both hospitals and schools and encourages greater bureaucracy.

“‘Best practice’ is now defined as having checked all the boxes in a quality assurance form rather than doing what is best for the patient or pupil.”

The report quoted a 2010 study that revealed as many as 10 children a week are securing pay-outs after suing schools and local councils for injuries picked up in classrooms, sports fields and playgrounds. In total, some £2.25m was awarded in just 12 months.

Researchers criticised a rise in the number of “bizarre and costly” claims made against schools.

In Doncaster, a pupil won £3,000 after suffering cuts from rose bushes, £2,500 was handed to a child in Bradford injured while cutting up fruit and in Brighton a £7,000 pay-out was made when a pupil fell through the roof of an air raid shelter after climbing to retrieve a ball.

The study – The Social Cost of Litigation – said that pay-outs have led to “excessive risk-aversion within schools”, particularly at a time of austerity when public money is already being squeezed.

“This has taken the form of banning playground games, or restricting school trips: to the point where some teachers have been taking their pupils on ‘trips’ in the school playground because of litigation fears,” said the report.

Prof Furedi called for new curbs to be placed on the “culture of litigation and litigation avoidance” in Britain.

“We need to look beyond ambulance-chasers and greedy lawyers to the cultural conditions that have allowed litigious sentiments to flourish as common sense,” he said. “In particular, we need to challenge the expectation that professional ‘best practice’ in the public sector should be measured by the absence of complaints or litigation.”

First published by Daily Telegraph, 10 September 2012

Complaints culture ‘drains schools and hospitals of billions’
By Nicola Woolcock, Education Correspondent.

Schools and hospitals are hamstrung by a rampant litigation culture that has seeped through most areas of health and education, according to a report being published tomorrow.

The health service is spending almost a billion pounds a year on compensation while schools waste time and money dealing with “absurd” lawsuits from children and teachers, for example those who have been scratched by roses or hit by a ball.

The report, The Social Cost of Litigation, was written by Frank Furedi, professor of sociology, and Jennie Bristow, a writer and researcher, both at the University of Kent.

While castigating “ambulance-chasing” law firms, the report lays greater blame on the atmosphere of “back-covering” that it says has permeated institutions.

This means that staff were more concerned with box-ticking, meticulous note-keeping and ensuring that they have followed regulations than with what was in the best interests of the child or patient.

Many of those suing schools, hospitals or local authorities held the attitude that they were responsible citizens doing their moral duty to protect others from a similar fate, the report says.

“Demanding recompense for accidents is now perceived, not only as a common-sense way of gaining financial compensation, but as a way of holding public services to account,” it says.

“The increasing fear of litigation is extremely damaging to the professionalism of doctors, nurses and teachers: it erodes autonomy, stifles innovation, leads to defensive practices in both hospitals and schools, and encourages greater bureaucracy.

“Best practice is now defined as having checked all the boxes in a quality assurance form rather than doing what is best for the patient or pupil.

“Attempting to rein in ambulance-chasers and greedy lawyers will only deal with the symptom of a deeper problem. In particular we need to challenge the expectation that professional best practice in the public sector should be measured by the absence of complaints or litigation.”

The report quotes a school at which staff were amazed to receive chocolates, rather than a solicitor’s letter, from parents whose child fell in the playground and hit his head on a bench, needing stitches. “Nowadays we expect the opposite to happen,” the head teacher said.

It says: “The head teacher’s story is a disturbing indication of how far things have gone. Suing is not seen as the selfish act of the ‘have a go’ parent, but a selfless, responsible act to stop other children from having similar accidents.

“The combination of an engrained compensation culture and litigation avoidance is bleeding the health and education services dry.”

Payouts made by the NHS Litigation Authority have trebled over the last decade, reaching £911 million in 2010-11, the report says, and its liabilities are now estimated at £16.8 billion.

Only 3 per cent of medical negligence claims successfully received damages from a court.

Yet defending themselves in advance from potential litigation had become institutionalised into everyday practice for many health and education staff.

Doctors often over-referred and over-treated patients, to cover their backs, while teachers were too nervous to be eccentric or innovative with children.

The report says: “It is often the headteacher, CEO or healthcare professional who finds his or her time gobbled up finding and filling in the paperwork to defend themselves or their organisations against claims.”

This has a damaging effect on children’s play, meaning that some do not get contact with “earthly reality”, the authors say.

Ofsted, the schools regulator, was partly responsible for encouraging a culture of moral cowardice among professionals, the report claims.

The regulator sought parents’ views on their children’s happiness, feelings of safety and the school’s attitudes to bullying which, the report says, “creates fertile ground for the transformation of customer complaint into litigation claims”.

Claims against schools included £3,000 awarded to a pupil who suffered cuts from a rose bush, £2,500 for a student who had a fire extinguisher sprayed in his eye and £2,000 for another in recompense for being hit by a ball kicked by a teaching assistant.

The report says that some teachers took their pupils on school trips to the playground because of fears ofd litigation.

Teachers also took legal action, costing councils an estimated £6.7 million in 2010; in one case a teacher received £2,000 for stubbing her toe on a box. But for every pound paid as compensation to staff, another £1.25 went to lawyers.

The report’s authors call for a return to the “humanising” principles of professional judgment, to reduce the knee-jerk recourse to legal action.

“Every time we bring a claim against our health or education services we are, in effect, suing ourselves,” they say.

First published by The Times, 10 September 2012

Compensation Culture ‘Bleeding Dry’ Services
Education and health professionals are putting litigation avoidance above what is best for pupils and patients, a study says.


An ingrained compensation culture is “bleeding health and education services dry”, researchers have said.

Payouts by the NHS Litigation Authority (NHSLA) have trebled in the past decade, standing at £911m in 2010/11, according to the report by the Centre for Policy Studies at Kent University.

Of this, £863m was paid in connection with clinical negligence claims, the report says.

It adds that as of March last year, the NHSLA estimated its potential liabilities at £16.8bn, though a large proportion of cases do not reach court.

Out of 63,804 medical negligence claims received by the NHSLA, 38% were abandoned by the claimant, 45% were settled out of court 3% had damages approved or set by a court and 14% have yet to settle.

Tim Knox, director of the Centre for Policy Studies, said: “This rise in the compensation culture has huge - if largely hidden - costs.

“In particular, it has created a climate in which professionals will prioritise litigation avoidance above what is best for their pupils or patients.”

The report warns that instead of improving safety and accountability, it has resulted in “significant costs to the quality of services, the experiences of those who use them”.

It continues: “The combination of an ingrained compensation culture and litigation avoidance is bleeding the health and education services dry, both financially, and in terms of their public sector ethos and professional role.”

Report author Professor Frank Furedi said fear of legal action can hold back progress and creativity.

“It erodes professional autonomy, stifles innovation, leads to defensive practices in both hospitals and schools and encourages greater bureaucracy,” he said.

“‘Best practice’ is now defined as having checked all the boxes in a quality assurance form rather than doing what is best for the patient or pupil.”

First published by Sky News, 10 September 2012

‘Litigation culture’ is making Britain less safe, says report
By Jeremy Laurance.

When a child falls over and cuts themselves in the playground, headteachers brace themselves for a writ from the parents.  If a medical test for cancer is delayed, the standard response from patients is to sue.

But instead of making Britain a safer place - the expressed intention of most litigants - the “litigation culture” is instead making it less safe, according to a report published today.

The threat of litigation is undermining professionalism, reducing transparency and increasing the financial burden on public services such as health and education while increasing discomfort, inconvenience and anxiety for those who use them. 

Sociologist Frank Furedi and writer Jennie Bristow say in the report, published by the Centre for Policy Studies, that too many legal cases are being brought without realistic hope of success.

Of 63,800 legal claims against the NHS since 2001, 2000 - 3.2 per cent -had damages approved or settled by a court and 28,700 were settled out of court. In 2010/11 alone, almost 3,000 cases were closed without any damages being paid, incurring £10.9 million in legal costs

In March 2011, the NHS Litigation Authority estimated it faced potential liabilities of £16.8 billion, much of it in legal costs. In January 2012, the Government had to bail out the organisation with an extra £185 million to cover the cost of legal claims and fees.

Countless hours of paperwork and procedures are now spent by professionals in litigation avoidance, the authors say, to defend organisations against claims.

They quote the head of a Sussex nursery school, worried about receiving a bad Ofsted report, who said: “I hate the culture of creating policies in fear of getting sued. I want to have a health and safety policy to keep the children healthy and safe, not to cover my back.”

Professor Furedi said: “Demanding recompense for accidents is now perceived not only as a common sense way of gaining financial compensation, but as a way of holding public services to account. “

“The increasing fear of litigation is extremely damaging to the professionalism of doctors, nurses and teachers. It erodes professional autonomy, stifles innovation, leads to defensive practices in both hospitals and schools and encourages greater bureaucracy. “Best practice” is now defined as having checked all the boxes in a quality assurance form rather than doing what is best for the parent or pupil.”

The authors say that reining in “ambulance chasers and greedy lawyers” will only deal with the symptoms of the problem. A change of culture is necessary which sees best practice measured in terms of innovation in teaching or medical care, rather than the absence of complaints or litigation.

They call for a no-fault scheme to compensate those who have suffered harm as a result of accident or injury. However, previous efforts have foundered.

Efforts to reform the medical negligence scheme by the Government’s former chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson in a report in 2003 came to nothing when agreement could not be reached on how to implement his proposed no fault scheme without massively increased costs.

Victims of medical errors with a high chance of winning heavy damages in court were not prepared to sacrifice part of their pay-outs to create a fairer system for those harmed in accidents where there was no one to blame. 

First published by Independent, 10 September 2012

Report slams compensation culture
A report has warned about the costs of a growing compensation culture in the UK, in particular for schools.

According to the research, published today, the propensity for demanding damages for accidents is “bleeding health and education services dry”.

The report, by Kent University’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, claims that litigation culture has entered the national psyche and that suing for damages has come to be seen as normal behaviour.

This culture has proved expensive for both the education and health sectors. “Today, head teachers are surprised when parents of children injured at school do not immediately begin down the route of litigation,” it said.

It added: “Suing is not seen as the selfish act of the ‘have a go’ parent, but a selfless, responsible act to stop other children from having similar accidents.”

A 2010 study was quoted in the report which said that as many as 10 children were being awarded compensation payouts a week for injuries sustained on school premises.

Schools are now also undertaking fewer school trips for fear of being hit by compensation claims, according to the study.

The study states that rather than improving safety and accountability, the compensation culture has to the contrary resulted in “significant costs to the quality of services, the experiences of those who use them and the role of professionals”.

Statistics are also given which suggest that compensation paid out by the NHS Litigation Authority has trebled in the last decade. The report claims that of the £911m awarded in 2010/11 £863m was the result of medical negligence claims.

It is also revealed that a large proportion of these negligence claims do not reach court, with as many as 45% settled privately and 38% abandoned by the claimant.

First published by Law on the Web.co.uk, 10 September 2012

Litigation culture draining billions from hospitals and schools
The growth of the "litigation culture" is draining hospitals and schools of money, a report published on Monday warns. By Julie Henry, Education Correspondent.

Payouts made by the NHS have trebled over the past decade to more than £1.3 billion a year, of which more than £200 million goes in fees to lawyers.

In education, pupils were awarded more than £2 million in compensation in 2010 – while nearly £7 million was paid out to injured or sacked teachers.

At the same time, fear of being sued has fuelled the growth of “tick box bureaucracy” and has eroded trust between professionals and the public, according to the report published by the Centre for Policy Studies.

The authors say that the rise in legal claims is “bleeding public services dry” and has created the fantasy that there is “no such thing as an accident”.

Parents are increasingly prepared to hire lawyers to deal with playground stumbles, bullying and even exam failure, the report shows.

In one recent case, a pupil from north London was awarded £16,000 when he tripped over while running.

A pupil in Doncaster received £3,000 damages when he suffered cuts from a rose bush. In another case a child in Bradford got £2,500 when her hand was hurt cutting up fruit.

The readiness of patients and parents to bring claims has been portrayed by some as a means of holding public services to account.

However, the consequence has been that doctors and teachers increasingly follow procedures designed to “cover their backs” rather than to do the best for patients and children, says the report.

As a result, it says, nurses fill in paperwork rather than tend to the sick, doctors over-order precautionary scans, and surgeons avoiding using new techniques which might be in their patients’ best interests. Some schools have even banned children from running.

As of March, the NHS Litigation Authority estimated its potential liabilities for outstanding clinical negligence claims at £18.6 billion. The amount is the equivalent to one-sixth of the annual health service budget.

NHS authorities choose to settle most claims out of court, in an attempt to limit the amount they have to pay.

Only in around one in 30 cases are damages set by court. The £1.33 billion bill faced by the NHS in 2011/12 included £230 million in legal costs.

Schools have faced legal claims not only from injured pupils but also from staff who have been hurt at work.

One teacher from north Lincolnshire was awarded £500 damages for an injury sustained while restraining a pupil, in a case where the legal costs amounted to £61,464.

In another case, £2,000 was awarded to a member of staff at a school in the Wirral after they stubbed their toe on a box, yet the legal costs reached £14,300.

The report accuses trade unions of facing both ways on the issue of litigation. It points out that they help their members to bring personal injury claims against schools when they are hurt, while at the same time criticising the trend for parents to sue over their children’s injuries.

One teaching union, the NASUWT, has even warned its members against taking part in outdoor activities because of the risk of litigation should a pupil be hurt in an accident.

In response to the threat of compensation claims, some schools have curtailed activities which involve an element of risk, such as outdoor trips and sports like rugby.

One primary head teacher told the researchers: “The big difference in the last few years is the increase in the blame culture – there is no such thing as an accident, it has to be someone’s fault and someone has to pay.”

Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent and joint author of the report, said that the litigation culture was “bleeding public services dry”.

“Every time we bring a claim against our health or education services, we are in effect suing ourselves,” he said.

“And every time we are encouraged to ‘name, blame and claim’ as an act of responsible citizenship, to stop other people sharing our bad experiences, we end up contributing to the worsening of these very services.”

The academic said that in recent years there had been official recognition of the “villains” of the piece; the lawyers who earn fees from representing accident victims and the claim management companies that encourage individuals to lodge claims.

However, to stem the tide, a cultural shift was necessary, he said.

“If we want to put a brake on the culture of litigation and litigation avoidance in Britain, we need to look beyond ambulance-chasers and greedy lawyers to the cultural conditions that have allowed litigious sentiments to flourish as common sense,” said Professor Furedi.

“In particular we need to challenge the expectation that professional ‘best practice’ in the public sector should be measured by the absence of complaints or litigation.”

First published by Sunday Telegraph, 9 September 2012

Complaints culture ‘is bleeding schools and hospitals dry’ as NHS faces £16bn of claims
Report claims that complaints against doctors and teachers reduces the quality of service; Legals claims against NHS account for 18 per cent of its budget. By Jo Macfarlane.


Britain’s escalating compensation culture is ‘bleeding the health and education services dry’, according to a report to be published tomorrow.

The scathing report shows that the increasing number of legal claims against the NHS and schools after accidents or mistakes has reduced the quality of services rather than improving safety and accountability.

It says the litigation culture is ‘ingrained in the national psyche as a warped form of normal behaviour’.

This has the effect of undermining the role of doctors and teachers and preventing them from doing their jobs properly, it claims.

A huge amount of time and money in the NHS and education is spent dealing with such claims.

The NHS Litigation Authority (NHSLA), which deals with legal action taken against the health service, estimates it now has liabilities of £16.8 billion – equivalent to 16 per cent of the annual healthcare budget.

The report, produced by the think-tank Centre for Policy Studies, has described this as ‘a spectacular own goal’ because the money must eventually come from the taxpayer.

One of the report’s authors, Professor Frank Furedi, from the University of Kent, said: ‘Demanding recompense for accidents is now perceived not only as a commonsense way of gaining financial compensation, but as a way of holding public services to account.

‘But taken together, the combination of an engrained compensation culture and litigation avoidance is bleeding the health and education services dry: both financially and in terms of their public-sector ethos and professional role.’

Prof Furedi added: ‘The increasing fear of litigation is also extremely damaging to the professionalism of doctors, nurses and teachers. It erodes professional autonomy, stifles innovation, leads to defensive practices in both hospitals and schools and encourages greater bureaucracy.

‘If we want to put a brake on the culture of litigation and litigation avoidance in Britain we need to look beyond ambulance-chasers and greedy lawyers to the cultural conditions that have allowed litigious sentiments to flourish as common sense.’

One GP who contributed to the study, who has practised in London for 25 years, said the compensation culture encouraged a ‘defensive form of practice’ where treatment was given not because of what was in the patients’ best interests, but to cover the doctor’s back.

He said doctors often referred patients to hospital for investigation just in case they sued if it turned out they had cancer and the diagnosis was delayed. This ends up costing the NHS more money because it means patients are often examined unnecessarily.

He also argued there was a ‘culture of complaint’ where patients were on the lookout for ‘less-than-perfect care’.

Payouts made by the NHSLA have trebled in ten years to £911 million in 2010/11.

However, 2,922 clinical claims were closed in 2010/11 without any compensation being paid – but still at a cost to the NHS of £10.9 million because of legal fees.

Staffing the NHSLA alone now costs £7 million a year.

The problem is similarly acute in schools, according to the report. It reveals several cases where local councils have been forced to pay compensation to school pupils injured in its care, and says many schools will now not take pupils on trips in case they are sued if something goes wrong.

One council in Derbyshire paid out £40,000 after a pupil broke a leg on a school trip.

The headteacher of a primary school in Warwickshire said it was the norm for parents to sue following injuries in the playground.

Tim Knox, director of the Centre for Policy Studies, believes professionals aren’t always offering what’s best for their pupils or patients

He described a recent incident in the playground, involving a boy who had cut his head after running into a bench.

He said: ‘It was probably two days later that I noticed something very odd, that I hadn’t had happen for many years.

‘I didn’t receive a letter from the parents asking for a written account of the incident, witness statements, the contact details for the school’s first aider.

‘And then something even odder – the dad brought in chocolates. Nowadays we expect the opposite to happen.’

Tim Knox, director of the Centre for Policy Studies, said the rise in the compensation culture ‘has created a climate in which professionals will prioritise litigation avoidance above what is best for their pupils or patients’.

First published by Mail on Sunday, 9 September 2012

Warning over compensation culture
An ingrained compensation culture is "bleeding health and education services dry", according to research.

It warns that demanding damages for accidents is now seen as a way of holding public services to account, and a way of preventing others from suffering similar fates.

This litigation culture has become part of the national psyche, and is seen as normal behaviour, the study suggests. But it has come at a cost, with the health and education sectors spending a large amount of money on dealing with litigation, impacting on services.

The Centre for Policy Studies report, by Kent University’s school of social policy, sociology and social research, found that the financial and social cost of litigation has been a “growing cause for concern”.

Instead of improving safety and accountability, it has resulted in “significant costs to the quality of services, the experiences of those who use them and the role of professionals”.

The report claims: “Litigation culture has become institutionalised into the workings of the public sector life, and ingrained in the national psyche as a warped form of normal behaviour.”

The report says it is increasingly unusual for individuals not to seek compensation after an accident: “Today, head teachers are surprised when parents of children injured at school do not immediately begin down the route of litigation.

“Demanding recompense for accidents is now perceived not only as a common-sense way of gaining financial compensation but as a way of holding public services to account. From this standpoint, suing is not seen as the selfish act of the ‘have a go’ parent, but a selfless, responsible act to stop other children from having similar accidents.”

The researchers claim that payouts by the NHS Litigation Authority (NHSLA) have trebled in the last decade, standing at £911 million in 2010/11. Of this, £863 million was paid in connection with clinical negligence claims, the report says. As of March last year, the NHSLA estimated its potential liabilities at £16.8 billion, of which £16.6 billion related to clinical negligence claims.

It adds that a large proportion of cases do not reach court. Out of 63,804 medical negligence claims received by the NHSLA, 38% were abandoned by the claimant, 45% were settled out of court 3% had damages approved or set by a court and 14% have yet to settle.

Copyright © 2012 The Press Association. All rights reserved.

First published by Press Association, 9 September 2012

We’re creating adult-phobic children
By Robert Alison.

An intergenerational schism is fracturing society. It is an age-based estrangement that is alienating young people from adults. Its scope is unprecedented.

According to Linda Sibley at Confidential Kids, “Kids no longer trust adults.”

Researchers have indicated excessive child-protection initiatives have driven a wedge between youth and adult generations.

“Dramatic escalation of child-protection measures has succeeded in poisoning the relationship between the generations,” concludes Kent University researcher Frank Furedi in his recent report Licensed to Hug. “(The result has been) an atmosphere of distrust.”

Throughout history, informal and unregulated collaboration between the generations has been the foundation of socialization of young people, he pointed out.

“Cultural distancing of generations weakens the bonds of community life,” he added.

“Teaching children that strangers are usually an opportunity, rather than a threat, is healthier for children, parents and communities,” explained Bill Durodie at Royal Roads University in British Columbia. “Children wrapped up in cotton may appear and even feel safe… but in the long run, this may incapacitate them and infantilize them.”

Overprotection of children can stunt their progress toward maturity, researchers claim.

“Children who are overly cautioned and protected can be made to feel anxious and fearful of their environment,” explained Deb Gebeke, assistant director of family and consumer sciences at North Dakota State University. “They may have a difficult time developing a sense of independence and self-confidence.”

According to Furedi, adults who volunteer to help children, “once regarded as pillars of the community (are now stigmatized as) potential child abusers.”

Adult-phobia has eroded away the historic atmosphere of intergenerational trust. A recent UNICEF study found almost one-half of children admit they do not trust adults in general. The highest trust levels occur in rural children and those from poorer families. Fully 30 per cent admit they do not trust teachers, and that figure increases with age.

Children living with both parents are more trusting of adults than are children whose parents do not live together, the study shows.

“Across all countries, trust decreases with age towards all categories of adults except mothers,” the researchers concluded.

The child-adult gulf has widened sharply in “regimes that insist that adult-child encounters must be mediated by a security check,” Furedi reported. “The licensing of adulthood undermines its authority.”

According to a recent report by the New York University Child Study Center, “children distrust adults and fear neighbours in their community” largely due to a constant barrage of media-reported violence in society.

“In the rush to protect children from all possible harm, logic and reason went out the window,” Durodie concludes. ” Fear of adults has devastating effects for kids.”

The wedge between children and adults in the United Kingdom has broadened further due to the recent Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act, which requires that all adults who regularly come into contact with children undergo an enhanced criminal record check.

“An apartheid between adults and children has resulted,” Durodie suggests.

Robert Alison is a zoologist and freelance writer based in Victoria. Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 8, 2012

First published by Winnipeg Free Press, 8 September 2012

Rob White: Planet Intolerance
Book Review: 'On Tolerance', by Frank Furedi.


“I have the right to persecute you because I am right and you are wrong.”

Recognize the tone? If you are one of those who - with the Global Warming Policy Foundation - strives to bring more light and less heat into the climate change debate (pun intended), you should. The fact that this odious remark fell from the lips of a French Catholic theologian in 1691 doesn’t make it any the less modern for those seeking rational discourse about global warming.

Professor Furedi’s forensically thorough thesis opens with a detailed examination of the changing face of something Western society seemed to think it had settled – tolerance, the widespread acceptance of the existence of differing opinions and beliefs. Echoing J.S. Mill’s seminal On Liberty, Furedi celebrates true tolerance, arguing that

“The tolerance of dissent and opinions that are regarded as erroneous or offensive is motivated by the conviction that it is only when no belief is beyond question that insight into truth can be gained… even truths can turn into superstitious dogma if they are merely held on faith: indeed, without the exercise of individual judgement, the meaning and intellectual content of an opinion becomes exhausted and transformed into prejudice.”

But now, he says, tolerance is more and more turning into its mirror image. It has first morphed - indeed, it has sometimes been morphed, by law - into an unquestioning, blanket recognition of the special claims of social groups. With a grim irony, those who challenge those special claims then become the victims of intolerance themselves. Furedi puts it this way:

“Those who claim that recognition is a right also take the view that no tolerance should be shown towards those whose words and behaviour threaten to destabilize people’s identity. This claim for rationing tolerance is warranted on the premise that it is essential to protect people from suffering psychic injury. Advocates insist that those whose speech and behaviour inflict harm should face legal sanctions.”

Along with sticks and stones, now it seems that words may break bones – an “inflation of harm” against which Furedi firmly sets his face.

What follows is that we are no longer free to form our own judgments - for we have farmed out judgment to others, most often (and most worryingly) to an increasingly powerful state. The famous paraphrase of Voltaire “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” becomes “I disapprove of what you say, because I’m told you have no right to say it.”

Once that is understood, it is depressingly easy to see how, with the theory of man-made climate change, that process of what we might call “inverted tolerance” has also polluted science and scientific discussion - even, some argue, scientific process itself. Group-think is all. Each reader will have in mind her or his most strikingly repellent example from the global warming shock army – mine being the suggestion by a celebrity journalist that every time a Bangladeshi drowns, an airline employee should be taken out and drowned too. But Furedi has plenty of other equally rebarbative utterings to offer - members of my own profession of journalism being only too well represented:

He cites one warming enthusiast who says:

“There is no intellectual difference between the Lomborgians who steadfastly refuse to accept the overwhelming evidence of human caused global warming from scientists of unquestioned reputation, and the neo-Nazi holocaust deniers.”

Leaving aside this zealot’s inaccurate reporting of Bjorn Lomborg’s views, we move on to another Nazi-sniffer, who has this moderate take on any who challenge ‘The Science’:

“We should have war crimes trials for these bastards… some sort of climate Nuremberg.”

Greenpeace of course are never far behind. Here’s their Communications Director for India on climate sceptics, in full 1920’s Chicago mode:

“We know who you are. We know where you live. We know where you work. And we be many but you be few.”

Well, at least we can console ourselves, in the words of ‘The Godfather’, that “It’s nothing personal. It’s only business.” (And in the case of Greenpeace, what a business it is too!)

After such rantings, it’s almost a relief to hear former Met Office head Sir John Houghton warn of “a dangerous mood of public scepticism.” Until you remember that he is by profession a scientist…

What does all this mean? It means there is to be no tolerance for climate change scepticism - even though scepticism is a key part of the scientific process, and even though those challenging climate change orthodoxy include many scientists in good standing. It also means that Professor Furedi’s painstakingly intellectual defence of tolerance is as timely as it is welcome.

The irony becomes almost unbearable when Furedi tells us that the Royal Society, one of Britain’s most venerable scientific institutions, has on its crest “Nullius in verba” - “On the word of no-one.” To think that this celebration of intellectual inquiry should be the motto of an organization that sometimes seems simply enraged by any challenge to ‘The Science’! It is not as if, after all, even the most eminent scientists are always wholly right - as history shows.

Near the close of this important work, Professor Furedi issues a clarion call for the rebirth of true tolerance - especially in respect of free thinking and so, scepticism.

“Criticism, and even disrespect, of competing beliefs and views is entirely consistent with the act of tolerance; indeed tolerance has as its presupposition the logically prior assumption of disagreement and disapproval. Society needs to regain the capacity to question, discriminate and judge.”

But he leaves his readers in no doubt that this battle for tolerance - thought largely won in the post-enlightenment growth of free intellect - will be a hard one. Though well worth the fight.

And that Royal Society crest, with its proud assertion of intellectual freedom? It can still be found, on their website.

But not on their logo. It’s in the history section.

First published by The Global Warming Policy Foundation, 8 November 2011

Open Lecture - Professor Frank Furedi on tolerance
Author, broadcaster and sociology professor, Frank Furedi will give an Open Lecture at the University of Kent on Wednesday 2 November at 6pm.

The lecture, titled “Why are We Afraid of Tolerance?”, will take place in the Woolf Lecture Theatre at the University’s Canterbury campus. Admission is free and open to all.

Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology in the University’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, has been widely cited on his views on why western societies find it so difficult to engage with risk and uncertainty. He has published widely about controversies on issues such as health, parenting, food and new technology.

His Invitation to Terror; Expanding the Empire of the Unknown (2007) explores the way in which the threat of terrorism has become amplified through the ascendancy of precautionary thinking. It develops the arguments contained in two previous books, The Culture of Fear (2003) and Paranoid Parenting (2001). The influence of the erosion of adult authority on schooling is examined in his 2009 publication, Wasted: Why Education is Not Educating.

Professor Furedi’s latest book, On Tolerance; A Defence of Moral Independence (Continuum Press) was published in October.

Contact: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

First published by University of Kent, 2 November 2011

FiveBooks Interviews: Claire Fox on freedom of speech
Modern society has interpreted John Stuart Mill's concept of tolerance to mean that we should avoid giving offence. The director of the Institute of Ideas tells us about books that show how far we've departed from what was meant

FiveBooks: Was there a particular event that made you so passionate about freedom of speech?

Claire Fox: I was shocked at university to discover the “no platform policy”. I just couldn’t understand how in an environment of academic freedom we could ban someone because of their views. I always thought that you could win arguments if you have them in public, but it appeared to me that people were frightened of having the arguments. That is what got me interested. A number of different organisations were “no platform” when I was at university.

FiveBooks: Which ones?

Claire Fox: There was a big fuss that anyone with racist or homophobic views should not be allowed on campus, and there were campaigns to not have anything offensive said in student union meetings. Obviously I didn’t have any sympathy with those views, but it struck me that there was a real sense of insecurity if you couldn’t have the argument. I was very passionate about the issues that I thought were important. In those days, we used to get over 1,000 students a week along to a union general meeting. And it seemed to me that having robust arguments about different topics was exactly what was needed. Also I think that from an audience’s point of view, if you ban an organisation on the basis of their views you make them more powerful and flatter them. I think that most of those organisations, if they were allowed to speak, wouldn’t have much to say and the audience should be allowed to find that out for themselves.

FiveBooks: Your first choice, On Liberty by John Stuart Mill, is very much the bedrock of some of these ideas.

Claire Fox: This is a fantastically important book even today, written by one of the greatest Enlightenment thinkers around. To me, it seems to enshrine the Enlightenment notion attributed to Voltaire that “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. What is rich about this work is that it doesn’t just assert the importance of free speech for the speaker without going into why it is important. One thing that very strongly impressed me over the years is its argument that we can all improve. Our arguments can only be improved by airing them in the public sphere.

FiveBooks: We have to hone them, and people have to listen to and dissect them.

Claire Fox: Indeed. Also, we always have to be prepared that possibly we are wrong. It is only by having those debates that you can improve your own arguments, but also possibly reconsider your position. John Stuart Mill says, “Truth gains more even by errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think.” I think it is better to have people try out ideas in the public sphere, even if they are wrong, than to simply parrot the right answer. That is what I think Mill is saying there. One of the important things about On Liberty is this idea that we shouldn’t just adopt certain positions or say certain things because it is fashionable to do so.

FiveBooks: Why do you think that John Stuart Mill is still relevant today?

Claire Fox: Because he encapsulates why tolerance and freedom have to be actively fought for and actively asserted.

FiveBooks: Your next choice is almost a modern sequel to Mill. Frank Furedi’s new book On Tolerance challenges the idea that we are largely a tolerant society.

Claire Fox: John Stuart Mill argues clearly for tolerance, and he is very popular in this modern era. People quote him in school essays and formal debates. But Frank Furedi, in his new book on tolerance, looks at how the spirit of John Stuart Mill has been destroyed in the contemporary era, despite our paying lip service to the term “tolerance”. He talks about an insipid understanding of tolerance.

FiveBooks: What does he mean by that?

Claire Fox: We have come to interpret the very opposite of what Mill meant, that tolerance means that we should be respectful of all opinions. When we say our society has got to be tolerant, it becomes a relative thing – almost therapeutic mush that we are not allowed to offend anybody. This kind of tolerance leads to a situation where we refuse to challenge or test out arguments in the public sphere.

That is what is so ironic about the contemporary understanding of tolerance. It effectively says you must bite your lip and tolerate all views. This was not at all what Mill meant. Furedi takes on how tolerance has become degraded. He says tolerance has to be robust, interventionist and judgmental. You should tolerate all views, but that does not mean silently sitting by and agreeing with them. He makes a very interesting point about how in the name of defending tolerance, we’ve seen the introduction of hate-speech legislation which defends people from intolerant views. Actually, in the name of tolerance we have seen the growth of illiberalism. A kind of intolerant tolerance.

FiveBooks: Which shuts out different parts of society.

Claire Fox: Yes, we basically say you are intolerant therefore we won’t tolerate you.

FiveBooks: Your critics say that your determination to allow everyone to express their views often goes too far. How do you respond to that?

Claire Fox: To clarify, it is not just that everyone has the right to speak. Most importantly, I think that we all have the right to listen to all views. Because if you don’t say that, then someone else says which ones you can and can’t listen to. All speech is powerful but I do not think there is a direct line between speech and action. The assumption that speech immediately incites people to act treats us as if we lack any autonomy or decision-making powers. It attacks moral autonomy and treats people as if they are no more than attack dogs. Do you really think that if you let people hear a racist homophobic speaker then that is what they will become?

FiveBooks: But there is a lot of talk about the influence of, for example, extremist religious teachers on vulnerable young people who are talked into carrying out extreme acts.

Claire Fox: The key word that you have used is “vulnerable”. That word gets used to imply that there is a feeble-minded kind of person who can be easily influenced, which I think is quite insulting. The idea is that I can resist these ideas while other people, who are living on a council estate or are Muslim youths, can’t. I think that is a very dangerous “them and us” approach to free speech. Another argument that people use in the free speech debate is that if people hear certain words or insulting ideas, then they will be wounded and damaged forever, so the state needs to step in and protect us. There is the idea that we are no longer prepared to trust each other, and this goes back to Mill. Mill is forever arguing that we should be able to trust each other, hear these things, and then argue back.

FiveBooks: There is evidence, though, that certain groups are truly hurt and outraged by what others have to say, and don’t think there is any excuse for them to be given a public platform. This often happens with the British National Party.

Claire Fox: I am sure that people don’t like hearing those ideas, but if they exist in society you can’t just silence them. There is increasingly a culture of shutting down debate, which results in no one being able to speak their mind. People think a way of gaining recognition is to say, “I find that offensive and damaging for my particular community.” We then get fixed in a sense of identity, instead of it being something where we are prepared to take on these arguments and deal with them, regardless of identity.

FiveBooks: Let’s see how your rather intriguing next choice, The Human Stain by Philip Roth, fits in with that.

Claire Fox: This is a novel set in a New England university. The main focus of the novel is a professor of Classics and faculty dean called Coleman Silk. It is a liberal university, and the reason why I chose this novel is to show how doing things in the name of tolerance can lead to a right old mess.

What happens is that Coleman Silk complains about two students who never turn up to any of his lectures. He says that they are “spooks” because they are never there, and he is accused of racism for using that word. As an academic he is interested in the use of language, and he cannot understand how this can happen to him. He didn’t even know what colour the students were, but because they are African-American it is assumed that he was being racist. The whole faculty turns against him, led by a woman called Delphine Roux, a professor in French Literature – a deconstructionalist in a way, so an archetypal enemy of free speech. He loses his job, and he blames the loss of his job and his public disgrace for the death of his wife.

The irony is that as the novel progresses, we realise that in fact he himself is black. Because he is a light-skinned black man he passed himself off as a Jew for many years, as when he was a young student he was refused service and called a nigger. He doesn’t want to be defined by identity or colour, because he knows that he will always need to be protected by someone else. He says, “I don’t want to be part of the oppressed we, but my own I.”

The sub-plot to the novel is that Coleman, aged 71, is having an affair with a young cleaner at the college. Delphine Roux is disgusted by this as well. She thinks he is exploiting this illiterate, disadvantaged, oppressed woman who is the victim of domestic abuse. So Delphine is all about labelling people. She thinks that it is about feminist protection of a vulnerable young woman. The irony is that the cleaner isn’t illiterate and doesn’t see herself as a victim.

FiveBooks: So the novel focuses on the superficial way that we condemn people.

Claire Fox: Yes. Someone like Delphine assumes oppression is happening, defines people through victimhood labels, gets it completely wrong and ruins people’s lives.

FiveBooks: Let’s move onto another tale of victimhood, Arthur Miller’s famous play The Crucible.

Claire Fox: This is the Salem witch hunt in the context of the McCarthy era. The reason I chose it is because I feel that we ourselves, in the contemporary period, are in danger of having our own heresy-calling and witch hunts. It is very popular to say this book proves what it is like when hysterical religions name people as witches, and how intolerant religion is. But I think we can see it in a much more contemporary light as just what happens in an atmosphere where people’s fear is exploited.

FiveBooks: Give me some examples.

Claire Fox: Contemporary heresy-calling tends to be much more in the secular field. There are certain orthodoxies that you are not allowed to challenge. Climate change orthodoxy is one of them. If you dare even ask a question of it you are assumed to be a climate change denier, denying the evidence.

FiveBooks: You have got into hot water over this one, haven’t you?

Claire Fox: Yes I have. But it is not a personal argument, it is more of a dangerous atmosphere. If you say you do not think we should have a witch hunt against, say, Catholic adoption agencies for being Catholic, then you get accused of being in league with the Papacy and covering up child abuse. That’s what happens in The Crucible. Anybody who challenges the idea that there are witches ends up being named as a witch.

FiveBooks: So there is a climate of fear.

Claire Fox: Exactly. There is also a reverend from the parish who is losing authority and the respect of the local parishioners. You see how the atmosphere around the hysteria drives people to name names and turn on neighbours to help him regain his authority. I think that is a significant aspect of it. People who are in power unfortunately can make gains from a climate of fear.

FiveBooks: Your final choice is Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, which was published in 1947 and set in World War II.

Claire Fox: This is an important novel for a range of reasons, because it was written so shortly after the Second World War by a novelist who lived through the Nazi regime. It is a very rare glimpse into what working-class life was like then.

FiveBooks: He used a nom de plume.

Claire Fox: Yes, and there is plenty of ambivalence about Fallada himself. The Nazis tried to court him and ban him all at the same time. Unlike many writers, he remained in Germany throughout the war. The novel shows what it was like to have totalitarianism in the contemporary period, and what the suppression of not just speech but thought results in. You have a situation where neighbour spies on neighbour, and you dare not say what you think. You dare not speak at all. You are fearful that what you say will be used against you. Indeed, it will be used against you and we know the consequences. I think it is a hymn to bravery as well. In the story there are a man and his wife – this is based on a true story – who although not particularly critical of Hitler and the Nazis in the early 1930s, when their son is killed they start to want to speak out.

Of course, they know the consequences. The book has a literal free speech theme. They write anonymous postcards attacking Hitler and drop them all around Berlin. As it happens, this has little practical consequence. One of the horrible parts of the novel is when they realise themselves that nearly all the postcards have been handed in and it hasn’t led to an uprising. They are inspired to think there are other people like them, who feel the same and are trying to rally the troops. But in the end, Otto Quangel says to his wife Elsie, “What do we care, it is we who must do it.” So there is this morality of speaking out against all the odds, as well as a reminder of what it is like to have absolutely no free speech. For me, this is a book that reminds us all why freedom of speech matters. It is a very modern example of what it actually means to have the state tell you what you can and cannot say.

Interview by Daisy Banks.

First published by The Browser, 18 October 2011

Review by Mary Warnock
Freedom withers if a culture of 'therapeutic censorship' flourishes.


The blurb writers who work for Continuum are fond of the word “pugnacious” to describe their products. The word is warranted in the case of Frank Furedi’s essay On Tolerance. It is pugnacious, and it attacks a worthy and thoroughly contemporary opponent: the confused and degenerate concept of tolerance, increasingly deployed in politics and education.

One of Furedi’s heroes is John Stuart Mill, whose famous 1859 essay On Liberty serves as his model for an understanding of the diversity to which tolerance should be extended. Yet his admiration for Mill is in a way irrelevant, and indeed forms part of the confusion that makes this book so difficult to read. For Mill, in On Liberty, passionately defends the right of people to choose their own way of life, to pursue whatever they personally value, and to refuse to succumb to the “tyranny of the majority”. He is talking about individual choices, and I have no doubt that his wife Harriet Taylor was at his elbow, pressing the claim for individual women to break out of the shackles imposed by contemporary society.

Today, however, when we are told to tolerate diversity (or to celebrate it; for, as Furedi observes, diversity, once a scientific and neutral concept, has become morally loaded), it is groups of people who are to be so treated: people of different faiths, races, sexual orientation. Furedi is well aware that the focus of his argument is different from Mill’s, but he quotes him nonetheless. Moreover, Mill was writing in defence of freedom; but when we have tolerance urged on us today, it is not only freedom that we are to allow to different groups, but respect.

The interplay between tolerance and respect is at the heart of Furedi’s essay. His title could as well have been On Respect as On Tolerance - indeed, perhaps this would have been better. For the ambiguity of the word “respect”, hovering as it does between the meanings of non-violation (of rights or privacy) and civilised politeness or esteem, lends itself to the very degeneration that Furedi deplores. It is a genuinely equivocal term.

“Tolerance”, on the other hand, although generally taken to be the name of a virtue, is nevertheless tainted by its use to describe a grudging acceptance of something disliked, with the unenthusiastic adjective “tolerable” and its opposite “intolerable”. Such semantic considerations are bound to influence our acceptance, or otherwise, of injunctions to tolerate minority groups. They all combine to suggest that the rest of society, although undoubtedly superior, is prepared to put up with groups whom they would prefer to be elsewhere. In contrast with this, Furedi wants us to accept “true” tolerance, to which I shall return.

Furedi associates the easy tolerance that degenerates into indifference with scepticism with regard to truth. Postmodernist scepticism, preached by, for example, the philosopher Richard Rorty or the popular theologian Don Cupitt, holds that there is no such thing as knowledge or truth. Every version of “truth” is as worthy to be heard as every other, as all are different narratives told from different points of view. We can, as Cupitt puts it, “keep darkness at bay” and amuse one another with our different stories, but there is no sense in the idea that we may together advance towards the common goal of truth.

In this climate of thought, it is easy to tolerate different narratives; indeed, there is nothing else we can do but listen politely and tell a different story. In this association, Furedi is surely right. And the deep flaw in such a laid-back theory of truth is that it does not work. In the most mundane way, we need to know whether, when we ask someone the time, they reply with a true answer; at a different level, we demand a distinction between the assertion that the Moon is made of green cheese and that it is not.

We know, moreover, that some versions of the alleged truth lead to violence and destruction; others do not. In the real world it is impossible to uphold the tolerance that would allow everyone to think what they like because thoughts are sometimes imperatives; they lead to actions. And so, as Furedi argues, the paradox of a political demand for tolerance is that it is combined with increasing attempts to control what we think and what we say and try to get other people to think. There is to be tolerance of a diversity of versions of the truth until these look threatening: then there is to be zero tolerance.

Alongside this increasing urge to control what we think and say, there is another enemy of real tolerance. To hold that there is nothing to choose between different versions of the truth is to be non-judgemental. But, Furedi argues, “without judgment, tolerance turns into a formulaic response whose main merit is that it unquestioningly offers respect-on-demand to different groups and standpoints”. The fourth chapter of his essay, of which this statement is the opening, is the most wonderfully vitriolic attack on first, the demand that non-scientific gobbledegook and superstition be treated as equally worthy to be heard as painstakingly accumulated evidence-based science; and, second, on what he calls “therapeutic non-judgmentalism”.

Critical judgement of the views of groups that are culturally different from our own is to be avoided, because to be judged is to be damaged. Criticism is psychological violence. All groups in society (except of course one’s own) are to be recognised as “vulnerable”, that is, unable to stand up against the injury of having their views and their culture subject to critical scrutiny.

This therapeutic view of tolerance or respect assumes that a person’s identity is determined by the cultural group to which he belongs, and that therefore his self-esteem will be diminished if that culture is criticised. But there, of course, as Furedi points out, “the hypocrisy of non-judgmentalism comes unstuck: for what is really required is a positive verdict” if the self-esteem of the group is to be preserved.

The consequence of this therapeutic view of tolerance or respect is that there is an increasing tendency for governments to intervene to prevent the expression of opinions that might damage the feelings of those who may take them as insulting or even simply contrary to their own views. Because the groups are deemed “vulnerable”, they are not thought able to stand up in their own defence.

And so we move on towards what Furedi calls “therapeutic censorship”, within which framework governments attempt to intervene and control the personal expression of opinion. And so here, in the end, Mill becomes relevant; for such intervention with private freedom is precisely the opposite of the doctrine of On Liberty.

So what is the essence of tolerance? Furedi argues that real tolerance cannot exist unless every opinion, every theory, every religious or moral belief is thought to be the legitimate subject of debate, openly expressed and able to be scrutinised. Tolerance in this sense is a reciprocal attitude of equals, and the debate will be carried on, in the hope at least, that all are equally rational. If this is the case, the debate will move towards a consensual truth. Some beliefs and opinions must fall to superior evidence. It follows that there will be zero tolerance only for superstitious obstinacy.

I am not sure that the concept of tolerance can be stretched to cover this doubtless attractive and civilised ideal. For in the end the people whose views are deemed by the rational to be irrational or plainly morally wrong will be tolerated only in the old grudging sense of the term (or “respected” in the weakest sense). Redefining tolerance does not really help us out of our dilemma. But Furedi has addressed a subject of the greatest importance, has uncovered numerous contradictions and much deep hypocrisy in our social discourse, and for this he is to be respected in the strongest sense, indeed greatly admired.

The Author

Born in Budapest, Frank Furedi emigrated to Canada with his family after the failed Hungarian revolution of 1956. He says the fortnight of the uprising was probably the most intense period of his life, especially as his father and elder sister were actively involved.

After gaining a bachelor’s degree in political science from McGill University, Furedi moved to England to pursue a master’s and a PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

He has lived in the UK for more than 40 years, but says: “I still feel like a nomad.” His first impressions were that “the food and weather were horrible, the people required hard work - but intellectually it is the most stimulating environment I have ever encountered”.

His non-intellectual passions are food, football and anything to do with mountains. When he left home at 16, he became homesick for Hungarian food, so his mother sent him a new recipe every week. In a different life he would have become a chef, he says, but he has been professor of sociology at the University of Kent since 1975.

First published by Times Higher Education, 29 September 2011

Review by Julian Baggini
Veteran intellectual pugilist Frank Furedi makes an attack on tolerance without engagement.

The battle for tolerance is part of an endless struggle for freedom.” These are suitably fighting words to conclude veteran intellectual pugilist Frank Furedi’s latest polemic. Furedi is a professor of sociology at the University of Kent, but he entered public life waging class war as a founder of the Revolutionary Communist party and is now often called the “guru” of the party’s descendent, The Institute of Ideas.

Many observers mutter about hidden agendas to explain the morphing of Furedi and his comrades from a Trotskyite vanguard party into a seemingly libertarian think-tank, indignant at the merest sniff of the nanny state and defensive of high art and learning against charges of elitism. However, the continuities are plain to see. The key members of this group have always been fiercely anti-statist believers in human beings’ ability to divine the truth for themselves through the power of reason. Against this backdrop, Furedi’s attack on what he calls “the banalisation of toleration” makes perfect sense.

Furedi certainly lands plenty of punches. His central point is that we should tolerate things we find despicable, stupid or even dangerous, not because we like them, but because “without the freedom to err people can never acquire the freedom to discover truths”. Even the most well-founded of beliefs become mere prejudices if their bases are not challenged and tested.

Tolerance, however, has come to mean something much more insipid: a refusal to make any judgment at all. Respect for reason and the autonomy of the individual is deformed into a respect for whatever people believe, for whatever reason they believe it. Values and beliefs come to stand outside rational scrutiny, as reflections of our social and cultural identities, not the products of rational deliberation. This has the effect of locking people into identities they were born into, lumbering them with values that are not seen as a matter of choice. In the name of respect for difference, freedom to think for oneself is thereby diminished, as belief becomes a matter of group membership, not individual conscience.

The diagnosis contains a great deal of truth. Furedi’s analysis, however, leans too heavily on an unashamedly fundamentalist Enlightenment view of human beings as rational autonomous individuals without qualification. While it is reasonable to propose that we should do nothing that undermines our rational or moral autonomy, it is quite another to act as though that autonomy were absolute. For instance, Furedi rejects the “fatalistic assumption” that children are born with different learning styles, and mocks research suggesting that there is some genetic basis for people’s tendency to be liberal or conservative. Such claims might offend our feelings of autonomy, but we cannot just dismiss them. Only by acknowledging and understanding the psychological forces beyond our free, rational control can we mitigate their effects on what and how we think.

Furedi, however, doesn’t engage deeply with what might be true in his opponents’ positions, as though trying to give due credit would be just another symptom of wimpish liberal respect for difference. He is right to say that we should not restrict freedom of speech to stop “mere offence”, as Mill put it. But this ignores completely the argument that we don’t just say things with words, we do things, too. Sexist talk in the boardroom can undermine or silence female colleagues, not just threaten them. Prejudiced questions in an interview can prevent someone from getting a job.

But ultimately, Furedi’s more than merely tolerable book perfectly illustrates his main point. It should be welcomed not because it is entirely right, but because tolerance does matter, and received ideas about what it means need to be challenged fiercely and intelligently, even if also wrongly.

Julian Baggini is author of ‘The Ego Trick’ (Granta). On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence, by Frank Furedi, Continuum, RRP £16.99, 224 pages.

First published by Financial Times, 16 September 2011

Review by Edward King
The sociologist argues that in our modern multicultural world we have lost sight of what it means to be truly tolerant.

Voltaire summarised the Enlightenment notion of tolerance when he proclaimed: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The sociologist Frank Furedi argues in his new book that we have lost sight of this original idea, the essence of which was later enshrined in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Whereas tolerance for Voltaire and Mill required “conviction and judgment”, Furedi claims, the modern multiculturalist version “frequently conveys the idea of respectful indifference”. While tolerance was once a way of engaging with differing opinions, today it has become a way of not taking other views seriously.

Furedi rails against a culture that treats the individual as “vulnerable”, in need of constant guidance, and argues that people are more robust than we give them credit for, and capable of making moral decisions. He decries any obstacles to this process of individual decision-making as a sinister species of New Intolerance. He accuses the writer George Monbiot of encouraging a modern-day witch hunt for not allowing climate-change “sceptics” to air their opinions, and argues that all state intervention into private life underestimates individuals’ capacity to make independent decisions.

Furedi has a knack for pointing up contradictions in public discourse and capturing social shifts with pithy labels such as “therapy culture” and “recognition politics”. However, he fails to practise what he preaches when he doesn’t fully address the main philosophical and scientific traditions that contradict his world view, hastily dismissing, for instance, neuroscience research that has highlighted the degree to which actions bypass rational decision-making.

First published by Sunday Times, 11 September 2011

The problem with tolerance. Review by Madeleine Bunting
Dragged into the politicisation of identity, tolerance has become a form of 'polite etiquette', argues Frank Furedi in a new book.

For a secular godless age, there is one virtue we promulgate about ourselves at almost all opportunities: tolerance. Among the British values often celebrated by politicians is our capacity for tolerance. Schools are required to instil values of tolerance into millions of children; Muslims are told to be tolerant by David Cameron. Tolerance has become something of a founding mythology for western developed nations: our tolerance is regarded as a mark of our superiority over many less tolerant, less developed nations around the world. Our tolerance – in contrast to the intolerance of many of our ancestors – is evidence of the concept of historical progress.

Our ancestors may have ripped each other apart over small theological differences, they may have persecuted those with different sexual preferences or ethnic identity, but in this enlightened age, we tolerate diversity. It is the one virtue the state regularly exhorts us to demonstrate.

But far from being the kind of unequivocal virtue the politicians proclaim it to be, take a closer look and the word collapses under the weight of contradicting expectations. A closer look is exactly what Frank Furedi, a sociologist, offers in a new book On Tolerance, which will infuriate and delight in equal measure – and probably leave a lot of confusion in its wake.

The problem is that tolerance – understood in its classical liberal sense as a virtue essential to freedom – has been hijacked and bankrupted, argues Furedi. Dragged into the politicisation of identity, tolerance has become a form of “polite etiquette”. Where once it was about the tolerance of individuals and their opinions, it has now been “redeployed to deal with group conflicts”. Once it was about opening the mind to competing beliefs, now it is about one that affirms different groups. Along this slippery path, much of the original importance of tolerance has been distorted or lost.

Tolerance has segued into meanings of nonjudgmentalism, recognition, acceptance, even implicitly, affirmation and respect. It has frequently slipped into a vague indifference – “you do what you like” type attitude to the people you live amongst.

What has been lost is JS Mill’s understanding that tolerance is crucial to freedom. That tolerance is about putting up with views and opinions you may deeply disagree with; tolerance does not require abdicating judgement, only the firm belief that it is in the cut and thrust of debate that there is the best chance of truth. Furedi is brilliant at skewering what he depicts as our lazy reluctance to judge, quoting Hannah Arendt to back him up. Judging is about using, to our best abilities our reasoning and empathy, to discriminate and discern; not bothering is a form of, literally, antisocial behaviour, a withdrawal from our responsibilities and obligations to other people.

There are no shortage of critics of this anaemic, bastardised version of tolerance. Tariq Ramadan, the Muslim thinker, loathes the contemporary rhetoric of tolerance as the “intellectual charity” of the powerful, part of the vocabulary of “cultural domination”. He says it is grudging and patronising. A left critique argues that tolerance is a discourse of “depoliticisation”. And the critiques from the right argue that tolerance has fatally weakened European identity; David Cameron even blamed the riots on tolerance. The right associates it with its twin evil, relativism.

Furedi is a famous contrarian – he takes on accepted wisdom and turns it on its head – and tolerance is the perfect subject for him. He knocks down the pieties and delusions of our age with neat elegance, but lands you up in very uncomfortable places. His argument is that in our enthusiasm for tolerance, we have actually become a deeply intolerant culture. We pass legislation to police hate speech, campaigners launch tirades of abuse on climate change deniers, New Atheists lambast religious believers. On all fronts, Furedi sees examples of a new intolerance – the very popularity of the phrase “zero-tolerance” indicates the problem.

This is not the intolerance of witchcraft trials or the inquisition, but in our smug complacency, we overlook today’s manifestations of enforcing conformity and managing behaviour. Furedi has no time for the paternalistic nudge theories of Cass Sunstein, which he argues provide evidence of how the Anglo-American cultural elites have little respect for the moral capacity and autonomy of normal people. Yet again, elites are trying to control other people’s lives: in the past they did it on religious grounds, now it’s legitimised by “research” from behavioural economics, neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. The result is that the liberal idea of “protecting the private sphere” is under serious cultural and political pressure.

This isn’t a book you can easily agree with and in a way that’s the point. It’s deliberately provocative. Tolerance needs new champions who will redefine and re-energise an overused and misused ideal.

But like any ideal, it cannot trump all other ideals all the time, so I part company with Furedi on how you manage the conflict between equality and tolerance, solidarity and freedom. Hate speech may still need to be banned in specific instances, I would argue. But Furedi is right that tolerance is not some sort of nonjudgemental indifference. That’s a cop out. Tolerance can be a really tough, demanding ideal of allowing space for the uncomfortable, the disagreeable and the radically different.

First published by Guardian, 5 September 2011

Tolerance hører nøje sammen med fordømmelse
Interview. »Man kan ikke være demokrat mandag og tirsdag og så kassere det onsdag og torsdag.« Mød den britiske sociolog Frank Furedi til en samtale om, hvorfor vi totalt har misforstået, hvad tolerance handler om. Klaus Wivel.


Tolerance er vor tids mest misforståede begreb. Selv om vi fordømmer intolerance, er det, hvad europæiske regeringer og vestlige universiteter i disse år reelt praktiserer.

Holdningen udfoldes hos Frank Furedi, britisk presses mest citerede sociolog. I næste uge udkommer professoren fra Kent Universitys forsøg på at sætte det hele på plads. On Tolerance - A Defence of Moral Autonomy hedder bogen, og i den griber sociologen tilbage til tolerancebegrebets mest berømte britiske foregangsmænd, John Locke (1632-1704) og især John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Vi tror, vi lever i et frisindet og fordomsfrit samfund, men Furedis bog er et langt dementi af det glansbillede.

»Jeg rejser ofte rundt i Europa og holder foredrag, og i Amsterdam stod jeg foran flere tusinde mennesker,« siger Frank Furedi, som Weekendavisen mødte, da han besøgte Aarhus Universitet i sidste uge.

»Det gik virkelig godt. Jeg havde fortalt i min tale, at det var forkert at nedlægge forbud mod islamister, sådan som nogle regeringer har gjort. De skal have lov til at sige, hvad de vil. Bagefter talte jeg med en af tilhørerne, som takkede mig for at være så frisindet. Men mens vi talte, fandt jeg ud af, at han mente, at der burde udstedes forbud mod at benægte Holocaust. Han mente altså, at der var noget, man burde forbyde og andet, der skulle være tilladt. Han repræsenterer efter min mening en stærkt udbredt tendens. Jeg møder meget sjældent folk, hvis frisind vender sig 360 grader. Men enten er man frisindet, eller også er man det ikke. Tolerance er ikke noget, man kan dele op i bidder. Enten accepterer man kernen af, hvad tolerance er, eller også må man droppe den tanke.«

Frank Furedi er selv en mand, som har levet af den parole, at frisind kun er frisind, hvis det retter sig mod alle fire ideologiske verdenshjørner. Og man kan ikke sige, at han er kommet gratis til det synspunkt. Furedi er født i Ungarn i 1947, hans mor overlevede et ophold i en koncentrationslejr under Anden Verdenskrig, og med sine forældre flygtede han som ni-årig til Canada, mens den ungarske opstand mod Sovjetunionen stod på i 1956.

»At vokse op i Ungarn under Den Kolde Krig betød, at jeg altid har været mod store stater. Min far sagde til mig, fra jeg var helt lille, at man aldrig skulle stole på staten. Det har jeg båret på lige siden. Men jeg har også altid følt, at er man demokrat, må man være det konsekvent. Man kan ikke kun være demokrat mandag og tirsdag og slå det fra onsdag og torsdag.«

Som ung kom Furedi i slutningen af 1960erne til Storbritannien, hvor han mødte sin kone og slog sig ned. Han var dengang aktiv kommunist, men af den særlige type der vendte sig mod statsindblanding i borgernes liv. Og fra og med 1980erne, hvor han blev en offentlig figur på den britiske venstrefløj, er han ofte raget uklar med sine egne, fordi han insisterede på at tale med folk, som han og hans ligesindede var totalt uenig med.

»I 1980erne blev jeg kaldt højreorienteret, selv om alle vidste, at jeg var marxist. Det skyldtes, at venstrefløjen ville forbyde racistiske højrefløjspartier i England som The National Front at tale til debatmøder. Sloganet var: ‘No platform for The National Front.’ Det var en kujonagtig holdning, mente jeg. Jeg skrev, at hvis man virkelig vil komme racisme til livs, tager man ud og debatterer med The National Front foran partiets egne tilhørere. I stedet for at søge efter administrative eller bureaukratiske måder at få dem til at tie stille på burde man have sine meningers mod. Hvad er pointen i at være anti-racist, hvis jeg pisser i bukserne af angst for at tale med racister? Da jeg skrev det, blev der ført en smædekampagne mod mig, hvori det fremgik, at jeg bøjede mig for racisme.«

Hvad man så dengang, var et klassisk eksempel på den konfliktskyhed, der til alle tider har præget venstrefløjen, fortsætter Furedi.

»Venstrefløjsfolk har historisk set altid fundet det mageligere at diskutere med deres egne - og ikke med et stort publikum, der bestod af almindelige mennesker,« forklarer sociologen.

»Den tendens er langt mere ekstrem i dag end dengang. Når jeg påpeger vigtigheden af at tage ud og diskutere med The British National Party - vor tids National Front - ser de på mig, som om jeg er Hitler.« Furedi skynder sig dog at påpege, at intolerance også har rod på højrefløjen.

»Højrefløjen har kørt en kampagne mod, at britiske universiteter har givet islamister en platform til at fremme deres sag, men jeg er en af de få akademikere, der har debatteret med radikale islamister, og jeg mener, at de skal have lov til at sige, hvad de vil. Som intellektuelle har vi så til gengæld et ansvar for at argumentere mod jihadisternes holdninger. Det gælder specielt, hvis vi kan gøre det foran unge muslimske tilhørere. Det er muligt, at man taber diskussionen over for langt de fleste tilhørere, men så længe man får plantet et frø hos en eller to eller bare underminerer modstanderens selvtillid en anelse, har man gjort noget godt. Den slags debatter er der næsten ingen, der tager. Der sker ingen interaktion. De taler med deres publikum, og vi taler med os selv.«

Frank Furedi er i hvert fald selv en herre, der ikke har ladet sig kue i kritikken. Han er aktiv kommentator i den britiske presse, og han skriver fast på det klassisk liberale og meget læste britiske internetmagasin Spiked. Han har skrevet bøger om universiteternes og de intellektuelles forfald (Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, 2009, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting 21st Century Philistinism, 2006), om paranoide forældres frygt for at opdrage deres børn (Licensed to Hug, 2008 og Paranoid Parenting, anden udgave 2008) og om vor tids lammende angst for alt fra terror til sygdomme (Culture of Fear, anden udgave 2002 og Politics of Fear, 2005).

Intolerancen mod såkaldt ‘farlige ytringer’ er en del af, hvad han ser som staternes og universiteternes nervøsitet over for fremtiden, og for at mennesket er i stand til at tænke selv. Frygtkulturen, som er altomfattende, har angrebet sproget, forklarer han.

»Vi er begyndt at opfatte sproget som forgiftet, som skadeligt. Det er klart, at ord kan gøre ondt. Men vi ved også, at mennesker evner at håndtere den smerte, som ord kan forårsage. Derfor er ytringsfriheden vigtigere end den smerte, den kan forårsage. Men vi tager ikke længere menneskers evne til at håndtere den smerte alvorligt. Nu kaldes ord ‘traumatiserende’, og det fremgår, at de kan fremkalde ‘psykiske lidelser’ og give ar, der aldrig heler. For at undgå det er vores ret til at udtrykke os frit blevet begrænset.«

Det er folk fra Furedis egen stand, som har foranstaltet den intolerante udvikling.

»Intellektuelle er meget vigtige i denne forvandling, fordi vi ikke længere har klare liberale grundtanker,« siger han.

»Historisk set har intellektuelle været afgørende i kampen for retten til fri meningsudveksling. Man mente, at samfundet udviklede sig til det bedre, hvis ideer fik lov at brydes. Ser man på universiteterne i dag, er der sket en ændring til det værre. Når jeg eksempelvis skal skrive en bog til universitetsforlaget, får jeg udleveret en liste af ord, jeg ikke må bruge i bogen. Det samme får man udleveret, hvis man skriver for et akademisk tidsskrift. Ord som ‘formand’ - det opfattes som sexistisk. Det skal hedde ‘forperson’. Jeg må heller ikke bruge det engelske udtryk ‘chinese whispers’, som handler om, hvordan en fjer kan blive til fem høns. Udtrykket opfattes som racistisk. Også ordet ‘seminal’ er det forbudt at anvende. Det har rod i ordet ‘sæd’ og betyder at være magtfuld på en kreativ måde, altså stærkt mandschauvinistisk. Det er jo censur, men det paradoksale er, at universiteterne selv opfatter det som tolerance.«

- Er det ikke fornuftigt at beskytte folk mod sproglige fordomme?

»Nej. Det er inkonsekvent, vi må kræve sproglig frihed. Ord, som du ikke må bruge mod nogle folk, må du gerne bruge mod andre - eksempelvis mod den hvide arbejderklasse. På amerikansk siger man ‘redneck’ eller ‘trailer trash’. I England siger vi ‘tabloid readers’, ‘Essex man’, ord, der bruges nedladende, men som det er i orden at anvende. Men bruger man samme type ord om andre grupper, vil det blive anset for at være uacceptabelt. De folk, der bruger ord som ‘redneck’, opfatter sig ikke som intolerante. For dem er det neutrale beskrivelser.«

- Hvorfor er specielt universiteterne blevet indfanget af denne forskelsbehandlende undertrykkelse af sproget?

»Universiteterne er i løbet af de seneste 30 år blevet optaget af den såkaldte identitetspolitik. Den handler om at blive anerkendt for den gruppe, man er en del af. ‘Jeg er en kvinde’, ‘jeg er sort’, ‘jeg er bøsse’, ‘jeg er mexicaner’, ‘jeg er handicappet’ - når man siger det, forventer man at blive anerkendt. Det er nærmest et obligatorisk krav. Siger jeg noget, eller bruger jeg et ord, der kan misforstås på en måde, så det lyder, som om jeg ikke anerkender disse grupper, anses det for at være fornærmende. Man behøver blot at sige, at man er fornærmet, så ophører al diskussion. Men alle gode ideer, der nogensinde er opstået, har været fornærmende for nogen, ellers ville ideen ikke have været interessant.«

- Er det ikke et tegn på tolerance at tage hensyn til disse gruppers følelser?

»Nej. Ideen om tolerance er opstået, fordi der var brug for et redskab, der kunne få folk, der hadede hinanden, til at bo ved siden af hinanden. Efter religionskrigene i Europa, som varede frem til midten af 1600-tallet, opstod tanken om at anerkende, at mennesker har ret til at leve efter, hvad deres samvittighed dikterer, og at de har ret til at leve efter, hvad de tror på. Det er, hvad tolerance handler om. Det er ikke det samme som at sige, at en protestant skal respektere katolicisme og give den religion anerkendelse. Tværtimod må han gerne sige, at katolicisme er forfærdelig og en synd, men ikke desto mindre anerkende katolikkens ret til at praktisere sin religion. Det er en vidunderlig og enormt vigtig ide, at man på en og samme tid kan dømme sine modstandere som syndere og vildførte og anerkende, at det er vigtigere, at deres ideer får lov at udtrykke sig, end at de bliver undertrykt. Det vil sige, at tolerance hører nøje sammen med fordømmelse. Men i dag opfattes tolerance som en ide om, at man ikke må fordømme andre. Det er fuldstændig misforstået.«

- Er der ikke ideer, som er så voldsomme, at de må undertrykkes?

»Folk har ret til at udtrykke deres tanker, ligegyldigt hvor gruopvækkende de er. Og jeg vil gå så langt som til at sige, at de også har ret til at følge deres ideer i praksis, så længe det ikke er til skade for andre. Hele ideen om at opfordre til vold er meget kompliceret, men filosoffen John Stuart Mill gav en god forklaring: Han sagde, at det er i orden, hvis nogen siger, at bankfolk er grufulde og burde hænges. Det må de godt. Men har man en gruppe mennesker med fakler, der står foran en bank og råber, at den skal brændes ned, er den potentielle skadevirkning stor nok til at retfærdiggøre, at de standses. Det er således ikke talens indhold, men den situation, hvori talen indgår, der afgør, om en stat må skride ind.«

Lytter man til Furedi, er det forbavsende, hvor svært det er at placere ham politisk.

»Jeg har et problem,« erkender han.

»Historisk har jeg altid anset mig for at være venstreorienteret. Spørger du mig, hvilken side jeg ville være på i Den Spanske Borgerkrig, i 1917 i Rusland, under Den Franske Revolution, ville jeg ikke have noget problem med at svare. Jeg har altid troet, at venstrefløjen bekendte sig til Oplysningstiden. Jeg mener ikke, jeg har ændret mig særligt meget, men det har verden. Venstrefløjen har mistet tiltroen til individets selvstændighed og evne til at ændre fremtiden og er blevet konservativ. Og højrefløjen har mistet troen på sine traditionelle værdier: nationen, race, kulturelle normer, kapitalisme.«

Også når det kommer til det sidste årtis mest betændte emne, indvandring, er Furedi også vanskelig at placere. Den ungarskfødte sociolog er ingen kritiker af indvandring, men det multikulturelle samfund ser han på med dyb skepsis. Alligevel delte han ikke den britiske premierminister David Camerons kritik, da han i februar 2011 sagde, at »den statslige multikulturalisme« var slået fejl.

»Cameron er klar over, at samfundet er fragmenteret,« forklarer Furedi. »Han mener, at det skyldes, at nye miljøer er opstået som følge af indvandring, og at de ikke ønsker at blive britiske. Det er muligvis sandt i en vis forstand, men processen er langt mere kompliceret. Det egentlige problem er, at det britiske samfund farer i blinde. Det har vanskeligt ved at forklare, hvad det vil sige at være britisk. Min søn på 15 aner stort set intet om engelsk historie, og han har bogstaveligt talt aldrig læst en eneste engelsk roman. Jeg er ikke engang engelsk, men da jeg var på hans alder, havde jeg læst masser af engelske romaner, Jane Austen og så videre. Med andre ord: Han er stort set overhovedet ikke sat ind i engelsk kultur. Når man har en situation, hvor unge briter vokser op totalt afskåret fra deres egen kulturarv, er det ikke mærkeligt, at vi har et britisk samfund, som ikke kan definere sig selv. Så problemet er ikke, at indvandrere ikke vil integrere sig. Problemet er, at de intet har at integrere sig i.«

For Furedi er det et tegn på en dyb eksistentiel krise i de europæiske lande.

»Der er i England og over hele Europa en mangel på selvtillid, når det gælder, hvilken type nation vi er. Vi har det meget bedre med at vise respekt for, hvad vi ikke er, frem for at definere hvad vi er. Denne mangel på kulturel selvtillid er opstået samtidig med store globale forandringer. Derfor bryder mange sig ikke om indvandrere, og mange muslimer vil også vende sig mod de lande, de er flyttet til. Jeg hører ofte unge muslimer sige, at de ikke vil blive englændere: ‘Se på hvad englænderne gør: De bliver fulde hver eneste aften. De bander og tager narko. Sådan vil jeg ikke leve’. I stedet for at vi integrerer dem, støder vi dem fra os. De siger egentlig: ‘I ved ikke, hvem I er. Hvordan kan I så forvente, at vi skal blive ligesom jer?’«

- Skyldes denne kulturelle rådvildhed, at nationalisme er blevet et slags bandeord?

»Jeg ved ikke, om det er blevet et bandeord. Men det er blevet vagt. Vi har et parti, som kalder sig nationalt, men jeg ved ikke, hvad de mener. Alle de europæiske partier, som kalder sig nationale, er, når man kradser lidt i overfladen, meget usikre, provinsielle og indadvendte.«

- Hvordan kan europæiske lande få en mere selvsikker national identitet?

»Man skal ikke genopbygge nationen, det er umuligt. Men europæere kan godt opbygge et mere sofistikeret og modent syn på deres kulturelle arv. I øjeblikket flygter vi fra det ansvar og tillader i stedet et meget lille antal meget konservative mennesker at monopolisere den opgave. Vi kunne begynde med at genopdage, at den europæiske arv er tolerance. Og frihed. Ser man på Oplysningstiden, er den en meget positiv og stærk tradition, som vi kan trække på. Men jeg får af og til på fornemmelsen, at vi sælger ud af den tradition. Vi lever i en globaliseret verden, som forandrer sig med lynets hast, og derfor er det nemt at glemme, at det er vigtigt at genopfinde Oplysningstidens ideer i disse nye omgivelser.«

- Er det så på højrefløjen, man skal finde Oplysningstidens nye foregangsmænd?

»Nogle har på opportunistisk vis fremført Oplysningstiden, jeg er blot ikke sikker på, at de egentlig mener det. Men der findes en gruppe mennesker i Europa, som jeg ville kalde anti-politisk-korrekte-liberale, som jeg gerne vil identificere mig med. De tror på individets rettigheder. De forstår vigtigheden af moralsk uafhængighed. Venstrefløjen har traditionelt set aldrig været særlig interesseret i individet. De var interesseret i solidaritet. Hvis man i dag vil være progressiv - og sådan ser jeg på mig selv, selv om andre måske vil være uenige - skal man have en stærk tro på individet, hvis man nogensinde skal komme til at tro på solidaritet i fremtiden. Svage individer danner ingen front. De er atomiserede og fragmenterede. Vi skal genvinde respekten for den individuelle autonomi og for individets rettigheder. Staten skal holde fingrene fra vores liv. Sådan vil jeg definere mig selv politisk.«

First published by Weekendavisen, 23 August 2011

Hirmu anatoomia
Kas tead, miks tuleb kasutada häid päikeseprille?Mele Pesti kohtus Tallinnas käinud hirmu-uurija Frank Furediga (64) ja uuris temalt, miks me kardame seda, mida me kardame, ja kui põhjendatud meie hirmud on.

Eestit külastas üks tänapäeva tuntumaid hirmu-uurijaid – 1947. aastal Budapestis sündinud briti sotsioloog Frank Furedi. Oma arvukates raamatutes näitlikustab, kuidas elame uutmoodi hirmude ajastul. Mitte kunagi varem ei ole nii suur osa inimkonnast muretsenud maailma teises otsas lahvatanud haiguskolde või terrorirünnaku pärast. Ja kui inimese loomulik reaktsioon oleks ohu eest põgeneda või sellele vastu hakata, siis kuhu joosta või kellega võidelda Jaapani tuumareaktori plahvatus eest? Hirm, puhuti ka ebaratsionaalne, ronib naha alla, ei leia lahendust ja tõstab inimese ja ühiskonna üldist ärevuse taset.

Mele Pestile antud intervjuus räägib Kenti ülikooli professor sellest, miks need asjad nii on ning kuidas tulla toime tõeliste ja kujuteldavate hirmudega. Seejuures peab ta alati vajalikuks mõelda kriitiliselt ning küsima endalt ja teistelt, mida ühe või teise hirmu õhutamine tähendab ja miks seda tehakse. Küsimused, millele Furedi vastust otsib, on kahtlemata eriti aktuaalsed nüüd – Norra terrorirünnakute valguses.

Full interview in pdf format here.

First published by Ekspress.ee, 29 July 2011

The parental spending craze
By Vanessa Barford.


Parents have always felt the pressure to provide for their children, but for some the cost of parenting is proving more expensive than ever - and it’s not just down to traditional economics.

With childcare costs going through the roof, education expenditure increasing and university tuition fees at record levels, it is no wonder some parents are feeling the financial strain of parenthood.

Insurer LV= estimates that the cost of raising a child to the age of 21 now totals more than £210,000 - up 50%, or by £70,450, since 2003.

More and more children are getting televisions for their bedrooms Official organisations - such as the Office for National Statistics (ONS) or the British Retail Consortium (BRC), which represents shops - tend not to keep data on how much parents spend on their children. But anecdotal evidence suggests that escalating costs are partly down to the fact that some parents, and not just the wealthy ones, are willing to fork out more on fashionable accessories.

The fact that parents - particularly new ones - are under pressure to buy the latest products and gadgets is an age-old story. But the competition between parents to have the best baby accessories appears to have increased over the past few years.

Is it, as some experts suggest, partly to do with the fact that some parents are increasingly seeing children as a statement of themselves?

As such, some baby goods have been recast as status symbols and nowhere is this better reflected than the pram, pushchair and buggy market. This has seen a 13% rise in spending between 2008 and 2010 and now accounts for 30% of all spend on baby and nursery goods.

The Bugaboo Donkey, for example, can set you back as much as a second-hand car. At £1,200, it is the ultimate gadget for the aspiring yummy mummy.

The popularity of such items appears to have grown in line with the public’s interest in celebrity parents and babies, according to consumer research experts Mintel.

For example, fashion and design have become a feature of the market for baby goods, the company says.

The demand for nursery furniture grew by 10% between 2008 and 2010 to reach £137m - a trend Mintel says was fuelled by the desire for a perfectly co-ordinated nursery.

Technology is also playing its part - with nearly one fifth of parents of children aged 0-4 years having bought a television for their baby’s bedroom, rising to 28% of parents of children aged 15-24.

The Bugaboo Donkey that is on celebrities’ shopping list Yet hand-me-downs are still an important source of young children’s products - with three in 10 buying second-hand to save money, and nearly four in 10 borrowing items from friends or family.

So what is fuelling the buying boom - and how widespread is it?

Parenting expert and sociologist Frank Furedi thinks that parents to an “unusual degree” are living “actively through the way their children appear - or they appear with their children”. This is because they see their children as a statement of themselves, he says.

But rather than it being a case of parents simply succumbing to peer pressure, he believes it is a reflection of the way the culture of parenting has evolved.

“Every politician, every expert, says that what we do determines what our child becomes - their accomplishment becomes a reflection on their parents, their failure a condemnation.

“That kind of pressure erodes the line between mother and father and child, financially and emotionally,” he says.

With parents encouraged to continually monitor, survey and guide the minutiae of a child’s life, he says, it is not surprising they lose sight of what is going on and push their purchasing power.

And he says the emotional and financial pull can be very powerful.

“The same people that compare prices in supermarkets reasonably carefully have a much more casual attitude when it comes to gimmicky accessories for their children - they give themselves permission to make expenditures they would normally think twice about.

“It’s often only in the cold light of day - perhaps if they experience financial problems or question why they spent so much money on clothes that swiftly become irrelevant - that they begin to realise a lack of financial inhibition that they somehow need to put right,” he says.

Justine Roberts, co-founder of Mumsnet, agrees that emotions can often lead parents to spend more than they should, but she says it is because they see spoiling their children as a way of expressing their love.

“Parents tend to be pushovers because they want to do the best for their child, it’s a natural human blindness which sometimes overshadows sensible options,” she says.

But she thinks it tends to be first-time mothers that get “caught up in hype” and “all the wonderful looking things out there”.

“The more seasoned mothers - maybe those who are on their third or fourth child - recognise that they don’t need to buy every piece of expensive equipment on the market, and that much of it will end up being unused, taking up valuable space in the corner of a room,” she says.

Journalist, writer and mother-of-four, Rosie Millard, agrees that new parents are particularly vulnerable to pressures.

“Before people have children they often think of them as mini adults, when actually young children don’t notice brands and aren’t bothered about expensive food - they just want time and attention,” she says.

But, Millard, who used the same pram for her four children, now 13, 11, eight and six, says most parents quickly realise what is worth investing in - and how to be savvy about cutting costs.

“There are lots of ways to beat hyperinflation. It’s a case of hand-me-downs, going to the zoo but taking a picnic or having a cinema night at home with home-made popcorn, or looking at what the state provides - like the local swimming pool and local park,” she says.

First published by BBC News Online, 17 May 2011

Dominic Lawson: Smile, the happiness police are watching
The entire nation is being swept up into children’s party mode. The big new idea is that we must all be happy — and let the government know it.

Among the many forms of tyranny imposed on young children by their parents is the insistence that the little mites must at all times be happy.

This is sometimes enforced at birthday parties by the communal singsong: “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands / If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands / If you’re happy and you know it / And you really want to show it / If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.”

My sympathies always go out to those poor children, obliged to clap along in a commanded mime of joy just to convince Mummy and Daddy that they simply couldn’t be happier — even if the hired clown was scary and held Rosie in a rather peculiar way.

Now the entire nation is being swept up into children’s party mode. The big new idea is that we must all be happy — and let the government know it. This month the Office for National Statistics (ONS), under specific orders from Downing Street, has been asking hundreds of thousands of families how happy they are — in order to fulfil David Cameron’s vision of a “general happiness index”. At the same time a self-proclaimed “new mass movement for a happier society”, Action for Happiness, has been launched, with the aim of boosting the numbers of people who will draw a smiley face when the ONS comes by with its questionnaires.

It will be interesting to see how the government’s statisticians cope with the amorphous, paradoxical and fleeting phenomenon that goes under the name of happiness. According to the Daily Mirror — no admirer of Mr Cameron, admittedly — the exercise has been a “potty” waste of time and money. It claimed that one of its readers had given the following response to the ONS, in answer to the central question “What would make you happier?”: “Better quality pies and chip butties ... cheese and tomato toasties with ketchup on the side, white bread. Bacon sandwiches, actually sandwiches in general.”

Another respondent, in answer to the same question on the form, wrote: “A pint just isn’t the same any more when I need to go outside in all weathers to smoke.” According to Action for Happiness, one of the “10 key components” of a happy life is to do nothing that endangers our health; but somehow I don’t imagine those Daily Mirror readers would be alone in regarding this as less than self-evident, whatever the middle classes tell them to think.

Those fixated with the idea of creating a happiness index — who declare such traditional data as gross domestic product to be no guide to wellbeing or welfare — often claim to be mere social scientists without any hidden agenda. In fact they want to nationalise happiness. Lord Layard is the undisputed guru of the movement in Britain, a co-founder of Action for Happiness and one of the inspirations behind Cameron’s take-up of this idea. Layard argues that there should be “an educational revolution in which a central purpose of our schools becomes to help young people learn the secrets of the happy life and the happy society”.

The secrets? Yes, Layard and his acolytes are an exclusive secular priesthood, replacing the now obscure doctrine that true joy is to be found through being close to God with new commandments calling on us to give up smoking and jog for at least 30 minutes a day. And don’t think that such wisdom as the happiness gurus dispense can be absorbed individually in the privacy of our homes. This work “can only be done by schools”, says Layard: “If we want to change the culture, the main organised institutions we have under social control are schools.”

It takes a former chairman of Britain’s Revolutionary Communist party, in the form of Frank Furedi, to appreciate the sinister antecedents. As the professor of sociology at Kent University notes: “Happiness has become the latest ‘big idea’ to capture the attention of a political class which is otherwise running on empty. Of course, the idea is not so new. Stalin affectionately referred to himself as ‘the constructor of happiness’ [and] took a great interest in imaginatively inventing statistics to prove it ... Uncle Joe was entirely cynical ... mass-producing pictures of smiley faces to distract attention from the destructive consequences of his terrible policies. In contrast, many of today’s political elites who are bereft of any ideas and projects have genuinely and desperately embraced happiness as their one big cause.”

I’m sure Furedi is right in not regarding Cameron’s adoption of this idea as cynical. The Conservative leader is a man of generally optimistic disposition who wants everyone to share his own sunny outlook. Yet it cannot be entirely coincidental that he is promoting the idea that growth in happiness is more important than growth in gross domestic product at a time when most families are likely to face a fall in their living standards. It is not Cameron’s fault that he has inherited such economic circumstances as prime minister, but he would be less than human if he were not worried about the need to produce statistics that appeared to demonstrate the public are happy, even if they are becoming poorer.

That still leaves the little problem of what a “happiness” index really measures. Ever since Jeremy Bentham drew up his absurd “felicific calculus”, with its subdivisions of “intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity, purity and extent”, it has been evident that the measurement of happiness is doomed precisely because happiness itself is not something that can be converted into numbers or units.

Professor Martin Seligman, a pioneer of “positive psychology” whose work allegedly galvanised Cameron, has now distanced himself from the “happiness agenda” partly for such basic reasons. While denying he had recanted, Seligman this month denounced what he termed “happyology” and said: “The word happiness always bothered me because it was scientifically unwieldy and meant a lot of different things to different people.” As Seligman also notes: “What humans want is not just happiness ... If that were all people were interested in, we should have been extinguished a long time ago.”

The most devastating rebuke to the notion of a state devoted to the maximising of happiness was published almost 80 years ago in the form of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. His dystopian fantasy is set in a benevolent, efficient totalitarian state, in which the drug “soma” provides the inhabitants of the brave new world with a constant chemically induced happiness. This is not so much the welfare state as the therapeutic state.

A character known as “John the Savage” rebels against Brave New World’s religion of happiness and declares: “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy ... not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent ... the right to be lousy ... the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow.” The reader, I think, is meant to understand that John represents the real nature of man; but to Layard and his acolytes “the Savage” would be just that, a savage, and must be re-educated.

In addressing what it describes as “the sceptics”, Action for Happiness points out that a not unsuccessful country known as the United States of America has the “pursuit of happiness” at the heart of its founding principles. The founding founders, however, were not attempting to define happiness, still less to instruct the people as to what their happiness should comprise.

“If you’re happy and you know it and you really want to show it, vote for me” might yet be the slogan on which Cameron fights the next general election. Does the prospect make you want to clap your hands, boys and girls?

First published by Sunday Times, 24 April 2011

Report calls for end to Vetting and Barring Scheme
An updated edition of Licensed to Hug (Civitas) by Professor Frank Furedi and Jennie Bristow is calling for the government to shut down a controversial scheme intended to regulate contact between adults and children.

Introduced in 2009, the Vetting and Barring Scheme (VBS) replaced several previous barring lists and schemes and was rolled out to a wide range of employees, volunteers, employers and service providers. However, in the 2008 edition of their report, the authors exposed the many absurdities and dangers of such schemes. They also correctly predicted that barring schemes would subject a quarter of the population to intensive scrutiny of their personal lives, interfere with sensible arrangements made between parents, institutionalise mistrust between the generations and discourage volunteering.

With the updated edition, the authors now outline recent developments and provide case studies that demonstrate how the VBS has been at best a costly distraction and, at worst, has created an atmosphere of suspicion that actually increases the risks to children and damages relations between the generations. It also reinforces the authors’ previous observation that perhaps one of the worst aspects of the scheme is that it doesn’t guarantee that a child will be safe with a particular adult – instead, it merely provides information confirming that the adult in question has not been convicted of an offence in the past.

The updated edition also calls on the government to adopt a radically new approach which recognises that the healthy interaction between generations enriches children’s lives. It states that rather than create an atmosphere of fear and suspicion, society should be encouraged to operate from the assumption that the majority of adults have no predatory attitudes towards children, thereby fostering greater openness and more frequent contact between the generations.

Professor Furedi, who recently gave evidence at a House of Commons Education Committee review into child protection issues, said: ‘In June this year, the Home Secretary Theresa May announced that the government was to conduct a major review of the VBS and that all current registrations to the scheme have been put on hold. But given the damage the scheme has done to individuals, organisations and society in general, we are calling for the VBS to be shut down.’

Jennie Bristow, author of Standing up to Supernanny, added: ‘The vetting scheme creates unpleasant and unnecessary barriers between parents and other adults in their communities. Parents and voluntary groups need the freedom to make their own decisions about who they can trust.’

Copies of Licensed to Hug (2010) may be obtained from Civitas (020 7799 6677/ .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)). Contact: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Media coverage

Every parent will end up on vetting database unless it is scrapped, warns think tank. Tom Whitehead, Daily Telegraph, 27 September 2010

Call to scrap child contact vetting system. BBC News Online, 27 September 2010

‘Paedophile’ vetting plan for adults is condemned as ‘poisonous’. Jack Doyle, Daily Mail, 27 September 2010

Call to scrap child vetting system. Press Association, 27 September 2010

We would be better off without the vetting and barring scheme. Philip Johnston, Daily Telegraph, 27 September 2010

How police vetting of adults fuels the public’s paedo-hysteria. Ed West, Daily Telegraph blog, 27 September 2010

Civitas urges government to scrap vetting and barring scheme. Kat Baldwyn, Children & Young People Now, 27 September 2010

Vetting System Could Lead to a Fall of Volunteers in Children’s Initiatives. Rasik Sharma, Top News, 27 September 2010

New calls to end the Vetting and Barring Scheme. i-volunteer, 27 September 2010

First published by University of Kent, 27 September 2010

£2.25 Million Accident Compensation Paid To Children Injured At School
As many as ten school children per week are making accident compensation claims for injuries suffered at school.

A recent survey of Britain’s local authorities has revealed that almost £2.25 million pounds was paid to pupils injured in classroom or playground accidents last year alone. With the highest amount being paid by Poole County Council, who awarded a young boy £33,500 after he was injured performing the high jump.

Other successful claims included £29,000 paid by Surrey County Council to a pupil burned after sitting on a radiator, a child who slipped on ice was awarded £23,000 by Essex County Council, a foam javelin which hit a pupil in the eye cost Wakefield Council £3,275 and a boy who fell from an exercise bike in Lincolnshire received £4,500.

Minor accidents in Middlesbrough schools led to the council having to pay £11,000 compensation to pupils, with similar claims leading to a compensation bill of £3,700 for Gloucestershire County Council.

The survey of local councils revealed under the Freedom of Information act, showed that at least 400 school children made successful claims for personal injuries received whilst in the care of their school.

First published by InjuriesDirect.com, 27 September 2010

Injured pupils sue councils for millions
Councils paid out some £2.25m in compensation last year to pupils who suffered injuries at school. By Robin Mannering.

Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act show as many as 10 children a week are successfully suing schools following accidents in classrooms, sports fields and playgrounds.

Poole BC paid £33,500 in compensation to a pupil who missed the high jump landing mat during a PE lesson, while Surrey CC awarded £29,000 to a pupil who suffered burns after sitting on a radiator.

John Ransford, chief executive of the Local Government Association, said: ‘When people have a legitimate claim for compensation it’s important they are able to get the damages they’re entitled to, and that the organisation involved is able to learn from anything that went wrong.

‘There is a real fear that the presence of no-win-no-fee lawyers encourages some people to chance their arm, clogging up the system with spurious claims that cost a substantial amount of taxpayers’ money.

‘The money spent investigating and handling compensation claims is valuable funding which could otherwise be spent on frontline services to help and support all residents.’

First published by LocalGov.co.uk, 27 September 2010

£2m bill as ten kids a week sue our schools
Pupils hurt in school accidents were handed £2.25million in compensation last year. By Clodagh Hartley.

At least ten kids a week picked up bumper payouts after suing for injuries in the classroom or playground.

Many were for minor mishaps such as slipping on a wet floor or falling off a climbing frame. The enormous sums revealed by the survey have raised fears that “compensation culture” is out of control.

One expert believes this is helping to ruin kids’ education.

Sociology professor Frank Furedi said: “There is little doubt that children’s school experience has suffered because of compensation culture. Some schools are using it as an excuse to avoid the hassle of organising trips and activities.”

The biggest payout was £33,500 given by Poole Council to a pupil who missed the landing mat while doing the high jump.

A student who burned their legs on a radiator was handed £29,000 by Surrey Council, while Essex Council paid £23,000 to a kid who slipped on ice. Even schools that try to protect kids get sued. Wakefield Council paid out £3,275 to a child hit with a FOAM javelin.

Lawyers’ fees and legal costs bump up the figures even more.

The survey of 140 councils found 400 successful compensation claims in 38 weeks of school last year.

Emma Boon of the TaxPayers’ Alliance said: “There are too many spurious or opportunistic claims.”

First published by The Sun, 27 September 2010

Damages to hurt pupils is ‘immoral’
Cash payments to 10 children a week for injuries at school were slammed as "immoral" yesterday.

About £2.25million was shelled out by councils last year after pupils were hurt in the classroom, sports field or playground.

One of the biggest awards was to a pupil in Surrey who got £29,000 for burns he suffered when he sat on a radiator.

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent University, said compensation culture was ruining kids’ education.

He added: “Demanding compensation from public sector bodies is immoral, it is a demand for taxpayers to cough up the cash.”

The figures came out under the Freedom of Information Act.

First published by Mirror, 27 September 2010

‘Ten pupils a week winning injury payouts from school accidents’
Ten children are winning thousands of pounds in payouts from the public purse every week over accidents at school, new figures show.

Schoolchildren are winning compensation for accidents at school, a new study claims

Many claims were for everyday mishaps such as fingers being trapped in doors and playground tumbles.

Lawyers’ fees bumped up the figure. One pupil was awarded £1,000 for a glue gun burn, while the child’s solicitors pocketed £7,250 and Bexley Council in London spent £1,650 on its own legal advice.

Sociology professor Frank Furedi, the author of Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, said: ‘Demanding compensation from schools and other public sector bodies is immoral – for it is a demand for you and I and other taxpayers to cough up the cash.’

The figures come from a survey of local authorities which paid out on claims for injuries to almost 400 pupils in the 38-week school year.

Wakefield Council paid out £3,275 after a child was injured when they were hit in the eye with a foam javelin.

In North Lincolnshire, the council paid £4,500 after a student was injured falling off an exercise bike. Surrey paid £29,000 after a student suffered leg burns from sitting on a radiator, while drink spills led to claims of £11,000 in Middlesbrough and £3,700 in Gloucestershire.

Local government leaders blame the rise of ‘no-win, no-fee’ legal firms for the rise in payouts. Solicitors are advertising their services online and detail how you can cash in on accidents in the playground.

Prof Furedi said: ‘Compensation culture is bad enough but, unfortunately, some school authorities opportunistically use the threat of litigation as an excuse to avoid the hassle of organising trips and activities.

‘The government should ban litigation against the public sector and find other ways of holding individuals to account in education and health.’

John Ransford, of the Local Government Association, said legitimate claims entitled children to damages.

But he added: ‘There is a real fear that the presence of no-win, no-fee lawyers encourages some people to chance their arm, clogging up the system with spurious claims that cost a substantial amount of taxpayers’ money.’

First published by Metro, 26 September 2010

Shoesmith to give evidence to inquiry
Former Haringey director of children's services will appear before meeting of education select committee next week. By Patrick Butler.

Sharon Shoesmith, the former Haringey director of children’s services controversially sacked over the Baby Peter tragedy is to give evidence to an MPs’ inquiry.

She will appear before a meeting of the education select committee convened next week to examine current issues in child protection.

Shoesmith became the centre of public and media hysteria after a court case in November revealed gruesome details of the death of 17-month-old Peter Connelly at the hands of his mother, and her lover and her lodger the previous year. Peter, who was on Haringey council’s protection register, and had been the subject of 60 visits by health visitors, police and social workers, had been severely beaten.

Shoesmith was blamed by tabloid newspapers for the tragedy despite evidence that crucial errors by doctors, lawyers and police officers meant chances to save Peter were missed.

The former children’s secretary Ed Balls removed Shoesmith from her post after a three week campaign against her by The Sun newspaper during which she received anonymous death threats.

She is currently considering an appeal against a court ruling in April which rejected her application for a judicial review of her removal and subsequent sacking in December 2008.

The Committee will examine current issues in safeguarding, including accountability, inspection and the Munro Review of child protection, as well as looking at the policy direction of the new Government.

The meeting due to be held next Wednesday wil also hear evidence from the minister responsbible for children’s social care, Tim Loughton, Children’s Commissioner for England, Maggie Atkinson, Colin Green, of Association of Directors of Children’s Services, and Professor Frank Furedi.

In two years since the baby Peter controversy spending on child protection has soared, with record numbers of youngsters being referred to social workers, being put on the child protection register and being taken into care.

First published by Guardian, 10 September 2010

What happened in Calgary schoolyard was shocking, horrible…and not true
Reports of an attack on a 12-year-old girl behind a Calgary school turned out not to be true, police say. By Ted Rhodes.

There might have been some bizarre things about what happened in the baseball diamond behind Clarence Sansom Junior High on Monday. But certainly none of them were, it turns out, nearly as shocking as Calgarians had been led to, and were apparently prepared to, believe. Actually, they may not have even been that bizarre.

News broke in local media that there had been an “attack” on a 12-year-old girl. Witnesses were “horrified.” She was “possibly raped,” said reports, while a crowd of youths looked on indifferently, recording the act on their cellphone cameras. A nearby resident, who watched the incident from her home, reported that the girl had been screaming. “I didn’t believe my eyes,” a “shaken” Rasheda Bee told the Calgary Herald. A teacher inside the school called police, who arrested a 16-year-old boy and reportedly seized phones from the onlookers.

The episode was “sick and shocking,” one prominent columnist wrote on Twitter. The city’s most popular morning talk-show host suggested the case would put the “justice system on trial” as to whether it could hold the “kid who raped a 12-year-old” accountable for the crime.

The story, in hours, was on national news channels. Alberta’s Premier weighed in. “It’s absolutely disgusting,” Ed Stelmach said. “It’s incomprehensible, if it’s true, to have someone watch something like that happen.… I just can’t believe that somebody would just stand idle and not do anything to save a person in a situation like this.”

He was careful: “If it’s true,” he emphasized.

It wasn’t.

The account of the random girl raped on a public schoolyard while a gang of amoral tweens nonchalantly collected footage for YouTube had veered so far from reality so quickly that police rushed to hold a news conference on Tuesday morning to clear things up. This was not standard practice, says child abuse Staff Sergeant Leah Barber. Usually police wait until after they lay charges to go public. But it was necessary.

The story was this, Staff Sgt. Barber clarified: The girl had met the boy online and arranged to meet him at the schoolyard. She brought her friends, and he brought his. The two had been drinking. They had sex.

After interviewing the witnesses, including the girl’s friends, she said there were no reports of any violence, no restraint, no one being forced to do anything against her will. Most kids “meandered away to give them some privacy, I guess,” Staff Sgt. Barber says.

Police confiscated one cellphone; no photos or video were recovered. The girl was checked at the hospital and released. Charges of “sexual interference” — commonly called statutory rape — are pending, because the girl’s age, relative to the boy’s, means she cannot have legally consented to the sex.

“It is kind of unfortunate that this has been portrayed as a random, violent attack,” Staff Sgt. Barber says.

With its lessons of youth’s moral depravity and the menace of digital technologies, the original version of the story accommodated perfectly one of today’s most pervasive moral panics, says Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the U.K.’s University of Kent and author of Culture of Fear.

“There’s an incredible appetite for new kinds of victims and new kinds of crimes,” Mr. Furedi says.

Adults have been suspicious of the deviance of youth since at least the ’50s when teenagers first emerged as a distinct, exotic subculture (think about panics over rock ’n’ roll or “Reefer Madness”). As online social networks and cellphones emerged as the primary site of unfamiliarity between parents and their children, Mr. Furedi says, the technology itself becomes threatening. Witness alarming media stories in recent years that imply dangerously rampant cyber-bullying in schools, despite major studies showing that today’s youths are less bullied and more tolerant of diversity than they were just 20 years ago. As for claims of youth’s moral apathy, the adult teacher and neighbour apparently believed a crime was occurring, but did not personally intervene.

“The adult world is quite estranged from the way that kids use digital technology, and always expects the worst, even though what kids are doing is pretty much what we were doing when we were kids. But they’re doing it online instead of offline,” Mr. Furedi says.

That a 16-year-old boy would try bedding a 12-year-old girl undoubtedly upsets parents, but it is hardly shocking: A third of U.S. teens have sex by Grade 9, reports the American Public Health Association, while girls doing so by age 12 are typically with partners at least five years their senior. And by the time U.S. kids hit Grade 8, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, half of them have tried alcohol and 20% have got drunk. There’s no reason to believe Canadians are much different.

Perhaps the one remarkable thing about what went happened at those bleachers on Monday, and what set off the confusion, was that the two kids apparently had no qualms about having sex in public. This, Mr. Furedi suggests, may be the influence of adults, particularly those indulging in shameless exhibitionism on reality television, and those who watch it, obliterating traditional divides between private space and public. If that is indeed the case, he says, there’s certainly no reason to panic about it.

First published by National Post, 7 September 2010

Fears fester on the rural margins
By Sally Neighbour.

Times are changing fast in the seat of Macarthur on the western outskirts of Sydney, and people are worried.

They’re worried about job security, interest rates, housing prices and too much traffic on deteriorating roads; about population growth, health services, a lack of public transport and queue-jumping asylum-seekers.

Last week those worries translated into a 3.6 per cent swing that transformed the country’s most marginal nominal Labor electorate into a comfortable bolthole for the new Liberal member, policeman Russell Matheson.

“The feedback I got from the booths is that people seemed to vote in our area on a lot of things the federal government doesn’t have control of,” says local mayor and Liberal Party member Chris Patterson.

He means things such as poor services, inadequate healthcare and lack of infrastructure for a growing population.

“People were disappointed with Labor not delivering policies,” says long-time conservative voter Andrew Wannett.

“They delivered very little and they put off quite a lot. No one can deliver rail here, there’s no infrastructure, we’re just a forgotten seat, the outer-west type [of seat] where they promise and they never deliver.”

The worries and uncertainty that motivated the voters of Macarthur were echoed across the country in a 5.4 per cent national swing that amounted to a resounding rejection of the Rudd-Gillard Labor government, but only a half-hearted endorsement of Tony Abbott’s Coalition, leaving neither side with a majority.

The schizophrenic outcome reflected deeply polarising concerns, intense disenchantment with both the main parties and a profound ambivalence about which side, if either, provides a way forward.

In this, Australia is not unique, according to one keen observer of the election, Hungarian-born sociologist and author Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent in England. He sees the same malaise gripping the Western world and its body politic. He calls it “the sociology of fear”.

“In contemporary society one of the most powerful influences on public and social life is fear and anxiety, and the politicisation of fear and anxiety,” Furedi says.

He argues fear has emerged as a key factor in 21st century consciousness, and that modern societies engage with many issues through “a narrative of fear”.

As a result, human thought and action are being stifled by uncertainty, societies with a heightened sense of vulnerability are becoming risk-averse, and worst-case thinking has displaced any open-minded approach to the future.

This ambient fear manifests in everything from fear of getting fat or getting cancer to fear of population growth, racial minorities and terrorists. It’s compounded by the fact that our leaders, too, are paralysed by uncertainty and seem to lack a mission.

The resulting demise of political ideology, says Furedi, has led to “a profound sense of malaise that afflicts public life”.

Furedi, who visited Australia early in the election campaign, observes: “The campaign felt like a PR-created soap where the main characters were discouraged from saying anything of substance.

“I was particularly struck by the absence of any attempt to provide a future-oriented narrative, the people managing the campaign were more concerned about losing than organised towards winning.”

For the people of Macarthur, life used to be so straightforward. Centred on the town of Camden, it was one of the earliest settlements in the colony of NSW, nick-named Cowpastures for the verdant green fields that lured governor Philip King to the area in 1803 to establish a cattle trade.

Local history has it that Mrs King was the first white woman to cross the Nepean River, and the first house in the district was built near the river ford where she crossed to accommodate the two constables assigned to protect the fledgling herd. Later, the colonial secretary Lord Camden ordered the governor to grant local pioneer John Macarthur “not less than 5000 acres” (2023ha) and allowed him to import the first pure merino rams and ewes from the royal stud in England.

Thus, boasts an account on the Camden Council website: “The great Australian wool industry was established [as] the source of much of Australia’s wealth.”

Camden is fiercely proud of its Anglo heritage, a feature highlighted during the ruckus over a proposed Islamic school that was shouted down by the townsfolk and later rejected by the Land and Environment Court last year.

“Camden is still a mono-culture, I moved here because of that,” says Wannett, a retired antique dealer who was a vocal opponent of the Islamic school.

“I moved my family here 15 years ago to get away from a lot of the crime in Liverpool and Campbelltown. Whether it’s because it’s mostly Anglo or it’s a country town, the crime rate [in Camden] is a lot lower.”

Camden has become a magnet for families wanting to bring up their children in a place with fresh air, grassy fields, safe streets and cheap housing while still within commuting distance of the city.

But the district’s semi-rural character is being transformed after the Camden local government area was designated a “growth centre council” by the NSW government. Here, the fears many people have about a “big Australia” are very close to home.

“The population which is now 55,000 is to grow to 300,000 over the next two to three decades,” Patterson says. “With all that growth is a huge perception of lack of infrastructure and non-deliverance. It’s a big issue.”

Much of the anger vented at the election was directed at the state Labor government, which Wannett says “wants to shore up their coffers by sub-dividing country land” without investing in the infrastructure needed. That resentment was compounded by federal Labor’s policy backflips and internal warfare.

“People would rather have a clumsy, steady government than one that flips and flops and changes its mind,” he says.

“I think there was also an anti-Gillard, anti-Labor feeling because of what they did to Rudd. Sydney’s outer suburbs have always been the home of the Aussie battler and people here know what it’s like to be stabbed in the back.”

Population and sustainable growth were red-button election issues across Australia says Rebecca Huntley, director of consumer insights for the IPSOS Mackay Report which documents social trends.

“It tapped into a concern we hear a lot, about the rate at which the population is growing, cities are growing [and] insufficient infrastructure,” she says. “People talk about government debt, pink batts and the BER [Building the Education Revolution], but they’re not urgent issues like infrastructure and population.”

Huntley says a dread of living in overcrowded Asian-style cities coalesced with growing concerns about water scarcity and environmental degradation, and when former prime minister Kevin Rudd seemed to embrace the “big Australia” projection of a population of 36 million by 2050: “People freaked out”.

For the voters of Macarthur, the equation “growth equals prosperity” doesn’t add up. The area is full of young families with mortgages and both parents working.

“Interest rates have a huge impact if they go up, petrol has a huge impact if it goes up,” Patterson says. “I think financial stability is one thing that weighs heavily on people’s minds.”

“A lot of people are on the edge with their finances,” Wannett says. “They’re holding on to their jobs, holding on to their relationships. The society today doesn’t look as stable as it did 30, 40 years ago, and people are living more day to day than they used to.”

Furedi sees the same anxieties mirrored throughout the Western world in what he calls a prevailing “culture of insecurity, victimisation and fear”, which is more about social psychology than hard economic fact.

He says this powerful mood of pessimism is reflected in everything from popular culture such as Hollywood movies that depict the human race cast as villain, to debates around the world on population growth, climate change and ecological damage, in which it’s implied that humanity is essentially destructive and morally bankrupt and “the very idea of civilisation is a force for ecological destruction”.

He says the media helps perpetuate the malaise, noting Osama bin Laden had a point when he said the Western media is “anti-humane” because “it implants fear and helplessness in the psyche of the people”.

Furedi argues the bigger problem is “a crisis of belief” in humanity which is reflective of an absence of meaning in contemporary society. Whereas throughout history, people looked for a higher purpose than self-interest, which caused them to value altruism and solidarity, traditional articles of faith such as belief in progress, trust in institutions and commitment to democracy have been lost.

“Indeed the very expression ‘way of life’ has an increasingly rhetorical character and offers no real clarity about what society and life is about today.”

Real values have been replaced by rites such as citizenship education, which Furedi calls “an attempt to remind people that there’s something there, even if it’s now quite empty, shallow and rhetorical”.

Furedi says modern politics - characterised by intellectual confusion and moral cowardice - plays a big role in this culture.

“Instead of ideas, party leaders look for brands and subcontract the job of image creation to think tanks, public relations agencies or marketing organisations.”

Thus, “without purpose, politics becomes a caricature of itself [and] loses its orientation to the future. It becomes short-termist and regards the future as a no-go area for policy-making.”

In this culture, public figures eschew big issues and adopt a vocabulary of “platitudes masquerading as meaningful political idioms”.

Policy-making is replaced by the “politicisation of fear”, in which leaders manipulate people’s anxieties to their own ends, for example by introducing curbs on civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism.

Furedi says this failure of nerve makes the West even more vulnerable by telegraphing to its enemies “an invitation to come and terrorise us”.

The politicisation of fear was all too apparent in the election campaign, Huntley agrees. It was evidenced by Labor’s scare campaign about Abbott becoming prime minister and Abbott’s scare campaign about asylum-seekers, an issue closely related to a fear of terrorism and suspicion toward Muslims.

“For Julia Gillard the threat was coming out of the water in Speedos. For Tony Abbott the threat was coming out of the water in a burka,” Huntley says.

Negative campaigning is a time-honoured easy resort for a political party without a positive platform, she says.

“They do that if they haven’t had a strong constructive narrative about where the country’s going, they fall back on that very defensive approach.”

“The good news,” Furedi says, “is that ordinary folk are not overwhelmed by this scare-mongering.”

Huntley agrees, saying “people just turn off”. In this election the politicians’ appeals to fear have achieved nothing except a hung parliament and more uncertainty.

“I think that kind of appeal works within a campaign context because people have an immediate gut reaction to it,” Huntley says.

“People say they hate it but in the hothouse of the campaign, and in the absence of anything else to talk about, it can be effective.”

First published by The Australian, 30 August 2010

The great myth of me-time
Exhausted mothers’ quest for time out is a symptom of our exacting parenting culture. This half term we need to get the balance back into family life. By Jennie Bristow.


Have you ever felt, as you peel the Play-Doh off the sofa for the fourth time in a day, that what you really need, as a parent, is more time for yourself? A little “me-time”: the chance to relax in a bubble bath; catch up on your book, and open a bottle of pinot noir.

While researching my book Standing up to Supernanny, I talked to dozens of parents bubbling with frustration and exhaustion at trying to live up to the expectations of modern parenting — feeding the children the right things, taking them to the right activities, being the “right kind” of mother or father. All of them felt that they needed more me-time. Charlotte, 33, the mother of five-year-old Annabelle and three-year-old Imogen, was typical. “I feel like I’m on a treadmill,” she told me. “We have this ridiculously regimented plan for weekdays. There is an enormous family organiser in the kitchen and planning our lives is like a military operation.”

What’s wrong with our parenting culture that this need for time out has become all encompassing? Today (Feb 16), the sociologist Professor Frank Furedi and the children’s author Anthony Horowitz will join academics and policy-makers at the British Library in London to unravel this question. Speakers will identify a host of problems with our up-tight, risk-obsessed, parent-blaming culture. The big question, though, is how we might resolve these issues: a tricky task when the plethora of advice on how to deal with the pressures of bringing up children can make things worse.

One consequence is that parents, and particularly mothers, experience a lack of time to be themselves. In response, official literature and the popular media groans with advice about why mothers should carve out space free from the pressures of work and family. The suggestions about how to do that are familiar — have a bubble bath, join the gym, organise a mini-break. As families we are used to being tempted by the ultimate relaxing break, one that keeps children busy and gives exhausted parents time to themselves: a holiday at Center Parcs, for example, might offer activities for the children so that parents can spend a soothing day in the spa. But is more me-time what the modern mother really wants or needs?

It is true that there is a relentlessness to life with young children that, before having children, you can barely imagine. My lovely (demanding, infuriating) daughters are 5 and 3, and I am a huge fan of mini-breaks, long baths and having time when the children are out of sight and out of mind. I am also 100 per cent committed to the idea of having childcare while you work or go out. But there is something disturbing about the way in which family life has become so intensely pressurised that parents feel they need somehow to liberate themselves from its demands — or at least, to be given time off for good behaviour. How has it come to this?

We are continually told that parenting is the most important job in the world, and everyone from Channel 4’s Supernanny to the Government issues a stream of advice about how to do it. We are told what we should feed our children (home-cooked vegetables, not frozen chips), how we should discipline them (naughty step, not smacking or shouting) and how we should spend our time with them (reading stories, not slumping in front of the TV). This plethora of information implies that the “good parent” does not just organise family life according to what seems best for everybody but worries about what is best for the child and works hard to fulfil those needs. And this is done regardless of the effect on the parents’ own time, money or state of mind.

One consequence of this cult of so-called child-centred parenting is a panicky sense of inadequacy. “Much of the time, I feel that I’m just about good enough — a good enough mother and a good enough employee,” says Rachel, 34, a lawyer and mother of Abigail, 4, and Zoe, 1. “Then something happens — one of the children gets sick when I have a deadline to meet at work — and it all falls apart, making me feel like a massive fraud.”

With these competing demands, perhaps it is not surprising that parents are trying to claw back some time and head-space for themselves. Unfortunately, the demand for me-time only fuels the sense that we are at loggerheads with our children. The idea that “I need more time for me” implies a conflict of interest between parents and children: an us and them situation in which time needs to be consciously divided into time “for them” and time “for me”.

Modern parenting culture dislocates us from ourselves and our children, so that we experience parenting as an act put on to live up to a set of expectations that we find increasingly unworkable and bizarre. This has undermined our authority over our children and our confidence in ourselves.

“Our culture infantilises parents, by presenting parenting as a job that is far too difficult and important to be left to mere mums and dads,” says Professor Furedi. “By encouraging parents to try to bring up their children according to expert advice, the notion of adult authority is thrown into question. Adults aren’t trusted to know what is best for their families as a whole — instead they are supposed to second-guess what the rules say they should be doing for the sake of their children.”

In this sense, our tendency to organise our lives around what we think our children want or need seems to be not about the children at all. It’s more about an adult identity crisis, where we have become nervous about saying that, actually, we are the grown-ups in this relationship, and what matters is that we do things that are good for the family as a whole. Or, as Rachel suggests, that we firmly tell our children: “No, we’re not going to the park, we’re going to B&Q, but we’ll try to make it fun.”

Fun or not, DIY, trailing round the supermarket, tidying the house and all those other domestic jobs are things that families need to do to get by; and children need to understand that and take part. But so ingrained has the idea become that we should organise our lives around our children that parents feel guilty about involving their kids in boring chores, or plonking them in front of the TV to give the adults time to clean the bathroom.

Some parenting experts have become alarmed by the excesses of “child-centred parenting”, and are warning that, despite the label, this approach to raising children is no good for the kids themselves.

Concerns about helicopter parents who supervise every activity have added to fears that the risk-averse message of modern parenting culture is creating a generation of cotton-wool kids without the skills needed to manage the physical and emotional challenges of everyday life.

The idea that the best way to bring up children is actively to employ strategies of “benign neglect” is also gaining ground, based on the recognition that some boredom is actually good for children, encouraging them to create their own entertainment and sense of self-sufficiency.

But the big problem with the way that child-centredness is pitched against me-time is its divisiveness. Presenting the interests of children and adults as being in conflict undermines the reality of the family as a unit, in which adults and children have to work together to muddle through life.

Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist, says: “One of the most important things to remember as a parent is that it is from you that children create their picture of what it is like to be an adult. So it becomes about thinking, ‘How do I weave my life into a pattern that is responsible but is also fun, and expresses my individuality?’ Parents need to be able to think not just about, ‘What’s besieging me?’ but, ‘What do I want to do?’ within the bigger picture.”

The trouble is that it is hard to opt out of cultural expectations and practices. When the consensus seems to be that parents should be focusing on doing everything for their children, and doing it on their own, it becomes hard to imagine an alternative. As a result we end up running ourselves ragged, then bursting into tears and hiding in the bath for a paltry hour’s me-time.

Rather than taking everything upon ourselves and then feeling trapped, we could look for ways to share the burdens and the enjoyment of family life. If we are confident that we can and should decide what’s best for our families, there is nothing to stop us from organising our children’s lives around our diaries, rather than our lives around theirs. We should stop feeling guilty about paid-for childcare, and we could be less defensive about sharing our family time with other families and pooling childcare responsibilities.

We do not need to liberate ourselves from our families — we can cope with the practical demands of raising children. What we do need is to free parents and children from the culture of child-centredness and parent-blaming, which sets ridiculous standards for family life and makes it everybody’s business but our own.

We should reclaim the sense of our families as a place where we can be ourselves, warts and all — rather than somewhere that we struggle to be the “perfect parent”, and then have to escape in order to “be me”.

Standing up to Supernanny, by Jennie Bristow (Societas); £8.95. Jennifer Howze, The Times online lifestyle editor, will also be taking part in today’s seminar (Feb 16), Changing Parenting Culture, at the British Library. See: parentingculturestudies.org/ seminar-series and timesonline.co.uk/alphamummy

How to take control

Do Look for opportunities to share time and childcare with friends.

Don’t Obsess about “quality time” with your kids — children love having other adults and children in their lives.

Do Recognise that there are some things that are fun for children and not for adults — and vice versa.

Don’t Feel guilty. Family life is about muddling through — and it’s good for children to know that.

Do Be realistic about the practical demands on parents. If mothers need to work, children need to go to childcare. So what?

First published by The Times (London), 16 February 2010

Poor parenting ‘blamed for all’
The politicisation of parenting is damaging family relations and education, an academic has warned. By Hannah Richardson, BBC News education and family reporter.

Professor of sociology Frank Furedi said there was a pervading prejudice that virtually all of society’s problems were caused by poor parenting.

There was an attempt to “weed out” unfit parents and intervene before they even had children, he said.

In an article for Spiked online, he likened “parental determinism” to Hitler’s eugenics and Stalinism.

Professor Furedi, sociology professor at Kent University author of Paranoid Parenting, said the myth of parental determinism had been institutionalised in Whitehall.

‘Problem people’

He said: “The idea of a one-dimensional causal relationship between parenting and socioeconomic outcomes, dreamt up by the British think-tanks and policy makers, threatens to take public discourse to a new low.

“In comparison with the parental determinism, the economic determinism of Stalinism or the racial determinism of the old eugenics lobby seem positively subtle.”

The idea of early intervention was conceived by Tony Blair’s regime which “promoted the fantasy that the government could fix society’s problems by getting its hands on the nation’s toddlers before their parents had chance to ruin them”.

“He believed it was possible to spot tomorrow’s ‘problem people’ even before they were born,” he added.

This notion of parental determinism allowed politicians to promote the “most absurd prejudices”.

“Over the weekend, Iain Duncan Smith the former Tory leader, argued that children from broken homes and dysfunctional families have underdeveloped brains and start school with the mental capacity of one-year-olds,” he said.

Parenting had become the new social policy arena, with all political parties having signed up to the “politics of behaviour”.

He went on to argue that “parental determinism” was at its most destructive in the sphere of education.

This was because of the way it could erode adult responsibility and authority, he said.

If adults were reluctant or confused about giving guidance to the younger generation, then the challenge facing the teacher in the classroom could be “overwhelming”, he said.

“It is hard to be the last bastion of authority in a society where adult authority seems to be crumbling,” he added.

He called for adult authority to be affirmed both in and out of the classroom and for the relationship between parents and teachers to be re-drawn.

“There is a difference between raising children and educating them, and this distinction must be re-established to allow for a clearer and more constructive relationship between parents and teachers,” he concluded.

First published by BBC News Online, 16 February 2010

Teachers get lessons in body language
School teachers have been told to copy the gestures of their pupils in a bid to get children to like them. By Julie Henry, Education Correspondent.


Teachers are having lessons in how to read children’s body language and modify their own to tackle bad behaviour in the classroom.

Thousands have been trained to observe pupils’ posture, gestures, mannerisms, facial expressions, speech and tone, in order to establish their emotional state and help build trust and rapport.

Staff are encouraged to copy a child’s gestures, a technique called “matching or mirroring”, to give them a subconscious message that the teacher is sympathetic towards them.

If a child is talking with their left hand touching their chin, the teacher should stand and hold their left hand to their chin, for instance. If the pupil tilts their head to the side, the teacher should mirror them.

Staff should also cross their legs if a student does and while talking, make the same hand gestures as the pupil used while they were speaking.

Teachers are also taught to avoid “closed” signals, such as folded arms or standing behind a desk.

The training is part of set of exercises called neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) which is designed to improve communication and patterns of behaviour.

More than 1,200 teachers in England have received training in NLP through the Government’s fast track teaching programme. Hundreds of schools and local authorities also pay thousands of pounds for training by private consultants.

Supporters of the techniques claim they can improve behaviour in the classroom and motivate children to learn.

Critics said, however, that NLP was a “bizarre mixture of pseudo science and new-age thinking” and yet another educational fad that diverted teachers’ attention away from good teaching.

Frank Furedi, a sociology professor at Kent University and author of Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, said: “Every few years there’s the big idea that becomes the dominant theme in education.

“We’ve had raising self-esteem, multiple intelligence, emotional literacy, wellbeing and happiness, and the latest is NLP.

“They are gimmicks and are then replaced with the next big thing. What NLP is saying is that teachers have to learn to take their cue from children, a complete reversal of the relationship where pupils take their cue from the teacher.

“In an ideal world, there’s a bit of both, but methods like teachers reading body language are not only ineffectual in terms of educational outcomes, they also push teachers in a direction that is almost inappropriate.”

NLP was developed in the 1970s at the University of California. Its methods have been employed in a variety of professions, including sales, marketing, management, counselling and hypnotism.

In the UK, at least 50 companies and organisation now offer courses in NLP, many aimed at teachers. Courses which certify the participant as an “NLP practitioner” can cost as much as £5,000.

Despite its increasing use in mainstream education, its methods are controversial. Dr Gareth Roderique-Davies of Glamorgan University described NLP as “cargo-cult psychology”.

“NLP masquerades as a legitimate form of psychotherapy, makes unsubstantiated claims about how humans think and behave, purports to encourage research in a vain attempt to gain credibility, yet fails to provide evidence that it actually works,” he said.

Phil Beadle, a former Teacher of the Year and author of Could do Better, also cast doubt on the programme.

“NLP is being given increasing credence in our schools,” he said. “But it doesn’t stand up to analysis.

“Playing a one-sided game during a two-way conversation is hardly a sound basis for trust. Also, isn’t mirroring someone’s body language supposed to be a sign that you fancy them? It seems an ill-advised classroom strategy.”

But Dave Vizard, an NLP trainer and author of Meeting the Needs of Disaffected Students, said schools had to find new solutions to poor behaviour in the classroom.

“Times have changed dramatically,” he said. “The social context, family structures, the multimedia that children are brought up with have led to a situation where authority figures seem to have been disempowered.

“Matching body language and tonality means looking at the world through the young persons eyes. The back drop is consistency and firm boundaries, which is the core of all managing of behaviour.”

At Harris Academy, in Peckham, nearly 30 teachers have received NLP training.

Ray Lau, the curriculum coordinator for performing arts and an NLP “master practitioner”, said: “We look at things like matching and mirroring, breathing patterns, mannerisms.

“For instance, if you have an upset, emotional pupil in front of you, the aim is to calm them down. I would use an interruption strategy.

“Get them to look up, so they engage their visual cortex and get them to breath and move forward. This helps to divert them from the emotional state they are in and become more rational.”

Mr Lau said the language used by teachers was also a critical part of NLP.

“Teachers get irate and frustrated with students but instead of having a go, NLP shows there is a way of communication that can imply to pupils how they should behave, impacting on their subconscious, without making a bald statement.

“Affirmation is also important.”

Instead of ordering a child to sit down, for instance, a teacher could say ‘When you’re sitting down and working, we can discuss it further, that would be good wouldn’t it?’

“It has not only helped to improve behaviour but it has had a general impact on the learning side,” Mr Lau added.

First published by Daily Telegraph, 13 February 2010

A five-point programme for policy on education: how do policymakers, parents and teachers fit in?
At the British Library on 16 February, Professor Frank Furedi, author of Wasted: Why Education Isn't Educating, set out five key ideas for rescuing education in the twenty-first century.

Education is seen as one of the key issues in the current pre-election debate. Parents, teachers and members of the public are deeply concerned with the many problems afflicting our schools. Lack of clarity about standards, problems of classroom discipline, continuous changes to the curriculum and system of examination are just some of the issues that are raised continually in public debates. Unfortunately, some of the really big questions facing schools are seldom considered. We discuss only rarely issues such as the role of adult authority (i.e. that of parents and teachers), of policymakers, and what education should mean. If schools are to prosper, we need to alter the relationship between policymaking and education, teacher and parent, and adults and children.

So, what needs to be done?

1. Take the politics out of education

Policymakers should stop fiddling with the curriculum if they want to improve schooling. Rather, it is necessary to insulate schools from the influence of policymakers. Ceaseless policymaking and interference in the curriculum has encouraged an atmosphere of instability in the classroom. Education needs more stability and classrooms must be freed from bureaucratic micro-management. Education should be ‘de-politicised’, with teachers freed from government initiatives to focus on ‘educating’.

2. Rework the relationship between parents and teachers

At present, the line between home and school and parent and teacher is drawn poorly. Parents are expected to behave as amateur tutors and to involve themselves in the classroom. In turn, teachers spend far too much time acting as social workers or psychologists, and dealing with issues that are best confronted in the home. This is not simply a waste of time; it encourages tension and conflict between parents and teachers. There is a difference between raising children and educating children. This has become blurred and must be re-established to allow a more clear and constructive relationship between parents and teachers.

3. Policies should establish and reflect clear relationships between the generations where adults are ‘in charge’

Adult authority, in and out of the classroom, must be affirmed to provide a sturdy foundation for education. At present, the authority of parents and teachers over children receives little cultural affirmation. Yet, to teach effectively in schools, teachers must exercise authority in a manner that is unambiguous and clearly understood by their pupils. Parents need to understand this, and support it.

4. Education must be independent and diverse

Although schools are part of a community, they must be left to teach what must be taught, without the distractions of outside pressures. We need a tolerant and open-minded ethos towards education, and not a prescriptive approach towards schooling that restrains teachers’ initiative and ambition. Within a national curriculum, schools can flourish if their teachers and heads have sufficient independence to exercise professional judgment and to work out strategies appropriate to their circumstances. It is legitimate for Central Government to outline a basic common curriculum through which children gain access to their rightful intellectual inheritance. But how this curriculum is taught is best decided by local schools and communities.

5. Society must value education for what it is

Sadly, today, education tends to be seen as ‘a means to an end’, an instrument for the realisation of an objective that is external to itself. Yet, education cannot flourish if it is not valued for its own sake. A principal characteristic of education is its lack of interest in an ulterior purpose. For example, abstract philosophical thought, literary comprehension and an understanding of numerical principles are part of our human legacy and not just skills to help us function in the working world. Teachers who understand and embrace this are more likely to inspire their pupils and address their individual specific educational needs.

Education works when we see it as important in its own right and when children are taught to value learning for its own sake.

This five-point programme will be launched at a seminar on Changing Parenting Culture at the British Library on 16 February 2010. This will include a discussion between Professor Furedi (University of Kent), children’s author Anthony Horowitz and journalist Jenni Russell on a new agenda for parents and schools.

The Changing Parenting Culture series is organised by the University of Kent and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. Full details about the seminar can be found here.

First published by University of Kent, 28 January 2010

Review by Alan Ryan
Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, by Frank Furedi.

This is a book that tests the dictum that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. Frank Furedi is a good hater; he particularly loathes new Labour, and among its innumerable wickednesses, he particularly has it in for the peculiar combination of Utopian aspiration, bureaucratic hyperactivity and intellectual vacuity that has marked its education policies for the past dozen years. Like all sensible people, he would not let Ed Balls within a mile of a school, let alone put him in charge of children, schools and families.

So far, so good, and Furedi has a good stock of incisive one-liners. You can open the book at random and find thought-provoking sentences such as these on well-meant but spooky attempts to insert into the curriculum for very young children techniques for helping them to identify and manage their feelings: “These scripted forms of emotional management reproduce the worst features of learning by rote. Moreover, by adopting the language of reflection and openness, they hide their commitment to the management of children’s internal life. This is not teaching but the programming of children.” Anyone seeking the sort of examination question that amounts to a provocative statement and the injunction “Discuss” will find plenty here.

The problem is that Furedi seems to have wanted to write two very different kinds of book, and they get in each other’s way. One is “all the things I loathe about contemporary educational policy and pedagogical theory”. Whether we need such a book depends rather on how pointed the loathing is. There are moments in Wasted when we seem to be heading in the direction of a general denunciation of the modern world in all its aspects, which we don’t need. But often the complaints are shrewd and on target, especially when they focus on the deep oddity of the fact that we bang on about the whole child and individuated learning while stuffing marking schemes down our pupils’ throats in a fashion calculated to destroy the capacity for individual thought.

The other book is “this is what education really is, and this is how it should be delivered, to whom and by whom; and this is why it matters so much”. Anyone who wrote the second book may have some sharp things to say about the ways in which we fall short of delivering a real education to our children; but one could denounce the present Government’s approach to schools and higher education without knowing much at all about what a really excellent education is like. Incompetent Utopianism always merits a good kicking, as does the new Labour habit of trying to silence its critics by bad-mouthing their motives and saying ever more loudly that the emperor’s new clothes are wonderful, even though they seem to wear out in six months.

So what does Furedi think? It seems to go like this. The deep issue is one of authority. Most of the time, he laments the under-mining of parental authority by a state that presumes to know more than parents about how children, even in their first few months of life, are to be reared to become active citizens and productive workers. At other times, it is the undermining of the authority of teachers that distresses him. At yet other times, these seem to be aspects of some larger crisis of authority, either a crisis of adult authority vis-a-vis the young, or a crisis in our culture and a loss of faith in the accomplishments, standards and values that we want to hand on to the next generation.

I am not inhospitable to this last thought, but it needs to be handled with care. It is an anxiety that has beset intellectuals in its modern form since the early 1800s, and in other forms as long ago as Plato. But Furedi is not good at reading philosophers with due attention. He gets annoyed by John Dewey’s observation that in a rapidly changing world, rote learning won’t do and that we need to acquire the ability to handle unpredictable change; indeed, he disapproves of my saying that Dewey was right.

But Dewey’s point was more banal than contentious; imagine teaching someone to drive a car by insisting that they drive only from London to Brighton because that’s what driving is for. Dewey was arguing against the rote learning that dominated primary education in the late 19th century, and Furedi is no friend of rote learning. By the same token, he has no idea what lay behind John Stuart Mill’s insistence that parents be compelled to get their children educated - but not by the state. It was not that Mill thought that uncultivated parents couldn’t produce cultivated children - though he no doubt thought that, too. His point was fiercer and more basic; it was a violation of the rights of the child to allow him or her to grow up unable to earn a living, and it was a violation of the rights of the rest of society, which would have to support them. I’d have thought that was a view Furedi would sympathise with.

Alan Ryan is visiting fellow in politics, Princeton University.

First published by Times Higher Education, 7 January 2010

Review by John Green
Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, by Frank Furedi.

Frank Furedi, for those who don’t know, was a founder member of the so-called Revolutionary Communist Party, which began as an avowedly ultra-leftist party before mutating to become a libertarian one.

He now occupies a place akin to Christopher Hitchens - a man who professes to be of the left, but who adopts many contradictory and obtuse right-wing positions.

Furedi, for instance, rejects economic sustainability, denies global warming and defended Sarah Palin’s attempt to become vice-president of the US on the spurious grounds that to attack her was to undermine women’s rights.

His latest book is an attempt to examine what is wrong with British education. His main thesis is that we have a crisis of authority - both in society and in the field of education, adult authority has been and is being corrosively undermined.

“When grown-ups become disconnected from the young they cease to play an adult role,” he says, and argues that education must involve the passing on of cultural experience and knowledge to the next generation, something that cannot happen without authority.

He feels education has become too much of a political football with policies based on short-term point scoring rather than on long-term objectives.

He castigates the policies of consecutive governments and calls for what he calls the “depoliticisation” of education.

He appears to be advocating a return to “old-fashioned teaching” of set academic subjects and eschews the trends towards a so-called child-centred pedagogy and what he sees as the deification of modernity with the introduction of “trendy” popular subject matter.

He sees education as something other than learning, which is an ongoing process throughout one’s life, but education is about passing on traditions, history, culture and values.

He feels schools are becoming more centres of child behavioural management and are ignoring the basics of a real education which would enable all children to engage with their country’s history, culture and tradition.

While his book certainly raises a whole number of provocative and interesting questions about the role of education in society, he remains frustratingly nebulous when it comes to the hard choices facing educators and governments in the real world.

He doesn’t mention the corrosive role played by the private school sector in Britain and the consequent drain on the state sector, nor does he mention academies or the mushrooming of faith schools.

Surely it is impossible to discuss education in a meaningful manner without doing so? His is very much an academic approach, which by no means invalidates his arguments, but it does leave them somewhat up in the air.

He is undoubtedly correct when he argues strongly that the “crisis” in schools is not an educational issue as such but a societal problem transported into schools. “The aim of this book,” he says, “is not to condemn the conduct of individual adults, because the problem lies with the inability of society as a whole to give meaning to the exercise of generational responsibility.”

Certainly a thought-provoking read, but it demonstrates that it is always easier to criticise than offer realistic solutions.

First published by Morning Star, 4 January 2010

Out with the Aughts: When there’s nothing left to fear
More than 500 years ago, European explorers sailed into the dark and temperamental ocean, embracing uncertainty in the hopes of turning the unknown into the known.

Modern-day explorers took their quest to the endless bounds of outer space, again championing the uncharted despite the perils that might lay ahead.

But since the fall of the Twin Towers nearly a decade ago, and arguably a short while before, uncertainty began making people anxious, not excited. That day, it became clear that faraway people are capable of unleashing devastation on the New World. Suddenly, America – and the West by association – was vulnerable.

Follow that with Hurricane Katrina, SARS, Avian Flu, the threat of climate change and, most recently, H1N1 influenza, and we have witnessed an era increasingly marked by fear, preparation and more preparation.

“When you regard the future with such dread, uncertainty is no longer something that can be managed in a relaxed way,” said Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone? “If people feel vulnerable, then even the slightest challenge to their existence will be traumatic. And so we tend to dramatize the unexpected, and work hard to accident-proof ourselves.”

Today, there is a multibillion-dollar industry devoted to accident-proofing and risk mitigation. Universities have launched masters programs in Business Continuity Planning and in Disaster and Emergency Management. Non-profit organizations such as Canada’s nationwide Disaster Recovery Information Exchange have grown, and more and more people are flocking to gatherings like the World Conference on Disaster Management, held in Toronto earlier this month.

“The biggest change I’ve seen in the last 10 years is an increased awareness and acceptance at a more senior level within business,” said Ralph Dunham, managing director of business continuity practice for Marsh Risk Consulting. “They’ve been faced with managing higher levels of risk, more governance demands from shareholders and more regulatory demands by the government.”

In fact, on April 10, 2006, in the midst of growing concern over an Avian Flu pandemic, the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions Canada sent a letter to all federally regulated financial institutions that said: “OSFI expects financial institutions to review their business continuity plans and consider the adequacy of those plans for dealing with a potential pandemic.”

Three years later, governments and businesses have turned their attention to a possible H1N1 pandemic, which the World Health Organization framed as a threat to human existence and which governments deemed a threat to national security.

But the H1N1 pandemic did not strike as expected, and Mr. Dunham worried that another non-event – in the vein of Y2K – might dissuade businesses from crafting solid emergency preparedness plans.

“I feared that H1N1 might bring pandemic fatigue, that people might say the Chicken Littles of the world took our money,” he said. “But companies seem committed to improving on the plans they scrambled together.”

Prof. Furedi said this commitment stems from fear not only of the known and likely, but also the unknown and unlikely.

At a press briefing in February 2002, former U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld described the notion of “unknown unknowns,” pointing to those threats that authorities have not yet fathomed and for which, therefore, they cannot prepare.

But Prof. Furedi said the notion of the “unknown unknown” was first channelled by environmentalists who warned years ago that, all things constant, oceans will someday swallow the Earth. Prof. Furedi argues this mentality has likewise gripped today’s mothers and fathers, creating a generation of paranoid parents who obsess over their children’s safety and buy gadgets to track their whereabouts.

“Once you assume that what’s most dangerous is not what you know, but what you don’t know, then the argument is that we must act now,” he said.

In a sense, the probability of an event today matters less than the possibility of an event. For Lee Clarke, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University and author of Mission Improbable, this emphasis on possibilities offers a reasonable way to talk about extreme events.

“Purchasing life insurance is an insane bet, but we do it anyway – from a probabilistic point of view, it’s irrational,” he said. “This is an example that, in some circumstances, it’s worthwhile to make choices on the basis of possibilities because the consequences could be huge.”

Prof. Clarke said preparedness is largely about the “what if,” and the “what if” has grown ever louder over the years.

“We’ve moved to dangerous places, we concentrate ourselves and therefore make ourselves big targets, and we rely on technology,” he said. “These are the kinds of hazards or risks that were simply impossible a hundred years ago.”

But Prof. Furedi said today’s propensity for preparedness is less pegged to past catastrophes, and instead born from a slow and steady cultural shift.

“From the 1980s onwards, the paradigm of the resilient human being gave way to the paradigm of the vulnerable human being,” he said, pointing to what he considered a devaluation of masculinity as an example. “The stiff upper-lip gave way to showing your feelings.”

With this, he argues, came a re-definition of humanity as highly vulnerable, a description governments today use to identify at-risk groups when speaking about pandemics, climate change and terrorism. “Included in that list of vulnerables are children, elderly, ethnic minorities and women, which essentially adds up to 110% of the population,” he said. “The latest spin is The Vulnerable.’ By putting The’ in front of Vulnerable,’ you equate the term with a person’s identity.”

This rise in existential insecurity opened the doors for what Prof. Furedi calls “fear entrepreneurs” – those who prey on people’s insecurities. Fear, he said, has become a resource, compelling the fearful to prepare for anything and everything, regardless of probabilities or cost.

But perhaps that is for the better, Prof. Clarke said: “When it comes to preparing for things that don’t end up happening, we should all be so lucky.”

First published by Kelowna.com, 25 December 2009

It’s time to take risks with our children
By Jennifer Howze.

I’m in Spain writing a piece for the Times’s website and I caught the last few minutes of a Newsnight last night on Spanish TV. It featured esteemed professor of sociology Frank Furedi, author of Politics of Fear, Therapy Culture and Paranoid Parenting, talking about our outsized fear of risk in modern life, especially as it relates to children. Watching their discussion made me extremely happy to be living in the UK.

Not only do we have newscasters like Jeremy Paxman asking questions and follow-up questions and further follow-up questions (compare with most soft-ball interviewers on American TV) but you have academics like Furedi challenging the popular thinking that when it comes to children we need to be more afraid, more careful and more alarmist.

Furedi spoke to Paxman about the issue of risk and how we now tend to think of risk as something that can and should be avoided at all costs. A child falls down, we look for the person who pushed him; somebody trips, we blame the step.

Furedi talked about this subject at the recent Parenting and Culture Studies conference in Birmingham, organised by Kent University’s Ellie Lee. During a session on parenting and risk, he said, “We no longer talk about risk in a conventional way.” In the language we use and how we describe children’s lives, “what we are saying is there’s a certainty that something is going to happen. There’s a sense of inevitability.”

It’s not just with accidents, where we complain about “cotton wool” kids but then buy rubber corner protectors for our tables (our parents just expected we would learn to avoid the sharp edges). It’s also with relationships.

Chief among the risks for children are men, seemingly all adult men. Many dads I’ve talked to have described feeling conspicuous and viewed with suspicion at the local playground when they take their children. Heather Piper, a research fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University, described a childminder whose 18-year-old son and her husband aren’t allowed to help her with nappy changing or supervising young girls.

Wherever men are around children, we assume a measure of danger and put in place rules to circumvent it. Doors in classrooms must be left open, male coaches mustn’t be left alone with kids.

With the new CRB checks, that’s extended to any person - parent, male, female, no matter – who regularly comes in contact with children (a definition which in and of itself could apply to almost everyone). This issue made big news a few months back but has faded from the front pages. We shouldn’t let it.

It all adds up to a overarching culture of fear for parents and children. We might rationally know that our child is unlikely to be abducted or brain themselves on the sitting room furniture or lose a limb in a horrific jungle-gym accident. Yet we still as a group press for over-and-above safety measures or keep quiet as others do.

Tuesday night Paxman said to Furedi something along the lines of You would feel differently if your child broke their neck and was paralyzed on the playground. Bravo to Frank for responding with the utterly sensible observation that there’s a big range between the risk of breaking your neck and getting a graze on your knee and we have to know the difference.

Let’s start thinking more sensibly about how “dangerous” the world actually is, and not be afraid to say, hey, accidents happen, all men aren’t paedos and then teach children about navigating the real world - warts, knee scrapes and all.

First published by The Times Alpha Mummy, 2 December 2009

So many weird lessons, yet so little time for proper teaching
The government wants to warn children about domestic violence. It would be best to teach them to read and write. By Catherine Bennett.

When Rozina Akhtar, from Blackburn, declined an arranged marriage to a Pakistani first cousin, her father, Aurang Zeb, ignored her wishes. He duly became the first Briton to be made the subject of a forced marriage protection order. As undeterred by the courts as he was by the opinions of his wife and daughter, Mr Zeb began a campaign of intimidation, designed to salvage the family honour. He stalked his estranged wife and children, bombarded them with phone calls, speculated on the sentence for domestic murder (between five and seven years, he thought) and told his wife he was going to kill her and cut out her tongue. A couple of weeks ago, a judge gave him an exemplary punishment.

Mr Zeb was fined £85 costs and told to do 200 hours of unpaid community service. Which is 50 fewer hours of community service than were imposed on a 19-year-old student whose crime was to piss, when blind drunk, on a Sheffield war memorial.

The government is probably wise, given the complex business of assessing human culpability, to introduce children to the evils of domestic violence before they are able to read. At five, few will quibble when teachers insist, obviously using age-appropriate learning materials, that there must be zero tolerance of domestic violence. It would be an unlucky teacher who, perhaps having acted out a cautionary tale, with an angry teddy playing the part of Mr Zeb, encountered a child who questions the indulgence shown to this horrible man (whose family, even after his sentence, were too scared to comment).

Five-year-olds are unlikely to comprehend the type of adult violence that this extension to the curriculum is designed to address, let alone remark on the dismaying contrast between their lessons and judicial reality. Although it is possible, I suppose, that some young, regularly chastised victims will wonder at what point parental smacking becomes an officially abusive relationship of the type they are being warned against. Or can you hit grown-ups, too, so long as you don’t leave a mark?

Pointless as the lessons will be for small children, many of whom will have gathered that hurting others is wrong, they must be thankless indeed for teachers who are requested, again, to wrestle with unacceptable forms of social behaviour so as to absolve the government from further responsibility.

Chris Keates, of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT), says that “tackling bullying, violence and other inappropriate behaviour towards women and young girls is central to schools’ purpose”. Are the violent experiences of boys less “central”? If not, why reserve this form of cruelty for special, sustained consideration? Despicable as it is, male violence against women is less common than male violence against men.

NASUWT’s curiously emphatic endorsement can only add to doubts about the precepts to be contained in these homilies on the good domestic life. Not to mention the authority of the instructors. With physics, French or maths, there are at least qualifications to be inspected. Where compulsory lessons on adult relationships are concerned, there seems to be little guarantee that the teachers will be significantly more happy or emotionally literate than, for example, the children’s parents, who can only hope the approved instructors inspire more confidence than their ultimate boss, children’s minister and alleged bully, Ed Balls. Though perhaps Balls himself has been damaged by exposure to his notoriously intemperate boss, Mr Brown, who recently had such difficulty with those “window dressing” allegations from cabinet escapee Caroline Flint. One answer, as Ms Flint will know, for girls who need to escape controlling or abusive men is independence. Their best hope of independence lies in a good education, possibly one in which academic instruction, as opposed to bouts of preaching, is used to inculcate decent behaviour.

So far, parents have been remarkably docile as the government has encroached further into what was once their territory. As well as sex, it now concerns itself with social justice, body image, citizenship, emotional wellbeing, self-esteem, diversity: just about every area, in fact, where there is some social problem and a perception that parental attitudes lag behind Harriet Harman’s.

Perhaps because so many of them share their anxieties about “broken Britain”, parents seem willing to accept politicians’ determination that this form of instruction should have compulsory parity with, say, maths or English. Not that they have much choice. In Wasted, his lively tirade against the politicisation of education, Frank Furedi deplores the eclipse of formal education by the more modish “learning society”, that useful vehicle for government attitudinising.

“When the question is posed, ‘What should be done?’” he writes, “the answer is the now formulaic solution, that it should be dealt with in the national curriculum.” For example, he says, in their role as agents of reform, teachers have recently been charged “with training children to adopt, among other things, environmental values, become active citizens, embrace multiculturalism and diversity, fight discrimination, eschew homophobia, adopt healthy eating habits and internalise government guidelines on relationships and sex”. The government could retort that it’s early days. Be fair: give them a decade or so before you rubbish this training in the art of living. One day, the latest lessons in sex and nutrition, drink and drugs may produce a new type of chaste, slender, sober, perpetually non-violent British citizen, completely superior to his or her parents, whose values will transform society. Some of these paragons may also be able to read.

At present, however, the prevalence of youthful drinking and sex, along with drug-taking, bullying and obesity, have not, quite, declined to the point where most parents will readily accept their manifest inferiority as moral guides. There appears to be no evidence that the lessons improve conduct at all. In fact, there is every chance that the government would do better, if it wanted to enforce good behaviour, to extend support to the vulnerable and apply existing laws to perpetrators. One properly banged-up Mr Zeb, for instance, might be worth five years of anti-domestic violence teaching.

Instead, as the conventional subject-based curriculum falls out of favour, conduct initiatives multiply. Among recent proposals for the improvement of society through the medium of its hapless pupils and teachers, Furedi cites training in Britishness, personal finance and happiness. Within the last few weeks, educators have urged that careers advice for seven-year-olds and primary school sex lessons be fitted into the curriculum, along with the new scheme to teach the especial wrongness of domestic violence. It cannot be long, given society’s even greater abhorrence of such acts, before instruction on not peeing on war memorials is added to the ever-growing list of educational essentials.

First published by Observer, 29 November 2009

Schools vet parents for Christmas festivities
Details will be checked against a database of people banned from working with children for sex offences and for other reasons.

Parents who want to accompany their children to Christmas carol services and other festive activities are being officially vetted for criminal records in case they are paedophiles.

In the latest expansion of the government’s child protection agenda, parents are checked against a database of people banned from working with children for sex offences and for other reasons.

Among those affected are parents at a village primary school who have been told they must be vetted before they can accompany pupils on a 10-minute walk to a morning carol service at the local church.

Other primaries have instituted vetting for parents attending Christmas discos on school premises. Some schools require checks on parents who volunteer to walk with children from the school to post letters to Father Christmas.

Parents will have to provide schools with proof of their identity, such as a passport, as well as their address, so their records can be checked.

Graham McArthur, headmaster of Somersham primary school in Cambridgeshire, said checks on the two dozen parents volunteering to walk his 330 pupils to the carol service at nearby St John’s church on December 17 were necessary — even though they will be accompanied by teachers and a police community support escort when crossing the road.

“We rely quite a lot on parental volunteers. It is a community school and parental engagement is very important to being part of the community,” McArthur said.

“For the carol service they will need clearance [from the banned list] which is basically something we can do on the day. You need to see details of who they are, where they live and make several phone calls.

“Parents accept it’s about safeguarding the welfare of children. They accept it only has to be done once and it’s a necessary chore.”

The requests are the latest evidence of schools’ mounting anxiety over how far they have to go to satisfy the pervasive effects of the government’s child protection agenda.

New rules state that from next year people working with children “frequently” will have to be vetted and registered. Until the registration scheme comes into force, government advice to schools is that checks should be carried out only on parents whose volunteer work brings them into contact with children at least three times a month.

Some schools are opting to err on the side of caution and are enforcing vetting systems for one-off activities.

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent University and the author of a report on paranoia over child protection, said: “Once you institutionalise mistrust, you incite people to take these things further and further, finding new areas to implement criminal record checks.

“It becomes a badge of responsibility and a symbolic ritual. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make sense.”

A spokeswoman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said some schools were being overcautious: “We want to take a common-sense approach to this and allow head teachers to use their professional judgment and experience.”

A primary school in Norwich is insisting on the checks for parents who want to attend its disco.

Furedi said: “I also know of a primary school with a Christmas disco which is requiring checks to be made on parents who volunteer to help out.”

Anastasia de Waal, head of family and education at Civitas, the think tank, said: “It sets up this really negative relationship, it can put off adults and gives children the message that either adults don’t want to be involved in their lives at all, or that adults have all got to be intensely mistrusted and you can’t have faith in anybody.”

First published by Sunday Times, 29 November 2009

Is there such a thing as school phobia?
A school is being asked to apologise to the family of a boy it prosecuted for truancy. The boy was diagnosed as having "school phobia", but what exactly is that?

Most adults can remember days when they vehemently didn’t want to go to school.

There would be protestations of illness, and of the danger of passing on an unpleasant disease, before the eventual acceptance that the journey into school was inevitable.

So many might react with scepticism to the idea that there is such a thing as “school phobia”.

But, says Nigel Blagg, author of School Phobia and Its Treatment, it is a condition that has been recognised since the 1960s.

“They will experience extreme anxiety. They are off school, typically with their parents’ knowledge and approval. And they often have symptoms like tummy aches, head aches and nausea. Some of them suffer severely with depression.

“Any attempts to get them to school, when they are at their worst can lead to quite extreme behaviour - temper tantrums, screaming, kicking. It is very distressing for the adults.”

The sceptics might of course want to bracket these children as truants, but, says Mr Blagg, a former local authority educational psychologist who now runs a private practice, they are quite distinct in background and behaviour.

“They are typically well behaved, socially conforming who are usually doing quite well. Normally they come from caring families.

“The truant group are the ones who [miss] school because they want to… often involved in delinquent behaviour.”

Separation anxiety

It is thought the worst ages for school phobia are five to six and 11-14, says Mr Blagg. There are no precise numbers for how many children suffer the condition, but he notes one estimate is that 1% of children will have it at one point during their school careers.

But the diagnosis is not without controversy, and even the term is subject to dispute, says Mr Blagg.

“In the psychological world the preferred term these days is school refusal. [But] school refusal doesn’t convey the extreme distress, anxiety and panic, the physical symptoms that these children experience or the fact that it isn’t a volitional state.”

There is a recognition among psychologists and other education professionals that school phobia/school refusal covers a range of different problems.

Some of the younger sufferers can be diagnosed as having “separation anxiety”, leaving them distressed at parting from their parents at the school gate. But some psychologists say this is more about refusal, not phobia - a true school phobic will experience a reaction even if their parents are present.

“Other children could be classified as having a social phobia to do with performance aspects of school - reading out loud or changing for PE,” says Mr Blagg.

Other children might be off sick for a prolonged period, fall behind with work and fall out of a routine. Some might simply have changed school and lost friends they relied on to feel secure at school. Still others may have had a single distressing experience.

Indulging children?

“More typically what you have is an accumulation of stresses to do with home and school that add up over time and cause the child to be anxious,” says Mr Blagg.

“The avoidance leads to greater problems. They fall behind with school work. They worry what friends will say. The longer they are out the worse the problems get. If they are told they don’t have to go they feel fine and the symptoms disappear.”

Not only is there disagreement over the name for the condition, but also how to treat it, and whether it exists at all.

Sociologist Prof Frank Furedi, author of Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, is not convinced.

“You take an understandable anxiety about going to school and turn it into a disease… Children will internalise it and play the role that’s been assigned to them.

“It cultivates the idea that these [exaggerated medically diagnosable] anxieties are normal. You do begin to encourage children to think in these terms.”

But even if you do accept that school phobia exists, there can still be disagreement over the best approach to tackling it.

Mr Blagg insists that while educational psychologists, teachers and parents must be sensitive to the child’s needs, they must recognise that confrontation and getting the child back to school is necessary.

Stay at home

“They need that very firm handling and confronting them and getting them back to school. You might have to take them to school and escort them [in].”

For those who have been away schools should assign tutors, help them catch up and offer them quiet space to be in while they are adjusting.

But there are some advocates of home schooling who believe that rather than being a psychological aberration requiring a cure, the symptoms of school phobia may simply indicate that the child is best educated away from the school, at home.

Ann Newstead, a spokesperson for the home tuition charity Education Otherwise, says school phobia is a “very real condition”.

“I see a lot of families where they are in that situation - you only have to meet the children and families to see that it’s not a made up condition. It’s genuine. Not sending your child to school is something parents can be prosecuted for. You don’t risk prosecution lightly.”

“You wouldn’t dream of forcing an adult to engage in an environment that wasn’t beneficial to them. So why do we think it’s ok to treat children in this way?”

But aren’t children more malleable? Doesn’t keeping them back from school indulge their fear rather than tackle the problem?

“I agree with the tackling but not the forcing of it. That’s like treating someone who is scared of spiders by putting a spider in their hand. You tackle these things gradually, help someone to overcome a phobia and home education is a way of doing that.”

More generally, many schools seek to make some of the changes for children less stressful, for example working on acclimatisation for children moving up to secondary school.

But Prof Furedi does not believe that such a sensitive treatment is necessarily always helpful.

“Kids going from primary school to secondary school often get transitional counselling.

“If you tell them enough times this is an extremely difficult, painful step, you make the kids more anxious.”

First published by BBC News Online, 19 November 2009

Themes or subjects: does it matter how children’s learning is structured?
Prince Charles is wary of Ed Balls's curriculum reforms, says one of his advisers. Is he just being old-fashioned, or has he got a point? By Judy Friedberg.

Will teaching through themes do better at capturing children’s imaginations?

You know what they say about history. It’s just one thing after another.

Well, perhaps so, but there’s a gleam in Ed Balls’s eye that says that won’t be the case for much longer.

The schools secretary is planning a new curriculum for all primary schools that will reorganise subjects under “thematic headings”. Traditional subjects such as geography and science will find themselves rolled into topics such as global warming.

And there’ll be a new emphasis on children’s health and wellbeing, with sex education made compulsory for the first time.

Who’s not happy? The Prince of Wales, that’s who. Headteacher Bernice MacCabe, one of the prince’s advisers, said the old traditionalist was passionate about protecting the jewels of English literature and history and didn’t want to see schools turned into “globalised theme parks”.

She said Charles believed the rigorous teaching of subject knowledge was the foundation of a good education.

Who else thinks themes are silly? Stand up, sociologist and educationist Frank Furedi.

He passionately defends a subject-based curriculum in his new book Wasted: Why Education isn’t Educating. He says he believes in education that “recognises the duty of one generation to impart a canon of knowledge to the next”.

Furedi accuses policymakers of using the curriculum as a tool to correct society’s ills from anti-social behaviour to obesity, teen pregnancy to knife crime.

And he’s got a point. Ministers get to pick these themes, presumably. Will they tie them in neatly to their political obsessions du jour? Could whatever passing fads take their fancy find their way into your child’s homework diary?

And then there are the poor subjects themselves. Isn’t history the sort of thing that benefits from being taught in chronological order? Don’t you have to understand the fundamentals of science before you start flinging about theories of climate change or evolution?

When I was being educated, long ago and far away, themes were what we had for our school dances. One year someone chose ‘underwater’. Fishing nets were draped from the ceiling and as the night grew warmer, the smell of ancient fish mingled nauseatingly with the reek of cheap aftershave and teenage terror. I’ve been wary of themes ever since.

But perhaps there’s a lot to be said for a more creative and relevant approach to getting kids excited about what they’re learning.

First published by The Guardian (Mortar Board), 19 November 2009

“Gelukstraining op school is pure tijdverspilling”
Het belangrijkste wat scholen moeten doen is niet vakken geven en kennis in kinderhoofden proberen te proppen, maar jonge mensen 'vaardigheden' voor het leven aanreiken. Klinkt deze opvatting u bekend in de oren? De Britse socioloog Frank Furedi vindt ze funest en gevaarlijk.



Wasted lijkt een voortzetting van uw boek Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone, waarin u het voortschrijdende filisterdom aan de universiteit kritiseerde. Wat was er voor nieuws te melden?

FRANK FUREDI: Als je het over de problemen van het intellectuele leven in het algemeen wilt hebben, dan kun je eigenlijk niet anders dan eerst eens naar de scholen en het onderwijs te kijken, ontdekte ik. Ik kreeg en krijg namelijk zelf steeds meer studenten te zien die bij mij sociologie komen studeren, maar nooit van de Reformatie gehoord blijken te hebben, maar een schimmige notie hebben van de Industriële Revolutie, enzovoort - op die manier kun je natuurlijk onmogelijk de moderniteit gaan bestuderen. De problemen waar ik het in dat vorige boek over had, vloeien direct voort uit de rest van het onderwijs, uit de onderbouw.

Wat gaat daar dan mis?

FUREDI: Kijk, ik ben er erg voor dat de school wordt gebruikt om jonge mensen te socialiseren, en ik vind het best als de school hen ook klaarstoomt voor de economie - zolang dat alles maar geschraagd wordt door de opvatting dat naar school gaan, leren, kennis, ook op zichzelf belangrijk en waardevol is. Maar precies dat humanistische aspect van het onderwijs lijkt verloren te zijn gegaan, in ieder geval in Groot-Brittannië en de VS. Praktische opleiding is in de plaats gekomen van zogeheten ‘academisch’ onderwijs - dat lijkt een vies woord te zijn geworden - en ‘vaardigheden’ zijn belangrijker geworden dan de intellectuele inhoud van lessen.

U trekt van leer tegen de ‘psychopedagogie’, zoals u het noemt, maar wat is er eigenlijk mis mee dat scholen ook aandacht schenken aan de niet-intellectuele facetten van onderwijs en aan het welbevinden van hun leerlingen?

FUREDI: Wat er gebeurd is, denk ik, is dat scholen steeds meer moeilijkheden zijn gaan ondervinden om gewoon taal, rekenen, wetenschap aan te leren, en dat ze daardoor steeds meer aandacht hebben gekregen voor het technische aspect, de motivatie, hoe je kinderen bij de les houdt. Aandacht voor welbevinden is in wezen een plaatsvervangende activiteit voor gewoon lesgeven. Het is bovendien tijdverspilling, want je kunt kinderen in een klassituatie niet echt leren om hun emoties te ontwikkelen en te verfijnen. Je kunt ze alleen een script aanleren, via gedragsbeheersingstechnieken, dan ben je dus bezig met sociale regulering. Dat vind ik heel treurig, want in wezen zeg je daarmee dat je niet in socialisering gelooft. Socialisering draait immers om het doorgeven van waarden in een samenleving. Dit daarentegen is social engineering, waarbij gepoogd wordt de vaak ook nog tamelijk slecht onderbouwde, antitraditionele waarden van een minderheid ingang te doen vinden - via de kinderen probeert men ook de ouders mee te krijgen.

Bovendien: hoezeer scholen ook ‘geluk’ proberen ‘aan te leren’, in werkelijkheid blijken de mensen er geen spat gelukkiger door te worden. Net zoals decennia van seksuele voorlichting er niet in zijn geslaagd de tienerzwangerschappen terug te dringen. Op deze manier is het volstrekte tijdverspilling, maar dat wil niemand toegeven. In de VS gaat er zeer veel aandacht naar het gevoel van eigenwaarde van leerlingen, maar wat je ziet is dat er juist steeds meer kinderen geestelijkegezondheidsproblemen hebben. Het enige wat het allemaal oplevert, is dat kinderen een specifieke, psychologisch-therapeutische taal krijgen aangereikt om over zichzelf te praten, veeleer dan de taal van moraal of filosofie of geschiedenis. Waarbij de facto het tegenovergestelde wordt bereikt van wat de bedoeling was, al die tot in de klas toe toegepaste therapeutische ontspannings- en zogeheten ‘mindfulness’-technieken ten spijt.

(HJA)

First published by Knack.be, 17 November 2009

Frank Furedi launches an excoriating attack on our education system and its failings
Review by Rafael Behr.

A few years ago, I visited a school in Leicester that inspectors had declared to be outstanding in the provision of classes in “citizenship”. This was a subject only recently invented by government in response to nagging national anxiety over “social cohesion”. No one seemed to have any idea how, pedagogically speaking, to make citizens. Except, apparently, in the Midlands.

I was told how the citizenship “agenda” was woven through the rest of the curriculum – sequins of political liberalism sewn on to the fabric of other subjects. One history teacher explained to me how she had met her citizenship obligations by placing al-Qaida terrorism in the context of CIA support for Afghan mujahideen during the cold war. A 14-year-old pupil proved he had internalised this long view by explaining that, while the 9/11 and 7/7 terrorist attacks were bad, they were also, in a sense, “payback”. A statutory duty to inculcate civic mindedness had somehow equipped British teenagers with a pseudo-jihadi notion of terrorist murder as historical quid pro quo.

That Leicester classroom came back to me when reading Wasted, Frank Furedi’s onslaught on schooling policy. Furedi devotes several pages to the ill-conceived citizenship agenda, but as just one example of the way our classrooms have become inadvertent laboratories in queasy liberal social engineering. Teachers are also supposed to instil such useful attributes as environmental consciousness, emotional candour and respect for racial and cultural diversity. Some of these goals are made explicit in the curriculum for children as young as two.

Furedi does not necessarily object to the values implied by those requirements (although he is oddly dyspeptic about green issues). His core argument is that the aspiration to fashion children’s souls according to political criteria is not really education at all; at least, not as he thinks that word should be understood.

No one could reasonably claim that education has suffered from a lack of political attention in Britain. It was famously Tony Blair’s top three priorities before the 1997 election. There has been some new law or initiative every year since: literacy hour, “Every Child Matters”, academy schools, Early Years Foundation Stage, the “Gifted and Talented” programme, personalised learning etc. This process, Furedi argues, signals a politicisation of education that makes schools responsible for the correction of social ills. As a result, their proper function – as transmitters of the accrued wisdom of humanity from one generation to the next – is squeezed out.

The curriculum, in Furedi’s analysis, has come to be seen by policymakers as an easy tool for the correction of wider cultural and behavioural problems. Obesity epidemic? Teach children about healthy eating. Too much teenage pregnancy? More sex education. By extension, teachers have become mediators in a process of socialisation – policing “values” rather than directing thoughts; a secular political clergy with the education secretary as pope. Pedagogy, meanwhile, has come to look more like therapy, with motivational and psychological techniques coming to the fore, along with a fashionable horror of allowing children to get bored. Everything must be “relevant”.

That imperative has, according to Furedi, a pernicious consequence. If schools must always adapt their material to contemporary circumstances, education becomes simply a mechanism for coping with modernity. This is manifest in a shift in emphasis from traditional subjects to a more functional, utilitarian agenda: equipping children with “skills to learn”, responding to globalisation and obligatory use of IT in the classroom.

But if education is about negotiated surrender to economic change, the corpus of knowledge possessed by teachers is, by dint of their age, obsolete. Whatever adults know is old-fashioned, prejudiced and a barrier to learning instead of a precious commodity to be passed on.

That observation is central to Furedi’s thesis: the current fashion for “child-led” and “personalised” learning is part of a misguided philosophy that is corroding intergenerational relations. Children are taught to mistrust teachers; teachers are taught to mistrust themselves. No one has confidence to extol or exert the simple authority of adulthood and scholastic knowledge. Discipline breaks down, leading to moral panic and even greater pressure on schools to fix the “broken society”.

Furedi build his case methodically and argues it carefully, if not elegantly. He supports it with quotes (shrewdly selected, sometimes repeated) from politicians and educationalists. Frustratingly, he tends to give credence to anecdote and sensational news stories that support his account, but not to data – exam results for example – that might nuance the picture. That makes it hard to know if the problem he describes is a tendency on the margins of education or a crisis intrinsic to it.

But the analysis rings true, as does Furedi’s defence of a subject-based curriculum and a philosophy of education that recognises the duty of one generation to impart a canon of knowledge to the next. Forget the management jargon and digital neophilia. Let children be inspired by teachers’ faith in the great past achievements of humanity.

Furedi admits it is a small “c” conservative view, but he rejects the charge that it is elitist. If, in the past, only the elite had such an education, the policy challenge is how to extend it to all, not how to make it seem worthless by denouncing it as irrelevant in order to teach something easier instead. None of that solves the problem of how to turn children into citizens. But then, perhaps, if they have a good enough education, they can work it out for themselves.

First published by Observer, 15 November 2009

Tormented by the under fives….
Can children as young as 3 years old really cause chaos in the classroom? Are there really 3 year old bullies using violence in schools and intimidating teachers and other pupils?

When I first read the article published in The Times by Frank Furedi about toddlers terrorising their teachers I was shocked and more than a little sceptical. How can a very young child threaten an adult? It seems that they can…..

Frank Furedi’s article looks at government figures which show that more than 1000 pupils aged 4 or below were suspended from state schools and nurseries in England last year. The figures also reveal that children of the same age group have been expelled for “racist behaviour, sexual misconduct and theft”. Going further the figures reveal that 390 children were sent home from school in 2007 for a racist offence and 240 suspended for sexual misconduct.

In his article, Furedi questions if young primary pupils are turning into “sexual predators or racist zealots”. One might be tempted to agree until, like Furedi you stop and think about what this means.

Perhaps this is only an opinion but surely children as young as 3 cannot be held accountable for an innapropriate comment or action? Furedi believes that the issue is more about an obsession in society to control children by means other than exercising child authority. In other words - telling children off isn’t enough today and neither is explaining to a young child why their remark or action was wrong. Instead, teachers today are relying on the bureacracy of warning letters to parents and school suspensions rather than dealing with the issue directly.

Furedi is correct in pointing out that authority in British schools is struggling. Gaining respect from even very young students is tough. Many teachers can I am sure give examples of occasions where they have felt uncomfortable or even threatened and perhaps the biggest issue facing teachers is the fact that they feel helpless to deal with the situations without fearing they will be accused of stepping over the line either by parents or by colleagues. Furedi points to an example where a teaching assistant was reprimanded at her school for raising her voice and pointing a finger at a child who had just bitten her! Instead of being able to deal with the bad behaviour there and then she was expected to write a report about it. She felt helpless and resented the fact she was not trusted to do her job.

Perhaps the bad behaviour noted in Furedi’s research is because of an adults changing response to a situation rather than a epidemic of bad behaviour developing amongst very young children. Furedi points to an example where a 4 year old calls a classmate “gay”. Is it right for a teacher to interpret this as homophobia? Is it right to treat young children to the same moral standards as those we impose on an adult society? If we do then perhaps it is easier to understand why 3 and 4 year olds are being expelled for racism and sexual misconduct.

So if the children aren’t changing but the way in which we deal with them is - where do we go from here? I for one do not feel qualified to answer this one but it is certainly food for thought.

As professionals who are here teaching in the UK Your views on Frank Furedi’s article would be welcomed.

First published by Classroom London, 4 November 2009

Why pedagogy is in peril
Frank Furedi talks to Jennie Bristow about the politicisation of education and the crisis of adult authority.

Everyone has a view on the crisis of education.

Politicians point the finger at outdated attitudes, mess about with the curriculum, prescribe new teaching methods and seek to involve parents in the project of schooling. Teachers blame interfering politicians alongside parents who don’t discipline their children or help them with their homework; parents blame teachers for being too hard or too soft on children, too modern or too traditional. Classically trained university professors bemoan the annual intake of students who can barely read a book, write a sentence or formulate an equation, while employers castigate schools for turning out young people who lack the basic life skills necessary for the world of work.

Even for somebody like me, born into a family of educators and with two young children embarking on their all-important schooldays, all this educational angst can get a bit tedious. Do we really need another book on the subject? What could Frank Furedi say about education that has not already been thought and said?

‘All the big debates about pedagogy – how children learn to read, whether English literature is superior to media studies, whether history teachers should focus on the Napoleonic wars or the Holocaust – all these are really secondary issues’, says Furedi. ‘Yes, these questions are important, but how well any teaching method works depends on the recognition that education is an intergenerational dynamic, which relies on the assumption of adult authority. Today, we have an inability to give meaning to education because we struggle to give meaning to adulthood. My book Wasted is an attempt to understand that fundamental problem.’

The struggle to give meaning to adulthood is expressed in a number of familiar ways. From parents struggling to know how to tell a two-year-old to behave to teachers feeling threatened by ‘violent’ four-year-olds and politicians threatening parents of truanting teenagers with jail, discipline is one area of life that used to be taken for granted but has now become an endless source of conflict and anxiety. The fact that it is now questioned whether adults have the moral right to discipline children in the way they see fit, and that their attempts to do so are met with scrutiny and contestation, is a stark example of the way that the very assumption of adult authority has been thrown into question both at school and at home.

A related trend is that which Furedi terms ‘socialisation in reverse’. Socialisation, he notes, ‘is the process through which children are prepared for the world ahead of them’. This is a responsibility that ‘is carried out by adults at home and their communities, and in the formal setting of the school’. Today, however, this intergenerational responsibility is being usurped by a new breed of professionals, so-called experts ‘who transmit values by directly targeting children’. Parents will be only too aware of the way that children now come home armed with advice for their parents about how to eat healthily and recycle their rubbish correctly, while teachers find their own authority on this front trumped by specialist interlopers who parachute into schools to teach pupils about sex, drugs and ‘life skills’.

Furedi’s seminal 2001 book Paranoid Parenting highlighted the grave consequences of the devaluation of adult authority for the role played by parents and the extent to which they are accorded autonomy in their private family lives. In Wasted, he explores the meaning of this infantilising trend for teachers, and for the project of education as a whole. Teachers will identify with the everyday frustration and humiliation that arise from such practices as having their discipline techniques closely monitored and questioned, or finding themselves interviewed by pupils on the grounds that the children should be ‘given a voice’ in deciding which staff the school recruits. But such practices are only symptoms of the process by which the core idea of education as a transaction carried out between generations has been called into question.

Formal education is the process by which society transmits its values and its intellectual legacy to the younger generation. Drawing on the work of the philosopher Hannah Arendt, Furedi argues that ‘it is through education that society both preserves and renews itself’. It is for this reason that a traditional, liberal education has been an essentially conservative project, designed to teach children what is known, thought and agreed upon, rather than attempting to challenge the received wisdom. ‘The conserving function of education is not an attempt to indoctrinate children into conservatism – it is about giving them the resources to create a new world’, explains Furedi. Only when children are taught about the world as it is, by an authoritative source, can they develop the knowledge and critical faculties necessary to shape their world as adults. In this sense, a conservative education should be understood as the necessary foundation for a generation that is capable both of transforming society and holding it together.

One result of the devaluation of adult authority is that ‘the proper relationship between education and society has been turned upside down’, and ‘education is used as the site where the unresolved issues of public life can be pursued’. As adults are infantilised and children are treated as mini-grown-ups whose voice must be expressed and heard on every matter from the content of the curriculum to the attributes of their teachers, education becomes viewed as a place where political debates can and should take place. As Furedi argues:

‘In public life, politicians and policymakers play it safe and tend to avoid substantive issues and serious debate. But often problems that are avoided in the domain of politics appear as a subject for the school curriculum. So the problem of political apathy and disengagement is accepted as a fact of life in public life only to reappear in the form of citizenship education in schools. Solving problems and changing attitudes is assigned to the institutions of education.’

In this respect, the politicisation of education has gathered pace in recent years as politics and public life have become exhausted. Modern society’s retreat from politics, from the notion that we have choices about how to organise our existence, was examined in Furedi’s 2005 book Politics of Fear. One key consequence of the discrediting of political authority is that those who seek to manage society increasingly do so by attempting to manipulate pre-political relations of authority: those that exist within education, and the family.

This is a dangerous process, argues Furedi, because all forms of authority in society draw upon the basic relationship between adults and children. The authority of parents has historically been considered paramount, not because politicians of the past had a particularly elevated view of parents or respect for their autonomy, but because childrearing was understood as the one area of life where natural necessity forces adults to protect children. So while established relations of authority have historically been contested in the name of democracy, freedom or science, and these have had largely progressive consequences, pre-political forms of authority were generally perceived as areas in which reformers meddled at their peril. But as Furedi explains, over the past 50 years or so this assumption has come unstuck: what has increasingly been contested is not one or another particular form of authority, but ‘the authority of authority itself’.

This is sharply revealed by the extent to which the authority of adults – parents and teachers – over children in everyday life is blithely challenged by parenting experts peddling tips on toddler-taming, or educational consultants training teachers in the use of ‘motivational techniques’ that rely upon flattery rather than authority to encourage the child to pay attention. Today, says Furedi, ‘society has become as uncomfortable with the authority of parents and teachers as it was with the absolute monarch of the eighteenth century’. But unlike rebellion against inherited privilege, there is no positive or democratising outcome to our present-day discomfort with the authority of adults: its consequence will be further confusion, where ‘the lines between generations become very arbitrary, and the process of socialising generations is incomplete’.

Furedi is currently focusing his work around the historical evolution of authority relations, as part of an attempt to understand the way that society responds to problems when it lacks clarity and meaning about its own purpose. With Wasted, Furedi considers that he has finished the first phase in this programme of work – and in this respect the book could be read as one that is not really about education at all. But the coherence of the book’s focus on the intergenerational dynamic of education provides the basis for demystifying some of the specific debates and initiatives about education that worry and perplex many parents and teachers.

For example, once the importance of society renewing itself through the education of its young is appreciated, some of the problems with the contemporary mantra of ‘lifelong learning’ become easier to understand. While it is true, and right, that people learn things informally in the course of their lives and that intellectual development does not stop at the age of 18, the politicised promotion of ‘lifelong learning’ as an educational endeavour that exists on a par with schooling implicitly devalues both the role of adult teachers and the importance of formal education. If learning is seen to be something that people just do at any point in their lives, what is so special about the job that teachers do – and why should we insist that children leave school with qualifications at all? As with the vogue to redefine headteachers as ‘lead learners’, and to talk about the importance of ‘teaching and learning’ in one breath, the educator is robbed of his or her status and equated with the pupil who has ‘learning skills’. No wonder good, authoritative teachers are finding themselves insulted and turned off by their erstwhile profession.

The therapeutic turn that education has taken in recent years, where managing children’s feelings and behaviour has come to be seen as being of paramount importance, has caused some consternation – but little direct objection. Partly, this is because it is difficult to oppose such initiatives as ‘happiness education’ without becoming caricatured in a ridiculous counter-position: that it is fine for children to be unhappy, for example, or that teachers should stick to dry facts about maths and leave the emotional side of life for the home. But as Furedi explains, the distinction is not between taking children’s emotions seriously or not: it is between a proper appreciation of academic education and a de-intellectualised form of therapeutic education.

‘A good school will make every effort to attend to the moral, spiritual and emotional needs of a child, and good teachers recognise that the cultivation of the intellect is linked inextricably to the education of a child’s disposition and behaviour’, he says. The way in which schools have traditionally ‘educated the emotions’ is through the arts, introducing children to a world in which the human condition is explored and certain norms of feelings and behaviour promoted. By contrast, the anti-academic approach taken by therapeutic education takes emotions out of their human, historical context and promotes narrow, dogmatic rules about acceptable and unacceptable feelings and behaviour.

When education is understood as a process by which the values and intellectual legacy of society are transmitted to its young, the significance of the subject-based curriculum becomes more profound. If the teaching of literature is superseded by literacy skills, or the teaching of science becomes a vehicle for ethical debates rather than practical experiments or the acquisition of the scientific method, children are not merely being taught the same thing by other means. The fragmentation and politicisation of the curriculum represents a defensiveness about the cultural achievements of the past, and a reluctance to transmit even the awareness of society’s intellectual heritage to its children.

Every time politicians fiddle with the school curriculum, or insist on schools following the latest ‘new idea’, they demonstrate their willingness to dump centuries of knowledge, creativity and thought for the sake of political expediency. What is ‘wasted’ as a consequence of the philistine policy churn of educational reform is not just the potential of young children to appreciate the gains of the past in order to transcend them, but human history itself.

Jennie Bristow is author of Standing Up To Supernanny, published by Societas in 2009

First published by spiked, 30 October 2009

Teachers fight back against false claims of pupil assault
Poll by Association of Teachers and Lecturers reveals that quarter of school staff have faced unfounded accusations.

An alarming rise in the number of false allegations being made against teachers is “infecting” the atmosphere in schools and leaving staff afraid to assert their authority and discipline pupils, it is claimed today.

A poll by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) reveals that a quarter of school staff have been falsely accused by a pupil of wrongdoing – such as slapping them or inappropriate sexual conduct – while one in six has faced malicious allegations from a pupil’s family. Half of those questioned said there had been at least one false allegation in their current school.

The findings come just days after a classroom assistant was cleared of assaulting a pupil after a nine-month ordeal. Mark Ellwood, 46, who was fingerprinted, held in a cell and banned from living with his own children, said he had been “hung out to dry” by the authorities. Teachers, he added, were working in a climate of fear.

There is not just an atmosphere in which staff feel increasingly afraid about telling children off, teachers say. There is also one in which any physical contact – even hugging a primary school child who has fallen over – is seen as a risk. “It is now a trend at my current school that if you reprimand a student, they try to get you into trouble,” one secondary school teacher told the ATL.

“A student even [falsely] reported a teacher for inappropriate physical contact, just so they could move classes. It is getting out of hand because we are powerless against it.”

Mary Bousted, the union’s general secretary, described false allegations as a “growing industry” that was blighting teachers’ lives. “You get allegations of inappropriate sexual contact, you get allegations that you have hit a child, you get allegations that you have been unreasonable in your behaviour to the child,” she said.

Bousted said it was right that allegations were investigated, but argued for a “streamlined” initial process to spot those cases that clearly held no merit. “We all accept the protection of children is paramount, but that should not be at the expense of natural justice,” she said. “School staff have rights too.”

Experts say children who make false accusations may be motivated by a small incident, but for teachers that allegation could mean weeks or months on suspension as the investigation takes place. They can’t contact colleagues or go into the school during that time.

“It is a totally isolating experience,” said Bousted, who added that many teachers never went back because they felt a cloud was hanging over them.

That was the case for Ellwood, who was told last week by the chairman of Hull magistrates, Christopher Buren, to “restart your life” and “forget [your] nightmare”. The nightmare began in January, soon after he began work at David Lister school in Hull. Ellwood, who helped to deal with children who had been removed from class because of bad behaviour, asked a 15-year-old boy to take off his jacket and put away his mobile phone. The pupil responded by threatening to stab him. “I will have you killed,” he was told.

Ellwood, who was a former kick-boxing champion, removed the child from the classroom. When the boy kicked him in the shin he reacted by “gently” sweeping the boy to the floor, but not injuring him. Within weeks he had been charged with common assault and social services had removed him from his home, which he shared with his wife, Julie, and two teenage daughters. He had to sleep on a gym floor for two weeks before he was allowed to return home.

It is not just the personal angst provoked by made-up accusations that is troubling teachers. “Serial false allegations can infect the whole teacher-pupil relationship,” said Bousted. “There is a risk that the proper authority that teachers should have to discipline children and to create a calm and orderly atmosphere for teaching might go.

“If that happens, everyone suffers. We are not saying children do not have a right to make allegations – they must be safeguarded. But we think it has gone too far in the direction that if a child says something they are automatically believed.” The result was that teachers had become very cautious, she said.

It is an issue that is particularly prevalent among male teachers in primary schools who fear touching their pupils. “Never mind children – adults need a bit of physical reassurance from time to time – a stroke on the back, a hand on someone’s shoulder,” said Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent University. “Physical touch might tell a child far more than you could through speech – and it is important for them to understand that is an option.”

Furedi – whose new book, Wasted: Why Education isn’t Educating, is published this month – said he had spoken to teachers who had left the profession because of the culture of mistrust that had built up. False allegations were a large part of that, he added. “The point is you can’t be an effective primary school teacher unless you feel you can have some form of intimate contact with the kids. That is part and parcel of that relationship.”

‘I was viewed as guilty until found innocent’

When Matthew Wren, 38, was punched by a pupil at the school where he taught, he reported it to the police but, he says, “they weren’t interested”.

He discovered he had been suspended from the school secondhand when a colleague of his wife’s told him. “The child got wind of the fact that I had gone to the police and made a counter-claim. It is at that point that all the machinery goes into action,” he says. “Of course it should be child protection first, but there is no duty of care for the member of staff. I was just told not to come into school.”

Wren, who is a member of the NASUWT teaching union, voluntarily went to Washington police station in Co Durham and was arrested over allegations of common assault. The police took DNA samples, a photograph and fingerprints. While he waited to find out what would happen, he was engulfed by stress. “It nearly ended with the break-up of my marriage,” he says, “because you go to bed thinking about it and you wake up thinking about it. You try to keep yourself busy, but it hangs over your head like the sword of Damocles. The member of staff is guilty until proven innocent.”

Even once the case had been dropped – and Wren had been cleared of any wrongdoing – he could not let go: earlier this year he won a landmark high court battle to have his DNA record destroyed and has received thousands of pounds in compensation from the police.

But the experience meant that the former history teacher – who had been in the profession for 15 years – could not go back. “I could not carry on as a teacher. Not after the system had chewed me up and spat me out. And false allegations are extremely common. Children always say, ‘I am going to get you done for that’,” adds Wren, who now works as an accommodation officer at Durham University.

First published by Observer, 25 October 2009

Motivational gimmicks ‘undermine intellectual content of lessons’
Motivational 'fads and gimmicks' used to prevent children becoming bored in the classroom are undermining the intellectual content of lessons, an academic has warned.

Teachers are resorting to quiz games inspired by television shows like Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and Blockbusters to keep the attention of “infantilised” pupils, he said.

Schools no longer foster a love of reading because children’s only experience of literature comes from extracts on worksheets, with books considered too dull, it is claimed.

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent University, has called on schools to drop their obsession with entertainment and instead motivate pupils by teaching them the value of a good education.

“Today, an elusive quest for a boredom-free classroom leads to a one-sided reliance on techniques and gimmicks that distract children from engaging with a challenging curriculum,” he wrote in the Times Education Supplement.

“The aspiration to learn and the motivation to study are outcomes of family and community influences, and the authoritative leadership provided by schools and teachers.

“Real motivation is not the outcome of a clever technique but of a school culture that takes children’s education seriously.”

In his new book Wasted: Why Education Is Not Educating, Prof Furedi attacks Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, for undermining the authority of educators with its criticisms of “boring” teachers.

While acknowledging that teachers have a responsibility to stimulate their students, he argues that an excessive focus on motivation can damaged a school’s academic ethos and standards of discipline.

First published by Daily Telegraph, 23 October 2009

Why supermarkets are off their trolleys
Over-zealous retailers won’t let parents buy booze — or sometimes even cheese — any more. Why is mistrust our default? By Carol Midgley.

Squatting at the foot of a giant, plastic slide, waiting for my daughter to descend I heard a sudden, unpleasant noise in my ear. “No photographs! No photographs allowed!” shrieked a voice. I looked up to see a security person wearing a facial expression that could have curdled chip fat.

“But this is my own child and there’s no one else around,” I stuttered. It was no use. “Please turn off your camera phone — now,” she replied in the tone a policeman might use to talk down a hijacker. “And tell your kid that running up slides isn’t permitted either.”

Ah, yes — another magical day in a children’s “fun” centre. Where every child is a possible liability case, every adult a potential kiddie-fiddler. Whoopee. Treasure the memories, folks.

Still, it could have been worse. I could have been Gill Power-Forward, 56, doing my weekly shop at Asda in Poole, Dorset and being made to feel like a character from Shameless. Mrs Power, upon packing her carrier bags, found that they were a bit heavy so asked her 14-year-old son, Andrew, to carry one out to the car.

Big mistake. The cashier stepped in and refused to let the teenager touch it. Why? Because the bag contained a bottle of wine and Andrew is “under-age”. Yes, allowing a minor to lift a bottle of Piat d’Or is now apparently tantamount to chopping him or her a line of coke. Well, you can’t be too careful: one minute your kid is carrying your shopping, the next he’s sucking on a crack pipe and shoving turds through OAPs’ letterboxes. Asda later said that its staff had been “overly cautious”.

If you thought that incident was a farcical one-off, you’d be wrong. Ask Jackie Slater, a management consultant from Leeds who popped into her local Morrisons last week for some groceries. When the checkout assistant came to scan two bottles of wine, she demanded to see some ID. Slater said this was all very flattering but actually she was the wrong side of 50. Incorrect answer. The cashier pointed to her daughter, 17 and niece, 18, who were standing nearby. “You could be buying the wine for them,” she said. “I have to see everyone’s ID to make sure they are all over 18.”

After an embarrassing scene in which the manager was called, a queue formed and Slater was still refused her alcohol, she left empty-handed. “We take our responsibility with regard to selling alcohol very seriously,” said a Morrison’s spokesman.

Right. We’ll gloss over the obvious fact that it would have been perfectly legal for both these mothers to go home and pour their teenagers a glass of wine, and focus on the bigger question. Why are these companies making grand public gestures concerning under-age drinking when they’ll be as effectual as a one-legged man in an arse-kicking contest?

Of course big supermarkets are worried about protecting their licences but if they really want to help to stop minors binge-drinking, how about, say, they stop selling own-brand lager at £2.20 for 20 bottles (Asda website), less than it costs to buy a packet of crisps, or put four bottles of cider on offer at £2 (Morrisons website)?

Why not go a step farther and stop adults buying newspapers, lest their kids catch a glimpse of the racing pages? Or protect unborn babies by refusing to sell pregnant women cheese. Oh, hold on — that’s already happened. Last week a deli-counter assistant at Sainsbury’s told Janet Lehain, who is pregnant with her third child, that she shouldn’t eat Canadian cheddar (the assistant was wrong). Lehain called it “the most patronising encounter I have had the misfortune of experiencing”.

A children’s play centre may congratulate itself that it is being vigilant by monstering parents who take photos of kids at play, but can someone answer me this — what possible harm can come of photographing fully clothed children in a ball pool? Or even swimming in a local baths? Any pervert could get far more “revealing” pictures on a public beach or municipal park on a long lens. Every year schools offer class photos in which every child is clearly pictured. But none of this logic seems to matter. Being seen to do something is seemingly all that counts.

The sociologist Frank Furedi says that by criminalising the photographing of children we reveal a culture that regards virtually every childhood experience from the standpoint of a paedophile. In a roundabout way, he says, we normalise paedophilia: the default position is always to expect the worst.

As we approach the run-up to Christmas, the season of school concerts, sweet nativity plays, parties and visits to Santa’s grotto, we can expect paranoia to escalate. Some schools and organisations already ban parents from taking pictures of their children on stage; party volunteers must be CRB-checked; the idea of a child sitting atop Father Christmas’s knee in a glittery cavern is now largely unthinkable and in many department stores has been replaced with a wary-looking Santa handing out presents in a strip-lit room.

This year we have seen the ultimate taboo — the case of Vanessa George, the blubber-faced nursery worker who took pictures of babies and toddlers in her care being sexually abused by her on her mobile phone — so things are likely to deteriorate still further. If the relationship between the generations was already damaged, George’s vile crimes — if you can’t trust a female nursery worker, who can you trust? — will poison them like strychnine. And yet, let’s not forget, Vanessa George had passed CRB checks. In the end, that safeguard did nothing to protect those poor victims.

So, if that measure proved impotent you have to ask what possible use humiliating adults in supermarkets and banning them from photographing their own toddler on a swing will be in making the world a nicer place. It is so tangential as to be laughable — like trying to cure the national obesity problem by banning chilli sauce from doner kebabs. The only kind of world it creates is one completely devoid of common sense.

Now, if you’ll excuse me I must hurry. Me and the five-year-old are off to Booze Buster.

First published by The Times (London), 15 October 2009

Academic highlights decline in teacher authority
A leading academic has reignited the debate over the decline in behaviour standards in our schools.

And he points the finger of blame at a combination of an erosion of teachers’ authority in the classroom, an over emphasis on league table performance and a failure to “identify root causes of problems with teenagers’ schooling”.

Professor Frank Furedi of the University of Kent makes the claims in his new book – Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating – in which he delivers a damning report on the major issues impacting on our schools.

Professor Furedi claims “society needs to take a reality check to decide what it wants from the teaching profession” and appeals for an “open conversation” between generations in order to remedy a broad spectrum of issues.

His calls come amid a backdrop of increasing concerns from teachers who say they are powerless to effectively control their classrooms as pupils go unpunished by schools’ senior management and a lack of respect for authority figures.

Hundreds within the profession across the county have reported suffering stress as a direct result of a culture in which disruptive pupils routinely swear, throw materials and verbally abuse teachers without fear of consequences.

John Walder is the secretary of the Kent National Union of Teachers. He said school discipline continued to be a “very significant issue”.

He said: “I have hundreds of teacher cases to deal with and a large percentage of those will be of our members complaining of stress related to dealing with behaviour problems.

“Children who do not conform to schools’ codes of conduct need to know there are consequences- schools should expect children to obey them. But I have had many teachers tell me that pupils have been allowed to get away with outrageous behaviour without anything being done about it.

“Rules need to be enforced - but often if children are sent out of a classroom they are not disciplined by senior staff who are unable to see them.”

He revealed many teachers were simply expected to deal with behaviour problems without backup from senior colleagues. In addition he believed that with the advent of league tables, schools were becoming “increasingly consumerised” in which parents are increasingly referred to as customers.

This has led to situation where teachers are reluctant to raise behavioural issues with parents at term-time meetings as the government sets tough targets on measures of excluding pupils.

Mr Walder added: “There has been a change in general attitudes over the last few decades and there is no doubt that children today are far less respectful towards teachers, with many of them finding this extremely difficult to cope with.

“Schools should be prepared to develop strategies to deal with this including ‘internal exclusion’ of pupils. Simply expelling pupils to other schools just moves the problem somewhere else.”

In addition, Mr Walder also believed that teachers were being excessively monitored by Ofsted, which he felt was impacting on their ability to get on with their jobs.

Meanwhile, Kent County Council’s managing director for children, families and education, Rosalind Turner, said: “Frank Furedi raises some interesting issues in his new book. The topics will be debated in staff rooms, governors’ meetings and beyond.

“The behaviour of children and young people is a regular talking point. If you look beyond the headlines that appear from time to time, the vast majority are well behaved and well mannered.

“Schools have a vital role to play in this. Not only are they educating children in the classroom but are preparing them for adult life and all that entails. This supports the efforts of families in the home.

“Politics and education is a double-edged sword. Because of its standing on the political agenda, it benefits from significant investment. That investment comes with scrutiny too.

“Education will always command interest and debate. The very future of our country depends on the next generation coming through. Here in Kent we are committed to making sure every young person leaves school having achieved their full potential.

“I would like to extend an invitation to Mr Furedi to come and discuss his book with headteachers, school governors and KCC representatives. He would find a very receptive audience who share his passion for education and the future of our children and young people.”

First published by Your Thanet News, 10 October 2009

Child Prisoners Of Paranoid Parents
By Colin Brazier.

Half of all British kids are prisoners in their own home, or parents’ cars. This is a deduction based on interviews with 1,000 parents by the charity formerly known as the Pedestrians Association (but now inevitably groovied-up to Living Streets).

Traffic and the - unjustified - fear of paedophiles are to blame, says LS. We know all this. Sociologists like Frank Furedi argued in his ground-breaking book Paranoid Parenting, how the risk of child abduction had been static for decades. But the fear has multiplied exponentially. We know from charities like Play England that kids don’t learn how to manage risk because their parents won’t let them leave the house for unsupervised recreation. And studies into car use reveal that our children are getting fatter, not least because parents cannot countenance the idea that they should walk anywhere.

This latest report supports that finding, identifying the reluctance of parents to let little Johnny walk to school as a particular problem.

In short, we have lots of academics, charities and lobby groups correctly diagnosing our travails but none of them getting to the heart of the problem. I mentioned Frank Furedi, an iconoclastic author, for whom I have the greatest admiration. A few years ago I travelled with a camera crew to interview him in Kent about a story in that week’s news. As equipment was being assembled, I told Frank how much I agreed with him that Britain was in the grip of paranoid parenting. But why did he not consider sibship - family size - as one of the problems and solutions. I don’t know whether his answer - which I am bound to keep to myself - owes anything to the fact that he, then at least, was the father of one.

Yet, it seems indubitable to me that sibship is a critical factor here. Take the failure of parents to let children walk to school. Children from large families form their own ‘walking bus’, with the eldest child often acting in loco parentis. And is the state encouraging that? Quite the opposite. Look at recent changes to the so-called Sibling Rule. Hitherto, a parent securing a place for one child did so in the expectation that younger siblings would automatically follow. Some education authorities are now resiling on that principle, forcing children into different schools. Gone at a stroke is the critical mass which allows parents to relax when their kids walk - with safety in numbers - to school. Suddenly, where three children burned-off calories and took a car off the roads, the reverse becomes true.

Living Streets also says many of our neighbourhoods have been robbed of their community spirit. Opportunities for inter-generational interaction are particularly limited; unsurprising, since the most pensioners see of children is their little faces squeezed up against a car window. But I detect a hint of paranoid parenting here too; I see it in the timorous exchanges between some parents, out with their child, and the older generation. There is an unfounded suspicion in anyone showing friendly interest in a child.

And here again it is probable that parents of larger families respond differently, because of their well-evolved sense of risk. A father-of-four is exposed to the same media focus on child abduction as a father-of-one, bu the experience of bringing up children, without those scare stories translating into reality, is prone to produce a more relaxed parent who does not see paedophiles lurking under every park bench. With each additional offspring, parents learn to let children out of their sight.

First published by Sky News, 13 August 2009

Fees fuel campus consumer culture
By Sean Coughlan.

What do student newspapers complain about these days?

How about this headline in Swansea University’s student paper following the recent bad weather.

“Students lose £20 a lecture after snow sends university into lockdown.”

It pointed out that fee-paying students are not getting full value for money if lectures are cancelled.

Students were seeing their “money disappear quicker than the snow melted”.

It illustrates something about changed attitudes on campus when students are complaining that they are not getting enough lectures.

Paying fees means that students are customers as well as learners.

The student union president at Swansea University, James Houston, says that going to university is “still different from a shopping experience” - but that paying fees is pushing it in that direction.

‘Customer service’

“There is a strong argument that if you charge more, then people will want to know where their money is going,” he says.

Universities are more than a business, he says. But he fears that fees are driving a campus consumer ethic.

The students’ union already has complaints from students about not getting “value for money”.

This shift in attitude is also reflected in an increase in complaints by students to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education - which it attributes to fees.

“We believe that one reason for the increase is the rise in tuition fees. There is also more consumerist thinking amongst students. Students have become more assertive about their rights, and the services they are entitled to,” said chief executive, Rob Behrens.

While the debate about fees was once about whether it would be a social barrier to poorer students, in practice there have been other less expected changes.

The combination of fees and debts from student loans means that university courses are judged by their price tags as well as academic worth.

Frank Furedi, social commentator and academic at the University of Kent, says that the campus culture is “unrecognisable” from a generation ago.

Students now ring lecturers at home at the weekend, he says, seeing this as being part of the service they are buying with their fees.

“They feel they can make all kinds of demands,” says Prof Furedi.

“Fees give a clear and tangible form to the idea of students as consumers.

“The relationship with the student is no longer academic, it’s a service provider and customer. The academic relationship is an endangered species.”

There are still students who want to be inspired and intellectually challenged, he says.

Extended school

But the landscape is one in which many students expect to have everything done for them.

“School has extended into higher education. Students behave like schoolchildren.”

If tuition fees are hiked further, he says it will intensify the sense of consumerism among students.

There are other signs of how fees have changed life on campus.

Students are more careers-focused than ever before, the accumulation of large debts putting pressure on them to get a degree that will help them in the jobs market.

Beginning a university degree course is a serious financial undertaking and that now shapes the experience of student life.

There are other practical changes. More students than ever are living at home while at university - with surveys suggesting that perhaps a fifth of students continue to live with their parents.

This in turn means that more students, particularly from less well-off families, are choosing from universities close to where they live.

Helicopter parents

The role of parents, who pay towards student costs, has also been seen as becoming more prominent.

This has been caricatured as “helicopter parents” who hover over every decision taken by their student offspring, including contacting lecturers.

Parents can now act as agents for their children in university applications - and have even been allowed to sit in on admissions interviews.

Cary Cooper, pro-vice chancellor at Lancaster University, also points to the structural consequences of a further increase in fees.

At present, he says, the current level of student debt means that many more students have to take part-time jobs to pay their way.

Another hike in fees will mean even more students will need to work - including those who will only be able to study part-time.

This will mean universities will have to adapt, such as providing courses which can be passed in individual units, accumulating credits over a number of years.

Professor Cooper says this could mean a fundamental change for higher education, moving away from the traditional model of 18 to 21-year-olds taking a three-year degree course.

First published by BBC News Online, 16 March 2009

Keeping mum: Julie Myerson on her contoversial new book
By Dani Garavelli.

IT’S AS if she’s broken the last taboo. Novelist Julie Myerson’s controversial decision to turn her teenage son’s troubles into a book – creating a clever generational twist on the misery-lit phenomenon – has seen her cast as the worst mother since Rosemary West.

Thanks to her, the world now knows every cough and splutter of Jake’s journey from star pupil to dishevelled cannabis user: how he stole from his parents to fund his habit; played his electric guitar at full volume in the garden; encouraged his younger siblings to share his joints (a claim he vehemently denies) and was finally kicked him out of the family’s £800,000 house in Tooting at the age of 17 when he hit his mother, perforating her eardrum.

Thanks to his father Jonathan – a playwright and magistrate – chipping in with his own version of events, they have a clear image of him stumbling out of the front door “looking scruffy and unkempt” and reliant on one of his friend’s parents for a roof over his head.

In all their public utterances on the subject, the Myersons have focused on the pain they have suffered at Jake’s hands. But if – by offering up her family’s ordeal up for public delectation – the Man Booker prize short-listed author hoped to elicit sympathy, she must be sorely disappointed. In the furore that erupted after news she had written it broke, Myerson has been lambasted as egotistical, manipulative and cynical, and accused of a gross betrayal of everything it means to be a parent.

Jake himself – now 20 – has branded his mother “slightly insane and naive” for being unable to tell the difference between “smoking a spliff and being a drug addict”, adding: “What she has done has taken the very worst years of my life and cleverly blended it into a work of art, and that to me is obscene.”

But many outside observers have been a good deal less charitable. “(She] is a totally self-obsessed, me-me-me individual, who has cynically used her son’s drug problems to further her own career,” said one of the hundreds of irate posters who have formed a virtual mob baying for her blood. Others dismissed her as a “moral pygmy” and implied her rampant self-absorption would be enough to drive any self-respecting teenager to drugs.

Myerson’s attempts to justify herself on Newsnight backfired when she came across as smug and sanctimonious as opposed to angst-ridden, while her insistence that she wrote the book to help other parents experiencing similar travails was undermined when it was rushed out two months earlier than planned to capitalise on all the unexpected publicity.

Setting the seal on Myerson’s image as an aberration of nature, was her eventual admission that she was the anonymous author of the now-defunct Guardian’s Living With Teenagers column, in which a mother charted every aspect of her children’s puberty, from their abusive hormonal outbursts to the growth of their first pubic hairs.

But there are two sides to every story. Drowned out by the outrage, are the voices of a handful of parents whose own families have been ripped apart by drugs, and who welcome the discussion this middle-class meltdown has provoked. Debra Bell, who got to know the Myersons because her son William was also using cannabis, said: “I know that it’s been a nightmare for Julie, but I firmly believe she made the right decision both in terms of the tough love and in writing about it.”

So was the Myersons’ decision to kick their son out of the house an act of altruism or an over-reaction born of bourgeois hysteria? And was turning a teenager’s trauma into copy a good way to raise awareness of the challenges of parenting or a cynical breach of trust?

The Myersons say Jake’s troubles started when he was 15. Up to then, he was the model pupil, easy-going, biddable and hard-working. But, in the year of his GCSEs, his behaviour started to degenerate – he became sullen and apathetic, began staying in bed for long stretches, and was prone to violent outbursts. Gradually – and this is where it starts to get contentious – his parents realised that what they had considered as the odd casual joint, was actually an addiction to skunk.

Soon Jake had given up any pretence of studying, money started disappearing from people’s purses, and the Myersons began to suspect he was “dealing” to his two younger siblings. “One morning I discover that he’s been giving his 13-year-old brother drugs,” his mother has written. “He and his friends – selling him cannabis. Teaching him to roll a joint when he still occasionally plays with Lego and listens to story tapes at night.”

The Myersons say they threatened their son, reasoned with him, tried to draw up contracts, but to no avail, so they felt they had no choice but to kick him out. Since then, there have been brief attempts at reconciliation; periods where they have relented and allowed him to come back home, only to send him packing again – but no real progress has been made. That’s the bare bones of the Myersons’ story, from their perspective.

As far as it goes, it’s not so very different from that experienced by middle-class parents across the country. Where it breaks the mould, is the way in which Myerson responded. Rather than retreating to her room to work through her maternal angst in private, or seeking solace from a parents’ support group, she turned the book she was writing about the life and early death of Victorian artist Mary Yelloly – into an examination of her own “lost child”.

Defending herself against claims she was making a fast buck at her son’s expense, the Newsnight Review panellist – whose semi-autobiographical first novel Sleepwalking drew on her own abused childhood – said she wanted to portray Jake as a “loveable, likeable boy”. She said: “It is a book about how much I love him, not a character assassination”. And some critics who have read The Lost Child have been moved by the deep sense of loss it evokes.

Others, however, remain unconvinced. They speak of Myerson’s lack of insight and suggest what she interprets as Jake’s consenting to the publication of her book, reads more like the sulky resignation of someone who knows there is nothing he can do to stop it happening. It is disconcerting too to find out that for all the soul searching Myerson claims she did before deciding to publish, she paid Jake £1,000 for the use of his teenage poems.

To sociologist Frank Furedi, author of Paranoid Parenting, Myerson’s book is less a self-help manual for the guardians of troubled teenagers than an abdication of parental responsibility.

“I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t write about your children’s problems in a way which stimulated discussion, but I think this book is about self-promotion,” Furedi says. “It claims to have a message, but because of its intensely voyeuristic character all it does is satisfy people’s desire to pry. Arguing that it helps other parents deal with their own problems is a bit like arguing that books with pictures of naked ladies help people learn more about biology.”

Furedi says he believes in holding the line where teenagers are concerned, but objects to Myerson’s fatalism. “I have no problem with telling kids you can’t do this or that, but you do have a responsibility towards your children which extends to their destructive, antisocial behaviour. I feel at the root of this book is a need for self-justification and vindication.”

Relationship counsellor Suzie Hayman is someone accustomed to speaking to parents at the end of their tether. She is a trustee of Parentline, an organisation inundated with calls from mothers and fathers worried about their children’s drug use. They can be split into two groups, she says, those who are just engaging in teenage experimentation, and those who have a serious problem. Tellingly, Hayman believes the heaviest users are almost always using drugs to try to express anguish or escape trauma. “For many people, the first step in helping their child is to find out what is really going on and that may mean looking at their own lives,” she says. “Sometimes parents come to us seeking help with an ‘awful’ teenager but when they talk it through they realise they need help to change as well.”

Sadly – though Jake claims he turned to cannabis to block out his parents’ arguments – that element of introspection seems entirely lacking in Myerson’s account. As she watches her family self-combust, she seems to be asking not, “what did we do wrong?” but, “how could this happen to people like us?”

If the chattering classes were in need of their own Jade Goody, then the Myerson saga has given them plenty of gawp at. The conflicting accounts of the family’s estrangement which dominated last week’s newspapers were full of the kind of toe-curling domestic exchanges which make reality TV so compulsive.

All the flak has doubtless caused Myerson some embarrassment, but the publicity it has generated means The Lost Child is likely to fly off the shelves. But for Jake – now living in Camberwell and trying to forge a career in the music industry – its publication is likely to be the source of a humiliation far deeper than that experienced when his sneering friends told him he was the subject of the Living With Teenagers column.

“Dragging his troubles into a public arena has placed a terrible stain on (Jake’s] reputation,” says Hayman. “Even if he turns his life around he will always be that druggie kid whose mother wrote about him. It makes it extremely difficult for him ever to trust his mother again.”

The irony is that the book’s portrayal of fleeting moments of tenderness – such as when Jake moves Myerson to tears by singing a song he wrote for her – suggest that, despite his problems, he was not completely “lost” to his family. Yet the brutal way in which his parents have apparently exploited his pain may ensure its title is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

First published by Scotland On Sunday, 15 March 2009

Our fascination with Jade’s grim reality
Is it the public nature of her dying or is there something about Jade Goody that means we cannot look away? By Margarette Driscoll and Kevin Dowling.

In August 1776 crowds gathered outside the Edinburgh home of the philosopher David Hume. The author of A Treatise of Human Nature was a religious sceptic and people waited with a sense of suppressed excitement to see whether the “great infidel” would recant as he succumbed to cancer.

Yesterday, more than 300 miles, 200 years and a world away from the Georgian idea of celebrity, another crowd was gathered outside the doors of the Royal Marsden hospital in southwest London. This time a phalanx of paparazzi waited for any pictorial crumbs that might fall from the table as Jade Goody was accepted into the Christian faith.

Before she dies — also from cancer – the 27-year-old decided she would like to be christened alongside her two sons, Bobby, 5, and Freddy, 4. It was the reality TV star’s wish that the boys “get to know Jesus so they can keep in touch with me when I’m in heaven”.

Goody’s condition has deteriorated so much in the past few days that she was too ill to leave the Marsden, so the ceremony, originally planned to take place at a church near her home with a party for 50 to follow, was carried out in the hospital chapel.

Although a small affair, it will be another scoop for OK! magazine, which bought the rights to her wedding to Jack Tweed two weeks ago, part of a package of deals which have made Goody’s lingering death worth a total of £1.4m.

Like every other aspect of Goody’s approaching death, it is sure to give us the sort of ghoulish frisson that must have shivered through the people who awaited Hume’s demise – although on a much greater scale.

What these two very public deaths tell us about Britain – and how the concept of fame has morphed from reverence for a great thinker to a girl from Bermondsey celebrated for her ignorance – almost goes without saying.

Goody’s exposure of every detail of her treatment for cancer, from receiving her diagnosis on live television to pictures last week of her hooked up to an oxygen machine after an emergency operation to clear an obstruction in her bowel, is taking us into a realm that people in Hume’s day could not have imagined.

Goody, the daughter of a drug addict who was brought up in poverty, might seem the product of a very British underclass culture but her story – part soap opera, part car crash – has the world hooked. Her image has not only graced the front page of The Sun newspaper every day since February 14 but she has also been on the front page of the New York Times.

“Oprah Winfrey wants her on the show. Larry King wants her on the show. I’ve got his people ringing every day to see if she’s up to doing it – and that show goes to 200 countries,” said Max Clifford, Goody’s PR man who has been juggling visits to the Marsden with fielding requests for interviews and information from as far afield as Argentina.

“It’s been amazing. I had a film crew from France in the office yesterday and Italians the day before. Simon Cowell [the pop impresario] called me from Los Angeles and said everyone was talking about Jade. She’s the first person on reality TV to become world famous.”

What is it that we and now the rest of the world find so compelling? And what does it say about us?

Ever since Goody walked into the Big Brother house seven years ago we have been both appalled and fascinated by her. The then 21-year-old dental nurse from southeast London, who famously thought “East Angular” was abroad, quickly became an unlikely cover girl.

Mark Frith, who was editing Heat magazine, saw her popularity as a reaction to the “retouched photos and copy-approved interviews” that had become the celebrity staples of the 1990s. But even he was surprised at the bidding war that ensued when Jade came out of the Big Brother house. “Texts showed the increasing amounts being put forward: £10,000, then £20,000, then it just kept going,” he recalled.

Heat eventually did a deal in conjunction with the News of the World for a six-figure sum.

“We gave her a make-over and put her on the cover, accompanied by the words ‘Jade’s amazing new look’. That issue sold over 640,000 copies, Heat’s highest sale.”

She remains Britain’s leading cover girl for the simple reason that she is guaranteed to sell newspapers or magazines, ahead of the pop stars Cheryl Cole and Victoria Beckham.

Gigi Eligoloff, the senior producer of Big Brother who overruled sceptical colleagues to get Goody on screen, says the quality that makes her so heart-stopping now is what she spotted in the loudmouthed girl who electrified everyone in the Big Brother audition room.

“She’s got no filter,” she said. “Most people, at least when they become famous, have some part of themselves that they keep back, something that’s private. Not Jade. It’s her openness that’s so compelling.”

As a character she set a template for the mix that makes Big Brother so popular, which explains the interest from abroad. “People may not know her but they know Big Brother,” said Eligoloff. “I bet every country’s got its Jade.”

There was also something likeable about Goody, an “essential sweetness” with which people have always sympathised. Even as a dental nurse she had already risen above a rotten childhood: she later recalled rolling joints, aged five, for her mother Jackiey, who was a thief and a “clipper”, someone who pretends to organise a rendezvous with a prostitute but instead runs off with the money. Jade was left to do most of the cooking and cleaning. Her father, a heroin addict, had already left home.

Later there was something genuine about her tearful apologies for her racist remarks to Shilpa Shetty, the Indian actress. She knew her lucrative career was all but ruined. Her perfume, Shh, which had been a bestseller, was withdrawn from the shelves. She agreed to appear on Bigg Boss, the Indian version of Big Brother, as part of her atonement. It was while filming the show that she discovered she had cervical cancer.

Who could have scripted this last tragic chapter? “She’s young, she’s got lots of money, she’d got two young boys and she’s dying,” said Eligoloff. “I wouldn’t be surprised if her story’s turned into a movie.”

The “Jade effect” that has produced increasing requests for smear tests among young women has now extended to cancer charities and hospices. The St Clare hospice near Harlow, Essex, where Goody stayed last weekend, had 60,000 hits on its website in a day, as many as it would usually get in a month.

A spokesman said its teams collecting money on the streets last week had been unusually successful: “A lot more people were coming up to talk to them and putting a few extra quid in the tin.”

Calls to Macmillan Cancer Support helplines increased by 50% on the Monday after Goody’s wedding.

Carolan Davidge, brand director of Cancer Research UK, said: “Jade has done a huge amount to raise awareness of the importance of cervical screening. If Jade’s experience motivates people to contribute to our cervical cancer research, we hope more lives could be saved in the future.”

Although Goody has been open about the fact that she is sharing her death throes with the world for money – to pay for her children’s education – some believe she is also performing a public service.

“We have already broken the taboo about cancer, but this is the first time that we’ve seen in such a public way the move from active care to palliative care and eventually to death,” said Karol Sikora, professor of cancer medicine at London’s Imperial College School of Medicine.

“Western society finds it very difficult to talk about death. The anxiety people have about the Jade Goody story, their sense that it is a bit mawkish, is really a cover for the fear they have of death and dying.”

The Goody story has certainly made the agony of dying from cervical cancer more than clear. The rawness of some of the pictures of her in distress have been difficult to look at. Her tender devotion to her two young boys – soon to be without a mother – could not fail to touch.

“It’s fantastic the way she is dealing with it,” said David Praill, chief executive of Help the Hospices. “But there’s a part of me that thinks: oh dear, is it really good for Jade to have all those cameras following her? Perhaps it is a way of escaping from the reality of her situation.”

Goody’s public deterioration is a spectacle that makes many uneasy: James Landale, BBC News’s chief political correspondent, who is suffering from cancer himself, encapsulated the feeling last week when he said that the “public circus” around Goody was “perilously close” to becoming a form of entertainment.

In Landale’s eyes, those who examine Goody’s picture every day to see if she has lost weight or speculated on how long she’s got are like spectators “eating a picnic at a public hanging”.

When Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent University, wrote Therapy Culture, his scathing analysis of a post-Diana Britain in which people were seeing the problems of everyday life through a prism of emotion – where phrases like “emotional damage” and “scarred for life” evoked a sense of powerlessness – he noted that newspaper columns such as those by John Diamond and Ruth Picardie, who both wrote about having cancer, had become a form of entertainment for the middle class.

“This is the logical conclusion,” he said, “though Diamond and Picardie were self-revealing rather than confessional and their writing could be seen as a high point of journalism for very cultured people. This is a parallel development: pornography to their erotic art.

“It’s a strange phenomenon. You cannot take your eyes off it, though the idea that she is helping people is really an affectation – it’s like publishing pornography and arguing that it’s good because it teaches what people’s bodies look like.”

Furedi also believes that the blow-by-blow coverage of Goody’s demise – at her own instigation – is an extension of the urge to put personal details about yourself on websites such as Facebook and the line between public and private is dangerously blurred.

“Young people are increasingly socialised into a culture where they haven’t learnt to distinguish between what you do in the privacy of your own home with your loved ones and how you behave in a world of strangers,” Furedi said.

Goody has at least tried to ensure there will be no unseemly wrangle over the fortune she has amassed. She is leaving everything – her house and money – to her children, who will live with their father, the television presenter Jeff Brazier. Her new husband, Tweed – who added to the drama of last week when he was convicted of assaulting a taxi driver – will inherit nothing. “He wants everything to go to the boys,” she has said.

Her proudest boast is that she has put in trust enough money to pay her sons’ school fees until they are 16. “I’m ignorant,” she told Clifford, “but I don’t want them to be – I want my boys to have the chances and opportunities I never had.”

“Many of the celebrities I’ve worked with over the years are interested in one person at the end of the day – themselves,” said Clifford. “Jade has genuinely done all this for her kids. She’s not academic, but in her own way she’s very bright.

“It might seem a strange word to use about Jade Goody, but there’s something incredibly noble about the girl.”

Nobility: now there’s a concept Hume would have understood.

‘It’s very Victorian, this obsession with death’

Martin Amis, novelist

“I met her once in a TV studio and found her very sweet, articulate and warm. We are famously great deniers of death. Saul Bellow [the American author] once wrote that death is the dark backing a mirror needs before anything is clear to us and anything that makes us look more closely into that mirror puts us on better terms with death.”

Joan Bakewell, broadcaster and writer

“Her decision, which I thought she expressed rather poignantly, implied that the best things that had happened to her in her life had been acted out in public, so why should she not go ahead and stay with that. I find that terribly affecting. I mean it’s a terrible admission to make. She has a spontaneous knack of hitting all the right media buttons. She has a gift for it. People don’t want bureaucratic speak [about cancer] — they want it from a real person.”

AC Grayling, philosopher

“Absolutely anything which encourages people to donate money and take better care of their health is a very good thing. However, I have been a little appalled by this obsessive relationship we have seen between Jade Goody, the press and that section of the public which has an open-mouthed interest in this story. They all feed off one another. One does really have to raise a very big question mark over this form of avid voyeurism and reflect a little on that.”

Rosie Boycott, writer

“We have always been rather feeble about death. Our society is so obsessed with youth and pushing death away and not thinking about it. But with more and more people going to Dignitas [the Swiss assisted-suicide clinic] we are increasingly coming face to face with death, which is a good thing. Jade has brought death very close to us. In some ways it is the ultimate twist of the celebrity tale but she is also a human being. If I was in her shoes and could make a million quid to leave to my sons I would think to hell with what everybody else thinks and go for it.”

Jilly Cooper, novelist

“Half of me thinks ‘yuck’, quite frankly. John Diamond [the journalist] described dying of cancer, but the written word made it more private. With this it’s so very public – the hallucinations, the rows with cabbies – I can’t bear to watch it. Of course it’s very Victorian, this obsession with death. We are living again in a Victorian age where we are not allowed to misbehave. We’re not allowed to smoke, drink too much or pinch people’s bottoms in the office or do anything that’s much fun. This is a reaction to that.”

John Humphrys, writer and broadcaster

“Death was once a part of our lives. When I was growing up it would have been a rare month that there wasn’t drawn blinds at some house in the neighbourhood. I’m not sure that people have really been affected by Jade Goody’s approaching death, although the red tops have made a huge fuss about it. If I were in her position and had the opportunity to make some money for dependent kids, I might do the same thing, but I think what’s been going on says far more about our celebrity culture than it does about death.”

First published by Sunday Times, 8 March 2009

Get a Grip, You’re British
By Sarah Lyall.

LONDON— Britons are a chauvinistic bunch, proprietary about their place in the world and eager to see their talents recognized abroad. So they were gratified in January when Kate Winslet, one of their favorite home-team actors, snagged a Golden Globe Award, her second of the night, for her performance as a frustrated prisoner of suburbia in “Revolutionary Road.”

That is until, failing her own actorly advice to “gather,” she began hyperventilating and burst into convulsive sobs, right there on stage. Ms. Winslet then went on to pay tribute to people no one had ever heard of, like her agents and make-up artists; announced that she loved her co-star, Leonardo DiCaprio “with all my heart”; forgot Angelina Jolie’s name; and generally behaved as if she had just learned that a donor heart had finally been found, enabling her transplant operation to go ahead after all.

Oh my God, was the general reaction in Britain.

“Most people watching actually wanted, literally, to die,” wrote Caitlin Moran in The Times of London. Referring to Gwyneth Paltrow’s tear-stained speech after winning an Academy Award for “Shakespeare in Love” in 1999, Alexander Chancellor wrote in The Guardian that Ms. Winslet’s performance “was so weird that I felt it might have been intended as a joke — a deliberate parody of Gwyneth Paltrow to show up the vanity of Hollywood stars.”

Why were they so harsh?

Part of it was that, despite their increasingly American forays into public displays of feeling in the aftermath of the Diana, Princess of Wales, era, many English people still feel repelled by all that capital-E emoting. Instead, said Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, they stick to the old standbys: self-deprecation, false modesty and humor.

“While British actors are dying to get those awards as much as anyone else, they are supposed to pretend they don’t really care and that it doesn’t really matter,” he said in an interview.

At the same time, Mr. Furedi added, there is a sense that British actors are meant to be classy and dignified, reflecting the view in the entertainment world here that while Hollywood has the money, Britain has the real actors.

In 2005, Gil Cates, the longtime producer of the Oscars, said there was indeed a cultural difference, at least as far as acceptance speeches go. “They are really taught how to frame a sentence,” he said, speaking of English actors. “I love it when an English actor wins because their speeches are so classy and precise.”

The classic examples of that would be any speech by Judi Dench — her accent certainly helps — or Emma Thompson’s understated, wryly funny acceptance speech at the 1996 Oscars, when she won the award for best adapted screenplay for “Sense and Sensibility.”

“Before I came, I went to visit Jane Austen’s grave in Winchester Cathedral to pay my respects, you know, and tell her about the grosses,” she said. She also thanked Sidney Pollack “for asking the right questions, like, ‘Why couldn’t these women go out and get a job?’ ”

Ms. Thompson — who accepted another award, at the Golden Globes, with a speech in the style of Jane Austen herself — then did what cool British award winners do: she put the Oscar in her guest bathroom.

The other side of that coin is the British habit of making weird or gratuitously insulting remarks at awards ceremonies. Presenting an award at the Golden Globes last month, Sacha Baron Cohen, a k a Borat, provided a change from the usual parade of scripted banalities by going straight for the insult. In short order, he managed to offend Charlie Sheen, Victoria Beckham and — as the camera showed Salma Hayek’s disgusted face, and people started booing — Madonna and Madonna’s ex-husband, Guy Ritchie.

He has a past. Winning a Golden Globe for “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” in 2007, Mr. Baron Cohen went into a long, graphic spiel — complete with descriptions of the naughtiest of body parts — about the scene in the film when he and his co-star, the very large Ken Davitian, grappled naked together. Then he said, apropos of the movie: “Thank you to every American who has not sued me so far.”

British audiences like that kind of thing much better.

They liked it, for instance, when, winning the best supporting actress award for “Michael Clayton” last year, the Scottish actress Tilda Swinton compared her Oscar, a statue of a bald, shiny, naked man with a buff physique, to her agent.

“Truly, the same shaped head, and, it has to be said, the buttocks,” she announced appraisingly, examining the statue’s rear end. She provided further titillation when she said she got a thrill out of seeing her co-star George Clooney appear in his “rubber batsuit” — the “one from ‘Batman and Robin’ with the nipples.”

As for Ms. Winslet, British bookmakers have been taking bets on whether, should she win an Academy Award, she will cry then, too, and how dramatically.

Ms. Winslet has promised to compose herself. But she is bemused by all the fuss. “Some people apparently haven’t been very nice about it, but luckily, I’ve been in America, where they’ve said nice things,” she told reporters.

She took refuge in a different British ploy, the apology. “Look, I wasn’t prepared at all,” she said. “ I really didn’t think I was going to win and I was genuinely overwhelmed. I’m sorry.”

A version of this article appeared in print on February 22, 2009, on page WK4 of the New York edition.

First published by New York Times, 21 February 2009

Wonder Woman or traitor to her sex?
The battle lines are confused in the reaction to the five-day maternity leave of Rachida Dati, the French justice minister.

Dressed in a tight black velvet jacket, matching skirt and stiletto heels, Rachida Dati, the French minister of justice, looked her usual elegant self as she embarked on a busy working day last Wednesday.

Breakfast at the interior ministry was followed by the first cabinet meeting of the year with President Nicolas Sarkozy. In the afternoon she was with her boss again for a new year’s ceremony at the supreme court. That night she waved away, with impeccably manicured nails, a glass of champagne during a reception at the Spanish embassy.

If they had not known, few could have guessed that Dati, 43, had given birth, by caesarean section no less, to a daughter, Zohra, only five days before.

With the child cocooned in blankets at her breast, Dati had emerged only that morning from a private clinic to howls of outrage from French and British feminists who saw her as a traitor to her sex. Her early return to work, they said, was an example that could be used to undermine hard-won maternity rights, putting women back into the dark ages.

Or was she a wonder woman? Her decision to forgo the standard four-month French maternity leave was an example of the grit and determination that had propelled her from a childhood on the immigrant housing estates to one of the most important jobs in France.

Once considered the star of the “Sarko-zettes”, as the president’s female ministers are known, Dati is used to being the centre of attention. Nor is it the first time that her fame at home has resonated on the other side of the Channel. She is remembered in Britain for having appeared at a royal banquet at Windsor Castle last year in a daringly low-cut dress. Having been admonished then for exhibiting her femininity, she now finds herself the scourge of British feminists for suppressing her maternal side, a crime that one writer in The Guardian referred to as “machismo”.

Even so, the battle lines were curiously blurred in this debate about motherhood and maternity rights.

Some put her in the same bracket as Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska and former Republican vice-presidential candidate, who boasted of having been back in the office just days after giving birth to her fifth child. Women like that, went the argument, were undermining rights that had taken centuries to achieve.

“Dati has no excuses,” wrote one commentator. “A woman of her standing should have the confidence to take leave and make it clear to other women that it is acceptable to take time off if they want to.”

Yet some saw her, and Palin, as having made an informed choice about what to do with their lives - exactly what the trailblazing feminists wanted for women. For others it was more a question of being a “bad mother”: Dati was missing out on the most important period of parent-child bonding, as well as depriving her daughter of the benefits of breastfeeding. She was also putting her own health at risk by returning to work just days after a serious operation.

So what are we to make of Dati? Is she a trailblazer to be lionised, or a traitor who is setting back the cause of women? By rights, Dati should be a feminist icon. On one level, at least, she was a symbol of emancipation, one of 12 children of Algeri-an-Moroccan parents who escaped from an impoverished childhood – and an arranged marriage - to become the star of the Sarkozy constellation, the so-called “Cinderella of the suburbs”.

Sarkozy called her appointment to the justice ministry “a message to all the children of France that with merit and effort everything becomes possible”; and Dati, whose father was a builder and whose mother died when she was young, seemed to blossom under the spotlight.

She fuelled the public’s fascination by posing for fashion shoots, once in fishnet stockings and high-heeled boots, but disgusted judges who complained of a “frivolous” act at a time when the minister was cutting jobs in her ministry. Many women saw this as the symptom of deep-rooted male chauvinism.

With the birth of Zohra, she also became a high-achieving single mother, a woman who was proving that you didn’t need a man to have a child and be happy. As her stomach has gently swollen in recent months, she has become the focus of a feverish guessing game about the father, whose identity she has steadfastly refused to reveal, saying only that “my private life is complicated and I am keeping it off limits to the media”.

And that she has done, resolutely refusing to comment on the succession of men - the latest of whom is François Sarkozy, the president’s brother - who have been alleged to be the father.

Yet for all her positive personal attributes, some women detected a sinister reason for her return to work. It has been widely rumoured that Sarkozy plans to replace her in a reshuffle this year.

“She didn’t have a choice,” said Marie-Pierre Martinez, head of the French movement for family planning. In a society, she added, in which “the norms remain very masculine” Dati had to return to work quickly to preserve her career.

Florence Montreynaud, president of a feminist group and mother of four children, said that Dati’s behaviour risked creating two classes of mothers: “super women and wimps”. Dati, she said, was “doped on the adrenaline of power” and compared her with women who gave birth in their factories in the 1920s. Behind all the outrage were French fears about how far Sarkozy, who has pledged widespread reforms, will go in trimming a generous welfare system. “Instead of developing the French model - or taking the example of the Nordic countries which have more just and equitable systems - Sarkozy is turning France into a violent, inhuman society, one that will fail just like the Anglo-Saxon countries,” wrote one internet blogger about Dati.

It sounded like a dig atles rosbifs. The irony is that Britain offers more generous maternity leave than France, with women able to take up to a year off work to care for their children. Indeed, according to the Department for Work and Pensions, Dati would have been breaking the law in Britain by returning so quickly. It is illegal for a woman to go back to work within two weeks of giving birth, or four weeks if she works in a factory.

The tide in Britain is also moving towards more, not less, generous parental leave, despite the opposition of business groups. Labour has steadily increased the amount of time off mothers can take after the birth of their children and Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader and an expectant father, proposed last week that men should be entitled to take a year off work when they become fathers.

Despite the protection by law of maternity rights, women fear that high-profile examples such as Dati will be used to pressure them back quickly into the male-domi-nated workplace. Even here the issue is clouded. “I’m a bit torn when I see those pictures of Dati,” admitted Amy Jenkins, the novelist. “On the one hand I want men to know that giving birth isn’t an illness or a disability. On the other hand I don’t want women to be so like men that one day they’ll find a way of giving birth at their desks.”

Of course, that will remain a choice for individuals. “There is this incredible desire to judge and criticise women who take these decisions,” said Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent University and author of Paranoid Parenting. “Why should that call into question her capacity as a mother? In the last few years, a women’s right to choose has been redefined into a woman’s right to choose from a few narrow options.”

He added: “I admire women like Sarah Palin and Rachida Dati because they know they will be censored and criticised. But they have decided to carry on anyway and they are sufficiently confident in themselves to know what they are doing is right for them.”

Linda Hirshman, a lawyer and author of Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World, agreed. “[Dati] will know if she is in pain or falling asleep at her desk and she is obviously a very intelligent woman, able to assess that for herself. And she is the only one who is able to assess that. The experience of childbirth is not a disabling one,” she said.

The feminist author Natasha Walter agreed that “we shine the spotlight on women’s choices with their babies and their families. We are very quick to condemn them, very quick to judge them personally”. She added that the real problem was “the men who never have to think about why they can go on working all hours, all days, because their wives are at home looking after the family”.

Still confused? The truth is that large numbers of women have been in positions of power for a relatively short time so their actions will come under more scrutiny than their male counterparts, whether justified or not.

Last year there was uproar in Spain when Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the prime minister, appointed a heavily pregnant Car-me Chacon defence minister. After he insisted that she take six weeks’ maternity leave, the debate has moved on. Last week the generals were outraged that the black Yves Saint Laurent jacket and trousers Chacon wore at a military ceremony last week were in breach of protocol - she was supposed to have worn a long dress.

As for Dati, on Friday night, in her capacity as mayor of the seventh arrondissement of Paris, she presided over a new year’s party for workers and thanked them for their gifts. “You’ve dressed Zohra not just for the winter but for spring and the summer as well - and next winter,” she said. “She’s a girl. She’ll love it.”

She seemed to respond to accusations that she had rushed back to work when she said: “I am dedicating a lot of time to what is dear to me - my daughter . . . I’ve adapted my timetable.” She apologised that she could not stay longer: “I am really in a hurry to get back to my daughter.”

First published by Sunday Times, 11 January 2009

‘Ignore expert advice, parents - it’s best for your child’
By Chris Price.

Ignoring government advice and parenting experts could improve your ability to look after your children, according to a university professor based in Kent.

Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent, is calling on parents to take back control because the mothball approach to bringing up your children could be affecting their wellbeing.

In his book - Paranoid parenting: Why ignoring the experts may be best for your child - Prof Furedi urges parents to understand their role has been turned into a minefield by current society.

He said bringing up a family is just as safe as it ever has been.

“Almost every year in the last decade parents have been put under more and more pressure about looking after their children and their authority has been questioned.

“The assumption is that parents are not up to the task of looking after their children. One of the unfortunate affects of these pressures is to affect parents’ confidence in their own ability to get on with the job.

“The experience of children is continually inflated into a major problem. Every childhood experience comes with a health warning.

“We are led to believe their lives have never been so bad or as dangerous as now and all these things make it very difficult to be a good mother and a good father.”

First published by Kent Online, 9 January 2009

Paranoid parenting
The University of Kent's Professor of Sociology Frank Furedi is calling for parents to ignore the policymakers and 'parenting experts', and to regain a viewpoint that advances children's wellbeing.


In his book, Paranoid Parenting: Why Ignoring the Experts May be Best for Your Child, Professor Furedi turned the spotlight on a society where children are deemed at risk from an ever expanding range of dangers, such as cots, babysitters, school, the supermarket and the park. He is motivated by the conviction that, in an era when parenting has become more paranoid than ever, if parents can grasp why their role has been turned into such a minefield, then they can do something about regaining their self-confidence.

He says: “Despite public recognition of the problem, today’s parenting culture systematically de-skills mothers and fathers. It places enormous pressures on parents to turn away from what only they can do.

“The good news is that if parents understand the pressures that bear down upon them, they can insulate themselves from it. They may still be anxious about their children’s well-being, but at least it will be possible to put those fears into a more balanced perspective.”

First published by GMTV, 8 January 2009

Baby P: how does society best protect its children?
The issue of how we best protect our children and the vulnerable is one of the most important and sensitive we face.

The notion of checking the criminal backgrounds of individuals who come in to contact with them and the risk they pose plays a critical role in that, which no one should dispute.

But the scale of just how many errors are committed in an ever expanding world of vetting, as revealed today, raises very grave questions over whether it is effective enough.

It also delivers another body blow to the Government’s battered reputation on handling sensitive and personal information.

It was bad enough when the Home Office had us believe that several hundred people a year were wrongly accused of being a criminal or a threat but the fact it is four times that level and runs in to thousands is a devastating admission.

Not only can it hamper or prevent an innocent member of the public from getting a job they may well deserve, it can leave them with a terrible reputation they will not find easy to throw off.

And if there is inaccurate information passed on about the innocent, what assurances can there be that accurate checks are always carried out on those who are a genuine risk?

There are already some, sociologist Frank Furedi for one, who have warned the scale of vetting and it’s connotations have reached such a point that individuals are even put off volunteering or applying for positions if it means they will have to checked and open themselves up to being misrepresented.

More significantly, he warned the growing culture surrounding the need for vetting runs the risk of people putting all their faith in such a check and therefore someone who has been cleared is absolutely safe.

It is that potential false sense of security in the CRB, that people believe it is a guarantee children will be safe from an individual, that is left in serious doubt by today’s revelations.

Almost 13,000 errors since it was created in 2002 is vast number in anyone’s book, even if it’s a fraction of the millions of disclosures that are carried out each year.

The CRB is a well-meaning and worthy notion and will no doubt have prevented hundreds if not thousands of crimes against the most vulnerable.

Next year the Independent Safeguarding Authority will be launched, encompassing the CRB, and will see another large expansion in the number of people who must be vetted.

It is estimated one in four of the adult population will be affected.

It vital the Government addresses the issue of errors now because if you are the individual denies a job or accused of being a paedophile by your neighbours, then one error is one too many.

First published by Daily Telegraph, 12 November 2008

Why are teachers scared of learning to give pupils First Aid?
By Alexandra Frean, Education Editor.


Two items of news in the last few days brought me up sharp. First, The Times Educational Supplement reported that teachers are reluctant to apply first aid to pupils in an emergency because they are scared of being sued by parents.

Many are adopting strict “no touching” policies because of “unfounded” concerns over compensation claims, according to a study by Thames Valley University.

Around 400,000 children suffer accidents or injuries at school each year. Even though no teacher has ever been taken to court as a result of helping a pupil in a medical emergency, teachers are reluctant to learn emergency first aid for children for fear of actually being asked to put their training into action.

This was followed by a report on Monday’s Radio 4’s Today programme that the Musicians’ Union is advising its members not to touch children during lessons to protect them from allegations of abuse.

The advice has infuriated many teachers who wonder how they can properly teach a child to hold a violin or play a keyboard without touching them. The cellist, Julian Lloyd Webber was appalled, suggesting that children’s progress at learning an instrument would be much slower as a result of such policies and adding that they might never learn to play properly.

These items brought to mind a recent pamphlet from the thinktank Civitas, Licensed to Hug, which suggests that the kind of over-protectiveness seen in both these news items is “poisoning” the relationship between adults and children.

The report, by Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent, and Jennie Bristow, who writes the monthly Guide to Subversive Parenting for the online publication spiked-online.com as well as running the website parentswithattitude.com, notes that a staggering 11.3m people in this country will need to be vetted by the Criminal Records Bureau if they intend to work with children in any way. They expressed sadness that relationships between children and adults were becoming increasingly formal and founded on a basis of mistrust.

But perhaps the most worrying aspect of this “safety first” approach to child protection is that it is unlikely to be very effective. As Furedi and Bristow point out, it “provides a ritual of security rather than effective protection.” I suspect that many parents would agree.

Read School Gate on:

Do our children need more male primary school teachers?

Don’t scratch that itch - headlice and schools

First published by Times Online (London), 10 November 2008

The phrase Old Masters is sexist, authors and students are told
Students and academics are being banned from using the term "Old Masters" and "seminal" because of claims they are sexist. By Martin Beckford, Social Affairs Correspondent.

Publishers and universities are outlawing dozens of seemingly innocuous words in case they cause offence.

Banned phrases on the list, which was originally drawn up by sociologists, include Old Masters, which has been used for centuries to refer to great painters - almost all of whom were in fact male.

It is claimed that the term discriminates against women and should be replaced by “classic artists”.

The list of banned words was written by the British Sociological Association, whose members include dozens of professors, lecturers and researchers.

The list of allegedly racist words includes immigrants, developing nations and black, while so-called “disablist” terms include patient, the elderly and special needs.

It comes after one council outlawed the allegedly sexist phrase “man on the street”, and another banned staff from saying “brainstorm” in case it offended people with epilepsy.

However the list of “sensitive” language is said by critics to amount to unwarranted censorship and wrongly assume that people are offended by words that have been in use for years.

Prof Frank Furedi, a sociologist at the University of Kent, said he was shocked when he saw the extent of the list and how readily academics had accepted it.

“I was genuinely taken aback when I discovered that the term ‘Chinese Whisper’ was offensive because of its apparently racist connotations. I was moved to despair when I found out that one of my favourite words, ‘civilised’, ought not be used by a culturally sensitive author because of its alleged racist implications.”

Prof Furedi said that censorship is about the “policing of moral behaviour” by an army of campaign groups, teachers and media organisations who are on a “crusade” to ban certain words and promote their own politically correct alternatives.

He said people should see the efforts to ban certain words as the “coercive regulation” of everyday language and the “closing down of discussions” rather than positive attempts to protect vulnerable groups from offence.

The list of banned words is now sent out to prospective authors by Policy Press, a publisher of social science books and journals based at the University of Bristol, but is also used in many academic institutions.

The University of Bristol’s School for Policy Studies recommends the guidelines to help students “challenge heterosexist assumptions”, and they are included in a “toolkit” to combat institutional racism included on the University of Leeds’ website.

King’s College London says they “may provide a good starting point” and Liverpool John Moores University provides a link to them in its students’ guide. The Open University said they are an “appropriate source of reference and advice” for students.

Napier University in Edinburgh says the list is “well worth looking at” while the University of East London advises its students they should “attempt to incorporate” it.

Even a secondary school in Norwich includes a link to the list on its website, with the statement: “Students may care to consider how far we inadvertently reproduce inaccurate sexist assumptions in the language we use, both written and spoken.”

The list of racist terms features black, which “can be used in a racist sense” and should be changed to “black peoples” or “black communities”.

Immigrants is said to have “racist overtones” because of its association with “immigration legislation”, while developing nations - intended as a more sensitive replacement for Third World - is “prejudical” because it implies a comparison with developed countries.

Although not included on the Policy Press list, the BSA warns authors against using civilisation because of its “racist overtones that derive from a colonialist perception of the world”.

Among the “sexist” terms to be avoided are “seminal” and “disseminate” because they are derived from the word semen and supposedly imply a male-dominated view of the world.

Authors are also told to “avoid using medical labels” when writing about disabled people as this “may promote a view of them as patients”.

In addition, the list says “special needs” should be changed to “additional needs”, “patient” to “person” and “the elderly” to “older people”.

“Able-bodied person” should be replaced with “non-disabled person”, it is claimed.

First published by Daily Telegraph, 20 September 2008

Podcast: Saving the Enlightenment
From the Sydney Opera House: a 54-minute podcast in the Radio Australia Big Ideas series.

We are children of the Enlightenment, that fruitful period of the 17th and 18th centuries that gave birth to our modern ways.

Surely now we have come this far there is no turning back? Not according to the five distinguished speakers on this forum. The ideas of the Enlightenment need to be protected, they say, lest they be dismantled bit-by-bit in a new climate of fear.

Speakers

Frank Furedi
Professor of Sociology, University of Kent, UK

James Spigelman
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of NSW

Dr Arthur Herman
Writer and former Professor of History

Dr Jonathan Le Cocq
School of Music, University of Canterbury, UK

Ayaan Hirshi Ali
Writer and cultural commentator

Listen Now

First published by Canterbury Heritage, 11 September 2008

Redefining feminism
Have activists morphed into female chauvinist piglets?

Thirty years after second-wave feminism, some of its relics are pursuing a witch-hunt against Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin that would do the “male chauvinist pigs” of yesteryear proud. As The Australian, 5 September 2008

Pushy parents can act as agents
So many parents have been chasing university places for their children that the admissions system is now letting parents act as their agents.

Pushy parents can act as agents
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter



Students entering university this autumn will be the first whose admissions decisions and negotiations can be handled by their parents.

In the past, the admissions service had to deal directly with applicants.

Parents have also been expecting to sit in on their children’s university interviews, says academic Frank Furedi.

Universities are facing the growing phenomenon of “helicopter parents” - the over-involved parents who want to continue interfering in the lives of their children at university.

‘Infantilism’

The university admissions service, Ucas, says that in response to the number of calls from parents that it has decided to allow parents to act as their children’s representatives in handling applications.

As such, young people making applications this year have been allowed to nominate a proxy to speak for them and make decisions.

“This is usually because the parent feels they haven’t got all the information they need from their son or daughter and so phone back to double check and clarify points,” says a Ucas spokesman.

About one in 10 students this year are estimated to have used this option of nominating their parents to make calls on their behalf.

Frank Furedi, social commentator and professor of sociology at the University of Kent, says that controlling parents are “destroying the distinction between school and higher education”.

“All universities now have to take the parent factor into account. On university open days you can see more parents attending than children,” says Professor Furedi.

He says there have been cases of parents who arrive expecting to attend their children’s university interviews.

Professor Furedi says that he tells parents that they have to leave, but there are other academics who “accept that this will be a family discussion”.

“There is a powerful sense of infantilism, where parents can’t let go.”

Consumerism

This extends to universities having to handle complaints from parents over grades awarded to students, he says, and a constant over-involvement during term time.

“We have to remind parents that there is a professional relationship between academics and students,” he says.

Professor Furedi expects this parental pressure to grow - with the risk of turning universities into “schools for biologically mature children”.

He warns that it will follow the trend in the United States for universities to pitch their marketing at parents rather than students.

Rob Evans, head of admissions at Sussex University, says that universities are seeing an increasing amount of involvement from parents when students are making applications.

He links it to the increased cost of university and also to a more over-protective form of parenting. Safety fears mean that children can grow up with less independence, such as not being allowed to walk to school, and this attitude filters through to when young people apply to university.

The high-pressure parent is a reflection of consumerist values hitting higher education, says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Lancaster University Management School.

“These parents are paying more, so they think they can demand more,” says Professor Cooper. Parents want to retain control of their “psychological and financial investment in their children”.

Parents are also using their children as surrogates for their own ambitions, he says, getting them to chase the success that they might feel eluded them in their own careers.

“Parents derive status from their children’s success,” says Professor Cooper.

First published by BBC News Online, 19 August 2008

Enlightened spirit of inquiry
By Janet Albrechtsen.

SITTING on a stage at the Sydney Opera House on Monday evening, her hair swept up, a cream scarf wrapped around her shoulders, a beautiful young black woman tells the audience she is often accused of being a puppet of white middle-aged men. With a twinkle in her eye, Somalian-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali flashes a wry smile as she looks down the table at the four older white men who have been brought together by the Centre for Independent Studies to discuss why the ideas of the Enlightenment need a 21st-century revival. Puppet? Not a chance.

Anyone who knows Hirsi Ali’s story knows she is no one’s pawn. As a girl she suffered genital mutilation; then, as a young woman, escaped an arranged marriage, incurring the wrath of Islam by rejecting her faith. Last time she was in Sydney, huge crowds listened to her journey, where she crossed back and forth between the superstitions, tribal taboos and conspiracy theories of her people to the world of inquiry and measured, rational discourse in the West. It was evident to her that one system was better than the other. People are equal but ideas and values are not. The crowds have come again on another wintry Sydney night. But this time Hirsi Ali is more interested in our story. She says we in the West, who have inherited the values of the Enlightenment, have developed contempt for values that drive progress and freedom.

There is no doubt the West is suffering from a dangerous moral disorientation. It is not clear that we value the very idea of the West any more. Enlightenment values such as genuine inquiry and reason, which ought to flow like blood delivering a vibrant pulse to the Western project, have been dislodged by the noxious intruders of unreason and fear. If talk about the Enlightenment sounds like some quaint historical curiosity debated by poseurs in the ethereal world of academe, think again. The determination to quash inquiry and reason infiltrates just about every aspect of our lives.

Hirsi Ali knows something about this. Shadowed by a security detail, she lives with death threats because she has chosen to debate Islam. Sweet-sounding words such as multiculturalism and tolerance are used to repress open debate. She has no problem with people who worship the prophet Mohammed. “But I want to be able to say that Mohammed had some reprehensible qualities without being thrown in jail, without being demonised,” she says. This must be allowed in a society committed to Enlightenment values of inquiry and reason because people progress by using reason to challenge ideas.

Panel member Frank Furedi also knows something about our pusillanimous surrender of Enlightenment values. Debate is closed down by claiming that words, ideas and arguments cause offence to people, sometimes censored by the strong arm of the state or, more often, regulated by informal gatekeepers and our own timidity. Furedi, a professor of sociology from Britain and a prolific author of books about modern culture, was advised by a publisher recently that the term mentally ill was inappropriate. Instead, he should say “mental health service user”. He was warned against the word civilisation because it presupposes that there are uncivilised people. His young son was told recently not to use the word retard because it had offensive connotations. His son knew that, which is why he used the term. “But words are now viewed as psychological weapons,” Furedi said.

And it is the modern world’s notion of human beings that explains why we have become so fearful of words. The conception of freedom that fuelled the Enlightenment was based on a radical view of humans as autonomous, resilient beings with the capacity to exercise their power in a rational, reasoned manner. Rational, reasoned human beings deserved the widest freedoms.

This very positive rendition of human beings has been replaced in the 21st century with a notion that people are weak (the buzzword is vulnerable) or destructive. Hence, freedoms that underpinned the Enlightenment period have been curtailed. Furedi notes that the phrase “human impact” would have been celebrated during the Enlightenment. Today, it is a negative term because humans are viewed as destructive; so destructive, we obsess about our carbon footprint to the point where, he says, “the best thing people can do is stay at home and never get out of bed”. A modern world has lost confidence in what it means to be human and therefore lost confidence in basic values of freedom, such as free speech.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the embrace of global warming, where anyone who questions the orthodoxy is labelled a denier, a heretic who should not be heard. Genuine inquiry is not encouraged; it is jettisoned. Arthur Herman, another panel member, predicts that in five years there will be a spate of books and articles wondering how politicians, the media and the people were all so comprehensively conned by global warming alarmism.

But Herman, a historian, is not surprised. History tells us there will always be fanatics who peddle invisible fears and doomsday scenarios and, equally, there will always be people drawn to a priestly class - think Al Gore - who claim to know the answers.

And so springs up a modern-day theology given over to supplications and modern sacrifices such as banning the innocuous plastic bag.

The debate over global warming stopped being a scientific debate long ago, Herman says. Scientific consensus, not dispassionate inquiry, is the name of the game. And governments and politicians have long since stopped bothering with the evolving science. Here again, Herman says, we need to revive the Enlightenment values of scepticism, inquiry and reason. He quotes pre-eminent English scientist and experimentalist Michael Faraday, who said that one should hold theories in one’s fingertips so that the least breeze of fact might blow them away.

Yet, in so many areas, inquiry and reason have been abandoned, drowned out by group-think orthodoxies. I see the lack of inquiry in a Year 8 geography curriculum that tells students that globalisation is a bogyman to be feared. It is in the mindset of many indigenous leaders still wedded to policies that produced 30 years of dysfunction. As Hirsi Ali told the audience on Monday evening, we ought to be confident enough about the values of the Enlightenment to defend them and use them. After all, we sharpen our minds and bring clarity to ideas through open, reasoned debate.

A man in the audience asks her how she responds to accusations by some of her critics that she is an Enlightenment fundamentalist. “I think it’s cute,” she says with a laugh. “It’s just so absurd to put the two words together. The Enlightenment is all about asking questions.” Her departing advice is that we confront, through robust debate, those who would threaten our most cherished values, whether the threat comes from our own complacency, or the malevolent anti-Westernism of moral relativists or the Islamic fanatics.

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First published by The Australian, 6 August 2008

Neglect the kids ... it will stop them getting bored
Modern parents over-organise children's playtime. Just let them get on with it, urges Joan McFadden.

Just days into the long holiday and the summer soundtrack isn’t so much the sleepy drone of busy bees as the whine of listless children. The thrills of liberty and long lie-ins have worn thin, everyone else seems to have fled the country to enjoy holidays abroad and the “I’m bored…” mantra is driving parents to breaking point.

The reaction of many well-meaning adults is to swiftly organise weeks of activity aimed at keeping every minute of every hour so crammed with events that their offspring’s ennui will be eased before it gets a chance to set in. But should we bother? Isn’t it time we recognised the benefits of boredom and gave children the chance to use their own initiative and learn how to entertain themselves?

Guilt simply comes with the territory for most parents, especially as so many people now work full-time and perform amazing juggling acts to ferry their children around, with timetables crammed not just with education but also with huge amounts of extracurricular activities. Holidays too are now packed with sports/art/drama camps, every minute timetabled.

Paddy O’Donnell, professor of social psychology at the University of Glasgow, has been studying the long-term effects of structured play and the way it has impacted at university level over the past ten to 15 years. “Children have a natural inclination to play and explore and until they reach around the age of 3 this is directed by the parents, hopefully helping them to deepen their curiosity and learn to use language to explore the world.

“Once they reach 3 they are interested in social play, which becomes a major feature of their activities. Boredom shouldn’t last long if children are in the right environment where they’re dragged off either by curiosity or the desire to socialise. It continues only if there’s no one to play with or the environment’s too restrictive.”

The age of 5 or 6 has always been a crucial stage at which youngsters naturally tend to stop spending so much time with their parents and seek the company of their peers. Children like playing with their own age group and find siblings less interesting, though they’ll make do with them when there’s no alternative, such as during family holidays.

Adults who feel morally obliged to spend every waking hour entertaining their children and doing everything “as a family” might want to take stock at this point, especially as O’Donnell also points out that “parents should not be pals. Their role is as a parent, not as a friend, and children need to make their own friends.”

According to O’Donnell, the shift in play over the past couple of decades is reflected in the attitudes of today’s students. “Schools, clubs and other activities are now very much leader-related,” he says. “Unstructured play is becoming rarer with no moving as a pack or just getting on with activities - children always expect and want to relate individually to whomever is in charge and we now have 18, 19, 20-year-olds who can only function effectively like that. Students are far less confident than they were 15 years ago, far less likely to make a decision by themselves and with little aspiration to get things moving without someone else being in charge and directing them.”

What are parents so scared of when it comes to leaving their children to get on with it? Desiring nothing more than freedom to do nothing is incomprehensible to modern parents, who steadfastly believe that structuring supervised activities is the best they can do for their ofspring. Escape and creativity are vital for development, but supervision now tempers a vast amount of activity.

Dr Richard Ralley, a senior psychology lecturer at Edge Hill College in Lancashire, is now quantifying a research project he carried out with 300 participants to assess the wider implications and benefits of boredom: “People often report that when they are bored they do nothing. Seen this way, boredom is useful - we conserve energy, but do not find this pleasant, so are ready to engage with the next useful activity that comes along.

“The brain sucks up a fifth of our energy and our children are the most heavily assessed in Europe. Some genuine downtime seems due.”

One of the hardest parts of parenting is letting children develop independence to learn to think for themselves, but if sent off cheerfully to try something different few children will demur. However, add a nervous or weepy parent, over-the-top exhortations to take care and a terrifying list of what can go wrong - and failure seems the most likely outcome. We would all like our children to grow into well-rounded and capable human beings in the safety of our own living rooms, but it doesn’t work like that.

Ralley says that parents should leave their children to feel fed-up, rather than keeping them constantly occupied, as boredom could also allow children to get sufficient rest. “One of the features that has arisen in people’s reports so far is a loneliness that comes with boredom, as well as the inadequacy of grasping on to any kind of activity to relieve it. I’m starting to believe that being bored is a signal to stop doing other things and to re-engage socially. I’ve always suggested that social activity is best: a family beach trip, playing football, having a picnic.” Once you’ve embraced the idea of benign neglect having a valid position in parenting, you’re still left with the problem of actually finding the places where children can entertain themselves safely. Aim for physical activity, especially as that will ensure real sleep at the end of the day and remove the time constraints, irrespective of whether you’re at a beach, country park or in a forest. Give children basic safety instructions, make sure they know where to find you and then tell them that you’ll see them when they’re hungry or bored with messing around.

The real test then will actually be for the parents, as very few of us can sit peacefully for two or three hours and not leap fretfully towards every sound, or lack of sound.

Build up the time if you lack confidence in yourself or your children, watch over them unseen if you really cannot bear to let them out of your sight and then let them get on with it - the Lord of the Flies-style confrontations excepted.

Letting kids run screaming into the wind on an empty beach, leaving them to get filthy building a den in the woods, or just spending a whole day slouching in their pyjamas without one parental exhortation to get dressed, might be hard for parents who are used to driving their children everywhere - in every sense. But when it comes to journeying into their own imagination, children are best left to travel solo.

Child’s play

Let your children go to the park - country parks in particular, where they have access to woods, streams and nature.

Seek out beaches with rockpools.

Camping in the back garden: leave them to get on with it.

Sleepovers that they organise themselves: let them take over the living room and kitchen and do everything themselves, including clearing.

On holiday, let them stay in pyjamas all day, eat at odd times, go out and look at the stars. If you can’t bear it all the time, then agree that half the holiday is for loafing around.

Try an adventure centre where you know that the activities are relevant to age and let them get on with it, returning only when they’ve had enough.

Wherever you are, don’t organise them!

Read on:

Are you an over-protective parent?

Are you constantly fretting about your kids? Controversial sociologist Frank Furedi asks parents to stop worrying so much

First published by The Times (London), 5 August 2008

Parents warned on gymnastic photos
Fear of paedophiles on the internet has prompted Scots sports chiefs to warn parents and coaches not to photograph young athletes in their gym gear.


Controversial new advice from governing body Scottish Gymnastics says photographs of youngsters should only be taken if they are wearing tracksuits.

The child protection guidelines – drawn up to prevent “unsuitable images” appearing on the internet – also suggest parents should destroy existing photographs showing children in a “potentially provocative” pose.

The organisation, which has 8,500 members in Scotland, says the move is a commonsense alternative to having an outright ban on filming or photography at competitions. But others claim it is a needless overreaction that will do little more than help spread fear.

The new policy, for five to 16-year-olds at Scottish Gymnastics clubs, states: “Sport websites and publications provide excellent opportunities to broadcast achievements of individuals to the world and to provide a showcase for the activities of gymnasts. In some cases, however, displaying certain information or pictures of children could put them at risk. We must all take the time to ensure these photographs are actually suitable for publication.”

The guidelines, which are being handed out in leaflets to parents before they attend children’s gymnastic events state: “The content of photographs or videos must not depict a child or vulnerable adult in a provocative pose or in a state of partial undress other than when depicting a sporting activity.

“Where relevant, a tracksuit may be more appropriate attire. Children must never be portrayed in a demeaning or tasteless manner. Common sense should be used when deciding which photographs to print. Do not use images that can appear staged and potentially provocative. Do not use images that appear to focus on the groin or in movements when the legs are in a split position.”

Lorna Whyte, the body’s ethics and welfare manager, said the guidelines had been drawn up in consultation with parents, coaches and clubs.

She said: “We are certainly not stopping people from taking pictures of their children.

“We are saying: ‘Yes, you can, but you have got to beware about the type of photograph you are taking’.

“Everybody loves to see an action shot of gymnastics. It is not a problem, just as long as the action shot is appropriate.”

Whyte confirmed the guidelines were pro-active and that Scottish Gymnastics has never encountered any problems with photographs or films being misused in any way.

Previously parents were requested to fill in a form if they wanted to take photos, but this has now been replaced by handing out specific guidance to all mothers and fathers.

Maire McCormack, head of policy for Scotland’s Commissioner for Children & Young People, backed the policy. She said: “It’s essential that parents are given clear guidance on the making and use of video and photographic material of all children taking part in activities such as gymnastics. These commonsense guidelines should help protect children and provide reassurance to all relevant adults.”

Anne Houston, chief executive of Children 1st, which helps to run the national child protection in sport service, agreed it was a delicate issue.

“The internet had added another dimension to fears about inappropriate images appearing of children, but it is important that common sense prevails and that parents, relatives and children are not robbed of the photographic reminders of special moments in their lives.”

But Professor Frank Furedi, a sociologist with the University of Kent, believes the growing trend of restricting photographs of children at public events is unnecessary and counter-productive.

The author of Paranoid Parenting said: “The assumption that pictures represent a significant threat to children has acquired a fantasy-like grotesque character. We rarely dare ask the question: what possible harm can come from taking pictures of children? Dark hints about the threat of evil networks of paedophiles are sufficient to corrode common sense.

“Tragically, what the dramatisation and criminalisation of the act of photographing children reveals is a culture that regards virtually every childhood experience from the standpoint of a paedophile. The default position is to always expect the worst.”

In New Zealand all spectators at the national athletics championships must have cameras and mobile phones registered and labelled on entry because of fears that “unsavoury” images could emerge.

In 2002, Edinburgh City Council was forced to retract a ban on parents taking photographs at their children’s Nativity plays after parents threatened to take legal action.

First published by Scotland on Sunday, 3 August 2008

Are you an over-protective parent?
Controversial sociologist and author Frank Furedi asks parents to stop worrying so much and give children their freedom. Interview by Simon Crompton.

The summer holidays stretch before many parents like a problem to be solved. How much freedom should we give the children? Will they be safe? Will they be able to cope on their own? The small, gap-toothed and quietly spoken man in front of me has been yelling at you not to worry for years. Frank Furedi, 61, the most quoted sociologist in the media (there’s a research study to prove it), thinks we live in a society in which we’re all encouraged to worry too much. And whether it be for the sake or our own health or the safety of our children, very little of it is productive.

Last month, in a well-publicised report for the think-tank Civitas, Furedi was decrying the rise in police checks for adults working with children because they have “succeeded in poisoning the relationship between the generations”. Later this year an updated edition of his best-known book, Paranoid Parenting (Allen Lane), will be published. It’s a demolition of daily campaigns that convince us that children are in danger from disease, obesity, paedophiles and lurking safety hazards.

Furedi is sitting in his double-fronted Victorian house in Faversham, Kent, sipping a Pepsi Max in obvious defiance of all those alarmist fizzy-drink warnings. Yet he is not altogether in tune with his teachings. He’s clock-watching so that he’s not late to pick up his son Jacob, 12, from cricket. He’s telling me how he goes to see the doctor too often; that he has been worried about his prostate since listening to a recent radio programme. And though he and his wife (Ann Furedi, the chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service) have tried to be as paranoia-free as possible - Jacob was allowed to go to the park and shops by himself from the age of 7 - he confides that he’s not immune to worry. “Occasionally my wife tells me to practise what I preach when I react like a typical paranoid father,” he says. “Our lives and emotions are so heavily invested in our children, we all find it difficult to be practical.”

The State makes parents feel vulnerable

Such self-confessed fallibility is endearing, and surprising too, given Furedi’s reputation as an academic rottweiler. A Hungarian émigré and founder of the British Revolutionary Communist Party in the 1970s (disbanded in 1998), he has been accused by environmentalist George Monbiot of heading a group of neo-conservative ex-Trotskyites systematically infiltrating parts of the British Establishment with free-market libertarianism, a claim that Furedi denies. His politics now seem a long way from communism as we know it. He says he’s always been deeply suspicious of the State and resents the way it makes everyone, particularly parents, feel more vulnerable than they should.

“Back in my childhood, the expression over-protective parent was used as a criticism, but today it’s seen as a responsibility,” says Furedi, Professor of Sociology at Kent University since 1975. He wrote Paranoid Parenting in 2001, prompted by the countless warnings of risk he received from health and local authorities as soon as Jacob, his only child, was born. But the risk of abduction or harm is tiny, he says,certainly less than that of taking a child on a car trip.

He says he has updated Paranoid Parenting because, since he first wrote the book, the “idiotic” (one of his favourite words) has become the norm: safety measures preventing parents from taking photographs of their children at school, or stopping them playing conkers, or from going anywhere near a public bonfire on November 5, are common.

“All these things that are important aspects of kids’ lives are being gradually undermined. There’s also an increasing mistrust of adults, where they are no longer allies but potential enemies.” Furedi points to our automatic assumption that adult interest in children is suspicious or sexually motivated, something that research has indicated does not exist to the same extent in other countries. It’s so pervasive that sometimes he can’t help feeling it too.

Furedi says we need a cultural change

“I remember going to the gym with my son when he was 6 or 7 and there was this guy taking a lot of interest in him. I remember saying to myself ‘What the hell’s going on here?’ But then I had a reality check and realised that he was behaving normally, and if I’d been my father, in his time, he’d have just viewed it as a friendly gesture and welcomed the interest that was being shown.”

What we need, he says, is a cultural change where we regard childhood differently, where adults are allowed to hug children, but also to have responsibility for them; looking after them if they look in trouble, telling them off if they’re behaving antisocially. That way children would be less fearful and become more engaged in adult ideas of social responsibility, and adults would tune their emotional radar to real sources of concern, rather than having to rely on criminal record checks.

Furedi denies that he wants to go back in time, but what he says constantly harks to a better past: old-fashioned, let-‘em-take-care-of-themselves parenting. His theories seem to have their roots as much in his own extraordinary background, as in the hours of contemplation and self-inquisition that he tells me also lie behind them.

Born to a Jewish family in Hungary, his mother was a concentration camp survivor and his watchmaker father spent the war on the run from the Nazis, first pretending to be a regimental doctor and then spending the last six months of the war in the same hotel as German high command. It would be the last place they would look, he correctly reasoned.

His mother let him take care of himself

Through most of Furedi’s childhood, his father was in jail at the hands of the Stalinist regime (“he was a loudmouth, very right-wing and not too diplomatic”) and his overstretched mother let him and his sister more or less take care of themselves. He recalls often catching a train to Budapest and back on his own from the age of 7.

The family fled to Canada, after the 1956 Hungarian uprising, when Furedi was 9. He left home at 16, joined the Army, went to McGill University, got involved in “extreme” politics, of unformed political hue he says. It involved occupying university buildings to try and radicalise political teaching and he found himself blacklisted when he applied for PhD courses. He decided to study in London instead.

His emerging - and to many puzzling - brand of Marxism brought him notoriety among leftwingers when he opposed Arthur Scargill during the 1980s miners’ strike because of his refusal to hold a ballot, and he criticised the Anti Nazi League for preventing freedom of speech. Some have called it extreme right-wing libertarianism. Furedi calls it upholding free speech and the rights of individuals above institutions. He prefers to be called a humanist rather than a libertarian.

He vehemently opposes what he calls the “medicalisation” of society, the process by which existential problems, such as shyness, active behaviour, poor schoolwork, are recast as medical problems such as social phobia, ADHD and learning difficulties. This is the result, he says, of “cultural drivers” (by which I think he means short-termist, vote-grabbing politicians).

“There’s a fear market, which the pharmaceutical and other industries benefit from,” he says. “I wouldn’t trust them any more than the Department of Health’s idiotic campaign on child obesity. The idea of what it means to be human is constantly downsized, making us imagine that we are more mentally ill, have more invisible diseases, and are less able to cope with chronic diseases than we imagined. It encourages people to feel less in control of their lives.

“I see the impact of this in quite a devastating way. You go to a nursery and you find every year the number of dyslexic children grows, and you know that it’s both real but also principally the result of culture, and not biological causes.”

Furedi claims that, in private, many journalists and academics see the sense in what he says. He seems faintly bemused by why he has attracted such spleen from people like Monbiot. What he says is outspoken but nuanced, he says. Others would say the consistent anti-state agenda behind his academic efforts, and his involvement with the magazine Living Marxism, which regularly caused outrage by appearing to defend the indefensible, certainly haven’t helped.

Perhaps it’s also down to a natural, intellectual pugnaciousness inherited from his father. There’s the curious spring of the fighter in his walk, and a slight, tense withdrawal when he feels challenged. He tells me a revealing story. Since infancy, his father scolded him when he didn’t stand up for himself and encouraged him to fight back if he was pushed around. So that’s what he did. When he was 17 and living in Montreal, he went on a bus to see his girlfriend. Between getting off the bus and getting to her house, Furedi claims to have got into three fights. “It was a very anti-Semitic area and I got a lot of abuse. But I relished the opportunity to make something of it.”

Shortly after that, he vowed never again to confront problems in that way, or to embarrass his own children into action.

“If I don’t exercise I become a bad person”

Now he has other physical outlets. He goes to the gym three times a week, but not to keep fit. “I take physical exercise seriously. If I don’t do it, I become very uptight and a bad person. I find it phenomenally relaxing.” He and his wife love climbing and skiing, which, he says, absorb most of their disposable income. But he’s definitely not faddy about his food, with lots of fatty meat (”the Hungarian diet”) on the family menu, not much junk because he wants Jacob to understand quality in food, but not too much emphasis on fruit and veg either “because we want to encourage him to eat whatever he wants”.

But it’s clearly not easy running against a tide of human anxiety. “I’ve been to my doctor several times with worries. I would like to be less concerned than I am, but that’s me.” And when he tells me about the planning he and his wife do to allow their son as much freedom as possible without isolating him from friends and safety-concerned parents, and about worried parents of schoolmates turning up on the Furedi doorstep to report that they’ve found Jacob out on his own…well, it all sounds quite pressurised.

Furedi doesn’t blame any parent for leading an anxiety-filled, health-conscious life. “It’s very difficult for any individual to adopt a parenting style that is fundamentally different from anyone else’s. We interact with each other, we are influenced by similar fashions, and I don’t suggest that anyone should adopt a childcare strategy that isolates you from the rest of the world. But I can see the day when we are more mature in making choices and don’t have to pee in our pants about every new experience.”

We await the revolution.

Child safety in numbers

11.7m under 16s in England and Wales

68 children were abducted by strangers in 2002-03

166 children are killed on the road every year

96 children drowned in 2002

917,498 children were injured in falls in 2002

Source: Times database

First published by The Times (London), 26 July 2008

Our little emperors: does worrying do more harm than good?
A backlash has begun against the all-must-have-prizes culture that has produced children used to getting their own way. By Margarette Driscoll.

As the mother of two young daughters, Ruth Appleton is used to doling out praise for almost everything they do. Even she was taken aback, however, when her younger daughter, Rachel, now 5, arrived home from nursery clutching a certificate for “sitting nicely on the carpet”.

“It made me wonder what she was doing the rest of the time,” said Appleton, from Porthcawl, Wales. “I thought it was a bit over the top rewarding her for something so routine. But it’s part of a whole culture of stickers and smiley faces and ‘celebration assemblies’.”

Anyone with children at primary school will instantly get the picture: no child’s existence is complete without “circle time”, or “show and tell” sessions at which they are encouraged to parade their achievements and examine their feelings. The received wisdom on child-rearing says nothing should be allowed to damage a child’s sense of self-worth: just last week the Football Association (FA) decided to ban teams including children under eight from publishing their results, for fear of putting the kids under too much pressure if they lost a match.

As parents, we are encouraged to nurture our children’s sense of “self”, but are we unwittingly doing them more harm than good?

Our child-centred society means we fret over what our kids eat, what they wear, their friends, their exam grades and their safety. A US academic has coined the term kindergarchy – a new (affluent) world order in which children rule.

“Children have gone from background to foreground in domestic life with more attention centred on them, their upbringing [and] their small accomplishments,” wrote Joseph Epstein, a recently retired lecturer at Northwestern University, in The Weekly Standard, a US magazine.

“On visits to the homes of friends with small children, one finds their toys strewn everywhere, their drawings on the refrigerator, television sets turned on to their shows. Parents seem little more than indentured servants.”

Epstein’s recollections of his own childhood evoke an utterly different world. Parents didn’t feel the need to micro-manage their children’s lives. He doesn’t remember his parents reading to him, or turning up to watch him compete at athletics. They left it to him to decide which foreign language to study at secondary school and weren’t much bothered that he was a mediocre student.

Now, he says, it’s a wonder more teachers aren’t driven out of the profession by parents bombarding them with e-mails, phone calls and requests for meetings. “Students told me what they ‘felt’ about a novel,” he recalled. “I tried, ever so gently, to tell them no one cared what they felt. In essay courses, many of these same students turned in papers upon which I wished to – but did not – write, ‘Too much love in the home’.”

In Britain, too, there has been a seismic shift in parenting. “At the weekends, the kids are saying to us, ‘What are we doing today?’ – in other words, ‘You are going to entertain us, aren’t you?’ ” said Appleton, who works part-time for Netmums, an online network for mothers.

It is becoming a worldwide trend. A recent production of Snow White at a primary school in Japan featured 25 Snow Whites, no dwarfs and no wicked witch, as parents objected to one child being picked out for the title role. In Sweden a boy was prevented from handing out invitations to his birthday party at school because he was “discriminating” against the two classmates he did not invite.

A straw poll in Netmums’ virtual coffee house produced distinctly mixed feelings about the phenomenon. “The cushioning effect of awarding stickers and praise for inconsequential trivia masks what children really need and are looking for – guidance, consistency, self-reliance and love,” said one mother, Liz.

Another, Jeanette, was concerned that her daughter’s teachers would not correct spelling mistakes, “because she was spelling the words how you said them”, nor correct her writing when she drew letters back to front.

“The reality is, she does need to be corrected,” said Jeanette. “Children have to learn. I’m not saying it has to be negative, but there has to be a balance. When our kids go into the workplace, they are in for a shock.”

That would appear to be true. Earlier this year the Association of Graduate Recruiters said the generation born since 1982 – the so-called generation Y – were “unrealistic, self-centred, fickle and greedy”.

They used the example of a new recruit to a transport company who rang his mother to complain: “I have got to go to London tomorrow and they haven’t even given me a map.”

The employer threw up her hands in anger, according to Carl Gilleard, AGR’s chief executive: “Here was someone working for a transport company, who had spent three years at university, who was aggrieved because he hadn’t been given a detailed map.”

On a more sinister level, the child-centred approach also seems to have contributed to a decline in standards of behaviour in schools, with children ever more conscious of their “rights” and teachers afraid to chastise unruly children for fear of being attacked or accused of assault.

Last week Boris Johnson, the London mayor, highlighted the problem of indiscipline in schools as a factor in street violence. “Too many kids in London are growing up without boundaries, without discipline and without the family structures they need,” he said. “We should bring back discipline and the idea of punishment.”

In Merseyside an academic is bucking the trend of navel-gazing in schools. Peter Clough, head of psychology at the University of Hull, is working with children at All Saints Catholic high school in Knowsley, attempting to teach them to be “mentally tough”.

“Positive psychology says, ‘Count your blessings.’ My kind of psychology says, ‘Life can be hard and you have to learn to deal with it’,” he explained.

According to Clough, mentally tough pupils do better in exams and are less likely to see themselves as victims of bullying. If they fail at something, they try again. Using a diagnostic test devised by AQR, a business consultancy, Clough has been assessing his group’s attitudes to challenges, looking at such factors as whether they consider themselves optimists or pessimists and whether they think they can stay cool in stressful situations. Those with the lowest scores are learning visualisation, relaxation and anxiety-control techniques to help them toughen up.

“I’m encouraging kids not to run away from stress but face up to it,” said Clough. “If you’ve got a maths exam, just do it.”

We have to decide what we want our children to be – tough go-getters or touchy-feely carers. Or is it even about them?

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent University, believes our child-centredness is really adult-centredness. “It’s a way of reassuring ourselves that our children are going to be insulated from pain and adversity,” he said. “We tell children they are wonderful now for tying their shoelaces or getting 50% in an exam. But really it’s our way of flattering ourselves that we’re far more sensitive to children than people were in the past.”

The trouble is, Furedi says, that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. “You’re subtly giving kids the message that they can’t cope with life,” he said. “I have a son of 12 and when he and his friends were just nineI remember being shocked at them using therapeutic language, talking about being stressed out and depressed.”

While researching The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education, its co-author Dennis Hayes, visiting professor of education at Oxford Brookes University, discovered a leaflet telling students that if they studied sociology they might come across poor people and get depressed and if they studied nursing they might come across sick people and get distressed – so the university offered counselling.

“It was telling students they could not cope before they started,” he said. “The focus on feelings has become ridiculous. One friend told me his daughter was crying at home one night and when he asked why she said, ‘It’s my turn to put my worries in the worry box tomorrow and I haven’t got any!’ ” Perhaps we underestimate the resilience of children. One coach of an undereights football team was in favour of publishing results, saying they just enjoyed playing, whatever the score. “They didn’t care that they lost,” he said of one game. It was only 21-0, after all.

First published by Sunday Times, 29 June 2008

Licensed to Hug
The report Licensed to Hug, by Frank Furedi and Jennie Bristow, generated a storm of media coverage.

The following appeared on 26 June 2008.

A quarter of adults to face ‘anti-paedophile’ tests. Daily Telegraph - front page

Time for sanity in the vetting of volunteers.  Daily Telegraph - leader

Government will crack down on unnecessary CRB checks, Phil Hope saysDaily Telegraph

Are we overprotective of our children? Daily Telegraph - discussion

Has vetting damaged trust? Today, BBC Radio Four

Adults ‘scared to go near kids’. BBC News Online

Is our response to child sex abuse in proportion? BBC News Online - Analysis by Mark Easton

Child safety laws mean adults ‘scared to approach children’. Guardian

Child protection laws are ‘poisoning the relationships between adults and children’. Daily Mail

Quarter of adults must be CRB checked under new rules. The Times (London)

Paedophile label scares off adults. London Metro

Child protection measures ‘increase risk to children’. Inthenews.co.uk

Adults Scared Of Children. Raising Kids

New report explores the damaging effects of child protection policies. innovations report, Germany

Escalation in child protection measures make adults ‘afraid to interact with children’. 24dash.com

The following appeared on 27 June 2008.

An obnoxious brat in the street, a chilling leaflet… and my 14-year-old son who chants ‘Childline’ when I try to hug him. By Tom Utley. Daily Mail

This child protection hysteria deflects attention from a real, and growing, danger. By Dominic Lawson. The Independent

Protecting kids is far from child’s play, by Tim Gill. Guardian - Comment is Free

Acting on instinct, by David Wilson. Guardian - Comment is Free

Are we overprotective of our kids? Guardian - news blog

Parents banned from ferrying children to sports matches. Daily Telegraph

Baby photos that fall foul of the PC police, by Lesley Thomas. Daily Telegraph

‘I was treated like a paedophile’, by Julian Joyce. BBC News Online.

Londres multiplie les contrôles antipédophiles. Le Figaro (France)

Esther Rantzen’s fury over kid check. The Mirror

Welcome for record check on volunteers. Dorset Echo / Daily Echo

Letters to the Telegraph, including from Meg Hillier MP, Home Office Minister

The following appeared on 28 June 2008.

John Pinnington sacked after CRB check reveals unsubstantiated abuse allegations. Telegraph

New Report Explores The Damaging Effects Of Child Protection Policies. Medical News Today

Letters to the Telegraph

The following appeared on 29 June 2008.

If we can’t learn to trust each other, we will lose ourselves and our children. By Tim Lott. Independent

Parents are kidding themselves over child protection. By Rod Liddle. Sunday Times

There is no law against photographing children. By Jemima Lewis. Telegraph

The following appeared on 30 June 2008.

We’re all victims in Meg Hillier’s mad world. By Philip Johnston. Telegraph

Letters to the Telegraph

Further coverage

How magic might finally fix your computer. The Red Tape Chronicles, MSNBC, 7 July 2008

I launched Childline to protect the most vulnerable - but unleashed a politically correct monster. By Esther Rantzen. Daily Mail, 9 July 2008

Bureaucrats killing future British tennis stars. By Jim White. Daily Telegraph, 9 July 2008

Paranoia has taken over child protection, by India Knight. The Sunday Times, 13 July 2008

The Damaging Effects of Child Protection Policies. Children Webmag, 1 August 2008

Why are teachers scared of learning to give pupils First Aid? By Alexandra Frean, Education Editor. Times Online (London), 10 November 2008

Baby P: how does society best protect its children? Daily Telegraph, 12 November 2008

Also see:

Thou shalt not hug, by Frank Furedi. New Statesman, 26 June 2008

Now you need a licence to interact with children, by Frank Furedi. spiked, 26 June 2008

Childcare: child’s play is now a minefield, by Frank Furedi. Daily Telegraph, 26 June 2008

Licensed to Hug. Civitas blog, 26 June 2008

First published by All media, 26 June 2008

Emphasis on emotions is creating ‘can’t do’ students
by Alexandra Frean, Education Editor.

Schools and universities are producing a generation of “can’t do” students, who are encouraged to talk about their emotions at the expense of exploring ideas or acquiring knowledge, academics claimed yesterday.

The strong focus on emotional expression and building up self-esteem in schools and colleges was “infantilising” students, leaving them unable to cope with life on their own, according to the authors of a new book, The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education.

Dennis Hayes and Kathryn Ecclestone, of Oxford Brookes University, argue that this “therapeutic” approach to education is at odds with the acquisition of knowledge because it views the emotional skills associated with learning as more important than subject content or criticism.

“Turning teaching into therapy is destroying the minds of children, young people and adults,” Dr Hayes told Times Higher Education. “Therapeutic education promotes the idea that we are emotional, vulnerable and hapless individuals. It is an attack on human potential.”

They pointed to the increased presence of parents on campus, and substitute parents, such as counsellors and support officers. “Everyone looks for a difficulty to declare, like the hundreds of students who register themselves as dyslexic. Being dyslexic used to be something that people hid. Now students wear their difficulties as a badge of honour,” Dr Hayes said.

Therapeutic education pervaded all levels of education. Dr Hayes cited the case of a primary school boy who was asked by an emotional learning assistant why he was so happy. When he said he was looking forward to a treat at McDonald’s, she asked: “Are you sure there is nothing worrying you?”

The book follows the recent introduction into state schools of lessons in happiness and wellbeing under a programme known as Seal (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning).

Ministers are convinced that teaching children to express their emotions boosts concentration and motivation. But there is growing disquiet that this attitude could undermine teaching and learning.

Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent, said: “It inflates the importance of feelings to the point where they eclipse what is supposed to be going on in the classroom.” It also made teachers and lecturers overcautious. “They will give a piece of work 55 per cent and then write on it ‘this essay is superb’ because they daren’t say it’s crap.”

John Foreman, dean of students at University College London, agreed that students were not as “self-sustaining and robust” as they once were. He partly blamed overprotective parents. “If young people don’t start learning to solve their own problems, when will they ever?” he said.

Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College in Berkshire, a pioneer of wellbeing classes, defended the approach. “Since we started wellbeing lessons [in 2005] our A-level results have gone up from 64 to 86 per cent of students getting As and Bs.”

The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education is published on July 14.

First published by The Times (London), 12 June 2008

Times Online marriage and sex survey
Darling, that was wonderful: British couples reveal the quantity of sex after parenthood may be down. By Jennifer Howze.

Do people’s sex lives start to fizzle out after they have children? Does their arrival mark the end of romance and the start of fantasising about other sexual partners - or even a night of uninterrupted sleep?

Shining a light on this deeply private area of couple’s lives is not always easy. So when we posted a questionnaire on Times Online, we were not entirely sure what to expect.

So far nearly 1,700 men and women have answered questions that range from how often they have sex and how long it lasts, to how many children they have and whether the children have affected the quality of their sex lives. Many also wrote at length about their own experiences.

David Thompson - the only one of those we contacted who agreed to give his real name - spoke with lyrical nostalgia about a long walk in the woods with his girlfriend. The weather was perfect, no one else was around and they had nothing on their minds but each other; so they made love beneath the trees.

Now aged 37, Thompson is married to his girlfriend and a father of three. “Making love spontaneously outdoors is something we would never do now,” he said. “We’re too busy running after the kids, making sure they don’t beat each other with sticks.”

His experience seemed typical: most of the respondents to our survey agreed that having children meant having less time for love-making. Yet despite recent reports about the rise in sexless marriages, the overwhelming majority still had a sex life – and few complaints about its quality.

“Frequency has gone down because we are both constantly tired and frazzled with the demands of our jobs and looking after the family,” wrote a married mother of two, who said she had sex two to three times a month. “But quality has gone up, as we have got closer after the birth of our child . . . We trust each other more and so are more open with each other.”

In all, 1,675 respondents - 54% of them male - filled in the survey on the Times Online’s Alpha Mummy blog. While not strictly scientific - because the respondents were self-selected - it painted a reassuring picture of what happens to romance after having children. The majority of parents said they had sex more than once a month; and 63% said the frequency of their love-making ranged from several times a week to two to three times a month. For 46%, love-making sessions lasted 20-45 minutes, while 34% made love for up to 20 minutes and 3% for more than an hour.

Tiredness was the chief reason given for having less sex now than before having a family; causes of this included the sheer physical energy needed to look after children, disturbed nights, early starts, pressures at work and general stress.

One pregnant mother, who has one child, said the reason why she was having sex only two or three times a month was, in fact, nothing to do with having a baby. “Running our own business does more damage,” she wrote. Other reasons for less frequent sex included sharing a bed with children or sleeping in separate beds - in some cases so that fathers were not woken up when a baby needed to be breast-fed.

One mother of three complained that it was hard ever to escape from children - “I’m worried about little hands opening bedroom doors,” she wrote.

Sex with his wife was described by one father as “quick, covert, much like a military strike . . . My daughter seems to have been born with a built-in radar which informs her any time my wife and I try to get close . . . even if she’s in the other room . . . at two in the morning”.

Some parents said they stole private moments while the children were playing in the garden or when the nanny was on duty. “We have to make the most of the opportunities, but the quality seems to get better with age and experience,” wrote a father of three, who described sex with his girlfriend as “better than ever” after 13 years together.

It was striking just how many parents had a positive view of their sex lives - whatever the frequency. “The sex we have is really great. It is maybe not as saucy as it was when we first got together, but it is more effective in that we both know what the other likes and what works for us both,” said a mother of one, who has been with her husband for eight years. They still have sex several times a week: “Although sometimes I am tired and think I can’t be bothered, afterwards I always think how much fun it was and am so pleased that I made the effort.”

Another mother, who has three children, said: “Being constantly tired and busy with activities after school made it hard to feel ‘in the mood’. Once the kids were older and more independent, we could return to more intimacy, and now that the kids have left home it is great.”

Some in long-term relationships admitted that the ebb and flow of their sex lives did not necessarily have anything to do with having children.

“We thought children affected our sex life when they were very little; but looking back, it was better then than now,” wrote a mother of two, whose relationship has so far lasted 11 years. “It may be our age, or we may have just got lazy.”

According to Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent University and author of Paranoid Parenting, mothers in particular can find parenting a desexualising experience. After a baby is born, he said, “there’s a sense that the baby becomes the priority; the body is given over to the child. And that is sometimes slightly contradictory to the woman as a sexual being”.

Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity, says that there can be a tension between “the erotic and the domestic. Family life thrives in an atmosphere of consistency and stability. The erotic crumbles under routine”.

Several respondents recognised these strains in their relationships. “I believe that my partner saw me as a mother/housewife rather than as being a sexually attractive, interesting woman,” said a mother of one.

And a father wrote: “Being in the birthing room was very traumatic for me. Taking second place to our child hurt our sex life . . . I think we both withdrew from the sex part of the relationship.”

One father of two, who had been in a relationship for five years, said: “After the second child, desire just disappeared and never really came back to full strength - and it’s been three years.” The couple’s love-making - two to three times a month - was, however, “great when you get it”.

Another father said that his love life had dwindled to having formulaic sex several times a year: “It was never the right moment so I gave up trying . . .”

On the other hand, many felt that pregnancy and parenthood had put renewed energy into their relationships. “It’s great now because she’s pregnant and has a sex craving,” said a father who has sex about once a week.

Perel said this was not uncommon. “There are lots of women who actually discover through pregnancy, through birth, nursing and bonding with a child, a whole new sense of themselves as women - physically, sexually and sensually.”

The iron bonds of parenthood can often reinforce a relationship, according to Furedi. “Having kids and having some very positive shared experiences bring people together,” he said. “A good sex life for a couple depends on there being a kind of bond, a friendship - it’s what gives you confidence to relax.”

What can be done if the sexual spark between a couple has simply fizzled out? Scheduling time to be alone together is vital, advises Suzi Godson, author of The Sex Book. Perel advises going out for a meal, dancing - anything that the couple will both enjoy. “Just don’t talk about the kids,” she says.

However, one desperate parent asked: but what else is there to talk about by that stage in a relationship?

First published by Sunday Times, 25 May 2008

Government to quiz households on sex lives and salaries
by Lewis Carter

More than 500,000 people a year are to be questioned about their sex lives and salaries by Government inspectors, it has emerged.

Officials will ask for information about former sexual partners, contraception and how long couples have lived together before getting married.

The 2,000-question survey, which will be carried out by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), has prompted fears of further data security breaches as both names and addresses will be logged by inspectors.

Critics also say the £3.5 million-a-year cost will be a waste of money as people tend to lie about their private lives and begrudge intrusion into personal matters.

Eric Pickles, the shadow communities secretary, said: “Day by day, the liberty and privacy of the British public is being undermined by Labour’s surveillance state. People will be shocked that taxpayers’ money is being spent on intrusive surveys. Now state spies want to log and record who sleeps with whom and how often. Not even the Stasi went this far.”

Inspectors will ask the questions as part of the new Integrated Household Survey.

They will visit 200,000 homes at random each year and question each occupant, meaning that about 500,000 individuals will take part.

One of the questions asks: “Have you ever had a baby - even one who only lived for a short time?”

Interviewers are warned: “Exclude: Any stillborn; Include: Any who only lived for a short time.”

The survey features intimate questions on exact dates when relationships ended, and the precise amount of money people take home.

There will also be 35 questions on contraception, such as whether men have had vasectomies, the brands of Pill women use, and whether they have ever taken the morning-after Pill.

Frank Furedi, a professor of sociology at Kent University, said: “When researchers ask about sexual habits there is a very strong tendency for ­people to clam up, or to say what they think they want to hear.

“I would resent being asked these questions and I don’t think the Government should be doing it.”

A spokesman for the ONS said the survey was the most efficient way of meeting the Government’s “information needs”.

He said that all names and addresses would be deleted from the files once they arrived in the main office.

First published by Daily Telegraph, 21 April 2008

State busybodies want to pry into your bedroom secrets
by Paul Sims

Government inspectors are to ask us intimate questions about our sex lives, it was revealed.

More than half a million people every year will be asked about their past and present sexual partners, contraception and how long couples have lived together before marriage.

The 2,000 questions are part of the Integrated Household Survey, and the responses will be logged with respondents’ names and addresses.

Civil servants insist that the sensitive personal information will be made anonymous once the files arrive at the Office of National Statistics, where they will then be held on a secure server.

But campaigners last night branded the survey “intrusive” and another example of Labour’s “surveillance state”.

The survey will cost £3.5 million to carry out each year and will see inspectors randomly visit up to 200,000 homes to question each occupant.

They will ask 35 questions on contraception alone, covering vasectomies, the pill and if respondents have ever used the “morning after” pill.

Other intimate questions include the exact dates when previous relationships ended, precise monthly earnings and details of any second jobs or bonuses.

Investigators will also ask about the health of any children in the household.

One insensitive question asks: “Have you ever had a baby - even one who lived for a short time?”

Interviewers are then told: “Exclude: Any stillborn; include: Any who lived for a short time.”

Even though the survey is voluntary it has been claimed that inspectors will press respondents into revealing personal details with follow-up questions designed to draw out more information.

The ONS said it needed to carry out the annual poll to keep abreast of constantly changing social trends and so help Whitehall formulate policy.

But some experts cast doubt on the survey’s accuracy, suggesting that some respondents may hold back information, especially of a sexual nature, or say what they think the interviewer wants to hear.

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent University, said: “If they want to find out about intimate details they should do it in a much more sensitive way.”

Tory Communities spokesman Eric Pickles said: “Day by day, the liberty and privacy of the British public is being undermined by Labour’s surveillance state. People will be shocked that taxpayers’ money is being spent on intrusive surveys.

“Now state spies want to log and record who sleeps with whom and how often. Not even the Stasi went this far.”

Last night, a spokesman for the ONS defended the survey and said it was “a high quality, adaptable and efficient” way of “meeting the Government’s future information needs”.

First published by Daily Mail, 21 April 2008

Irrational fears fuel stifling regulations


The image of the deputy Labour leader walking through her constituency in a stab-proof vest generated plenty of debate last week. Harriet Harman likened it to wearing a team kit, but the picture provided easy pickings for the Conservatives. William Hague, shadow foreign secretary, asked if she wore a clown’s outfit to cabinet meetings. Harman responded that she would not take fashion tips from a man previously photographed wearing a baseball cap.
But away from the yah and boo of Westminster, the image was symbolic of the wider aversion to risk in society - a subject debated at last week’s Fund Strategy Investment Summit. Frank Furedi, a professor of sociology at Kent university, argued that attitudes have changed over the past 20 years, with pessimism and irrational fear fuelling a culture of excessive caution. In the other corner, Alistair Milne, a senior lecturer at Cass Business School, proposed that a simple application of risk management remains prudent.

Furedi won over the summit delegates. But fear of the unknown is more visible than ever in the markets. Retail investors continue to move into cautious managed and protected products, despite the long-term arguments for holding equities. A desire to mitigate risk is also apparent at a higher level, with calls in Britain and America for tighter regulation of financial services, following the failures of Northern Rock and Bear Stearns.

In particular, the influence of foreigners, from “non-dom” individuals to sovereign wealth funds is under scrutiny. While some investors have welcomed the arrival of the funds, and the estimated $3 trillion (£1.5 trillion) of funding they offer, others are cautious. In a bid to soothe concerns and pre-empt the introduction of tougher rules, two of the funds are set to adopt a code of conduct created by the British Venture Capital Association.

The financial services industry has seen such clamp-downs before. Most notably, the imposition of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act 2002 in America came in the aftermath of accounting scandals at WorldCom and Enron. The act satisfied the public outcry for action, but consigned American companies to extra regulatory burden and led to the rise of London as a financial centre. The British government will face similar pressures in the months ahead. While extra protection may be required, it should remember that over-regulation can be stifling.

First published by Fund Strategy, 7 April 2008

The Suspect Society


The Surveillance Society. The New Authoritarianism. The Age of Paranoid Politics. These are just a few of the ways writers and thinkers describe the age we’re now living in. The signs of anxiety and fear in this post 9-11 era are all around us. School lock-downs are called the new fire-drill. Recently, many schools boards in Canada made rehearsing the lock-down mandatory. The number of security staff in schools is increasing every year. By 2010 for example, there will be more security guards than teachers in American schools. But, the uniforms aren’t just being worn by security staff. More and more American public schools have adopted uniforms for students. Meanwhile the U.S. army is embedding itself in schools - targeting younger and younger students for recruitment. In Canada recruitment comes through video games that inform, entertain and seduce “action-focused males starting at 17 years old”.

Military symbols and myths are gaining prominence in western societies. In Britain, a recent report recommended that military personnel continue to wear a uniform in their daily life as citizens to boost support for themselves. One of Canada’s military boosters is Prime Minister Stephen Harper. In April, 2007, he told us that the Battle of Vimy Ridge is Canada’s creation story. Military Heroics. Bunker politics. Us against Them. The world, indeed seems more dangerous than ever, in the most intimate of environments. In daycares within Canada, the US, Britain and Australia, there is now video surveillance of very young children, easing we’re told, parental anxieties. Never mind cameras at intersections, in elevators. Cameras everywhere. In Baltimore, they’ve gone further. Based on an idea from Glasgow, Scotland, blue flashing lights have been installed around Baltimore - to signal: this is a high-crime neighbourhood.

A grant worth millions of dollars from the United States Department of Homeland Security has helped pay for Baltimore’s video fortress. That video is streamed into the Baltimore Police Depatments “Watch Centre”. In New York City and London, England similar surveillance is called, “The Ring of Steel”.

Britain has 4 million cameras trained on it’s citizens. The country’s information commissioner has publicly stated the British are sleepwalking into a surveillance society. One study revealed a single person in London, going about their business would be filmed about 300 times in one day. But what are we to make of all of this? We know that video cameras can, in specific situations, help solve crimes but must everybody be watched all the time? And what’s at stake?

IDEAS producer Mary O’Connell takes us inside the new authoritarianism – which, if we’re paying attention, seems to be all around us.

In Episode 2, Mary O’Connell explores violations of academic freedom and expression. Dr. Steven Kurtz is an arts professor at Suny - State University of New York at Buffalo. Dr. Kurtz has been the subject of an FBI investigation and his trial will begin in summer 2008. The second case involves the story of Religion and Philosophy professor Douglas Giles who was dismissed from his
job at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

Follow this link to listen to The Suspect Society, Part 1 (13 March) and Part 2 (20 March).

RESOURCES

Books

Against the New Authoritarianism, by Henry A. Giroux.

The University in Chains, by Henry A. Giroux.

Paranoid Parenting, by Frank Furedi.

Witch Hunts from Salem to Guantanamo Bay, by Robert Rapley.

The Age of McCarthyism, by Ellen Schrecker.

Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America, by Ellen Schrecker.

Suspect, Alphabet City, editor John Knechtel.

Websites

The American Civil Liberties Union - Is the US Turning Into A Surveillance Society

Canadian Civil Liberties Association - CCLA In The Schools: The Right To Personal Privacy

Media Matters for America - Savage Nation

Alligator Online - Capital Bill Aims to Control Leftist

CBN.NEWS.com - The 101 Most Dangerous Professors in America

The Nation - Burning Cole

Critical Art Ensemble

American Historical Association - Scholars Become Targets of Patriot Act

The Human Behavior Experiments by Alex Gibney on CBC Television’s The Passionate Eye - Watch an excerpt from the documentary

First published by CBC Radio, 13 March 2008

Think positive
Richard Schoch on whether children should be taught how to be happy.

On Monday night, before a capacity audience at the Guardian newsroom, Anthony Seldon, head of Wellington college, and the sociologist Frank Furedi debated whether happiness should be taught in schools. The event was the first in a series of public programmes co-sponsored by the Guardian and the education think tank Agora.

Seldon is the first headteacher in the country to timetable happiness lessons. Wellington students are now taught ‘how to be happy’ according to the tenets of positive psychology. Seldon defended the movement by stressing that it defined happiness not as maximising pleasure but as cultivating meaningful relationships.

The controversial academic Furedi agreed with Seldon that education should enable people to flourish. But he denounced happiness lessons as the intrusion of “psychobabble” into the classroom. The entire project, he argued, was misconceived because happiness cannot be taught; it can only be experienced in the daily challenges of life. Yet Furedi’s gravest concern about teaching happiness through positive psychology was that it threatened, rather than fostered, individual autonomy by imposing a formulaic and doctrinaire approach to life.

In a post-debate show of hands, the audience was evenly divided on the merits or demerits-of teaching happiness. I can see why. Seldon rightly insists that education must prepare young people for something more than high-earning jobs; it must help them to become loving parents, loyal friends, and responsible stewards of the planet. Families, communities and faith groups must do the same.

But how? Seldon’s answer is to teach positive psychology. But that hardly inspires confidence. Though the happiness scientists wisely promote “meaning and engagement” as the pinnacle of the good life, they consistently fall back upon a much weaker version of happiness - positive feelings, good moods - because that’s the only kind they can measure. (How do you measure meaning?) And positive psychology is all about measuring happiness.

Though quick to ridicule the notion of happiness lessons, Furedi failed to offer much of an alternative. His derision is so sweepingly negative that it excludes any curricular focus on happiness. Yet such an extreme response hinders the educational mission that Furedi himself promotes: developing moral character, judicious intellect and good citizenship. A person who possesses those attributes is likely to be the person whom we call happy.

What happened on Monday night, and what happens so often in such debates, is that happiness itself gets sidelined and the discussion becomes a verdict upon positive psychology - you love it, you hate it. At the end nobody is much clearer about what happiness is or how to achieve it.

Missing from the debate is the recognition that happiness has a history. People have been talking, thinking, and writing about the good life for thousands of years, beginning with Aristotle in ancient Athens and the Hindu sages who composed the Upanishads. Though it sounds incredible, some people in the past have actually been happy. To assume that nobody knew anything about happiness until positive psychology emerged a decade ago is intellectual arrogance. And it’s a mystery why critics of positive psychology are so often blind to the well-established traditions of happiness that have developed over humanity’s long history.

The truth is that for the past 2,500 years, happiness has been understood - and experienced - mostly in the context of philosophical and religious beliefs. Only in the past few centuries, and mostly in the west, has happiness become divorced from broad visions of the good life. From Epicureanism to Stoicism, and from Buddhism to Christianity, the question “what makes a life happy?” has never stopped being asked.

That the question is perennial shows not only its importance, but also the difficulty of finding the right answer. Just as “one swallow does not make a springtime”, Aristotle reasoned, one pleasant day does not make a whole life happy. Which is another way of saying that we could all use some help in our search for happiness.

So, yes, there is a place for happiness in the classroom, just as there is a place for it in the home, in youth groups, in churches, in mosques, and in synagogues. Call it happiness, call it morality, call it “life skills”, the label scarcely matters. What matters is that the ideal happiness curriculum already exists, and had existed for centuries. The problem is that it has been overlooked, sometimes in the faddish pursuit of the latest scientific discovery and sometimes out of historical amnesia. Still, humanity’s accumulated wisdom about the pursuit and achievement of happiness is there for anyone who wants to learn from it.

If Wellington college really wants to teach its students how to be happy, it could do far worse than directing them to the library, where they might discover some books, perhaps dusty from long neglect, that will inspire them to excel in the art of living, the art whose other name is happiness.

Richard Schoch is professor of the history of culture at Queen Mary, University of London and author of The Secrets of Happiness: Three Thousand Years of Searching for the Good Life. He also sits on the advisory board of Agora.

First published by Guardian, 28 February 2008

Council bans social network site


Workers at Kent County Council (KCC) have been banned from using the social networking website Facebook.
The authority said it had restricted access to the site under its electronic-use policy, and was one of several organisations to take the step.

It said the move was an effort to reduce time-wasting, but some workers have objected and want Facebook back.

“Like any other organisation, we have a responsibility to keep our IT systems secure,” the council said.

The authority employs 32,000 people.


It can be difficult to know when to stop
John Woodley

One Facebook user, John Woodley, said: “You have your network of friends and there is always that element of trying to develop other relationships and meet other people on there.

“We are social animals - it can be difficult to know when to stop.”

Professor Frank Furedi, from the University of Kent, said the site could be “a very valuable asset for creating communities between employees”.

He said: “It’s a way that employees can share experiences, and it’s a way that employers can learn about problems that exist in the workplace.”

But employment lawyer Jonathan Gauton said: “Employers are facing employees who are wasting a lot of time, who are ill-focused on their correct responsibilities.

“Ultimately, they can be sanctioned. They can be disciplined for it, and we have seen employees ultimately dismissed.”

First published by BBC News, 28 August 2007

A world view built on worst-case scenarios
by Guy Rundle

HABITUES of second-hand bookshops tend to develop a more sceptical sense of intellectual fashion than those who prefer their ideas shiny and new, straight from the everlasting present of Borders or Amazon. Amid dusty shelves and wobbling stacks one finds whole runs of ideas and obsessions now discarded, such as lost civilisations or those long polar ice-core samples that have become part of our mental furniture.

Nowhere is this more telling than in the area of the social sciences, where dominant ideas and research programs rise and fall and rise again over decades, leaving rich lodes of once popular works obsolete with a turn of the calendar.

When I started to haunt such shops in the early 1980s, the ideas that had excited and informed the ‘60s and ‘70s were at their nadir and books that had been eagerly read classics were available in fire-hazard volume.

As the Reagan-Thatcher-yuppie-greed-isgood years took off, it was above all works of grand cultural criticism that were dumped. Works that had inspired a revolution in thinking, such as Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth report, Ivan Illich’s Celebration of Awareness and Paul Goodman’s Growing up Absurd had come to appear, as we all got stoned and it blew away, irrelevant, if not a little embarrassing.

They had warned of a world tearing up its finite resources at a furious rate, in which the variety and quality of life had been suborned to a commodified, inhibited one-dimensional society. By the time we got to the ‘80s many of their answers turned out to have a few problems of their own, and here we were in a world of bright lights and big cities and, well, it didn’t look so bad.

The classic ‘60s works were part of a longer tradition of cultural criticism stretching right back all the way, if one wanted to go there, via authors such as John Ruskin and William Morris, Emile Durkheim and Geoffrey Bateson, to the traditions of Theocritus and the other pastoral poets of the Greek city-states, who wrote endless odes about happy shepherds frolicking in a simple, uncorrupted world.

To many, the glorious dawn of cultural criticism in the ‘60s was, in its twilight, more readily identifiable as traditional, rather than revolutionary, cyclic rather than unprecedented. Two decades further on, such concerns have once again come to the fore, prompted by a variety of great and small events.

Yet such was the wrenching power of the fire last time, such were its promises and disappointments, that current contributions are haunted by a memory of embarrassing naivete, of the ease by which the smiley face became a logo. Even those predisposed to offering a more prophetic account of contemporary life feel a need to hedge their bets. Such caution, and what haunts it, is exemplified in Robyn Davidson’s Quarterly Essay on nomadism.

Davidson, a life-long travelling writer, best known for her book Tracks, has written a highly readable and sometimes moving account of encounters with various nomadic peoples, with an explicit attempt to offer some reflections on our way of life - and a concerted attempt to disown any sense that what she is offering is a program for another way to live.

Yet whether one agrees with or is exasperated by her argument that we must look to other cultures for solutions to an unsustainable way of life, many will be irritated by her idealised view of those other cultures.

Beginning with a fairly outdated historical account identifying the coming of agriculture with the “fall”, Davidson moves through a consideration of the Aborigines she grew up near, but did not know, in rural Queensland, a journey to a horse fair in Tibet and, most substantially, a period travelling with the Rabari people of Rajasthan in India.

Having early on sketched out a more limited purview-“I do not mean to say that we should (or could) return to traditional nomadic economies. I do mean . . . that it would be foolish to disregard or underrate (them)”-the essay itself is a process of falling into a deep romance with her subjects.

“I never once saw one of them show discourtesy to another human being, no matter how lowly, nor cruelty to another form of life,” she writes of the Rabari. “Although they were proud of themselves as a caste, they seemed to exist somewhere outside the more rigid hierarchies of settled people. They were aware of the air of freedom and liberality surrounding them.” Not only that, but they retained a pre-Edenic innocence that other cultures have lost: “Their success depended upon formal generosity, tolerance and honesty among migrating individuals, families, dangs (small groups), castes and religions.”

At times, Davidson slips into a near Rudolph Valentino mode in which the nomads are a glamorous aristocratic other: “It was something they identified as their own, which made them different from (and I’m sure they would tacitly agree, superior to) the peasantry.”

At other times they are “comfortable with uncertainty and contradiction. They are cosmopolitan in outlook, because they have to deal with difference, negotiate difference. They do not focus on long-term goals so much as continually accommodate themselves to change. They are less concerned with the accumulation of wealth and more concerned with the accumulation of knowledge . . . Adaptability, flexibility, mental agility, the ability to cope with flux. These traits shy away from absolutes, and strive for an equilibrium that blurs rigid boundaries.” You can almost see them walking down Glebe Point Road, Brunswick Street or any groovy inner-city locale.

By now you can see the denouement coming. It is we, the knowledge and culture workers who are the true heirs of these insouciant nobles: “And increasingly, there are people like me, who live in several countries, have complex identities and feel allied to more than one culture. We live in what Edward Said called ‘a generalised condition of homelessness’. These new forms of nomadism will shape the culture of the new century in unpredictable ways.”

For all the genuine passion and knowledge in Davidson’s account of her time with the Rabari, the account of nomadism as a whole is a farrago. Though such cultures have many qualities to be envious of, you don’t have to know much about non-agricultural peoples (and my knowledge is confined to second-hand acquaintance with Inuit culture) to know they have a harshness we would find intolerable.

The abandonment of the weak or ill, infanticide, shunning, scapegoating, exile, summary judgment, violence, xenophobia, feuds, splits, slighted honour and retribution - all are essential to their survival as coherent and mobile peoples. And they issue from the same place as the qualities more attractive to a contemporary audience.

Nor does the equation of nomadism with contemporary atomised hyperindividualism ring true. The most important point, surely, about nomads is not that they move, but that they move together, and that the identity of each person in the group is bound up in those of the others to a greater degree than we would find possible or desirable.

Both short and long-distance nomadic groups travel within a known world, a world in which part and whole - landscape, flora, fauna, weather - are knitted together, organised and made vivid by myth, totem systems, taboo, kinship rules and complex language systems. Though early anthropology was wont to see these systems as more stable than they now appear, and although contact with modernity has created hybrid systems, the fact is that nomads have more in common with non-mobile, substantially non-agricultural people - Pacific Islanders, for example - than with mobile moderns.

In all traditional cultures, stories of solitary wandering are either cautionary tales of exile - the worst punishment imaginable - or of the wanderer’s triumphant return home. What the contemporary traveller seeks is repeated strangeness, the exciting, frightening, delicious process whereby the utterly alien starts to become known, without losing its alien quality.

The encounter between the traveller and the nomad is not an encounter between two nomads, and to imagine it as such obscures the real difference between the intimacy and connectedness that Davidson finds in the Rabari people, and the anomic disconnection of contemporary life that she sees it as an answer to. For anyone in sympathy with some of Davidson’s conclusions about the contemporary world, it’s an enormously irritating piece, its initial cautionary tone no more than a figleaf for the worst sort of narcissistic identification, whereby a particular modern social class finds, via the Third World, its own values reflected as those of essential humanity.

But for all the certainty of this and other books centred on the one big idea - “something has gone wrong” is how Michael Bywater sums it up in Big Babies, his critique of contemporary media and consumerism-induced adult infantilism - is anything distinctive really happening? A publishing boom in this area - two books titled Affluenza (by Australian political theorist Clive Hamilton and, more recently, British psychologist Oliver James), Shelley Gare’s Triumph of the Airheads, James Hawes’s satirical novel Speak for England, James Martin’s The Meaning of the 21st Century are the standouts - would suggest there is.

Or are we merely in the throes of a new transition between one social form and the next, one in which the new world, seen from the perspective of the old, looks chaotic and bizarre? After all, anyone essaying cultural criticism has to be chastened by memories of vicars denouncing the corrupting effect of cinema or the widespread belief that young girls reading novels represented the end of the world.

For sociologist Frank Furedi, much cultural criticism that focuses on the allegedly disastrous trends within modernity is less an expression of intellectual agency than it is a symptom of a deeper social and historical process whereby Western peoples have lost the power to think of themselves as capable of collectively shaping and controlling their environment, and thereby making History, the capital H signifying not simply events, but the capacity to qualitatively change and improve the human condition.

Hungarian-born Furedi is one of the more high-profile public intellectuals in Britain, keeping up a stream of articles, essays and books addressing a set of themes uppermost in contemporary Western life, most particularly the amorphous, all-encompassing phenomenon of fear, whose changing nature seems to be reshaping our idea of the relationship between humanity and the world.

Originally the theoretician of a group called the Revolutionary Communist Party, part of the rich fauna of the ultra-Left in ‘80s Britain, Furedi in his work was always concerned with understanding the conditions and possibilities by which real change happens.

The failure of Marxism to revive itself as a liberating movement once the dead weight of the USSR had vanished prompted him to argue that we are in a new historical period in which the core humanism of Marx’s ideas - the promethean capacity of human beings to shape their destiny - was no longer expressed or carried forth by class politics.

Instead the RCP, now dissolved and by various stages reconstituted as the Spiked group, began to focus on a series of what its leadership saw as regressive cultural themes and movements. Furedi argued that there was a need to regroup the people and forces, from Left and Right (in Australia, he has been a guest of the Centre For Independent Studies), who believed that humanity should “play for high stakes”.

In particular, this has amounted to a critical attitude to the green movement, for an alleged underlying loss of faith in human control of nature, and also to much of the recent commentary of the Big-Brother-is-the-end-of-civilisation stripe, arguing this usually is a form of conservative elitism masquerading as critique.

Yet nor is Furedi part of the anti-critical cultural studies movement, arguing instead that much of the current “stalled” nature of history results from the collapse, within a media society, of the webs of association that formed the underlying social connectivity that made class politics possible.

Once people feel isolated and atomised, fear rather than solidarity becomes the primary social medium, whether expressed as distrust for science, an appetite for apocalyptic scenarios, panics about pedophilia and other social “monsters” and so on: a world in which the worst-case scenario has become the default setting. Furedi’s work, especially his much-praised recent book Where Have All the Public Intellectuals Gone?, tends to be claimed by conservatives as conservative, by libertarians as libertarian, but he has never made much secret of the fact that it was about recapturing a sort of historical audacity implicit of the type, though not of the form, last seen in its purest incarnation in October 1917 in Russia.

The object is not simply to push things forward but to hope that qualitative change in technology and economy will produce a transformation that will take us into a radically new future. From that perspective, diverse critical commentaries are united by a limited view of what human beings are capable of, a perception of new problems through the lens of old ideas, a fear of our capacities and desires.

One of the most important aspects of Furedi’s work is the manner in which it goes beyond the narrow confines of a single perspective, which constrains the other works discussed, to offer a more general diagnosis of our cultural-political condition and the manner in which it shapes our perception of particular problems.

Much of his earlier output, such as in the ‘80s and ‘90s, was concerned with how the guts had been knocked out of the Western project by 20th-century events. Prior to World War II, imperialism had been grounded on a racism that gave an assurance to its capacity to subjugate other peoples (and it’s probably a measure of the times that I need to clarify that this wasn’t a Niall Fergusonesque defence of imperialism, but a Marxist analysis of its character).

The Holocaust and the war had put this selfbelief in crisis, only partly assuaged by the defining dualism of the Cold War. By the time the latter ceased, structural changes to social life, a loosening of “webs of shared meaning” by a media-dominated society, had undermined the class politics of Right and Left.

The combined effects of the failure of the Western Left, revelation of environmental problems and the enlightenment critique of postmodernism had put notions of freedom, rationalism and human capacity in the shade. For Furedi, the war on terror is really among the lesser effects of a fear culture; far more important is, say, the widespread popularity of alternative medicine, to the extent that insurers and public health bodies will provide for it, and the loss of faith in a scientific medicine held to be “invasive” or “toxic”.

And all such small-picture worries are mirrored in the big picture of the environment, and global warming in particular. Neither a supporter nor a sceptic as regards the evidence for global warming, Furedi’s argument is that our response to it - one of despair, and a barely disguised millenarianism - is determined by a culture of fear, rather than a clear-headed response to the evidence.

In earlier days, Furedi and Spiked were robust in their critique of such approaches; more recently, such as in his book The Culture of Fear Revisited, there is a deal more circumspection about the truth or otherwise of the more alarming forecasts, but the cultural critique of our response to it remains.

Yet while Furedi is right to connect the large and the small and to see the issue of global warming as one principle focus of contemporary dilemmas, the issue is one that also points to a contradiction in his work, indeed of all of those who interpret widespread disquiet about global warming from a culturalist perspective.

We have long since passed the point where the most alarming scenarios are coming from the wilder fringes of the green movement; today it is world-class scientists such as James Lovelock (in The Revenge of Gaia) and E. O. Wilson (in The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth) who are suggesting that an irreversible destruction of the biosphere is well advanced.

If your political project is to restart a genuine humanism with confidence in its capacity to bend nature to its will through scientific excellence, then you have a problem if the most excellent scientists tell you that we are creating potentially catastrophic problems far beyond our forseeable capacity to quell or mitigate. Once that occurs, then a culturalist analysis of such movements reverses on itself and begins to look irrationalist, while more pessimistic scenarios start to look relatively clear-eyed.

A more persuasive account of their connection, and by far the most thorough-going reading of the present period, comes from Zygmunt Bauman, for a long time professor of sociology at the University of Leeds. Bauman’s work is voluminous, but one metaphor has become central: that of “liquidity”. For Bauman, our current state is one in which there has been a radical shift in the manner in which society and selfhood are constituted.

In a process we have barely begun to recognise, we have passed from a society in which a whole series of dynamic elements and flows - the movements of individual selfhood, the movement of capital, values formation - were anchored within a static framework that guaranteed a degree of stable social reproduction.

In recent decades, the flow has become the norm, for the first time in history, and many apparently unconnected phenomena can be explained as the effects of this liquidity.

Capital flows around the world and when the tide goes out, as in the contemporary West, it leaves a section of the population as a useless surplus. Subjectivity changes and the dominant dilemma for the individual becomes a sort of flowing towards meaning, always knowing that any achieved will be provisional. Life becomes fragmentary and strategic. Big Brother is not the end of this civilisation, but its epic poem, an unfolding and ritual retelling of life’s shifting uncertainty and isolation, the ever-present threat that we will go down the drain.

Bauman’s idea of liquidity has similarities with Furedi’s notion of “shared webs of meaning”, and also of the notion, explored here in Arena magazine and journal, of a society ungrounded by having all human relations drawn through its most abstracted levels, such as the market and the media.

It is the change that writers such as Bywater, who suggests that the way to deal with an infantilising culture is to ignore it, can describe yet not understand, because they try to read them through older, exhausted notions of liberalism and conservatism.

When you live in a world of media and meaning flows, the ideas of John Stuart Mill or Friedrich Hayek are as relevant as debate about the doctrine of the divine right of kings.

Bauman’s account of this new world in Liquid Fear is so powerful because he has connected it to the shifting role that life and death plays within any culture, and how it manifests in ours. However much civilisational criticism forms part of a genre stretching back into the centuries, what is apparent is that the capacity exists to destroy the civilisation from within, whether by nuclear death, biosphere destruction or what Bauman calls “metaphorical death”, the manner by which human connection becomes so fleeting, unpatterned and attenuated that the sense of a living other dies away.

For Bauman, “all human cultures can be decoded as ingenious contraptions calculated to make life with the awareness of mortality liveable”. Once death comes to the heart of a culture, the search for immortality becomes individual rather than social, and thus fame and celebrity become driving mass obsessions, and especially of fame “lotteries” such as reality TV. Deep down, Bauman would argue, we all know that globalisation is on an unsustainable trajectory and that global warming is the most visible sign and symbol of that process, but that knowledge is sublimated through every aspect of our life.

What appear to be disparate effects-say, the normalisation of plastic surgery for teenagers at one end, and wars for control of oil reserves at the other - are really shards of the same shattered vessel, our cup which hath overfloweth. As denial comes to the centre of the culture, two social tasks, steering rational action and reproducing an ideology, start to be confused for each other. The production of values is rendered cynical and strategic (the knowing emptiness of Paris Hilton) and planning comes to be based on illusion and fantasy (the empty knowingness of George W. Bush).

It seems to me that it is this aspect of our culture that will expand in the years to come. We are in the strange cultural situation whereby the core process at the heart of our civilisation - scientific rationality - overwhelmingly argues that we are undermining, or already have undermined, the basis of life. And yet there seems no way in which a real process of cultural change (as opposed to near-useless “carbon neutralising”) might develop on a global scale, before visible and disastrous effects start to concentrate the collective human mind.

This is not to suggest that the case for global warming has been utterly, unequivocally proven, or that the (fairly rare) honest sceptics should cease to offer alternative accounts. It is simply to make the cultural point that the phenomenon has been taken into people’s lives as a truth, and that the utter state of denial in which we find ourselves cannot but have a series of corrosive cultural effects. After all, if even the mid-range scenarios prove correct, then a vast amount of current human effort, the megacities, airports, highways, stadiums, plane fleets and resorts, amount to the most phenomenally futile project in human history.

Simply decrying “apocalyptic” thinking may serve short-term political ends, but it is ultimately pointless if large numbers of people come to feel that such a scenario is a wellfounded possibility. What we will face culturally in the immediate term is a strange and possibly self-destructive period in which there is the building of a movement that believes a truly radical degree of cultural change is necessary for human advancement, while a majority, convinced that such a task is beyond collective human agency, pursue the creation of what, by Bauman’s terms, would be an anti-culture. It seems likely that such an interim period will not be transformed until the first large-scale and unequivocal effects of global warming occur (or until the hypothesis is weakened by their non-occurrence).

The climate records written in those layered polar ice-core samples might then be the model by which we judge those shafts and ridges of old cultural critique in the second-hand bookshops: as part of a continuity with present and future volumes, to which our wandering attention comes and goes, but which measures, in a manner often fallible and foolish, the dimensions of a crisis deeper than we care to acknowledge.

First published by The Australian, 7 February 2007

Teaching children how to be happy
by Julie Henry

When 15-year-old Charlie Maughan takes his position at the side of the pool for a big swimming meet next week, he will be thinking about techniques he learnt in “well-being class” as well as in PE.

“Before the competition, I will close my eyes, slow my breath and visualise the positive aspects of what could happen,” he said. “And because of the meditation, I feel more confident and less jittery when I walk out.”

Charlie is one of the pupils at the £24,000-a-year Wellington College, in Berkshire, who has benefited from fortnightly “happiness classes”, introduced last year.

Designed by Ian Morris, the school’s head of philosophy and religion, along with Nick Baylis, the director of the Well-being Institute at Cambridge University, the programme gives pupils practical skills in areas as diverse as meditation, channelling “negative” emotions and drug and alcohol safety. There is even a session on “dumping” a boyfriend or girlfriend. It has been championed by the master of the school, Anthony Seldon, one of the independent sector’s most high profile heads.

The scheme has been so successful that next month the college will host a conference where headmasters and teachers from across the state and independent sectors will sit through one of the 40-minute lessons and learn how they can be applied.
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The adoption of “well-being” classes at a traditional public school demonstrates the extent to which emotional intelligence, a term coined in 1995 by American psychologists, is fast becoming education orthodoxy in Britain. It has spawned a multi-million pound industry of consultants, publishers and educational training.

Ministers have embraced the idea that emotional literacy — defined as the ability to perceive, access and regulate emotions — should be part of the state curriculum. Schools now have a statutory obligation to promote children’s mental, emotional and social well-being.

Extensive curriculum guidance, produced by the Department for Education and Skills and sent to England’s 23,000 primary schools, recommends that all children, regardless of age, background or ability, be given sessions in talking about their emotions.

To teach pupils how to make friends, resolve squabbles and “manage their anger”, it suggests using a quiz called “Guess what I am feeling?”, or designing an “emotional barometer” so children can rate the strength of their feelings.

Secondary schools are also being encouraged to put emotional literacy on the timetable this year, with staff focusing on five areas: self-awareness, empathy, managing feelings, self-motivation and social interaction.

Government guidance to primary heads revealed why it was felt necessary to teach characteristics that many regard as part of a good upbringing.

“The breakdown of the extended family and communities, and the higher rates of divorce and one-parent- families, have led to a shake-up of the belief that we can leave children’s emotional and social development to parents,” it said.

Exponents of emotional literacy believe that children who arrive at school angry, anxious or depressed cannot learn until those barriers have been removed. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the techniques are having an impact on behaviour and motivation.

However, a few dissenters have raised concerns about the rise in “therapeutic education”. Frank Furedi, a sociology professor at Kent University and author of Therapy Culture, fears that academic and moral education are being jettisoned for the easy option of discussing emotions.

“In pushing emotional literacy what some teachers are really doing is abandoning teaching,” he said. “They are giving up, talking about emotions instead, so that children value all this non-discipline-led activity more than maths, English or science. What is amazing about this is that time and time again, research says that it does not work. Self-esteem education produces no positive outcomes.

“My view is that it is actually harmful. The more we talk about self-esteem in schools, the more kids become obsessed with their emotions and the more they have emotional problems. Children who talk about being ‘stressed’ play the role of being stressed. It normalises and promotes the behaviour.”

Prof Furedi said that Shakespeare and Jane Austen had more to teach children about emotions than the substandard materials used in much therapeutic education.

“If you want children to feel happy and stable, you make them feel good about their achievements in their school work. What is particularly pernicious is that it will be working-class kids who will bear the brunt of this — a third-rate education, but lots of emotional literacy.”

Dennis Hayes, the head of the centre for professional learning at Canterbury Christ Church University, also raised concerns about a widespread emotional literacy agenda that is “anti-intellectual and potentially destructive”.

“In some schools, it is filling a vacuum that is being left by the downplaying of knowledge,” he said.

“Students in schools like Wellington will then go off and do Latin and the sciences. The problem is that this balance is being lost to children elsewhere.”

First published by Daily Telegraph, 22 January 2007

A time of fear and loathing
by Helen Razar

One afternoon, about a week after the 2005 London Bombings, I took the Pakenham Line from Flinders Street Station. It was peak hour and commuters were crammed into the carriages like neo-cons at a cockfight. I was making no particular haste to get home. I was as tranquil as it was possible for a commuter to be.

As any city loop habitue will know, a train’s interior light has the tendency to flicker. The brief fade-to-black is only as maddening as one’s reading material is good. These lapses rarely, if ever, are cause for alarm, but as the carriage lights darkened between Flagstaff and Central, I felt the stuff of my limbs just sort of dilute. I knew the hectic ripple of anxiety attacks, but this monstrous wave diminished them all. In this tidal flourish of despair, no buoyancy seemed possible. In an instant, I was sweaty and breathless and as sure as I have ever been that my life was in immediate danger.

My first instinct was to claw my way out of the train. The second was to call my partner and bid an emotional farewell a la the passengers on Flight 77. Fortunately, I did neither. Instead, I looked in the fleeting darkness for the aggressor. My myopic mind’s eye found her. I’d registered the presence of a woman who looked to be about 19. She wore a hijab and a backpack.

“You racist shallow bastard,” I told myself. Reason told me that the backpack contained text books and the headscarf contained an ordinary student at the end of her ordinary day. I couldn’t help myself. I alighted at Melbourne Central, took four buses home and watched CNN for three solid hours.

When the fear had stopped resonating somewhere in Elsternwick, I was struck by its pervasive and elaborate quality. In an age of cool reason, it seemed rather odd to be overcome by something very much like scorching religious passion. Perhaps this was a secular version of fear of the wrath of God.

Almost as soon as it has subsided, my fear seemed cartoonish and unreasonable. Generally, I prefer reason over impulse. Trembling like a devout Christian at the onset of a solar eclipse seems odd. I had joined the coalition of the nervous and I wasn’t at all certain why.

True, each era has its own dreadful preoccupations — from natural disasters to Godless communists to terrorism. And certainly, what we fear changes over time. These days, though, it’s not simply that we’ve exchanged old fears for new ones. Fear in the 21st century has acquired the skill of fastening itself to the culture and to our psyches with a new viral speed.

Within hours of the British bombings, news media had attached a snappy tag to an event that left 52 people dead. “7/7” entered the marketplace of fear like a miniature foreign franchisee of the original 9/11 terror brand. Television gave us a Euro Disney staffed by brave London Bobbies, stoic Eastenders and Churchill’s ghost with a plucky Brit Pop soundtrack. In no time flat, catastrophe had been pressed into the service of selling newspapers, engaging eyeballs and justifying foreign policy.

“Fear and dread has attached itself to our psyche and many people living and working in Melbourne have changed their personal and professional behaviour to reflect this,” Luke Howie says.

Howie, a PhD candidate in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University, recently conducted qualitative research into behavioural responses to terrorism. He found that people in Melbourne, “were fearful and cautious of sitting with, or near, others on public transport who they deemed to be of foreign or Middle-Eastern appearance”.

Intrigued by the way in which the “low probability, high consequence threat” of terrorism engages Australians, Howie interviewed 105 respondents. The subjects, many of whom work in prominent Melbourne buildings conceivably susceptible to terrorist attack, described a “sense of fear and panic disproportionate to the gravity of the threat”, Howie says.

Many interviewees, he says, conceded that their dread was irrational, or even superstitious. The overwhelming majority of respondents mentioned the World Trade Centre attack as a key moment in the construction of their dread. One subject reported having no concern for terrorism while at his desk. However, viewing his office tower from afar evoked the likeness of the September 2001 strike. Looking up at his office, he felt all the dread the televised moment has come to signify.

“The role of the image is very different to what it was in the early 20th century,” Howie says.

Part of the problem, says Howie, is that while the images assailing our senses have multiplied unimaginably in recent decades, our poor old bodies have not kept up. As brain physiology understands it, it is the brain that sees and perceives; eyes and ears are simply neutral observers. Our visual and auditory association areas, Howie says, apprehend external stimuli in the same way, whether we are watching television or perceiving an actual event. The primal jerk of fear is identical.

Such imagery now mingles intimately with our every day. Our psyches are simply ill-prepared or unable to distinguish between an event and its electronic depiction.

Late communications theorist George Gerbner theorised that contact with real trauma was not a prerequisite for fear. In describing the consequences of a world increasingly navigated by visual media, he coined the phrase Mean World Syndrome. Its distinguishing features are an increased indifference to the consequences of violence and an amplified sense of our own vulnerability and dependence.

So, while we find ourselves unable to rationalise or even respond to the newest reported tragedy, we feel more fearful for our own safety. Years of terror served in real time may have drained us of compassion for everyone but ourselves.

Fear for our individual safety is now as readily manufactured as the image of the World Trade Centre.

The city worker interviewed by Howie is not alone in his psychological discomfort. Swayed more by images and fridge magnets than reason, many of us are preoccupied with terrorism. Last year, The Lowy Institute asked 1000 respondents to rank potential threats from the world outside Australia. In the institute’s 2005 Poll Data Book, international terrorism scored third place. Nudging in at fifth, just behind disease epidemics, Islamic fundamentalism romped away with a robust 57 per cent of public anxiety.

And fear inheres in the trivial just as much as it does in our more public anxieties. Our careening public obsession with everything from border control to pedophilia to real estate to fine lines and wrinkles is fed and assuaged by entrepreneurs and policy makers.

In her new work Fear and Politics, Carmen Lawrence asserts that “we are living, not for the first time, in an era of heightened collective fear, a fear which is being exploited and encouraged by our governments through the media”.

In this view, fear is meticulously crafted and controlled. Along with public figures like Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore, Lawrence posits a mechanism of control that recalls the moral panic of Reds under the Bed or McCarthyism. I have long thought of Michael Moore as the left’s most agreeably concise ambassador. Up until “7/7” opened for business, I enjoyed his documentaries immensely. He is a soothing polemicist who made it easy for me to understand the Western world and all the fearful white middle-class people in it. But a genuine encounter with a public anxiety has problematised my seduction by Moore and other straightforward accounts of fear.

True, policy makers bluff, exaggerate and obscure truth to intensify fear for political gain. National security and vulnerability is a great platform for an election. This year, it was also a winning formula for a television program in the form of Border Control.

But this doesn’t begin to illuminate the dark chaos of my fear on the city loop.

“We have to think in a complex way about this,” says Dr Vicki Crowley, senior lecturer in communications at the University of South Australia.

The temptation to think about fear in a simple way, she says, is overwhelming. There is a drive to be reductive. As our fear becomes more diffuse and less connected to anything real, our mode of understanding it seems to become firmer and more concise, observes Crowley. “Things are laid out as a series of singularities. Because of those five second bites, our thinking strives to parallel these things,” she says.

However it is happening, fear seems to have acquired an existence independent of any connection to real threats. Or even to the possibility of threat. It is its own evolving currency that emerges from every corner of the culture.

“Political debate is often reduced to competing claims about what to fear,” says British-based sociologist Frank Furedi in his 2005 essay The Market of Fear.

The Lowy Institute Poll indicates that we are becoming more bipartisan in the way we fear. At number one is the fear of nuclear proliferation. At number two, we see John Howard’s bugbear, global warming. By one measure, says the report, both Islamic fundamentalism and US foreign policy are worrying to 57 per cent of Australians. The authors describe this as “a startling equivalence”.

Furedi contends that environmentalists are no less implicated in the use of scare tactics to promote their principles than conservatives who court attention through amplifying fears about border protection.

In the new open marketplace of dread, Furedi says, fears compete with one another to capture our attention. The intensification of fear, he says, amounts to a rejection of politics altogether. It also indicates, in his reading, a rejection of logic.

Meanwhile, fear is pressed into the service of selling newspapers, engaging eyeballs and justifying foreign policy. It flourishes and advances by its own momentum.

As Carmen Lawrence points out, there is nothing particularly new about making powerful claims based on fear. The economy of fear, however, has changed. Once, fear was a more tightly controlled market. Fearing God, communists, monsters and foreigners was a simple business. The newer free market has liberalised fear to a point where it attaches its “value” to just about anything.

Our vulnerability to fear might be ancient, but its vast and chaotic reproduction is something new. Fear has become a stand-alone occurrence and has a dwindling relationship to experience.

Days before my experience on the train, the London bombings had taken place.

With a bad case of what I can now diagnose as Mean World Syndrome, I remember watching it quite indifferently. The catastrophe itself seemed unreal and airbrushed to me. I was unconcerned until the event reproduced itself in peak hour. The back pack, the Muslim and the underground train ignited my fear.

It’s an awful thing to admit, but I believe that my only emotional reaction to the London bombings was a delayed and extreme sense of my own vulnerability. The marketplace of fear, writes Furedi, has no clear or single objective.

“The distinct feature of our time is not the cultivation of fear but the cultivation of our sense of vulnerability.”

There are, of course, real things in the real world that are genuinely scary.

As I discovered, there are imagined things in the real world that are equally terrifying.

First published by The Age, 2 December 2006

Troubling as it may be, fear sells
by Barbara Wall

Some see companies preying on insecurity; others cite innovation.

It sometimes seems that the more wealth a society creates, the more insecure it becomes. Companies are preying on our anxiety about natural disasters and pandemics and obesity and terrorism to sell a growing range of products and services. Are these fear entrepreneurs cynical self-promoters, or ideal investments for uncertain times? Probably a little of both.

Frank Furedi, a professor of sociology at the University of Kent and the author of the books “Politics of Fear,” “Culture of Fear” and “Paranoid Parenting,” says that business leaders are extremely talented at harnessing anxiety to sell products - even when our perception of fear bears little relationship to actual experience.

For example, even as politicians proclaim that crime rates are falling, the market for household alarms and personal security gizmos is booming.

Consider child-tracking devices, the latest hot products in the security business. Sprint-Nextel and Verizon have come up with products that let parents track a child’s mobile phone for as little as $10 a month. If that sounds over-the-top, high-tech Halloween costumes, with tracking devices that allow parents to keep track of their little trick-or-treaters, were on sale this autumn at Angels Fancy Dress in London for £500, or $945, apiece.

That, Furedi said, is nothing but marketing. “There is no evidence to suggest that the incidence of child abductions is any greater today than, say, 40 years ago,” he said. “But parents are being encouraged to fork out large sums of money for peace of mind.”

Experienced investors will recognize the link between fear - and its counterpart, greed - in explaining and understanding stock market dynamics.

“One reason why stock markets display such a strong average growth is greed,” said Frank Westerhoff, a professor of economics at the University of Osnabrück in Germany. “People want to participate in this game, and as they do, they drive prices up. Eventually some traders realize that markets are extremely overvalued. When the markets start to correct, a fear-driven panic sets in, pushing prices down or even crashing the market.”

Yet where experts like Furedi and Westerhoff see misplaced anxiety and manipulation, others see innovation and gain.

The insurance industry, for example, is often criticized for making big money by exploiting fear. But Mark Stacpoole, an investment director for Hiscox Insurance fund in London, pointed out that the insurance industry is characterized by fierce competition that has resulted in many policyholders getting a better deal.

“Young males tend to pay higher motor insurance premiums than any other class of driver because statistics show that they are more likely to drink and drive late in the evening, when most accidents occur,” Stacpoole said. So Aviva Insurance, a British company, has introduced a new plan that bases premiums on the time of day policyholders use their cars. Drivers are monitored using a global positioning satellite system and charged accordingly: the earlier in the day the car is driven, the cheaper the premium.

Innovation in insurance underwriting, Stacpoole said, has become one of the main drivers of an insurance company’s stock price.

“It is no coincidence that Progressive Insurance - one of the first auto insurers in the United States to base premiums on factors other than age and gender - has seen its stock price rise 800 percent over the last 25 years,” he said. Stacpoole’s fund holds shares of both Progressive and Aviva.

Not surprisingly, Furedi and other skeptics reserve their harshest criticism for military contractors. Love defense stocks or loathe them, there is no question that industry fundamentals have seldom looked perkier. Scott Sacknoff, manager of the Spade defense index, a benchmark that tracks about 50 companies in the military and security sectors, noted that defense budgets were robust and corporate activity within the sector was increasing.

The Spade index, started in 2004 by the International Space Business Council, a clearinghouse for information on the aerospace and military industries, has been trading at historic highs recently, prompting some analysts to speculate that the military spending cycle may have peaked. But Sacknoff said that the upward trend was sustainable. He predicted that U.S. spending on homeland security would increase by around $2 billion a year into 2009.

According to a report released in August by Heavy Reading Enterprise, more than half of the 200 small and midsize U.S. enterprises surveyed indicated that they planned to increase spending on homeland security products and services over the next three years. Analysts said that investors would focus on experience and market leadership when choosing the companies to back - and that the perceived leaders in the field of security technology, were old, familiar names, including Cisco Systems, Symantec, VeriSign, McAfee, Oracle and Microsoft.

While many investors hold stocks of military contractors for diversification purposes - the sector is not strongly correlated with the broader market - others use them as a hedge against geopolitical turbulence.

“In times of uncertainty all stocks tend to suffer, but stocks focused on homeland security and defense invariably bounce back quicker,” Sacknoff said.

It is easy to be cynical and dismiss the activities of fear entrepreneurs as disingenuous, but some industries have become the hapless victims of our fears. For example, health care and biotechnology companies have helped create a situation in which people live longer, yet the same industries are widely mistrusted by consumers, Furedi said.

“New drugs are being developed to help us fight disease, yet fear of potential side effects are preventing us from embracing some of them,” he said.

Health care and biotechnology stocks are volatile because they react quickly to negative news. But Nora Frey, an investment director at Adamant Biomedical Investment, said that investors would not be easily discouraged by the ups and downs because of the potential for major breakthroughs in cures for diseases like cancer and HIV.

Adamant Biomedical has recently been appointed by Syz, a Basel-based investment management firm, to manage a new fund, the Oyster Oncology Fund, that will focus on cancer diagnostics and treatment. Syz estimated that the market for cancer treatments would grow at an annual rate of more than 10 percent over the next five years, to reach a 12 percent share of the global pharmaceutical industry market.

“Substantial progress has been made in understanding and treating the disease, and there have been numerous exciting advances in the past year, such as in breast, cervical and kidney cancers,” Frey said. “We are expecting many more interesting and promising drugs to come to the market in the next five years.”

The Oyster Oncology Fund currently holds Roche Pharmaceuticals, which derives 75 percent of its revenue from cancer treatments, and several biotechnology companies, including Genentech, Amgen, Exilixis, Genprobe and Genmap. The last, a Danish company, is rumored to be a potential takeover candidate, Frey said.

Frey’s other biotechnology picks include Panacea Biotech, a profitable company listed in India that focuses on vaccines, and Bionomics, an Australian company that focuses on treatments for cancer and multiple sclerosis. She also holds a number of hospital stocks, like Parkway Holdings in Singapore and Network Healthcare Holdings in South Africa, which both stand to benefit from increased government spending on health care infrastructure, she said.

Gordon Elvey, manager of JO Hambro’s US

Opportunities Fund in London, has increased the fund’s health care holdings in recent months.

“Health care is one of the few sectors in the U.S. where growth looks assured,” he said.

“We also expect corporate activity to pick up next year as midsize pharmaceutical companies come under pressure to expand the diagnostics side of their business.”

Elvey’s main stock pick is Cubist, a U.S. biotech company that plans to introduce early next year a medicine for the MRSA antibiotic-resistant “superbug” staph infection. Novartis, which has the rights to sell the vaccine in Europe, has been mentioned as a potential acquirer of Cubist - another reason, according to Elvey, to buy the stock without fear.

First published by The International Herald Tribune, 17 November 2006

Smaller babies born in 9/11 climate of fear
by Roger Dobson and Steven Swinford

Study finds birth weights fell even in Europe after twin towers attack.

THE shock of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in America led to a drop in the weight of babies born in western Europe, according to a study published this week.

Researchers discovered that babies born between three and six months later were on average nearly 50 grams (1.7 ounces) lighter than they should have been. They say that the stress and anxiety caused by the attacks led directly to more underweight babies.

The study, published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, is the latest in a body of work that seeks to quantify the precise effects distant events can have by creating a climate of fear. Instant communications means people thousands of miles away may experience similar symptoms to those actually present.

Professor Gerard Essed, an obstetrician from Maastricht University who co-authored the report, said: “The impact of 9/11 was so huge it affected everyone in the world. For these women [in the Netherlands] the impact was further magnified by the emotions of pregnancy. It was a very, very clear correlation. We were surprised.”

Previous research conducted in New York showed that women who were in the World Trade Center on the day of the attacks or near it within the following three weeks had babies that were on average 120g (4.2oz) lighter. Doctors have attributed the difference to stress and the large quantities of dust and debris in the air at the time.

The terrorist attacks also led to an unusually high level of stillbirths of male foetuses, a phenomenon noted elsewhere during natural disasters and wartime.

A team from the University of California, Berkeley, which studied data relating to 700,000 births in New York between 1996 and 2002, showed that the stress of the Al-Qaeda attacks resulted in the proportion of baby boys to girls dropping from the usual 1.05:1 to a level below parity in January 2002.

The Dutch researchers followed 1,885 women who were at least 12 weeks pregnant at the time of the September 11 attacks. They compared their babies with the offspring of 1,258 women who were pregnant exactly a year later. They excluded premature babies from the study and took into account other factors that might affect the babies’ weight such as smoking and the age of the mother.

Babies in the womb on September 11 were 48g (1.7oz) lighter than those in the later group. The scientists believe the difference was caused by high levels of cortisol in the mother, a hormone associated with stress and anxiety.

The hormone, which helps break down and burn off fats, can transfer from the mother to the foetus, resulting in weight loss. Stress can also result in loss of appetite and cause the blood vessels to constrict, reducing the flow of blood to the baby and potentially stunting growth.

Essed said the results were alarming and indicated that the impact on health of “remote” threats could not simply be dismissed. “We need to do more to reassure pregnant woman who may be stressed,” he said. “We need to be telling them that there are reasons to be confident in their pregnancy.”

The impact of traumatic events on the health of the wider community has long intrigued medical researchers. In 1942 a study in The Lancet, the medical journal, examined the health of Londoners who survived aerial bombardment by the Luftwaffe. According to The Lancet, there was a 50% rise in the number of Londoners who went on to suffer from peptic ulcers. A similar phenomenon occurred in 1995 following the Kobe earthquake in Japan, which killed 5,100.

However, Frank Furedi, a professor of sociology at Kent University, is sceptical about the true impact of catastrophes on people who are not directly caught up in them.

Furedi, who describes the syndrome as “culturally induced trauma”, said: “If enough people tell you that you are pale you may begin to feel there is something wrong with you.”

First published by The Sunday Times, 12 November 2006

Nanny to the nation
by Denise Winterman

Baby expert Gina Ford has threatened legal action over “gross personal attacks” about her on a website for mothers. Not usually known for their vitriol, why does she bring out such extreme reactions in parents?

To find a parent who is neutral about Gina Ford is rare - very rare. You’re probably more likely to see a Cross River gorilla and there are only 200 of them left in the world.

Ford is a baby guru whose advice is either loved or loathed. A former maternity nurse, she is known as the Queen of Routine and advocates introducing a strict structure to the lives of new parents and their babies in The Contented Little Baby Book.

In general terms parents tend to fall into two camps when it comes to Ford: those who think she is the wicked witch of childcare and those who hail her as the saviour of modern parenting.

‘Surreal’

But she is dividing opinion even more after instructing her lawyers to demand the closure of a popular internet site for mothers because it published comments from readers that she says are defamatory.

Mumsnet - set up and run by mothers - says the threatened legal action is a blow to free speech and “wholly disproportionate’‘. But it has taken the “extreme step” of asking members to stop discussing Ford.

“It is a surreal and rather sad moment,” says the website, equating the ban to “barring discussion of Manchester United from a football phone-in”.


There are times when I’d prefer to be living with Gina Ford than my own husband - she’d be able to help me more
Mother Claire Winsome

In a statement, Ford says she has no objection whatsoever to people discussing or disagreeing with her advice and methods concerning childcare.

“What has caused me so much upset has been the defamatory campaign waged against me as a person in which I have been described in the most vile and disgusting terms.”

Since the book’s publication in 1999, it has completely divided the parenting population and continues to do so. It has also become a bestseller, shifting over half a million copies.

She advocates a strict daily routine - for both parent and child - broken up into five-minute slots. For many it is “military” in its precision, the baby must be awake and fed by 7am and parents must have their breakfast by 8am so they slot into the baby’s day.

‘Natural instinct’

After that the baby must be fed every four hours and allowed to cry, for up to an hour if necessary, so they learn they will not always be picked up. Parents are also advised not to make eye contact with their child when feeding it at certain times.

“What the baby actually feels, wants and needs doesn’t seem to matter,” says Julia Drayton, who has two girls aged two and four months. “She seems to think babies are just out to disrupt their parents’ lives, there is no time to get to know your baby and form a real bond.

“It’s about making them fit in with what the parents think will cause the least amount of work or disruption to their lives. In my opinion you should work round the baby. They eventually find their own routine.”

Ford worked as a maternity nurse for more than 12 years and has looked after more than 300 babies, but has no formal childcare qualifications. She also doesn’t have any children of her own, a detail that has prompted many a heated debate.

Ford has reportedly said in the past that she has a “natural instinct” for looking after children.

Her defenders say people use the fact she has no children of her own as an argument that she doesn’t know what she is talking about.

“But why does having a baby for six months make me more of an expert than someone who has worked with children for years - it doesn’t,” says Claire Winsome, who has a six-month-old son and is on the pro-side of the Ford debate.

Trust

“The fact he is my own child means I love him in a way no other woman could, but that doesn’t automatically mean I can look after him better than anyone else on the planet. The truth is there are times when I’d prefer to be living with Gina Ford than my own husband - she’d be able to help me more.

“Most people I meet who dislike her still rock their baby to get them to sleep or have to walk them around in the buggy for miles. Their kids usually still wake several times a night as well.”

Claire did not have family nearby to support her and says the book took the place of her mother. “I didn’t have a clue what to do and needed to be told,” she says.

How society has evolved over the years is a key reason why childcare experts have become such big business. Fewer people now live close to their families, so someone or something else has to take their place.

But it also creates problems, says Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology at University of Kent and author of Paranoid Parenting.
With so much conflicting advice from childcare experts parents do not know whom they can trust, but one thing is made clear to them - they cannot trust their own judgement, he says.

And people have such polarised views on experts like Gina Ford because parenting is no longer just about raising a child.

“With Gina Ford it is nearly always a love/hate thing,” he says. “That’s because parenting is no longer about just bringing up a child, it is a statement of who the parent is and if people see someone doing things differently they see it as a threat to themselves.

Failing

“My parents viewed their job as bringing me up and that was it, but the parenting culture has changed. Now a child is seen as a reflection of the parent. If the child gets bad grades at school, they are seen as failing and so are the parents.”

But there is a growing group of mothers who have decided to pick and chose what advice they want from the vast range of childcare experts available.

“I took what I thought was sensible advice from Gina Ford, but not the whole regimented routine,” says Anne Smith. “I did that with other experts too. Mothers need to find the confidence to do what they want, but not feel embarrassed if they need to totally follow experts like Ford.

“Parenting is hard enough without us turning on each other.”

First published by BBC News, 9 August 2006

No laughing matter
By Pilita Clark

Who do you think would be the happier of these two people: Bob, an intellectual 35-year-old single, athletic, handsome white man earning $100,000 in sunny California who spends his spare time reading and going to museums? Or Mary, a sociable 65-year-old plain, black, overweight woman on dialysis, who spends most of her free time on church activities and lives with her husband in a snowy part of New York state on a joint income of $40,000?

Before I started to read some of the new books on so-called “happiness research”, I would have bet that Bob would be happier. But I would have been wrong, according to University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who poses the Bob and Mary case in his work The Happiness Hypothesis. One of the biggest findings in happiness research, says Haidt, is that environmental and demographic advantages - such as Bob’s health, wealth, youth and sunshine - are less important than we think. Marriage and strong social connections are more significant, so Mary is likely to be happier than Bob.

Talk of happiness studies, or the “new science of happiness”, is everywhere at the moment. The BBC has just aired a six-part series on it. The Conservative leader, David Cameron, wants to focus “not just on GDP but on GWB - general well-being”. Harvard University’s most popular class is now a course in happiness, or “positive psychology”. Cambridge University and Wellington College boarding school offer similar instruction.

The flurry of recent books on the subject is a symptom of the happiness phenomenon. But these writers are also fuelling the debate, as they bring previously obscure academic research on happiness - by economists, philosophers, psychologists and geneticists - to more mainstream attention.

So what can an academic usefully add to such a familiar, yet elusive topic as happiness? Happiness is common territory for philosophers who, going back to Plato and Aristotle, have broadly believed that contentment depended on leading a virtuous and ultimately satisfying “good life”. And we understand - even if we don’t always agree with - the great religious figures of history who said happiness was the reward for a life well lived. But is there really such a thing as an objective state of happiness that can be scientifically measured and observed? There is, according to today’s happiness thinkers.

Psychologists say the simple act of asking people how they feel over time will give a surprisingly accurate assessment of their contentment. Those reported levels of happiness may be further verified, they say, by measuring brain activity with electronic scans (happy people have more activity on the left front of the brain; unhappy ones have more on the right). Happiness-school economists then say these findings should help us to shape public policy, by focusing more on the “general well-being” of which Cameron now speaks.

But the happiness movement is making some people very unhappy. Wellington College’s classes are “a recipe for mediocrity” according to one critic in The Independent; “namby-pambying” (the Daily Mail); and an “ideal formula for raising good animals” (The Times).

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, says the new “happiness crusade” would please the Controller in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. To Furedi, the secret of happiness is a paradox: you only find it by seeking something else, namely the virtuous life advocated by the ancient Greeks. “Happiness,” he has written, “is the indirect outcome of engaging with others in the pursuit of civic virtues, and attempting to do good.”

So who is right? Those who think we cannot much improve on what the ancients said about happiness? Or those who argue that, just as our surgeon knows more about brain surgery than Hippocrates, we can now have a much more sophisticated understanding of what makes us happy?

A persuasive case for the scientists rather than the sages can be found in five new books on happiness, including the one that tries to argue the reverse.

Richard Schoch, professor of the history of culture at Queen Mary, University of London, is very much of the school that the ancients still know best. I was looking forward to reading Schoch’s book, The Secrets of Happiness. The blurb on the cover by Julian Baggini, editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine, said it was a “kick up the rear to the ‘new science of happiness’” and “hugely enjoyable”.

This will depend on how hugely enjoyable you find Schoch’s descriptions of, say, Stoicism (”like a battery fully charged, it is ever ready”) or desire (”Silk against skin. Scarlett Johannson”).

As for the kick up the rear to the happiness thinkers, Schoch singles out Richard Layard, whose Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (2005) has become a bible for neo-utilitarians swayed by his argument that the ability to measure happiness has significant public policy implications.

One of Layard’s central observations is that even though westerners are now better paid, fed and sheltered, they are not necessarily happier. And once average income exceeds about $20,000 per head, more money does not guarantee greater happiness. So governments would be better off raising taxes and tackling great sources of misery such as mental illness, which accounts for a quarter of disease yet receives just 13 per cent of health spending in the UK and 7 per cent in the US.

But Schoch says Layard’s definition of happiness (”feeling good - enjoying life and wanting the feeling to be maintained”) is a “weaker, thinner” version of contentment and “the so-called ‘new science’ of happiness perpetuates this impoverished notion of the good life.”

Real happiness, he says, requires much more effort. Far better to consider the lessons of detachment and indifference offered by the Stoic thinkers, such as Seneca, or the traditions of India’s jnana yogins, who gave up their family, home, property and career to pursue wisdom, and therefore true happiness.

Schoch does admit that walking out on one’s children, spouse, home and job is unrealistic for most of us. “But that is our problem,” he says, “and it reveals more about us - our weaknesses, our fears or perhaps just the circumstances that press upon us from all sides - than it does about happiness.”

But Schoch’s closing definition of what it means to be happy is curiously unsatisfying: “To be authentically happy means to take possession of ourselves, to bring about the person we are in potential, to become more real.” (His italics.) For many readers, Layard’s ideas of how to achieve happiness will sound more real still.

Nicholas White, a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Irvine, offers a more balanced view of the nature of the ancients in A Brief History of Happiness. The chief worth of White’s (unhappily dull) book lies in its attempt to explain how thinking on happiness changed from Greek antiquity through to Jeremy Bentham’s 19th century utilitarian idea of the “greatest happiness of the greatest number”. Unfortunately, his history barely mentions the most recent thinking on happiness. But he does concede that when it comes to giving advice on happiness, philosophers may not be the best source.

“Philosophers’ concrete advice about how to become happy isn’t any better (in fact, it’s probably worse) than that of the average person,” says White. “They generally don’t know enough of the relevant facts, and they don’t have the right temperament.”

Moreover, the Greek prescription for a happy life was often rigidly planned. This, says White, is because Plato and Aristotle were fundamentally private educators, “in the business of persuading Athenian gentlemen to send their sons to them for training for a career”. This meant they saw the need for plans, requiring education to see them through. Real life, of course, can be far more complex.

A more comprehensive, and much more gracefully written, narrative of the evolution of thinking on happiness comes from Darrin McMahon, a Florida State University history professor, in The Pursuit of Happiness. McMahon is wary of some of the newer happiness thinkers: “It is probably worth treating the recent ‘revelations’ of psychologists as less genuinely revealing than they and their publicists would have us believe.”

Even so, he acknowledges that many of the new studies “do shed empirical light on a process of pursuit whose rhythms we have followed in a less clinical context over the course of roughly two and a half thousand years”.

One of the psychologists McMahon cites is probably the most entertaining happiness thinker, Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness. Gilbert specialises in “prospection”, the study of how we think about our futures. His style may not appeal to all readers but there is much to admire in a Harvard man willing to start a chapter with the words: “The last decade has seen an explosion of books about poo.” (Referring to children’s books about potty training, his point is that the brain learns to make its owner use a toilet much more readily than it learns what really makes us happy.)

Gilbert briskly disposes of the idea that the ancients have a monopoly on wisdom about happiness, in part because their lives were so fundamentally different from ours. As he says, we barely think about the fact that most of us now make three big life decisions: where to live, what to do and whom to marry. But we are among the first humans to have had such choices. For most of recorded history, people lived where they were born, did what their parents did (Millers milled; Smiths smithed) and married whomever religion, caste or geography dictated. The agricultural, industrial and technological revolutions unleashed an explosion of personal liberty our ancestors never faced and, as Gilbert says, “for the very first time, our happiness is in our hands”.

The trouble is, as Gilbert shows, the human brain is pathetically ill-equipped to decide what to do to be happiest. We are, he says, the only animals whose brains can imagine the future. “Until a chimp weeps at the thought of growing old alone or smiles as it contemplates its summer holiday, or turns down a toffee apple because it already looks too fat in shorts,” humans will always be distinguished by their brains’ ability to imagine.

But we don’t imagine well when it comes to thinking about future happiness. We could draw on the advice and experience of others (as we did when learning about toilet training). But we don’t, in part because we believe ourselves to be terribly special.

As several studies cited by Gilbert show, young Americans expect to live longer, stay married longer and have more trips to Europe than average. They also believe they are more likely to have a gifted child, own their own home and appear in the papers than have a car accident or venereal disease. (The rest of us are not as optimistic as Americans, but still believe our futures will be superior to those of our peers.)

Similarly, we continue to strive for bigger cars or better lovers, even when past experience teaches we will rapidly adapt to their wonder and they won’t make us any happier. “Psychologists call this habituation, economists call it declining marginal utility and the rest of us call it marriage,” says Gilbert.

We also imagine that we will be much more miserable than we often actually are about things we dread and fear, be it the death of a spouse or paralysis from the neck down. So we believe Humphrey Bogart when he tells Ingrid Bergman on the runway that if she doesn’t get on the plane with her husband Victor she will regret it “for the rest of your life”. If she had stayed with Bogey, the man she really loved, she probably would have been just as happy, according to Gilbert.

But for the final word on the ancients versus the happiness thinkers, we should go back to Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis. The subtitle of his book is “Putting Ancient Wisdom to the Test of Modern Science”, and as it suggests, Haidt has explored how traditional thinking on happiness compares with more recent empirical research. Haidt is a psychologist, but is far from dismissive of the teachings of Buddha or Confucius.

Confucius, for example, was correct to insist on reciprocity, the principle of doing unto others as you would have them do to you. Research repeatedly shows, Haidt says, that such behaviour is vital for social animals such as humans. But Buddhist and Stoic ideas that happiness can be achieved by detachment or emotional indifference are harder to accept today. Echoing Gilbert, he says such ideas may have made sense in the turbulent times in which ancient thinkers lived, when life was subject to the whims of warring kings or capricious Roman emperors. But we no longer live like this: “For the first time in human history, most people [in wealthy] countries will live past 70 and not see any of their children die before them.”

Moreover, he cites more recent psychological studies showing that some things really do make humans much happier and are thus clearly worth striving for, such as a sense of control over their lives. In one famous study, two groups of nursing home residents were given extra benefits - a plant in their rooms; a movie once a week - but under different conditions. One group could choose their own plants and movie night; the other couldn’t. Eighteen months later, the group with more control had better health and half as many deaths.

Similarly, strong relationships have been shown to strengthen the immune system; extend life (more than quitting smoking); speed recovery from surgery; and reduce the risk of depression and anxiety disorders. Detachment certainly sounds a far less assured path to happiness in comparison.

But one of the significant findings that Haidt mentions is also perhaps the most sobering: happiness appears to be surprisingly hereditary. Researchers think that between 50 and 80 per cent of all the variance among people’s average levels of happiness can be explained by their genes, rather than life experiences.

It is easy to see why when one considers the case Haidt cites of the so-called “giggle twins”, Barbara Herbert and Daphne Goodship. Both left school at 14, met their future husbands at 16, suffered miscarriages at the same time and then each gave birth to two boys and a girl. Both feared blood; drank their coffee cold; and had a habit of pushing up their noses with the palm of their hand that both called “squidging”. As Haidt says, none of this would be astonishing, except that they were separated at birth and didn’t meet until they were 40 years old - when they turned up wearing almost identical clothing.

Both women also had notably happy personalities and a habit of bursting into laughter mid-sentence. They had, says Haidt, “won the cortical lottery”: they had more activity in the left frontal cortex of their brains, making them what he calls cortical “lefties”: less subject to anxiety and more able to recover from negative experiences from infancy on.

In other words, no matter how much we earn, how well we marry and how virtuously we live, the pursuit of happiness will end up being partly determined by the set of genes we were born with.

We can never know what Plato or Aristotle would have made of such findings. And perhaps the fact of knowing these things will not make us any happier. But they surely reveal as much about the enduring human desire for happiness as the teachings of those who lived such very different lives more than 2,000 years before us.

First published by FT.com, 21 July 2006

If your face fits
by Sean Coughlan

An online social network is sweeping the most famous universities. Is the Facebook website going to create the digital equivalent of the old school tie?

What are the three most important things in the life of students in the United States? Beer, iPods and Facebook.

That’s the finding of a lifestyle-tracking survey in US colleges this month. But what’s that third one again?

Facebook is an online social network which has swept the university population in the United States and is making a foothold in this country. It’s already a verb: “to facebook” someone. And if a couple are really publicly together they’ll be described as “facebook official”.

But what is this thing that US students say is now more important than sex and texting?

Founded by a Harvard student a couple of years ago, Facebook allows people to list their personal details online and communicate with other people through the website. It’s an online Who’s Who. It’s how you advertise your parties and politics.

Digital ivy league

So what? You might think this is just another campus fad, or a pale imitation of Myspace, the social networking site that’s one of the top five websites in the world. But what’s different about Facebook is that it’s not just an easy way to keep in touch, it’s also a way of keeping it exclusive.

The website works around individual institutions. So if you don’t have an e-mail account from the University of Oxford, you don’t get into the Facebook for students at Oxford.

And in the UK, the Facebook wave has made its biggest impact at the upmarket universities - in places such as Oxford, Cambridge, University College London, the London School of Economics.

“It’s pretty much universal at Oxford, everyone is on it,” says Richard Hardiman, deputy editor of the Oxford Student newspaper.

Students put on their pictures, describe their likes and dislikes and romantic status - and use the website to swap messages. You list your friends, you can check out your friends’ friends, or find people who have matching interests.

People use their real names and pictures - and the fact that these are identifiably fellow students makes it seem safer, says Richard Hardiman.

There’s also a dating aspect of the website - as account holders can identify their current relationship status as anything from single to “it’s complicated”.

Blind dates

“A tremor can go through a social group when they hear someone has updated their relationship profile,” says Hardiman.

So widespread is the use of “facebooking” of potential partners - checking out how they look and what they like - that Cambridge students have warned about the death of the blind date.

This hasn’t met with universal approval. Sam Steddy, a languages student at University College London, says that the obsession with using Facebook is disrupting non-online relationships.

“People will organise parties and I’ll say ‘I didn’t know you were having one’. And they’ll say: ‘I put it on Facebook’. They forget that there’s a real world out there.”

Among the students supporting lecturers during the recent strike was UCL’s Kat Lay - and she said distributing information through Facebook was the most effective campaign tool.

“Leaflets would get thrown in the bin. But everyone is so obsessed with Facebook that they use it every day - people would be more likely to see something there,” she says.

‘Wheat from the chavs’

But what are the implications of all this? In the United States, Facebook has drawn the enthusiastic attention of politicians and businesses, eager to influence the hatching ground of the bright, young middle classes.

For politicians, it’s a form of digital hustings, giving them a chance to set up stall in the place where young people are meeting. And for brand promoters, it’s an instant insight into what young people like and dislike.

Employers have also been using the website as a way of checking out job applicants - creating a rash of stories about sober-looking job applicants being caught out by their own frolicking Facebook listings.

But in the UK, the question raised by Facebook is whether it’s going to be socially exclusive. As an Oxford paper asks, is it about sorting the “wheat from the chavs”?

This extends beyond university, because Facebook also provides an ongoing private connection for students after they’ve graduated and when they’re in the jobs market.

Will people be using these networks to tap each other up for jobs? How would you know if people were recruiting from lists of Oxbridge friends of friends?

Social commentator and university professor, Frank Furedi, says that the “sub-cultures gathering around these networks will become very powerful”.

Not least because these huge exchanges of information and ideas are all taking place below the radar - out of sight of the traditional media. But Professor Furedi says that overall these networks will help people to sustain relationships, rather than create division.

“On balance, these networks will be positive, people will be able to intensify their social engagement with each other.”

More to the point, these online networks have already entered the language. What’s the ultimate sign that someone is really committed to you?

“Can I say you’re my girlfriend on Facebook?”

First published by BBC News, 27 June 2006

The pursuit of gratification
by Suzanne Fields

Hillary Clinton is on to something when she says young people have a sense of “entitlement.” This may seem a little rich coming from an icon of the Boomer generation, and she retreated from her remark that young people think “work” is a four-letter word after her daughter, Chelsea, scolded her for saying it, but you don’t have to be an old fogey to see that youth isn’t what it used to be.

A puzzled old fogey asks Marlon Brando’s character in “The Wild One,” the 1953 movie about a motorcycle gang invading a California town, “What are you rebelling against?” Brando’s character replies, “Whatcha got?” This was the ethos of the ‘50s rebel, trying to figure out how to rebel and find something to rebel against. Two years later James Dean expressed similar angst in “Rebel Without a Cause”—the title says it all.

The ‘60s changed all that. Hillary and her Boomer generation wrote the book on rebellion, against parents, war, Puritanism and against “the greatest generation” which won the war so their children could “make love, not war” without the distractions of work and responsibility. Now even Hillary decries children growing up in the “culture that has a premium on instant gratification.” Their toys feed their appetites. They walk down the street with cell phones pasted to their heads, talking to their friends. They turn on their Blackberries and iPods to listen to their favorite music with the other ear. They play video games that maim and kill without getting their hands dirty. It’s a phenomenon for the globe.

An exhibition in Frankfurt, “The Youth of Today,” eschews the theme of rebellion because the popular culture absorbed what 1960s rebels said they wanted—sexual liberation and entertainment 24/7. They can rock around the clock. But they’re the insiders now, and that creates problems for everybody. Summerhill, a famously permissive “progressive” school founded by A.S. Neil in England in 1927, encouraged children to recite Shakespeare to the cows, enjoy communal nude swimming and anything else that occurred to them. Now Summerhill has introduced, of all things, rules. Once the do-as-you-like school without any discernible structure, Summerhill is changing because the culture is no longer giving kids anything to rebel against. “What we see in society is often a lot of spoilt brats,” Zoe Neill Readhead, the founder’s daughter who now runs the school, tells the London Times. “Children now come from homes where they have been overindulged.”

Americans agree. More than 80 percent of Americans polled by the Sacred Heart University Polling Institute say American young people feel more “entitled” than they did a decade ago. Asked what careers they most wanted for their children, 9 in 10 said medicine, followed by teaching and starting a business. (Their children would likely offer very different answers, but that’s work for another survey.) Frank Furedi, a British sociologist, says society sends a message that the pursuit of happiness is more important than work ethic, and that creates problems. “Happiness has become the buzz word of our times,” he writes in the London Daily Telegraph. He notes that the BBC has turned “The Happiness Formula” into a six-part series. “Politicians, educators, celebrities and cultural entrepreneurs frequently insist that happiness is the solution to our problems and that we have a responsibility to be happy.” That, it seems to me, is looking at motivation upside down.

John Stuart Mill famously observed that happiness is the wrong goal: “Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.” A sense of entitlement is a little like happiness—an unearned emotion—which is why it often coincides with the breakdown of the work ethic. “Happiness” is more easily achieved through hard work. The opposite of hard work is sloth, and lazybones can’t be happy because he spends so much time trying to avoid what he doesn’t want to do. Instant gratification is an addiction, casting the seeker of instant gratification in the thrall of demanding more, more, more.

“Today’s emphasis on feeling good reflects the fact that the individual self has become the central focus of social, moral and cultural life,” writes Frank Furedi. “Feeling good” becomes an escape from civic virtue and the demands of community life, where hard work, sacrifice, altruism and commitment are antithetical to immediate gratification.

A late education is better than no education at all, but Hillary obviously finds small consolation in the fact that it was her indulgent generation that put into play what she now rails against. Life can be a tough schoolmaster.

First published by Washington Times, 19 June 2006

The perils of our play-it-safe society
by Gregory Rodriguez

Be afraid. Be very afraid. That’s the message we Americans receive daily from everyone from government officials to newscasters, environmentalists and corporate marketers. Let’s face it: like sex, fear sells. But has hyperactive fear-mongering become corrosive to American society? That’s what a growing number of social critics and sociologists are concluding. In a nation so proud of its pioneering spirit, the culture of precaution, they say, is turning us into a bunch of chickens.

Even before 9/11, Americans -who like to think of themselves as the world’s most rational people - seemed particularly susceptible to waves of catastrophic thinking. We collectively obsess over one deadly terror after the other. If it isn’t West Nile virus, then it’s SARS. Today it’s the avian flu. Tomorrow we’ll be cowering from something else.

Are we more fearful because the world has become an infinitely more dangerous place? Probably not. Studies have shown that the level of fear people feel is often disproportionate to the risk they actually face. For example, elderly folk are considerably less likely to be victims of crime than young people, yet they tend to worry about it much more. And sometimes, we simply worry about the wrong things. While avian flu, which has never killed an American, grabs headlines, heart disease strikes down more than 1 million of us a year.

To some extent, fear is a luxury, the product of affluence. Kierkegaard called dread “the dizziness of freedom.” Have you ever noticed that people in relatively safe suburbs tend to be more hysterical about crime than are denizens of the inner city? David Ropeikof the Harvard School of Public Health, who specializes in risk, argues that that’s because people in the suburbs have time to be hysterical. “People in the city have to struggle more to get by, stay healthy and survive. And these day-to-day realities fill up more of their radar screens,” he says. On the other hand, affluent people in the ‘burbs, who have “fewer direct challenges to their comfort and health,” have a “bigger space on their screens” to worry about more abstract fears.

Further, although city dwellers are also worried about crime, they have to negotiate its perils every day and therefore have the information with which to put it into perspective. By contrast, people who don’t live in high-crime areas lack the practical knowledge that allows them to accurately assess the threat they face. And when people don’t have enough facts, worrying becomes their only form of self-protection.

The intensity of fear may also have to do with how much one has to lose. Those who have little tend to calculate risk differently than those who have more to protect. For people who feel they have nothing to lose, risks promise a higher payoff. Conversely, those who have a lot sometimes adopt strategies of “loss avoidance.” Frank Furedi, a British sociologist and author of “Politics of Fear,” argues that a combination of wealth, security and anxiety about the future is making Western cultures increasingly risk-averse. Westerners, he argues, have turned safety into an end in itself, deluding themselves that there are no such things as accidents or natural disasters. When something goes wrong, we assume that someone must be to blame, which drives the false belief that all bad things are avoidable if only we take the right precautions.

And because all risk is believed to be manageable, over the last few decades risk has become a huge business.

Consultants dispense advice on risk communications, risk management and risk analysis. Experts warn us of so many dangers it’s hard to keep track. Are eggs still bad for cholesterol, or did a new study disprove that? And how about alcohol? Should we avoid it altogether, or does a glass a day do a body good? The prescriptions are murky. And in this culture of anxiety, we no longer need to face danger to be consumed by fear. The illusion that we can cheat death if only we’re clever or disciplined enough has profound social and psychological consequences. Parents become afraid to send their children out to play. Strangers seem more threatening than ever.

To avoid harm, we insulate ourselves from real life. The climate of fear and precaution dampens our zeal for the kind of adventure and experimentation that leads to progress. Although we once may have hoped to spend our collective energies trying to make the world a better place, today we are increasingly willing just to play it safe.

First published by LA Times, 5 March 2006

Scaredy-cat society
by Shelley Widhalm

Risk was too risky and fear was too common even before September 11, and the growing obsession with avoiding danger may threaten our society’s future, scholars said at a recent Washington conference.

“Most human experiences come with a health warning, continually reminding us that we cannot be expected to manage the risks we face,” said Frank Furedi, a professor at the University of Kent in England. “A powerful culture of precaution works to estrange the public from the ideals of risk taking, innovation and experimentation.”

Policy-making has become more arbitrary, driven by “what if?” questions, said Mr. Furedi, author of “Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right,” speaking last week at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

A disaster occurs, some kind of meaning is attributed to it, someone is blamed and policy is implemented or changed with safety as the ultimate goal, he said. Social policy, as a result, is focused on reassuring people that they are safe, but what they get instead is the illusion of safety while losing autonomy and control over their own lives, he said.

“Nobody gets criticized for being safe,” Mr. Furedi said. “What is irresponsible is taking risks.”

Last week’s conference, “Panic Attack: The Precautionary Culture, the Politics of Fear and the Risks to Innovation,” was co-sponsored by AEI in cooperation with the Institute of Ideas, a British think tank.

The conference focused on exploring the impact risk aversion has on many aspects of life, ranging from education to business. It also focused on the power that the precautionary principle—a loose term that calls for precaution to the point of risk avoidance in innovation, human relationships and anything humans do—has on Western culture.

Such is the politics of fear, Mr. Furedi said, that children, women and the elderly are labeled as “vulnerable”—about 80 percent to 90 percent of the population.

The corporate “social responsibility” movement, initiated by some advocacy groups, pressures businesses to avoid risk, said Jon Entine, an adjunct fellow at AEI and scholar in residence at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

“Business leaders are increasingly paralyzed by caution ... reacting rather than leading,” Mr. Entine said.

The benefits of most innovations are unseen, while the risks are made public, said James K. Glassman, a resident fellow at AEI. If one person is harmed from the side effects of a medication that helped many others, the media tell the story of harm, he said.

“Bad news gets attention,” Mr. Glassman said. “In other words, forget the science; just ban it.”

The media generate an exaggerated sense of danger, said Ronald Bailey of Reason magazine.

“The media regularly fan the flames of fear of new technologies,” he said, citing fear-mongering accounts of the dangers of cell phones, chemicals, in-vitro fertilization, population growth and genetically enhanced crops.

In the legal world, risk focuses on the lowest common denominator—the few people who may be displeased by a product, said Philip Howard,vice chairman of the law firmof Covington & Burling inNew York. For fear of lawsuits, he said, some playgrounds have been stripped of climbing ropes or jungle gyms, businesses do not give employment references, and products have warning labels that nobody reads.

“Our leaders lost authority in themselves,” Mr. Howard said.
Judges, he said, no longer believe they have the authority to dismiss fraudulent cases. As a result, people can sue for almost any reason, he said.

“There needs to be a major revolution in the way judges perceive their jobs,” Mr. Howard said.

Excessive fears extend down to the cradle. Though American children, with few exceptions, are mentally and emotionally sound, many adults regard them as fragile and vulnerable, Christina Hoff Sommers said.

Adults try to insulate children from the remote possibility of getting hurt or injured or enduring a slight to their self-esteem, including from any kind of competition, even in sports, said Ms. Sommers, a resident scholar at AEI.

Psychologists state that, though the message has not reached the public, children need self-control, not bolsters to their self-esteem, she said.

“Today’s children are the most overprotected in history. They’re also the most overpraised,” Ms. Sommers said, adding that some adversity is necessary. “We shortchange them,” she said.

First published by Washington Times, 21 February 2006

Winning Ways
by Anne Moore

Jonathan Jay thinks it’s going to be another good year for coaching - and as a 34-year-old millionaire, it has all been pretty good so far. In 1999, Jay spent his last £145 advertising a seminar on how to be a coach. Now here he is, director of the Coaching Academy, the UK’s biggest coaching school, living in a panoramic Putney penthouse, all leather, suede and views of the Thames (if you can see past the plasma TV). Then there’s his new book, Sack Your Boss!, and his TV commitments - Now I’m the Boss! (for Living TV) and helping families emigrate (for the BBC’s Get a New Life). And let’s not forget the coaching for businesses, for a day rate of £10,000. ‘I think we need to reconcile helping people with getting paid for it,’ he twinkles.
If the typical image of a life coach is a bit new age and touchy-feely, Jay comes as a surprise. Slick and charming, he looks and sounds every inch the entrepreneur - he printed his first business card at 11, and says, ‘Me personally?’ when asked a question, before delivering the smoothest reply. And he is at the forefront of UK coaching. Until his seminars in 1999, wannabe life coaches had to train in the US. Now it’s impossible to count the number of courses available in Britain, some offering seminars, some online learning, some in FE colleges and others stamping certificates on their kitchen tables.

‘In 2006, we intend to take coaching into all the nooks and crannies of British life,’ says Jay. ‘We’re taking it to Edinburgh, Birmingham, Bristol, Brighton. We want to take it into the NHS, local government and local schools. I reckon we could have more impact on the state of education through coaching than Tony Blair could ever have.’

For Jay, coaching is the all-powerful panacea. ‘You meet someone on the street who doesn’t know what to do with his life and you know that if you had one hour with that person, he’d walk away knowing exactly what he wants and believing he can do it,’ he purrs. ‘There’s nothing weird about it, nothing voodoo - it’s very simple psychology. It doesn’t take a genius to do it. Anyone can be a coach. And whatever critics say, coaching works. If it didn’t, it would be an American fad that disappeared in six months.’

A lot of people agree with him. In 1999, life coaching was practically unknown in the UK. Now, a Google of ‘UK life coach’ throws up 4.5m sites. You’ll find wardrobe coaches who’ll do a mini-Trinny and Susannah for £200 a day. There are parent coaches to tell you how to get your two-year-old to eat peas. There are cancer coaches to help you through treatment, crisis coaches, career coaches ... the list goes on.

On top of this are the self-help books, one of publishing’s fastest-growing genres. Each week sees at least one new title knocked out by a life coach elbow its place among the bestsellers. Then there’s TV’s saturation by self-improvement programmes. You can watch people being coached out of debt or obesity, a failed fashion sense, sloppy parenting or a dating drought.

According to the UK’s Association for Coaching, an estimated 100,000 British people used a coach last year and the industry has been valued at £50m. This month, it enters the mainstream with the finalisation of its National Occupational Standards as set by ENTO, the national network of training organisations. For the first time, there will be official standards of good practice and training for British coaches.

Pam Richardson, leading life coach, author of The Life Coach and principal of the UK College of Life Coaching, is just as excited about the future as Jay: ‘I can see coaching for newly qualified teachers, doctors, lawyers - newly qualified anythings. Now that the government are auditing stress, I can see a lot of coaching on work-life balance. We’re living longer and have a responsibility to stay well, which means coaching on exercise and diet. Let’s not expect the doctors to fix us! Parent coaching? Absolutely. I can’t think of an area of the community that wouldn’t benefit from it.’

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent and author of (among others) Therapy Culture (Routledge) and Paranoid Parenting (Allen Lane), is one man who disagrees. According to Furedi, while we pour scorn on institutions and mock our politicians, the monarchy and the church, we are developing a slavish, unthinking devotion to a ‘new priesthood of gurus’ who have stepped in to fill the void. Life coaching is, he believes, at best a waste of money and at worst dangerous.

‘There’s a growing idea that ordinary human beings lack the competence and resources to cope with everyday life,’ he says. ‘More and more areas are being complicated and professionalised. Some of this is trivial - I find it idiotic that thinking adults would pay someone to go shopping with them - but some of it is intrusive.’

Take parent coaching. ‘As parents, we learn through experience, through listening to our children and making mistakes,’ Furedi argues. ‘You wake up in the night and think, “Why did I say that?” You screw things up and change your behaviour. When a coach is telling you what to do, the relationship between you and your child is short-circuited; the coach is coming between you. You no longer trust your instincts or what your child is showing you.’

Fiona Campbell, a journalist and photographer, found this to be true. As a single mother of a one-year-old son, Campbell opted for life coaching to ease the parenting load. Her coach supported her through the ‘sleep training/controlled crying’ period. ‘She didn’t judge me, but supported me, which gave me the confidence to follow it through,’ says Campbell. But other aspects weren’t so successful. ‘I wasn’t happy about sending him to a nursery and was angsting over whether I should or not. I don’t blame the coach, but she said it could be life-enhancing for little ones. Maybe it was just wrong for my son, who already had a very complicated life, with me, with his father, at his granny’s. His father’s family were very much against nursery at that age. Anyway, I sent him and it was the wrong decision - it was far too soon for him and he was completely traumatised.’

For Furedi, this highlights the most worrying aspect of life coaching - its disregard of friends, family and community, the people in our lives. Advice is only heeded when it’s paid for: ‘We don’t trust each other as we used to. Life coaching stops us relying on traditional support networks.’

Top life coaches do display a depressingly cynical view of the people who love us. ‘With friends and family,’ says Pam Richardson, ‘there’s a trench mentality: “We may be wet and miserable, but we’re all in it together.” So if someone sticks his head up, everyone may grab on to his legs - because if he goes, they’d all have to go.’

Curly Martin echoes this opinion. Martin joined the personal-development path after being diagnosed with breast cancer, aged 39. She lived in London and worked as a business trainer, flying all over Europe. After her diagnosis, she gave up meat and sugar, moved to Bournemouth, where she could run on the beach, and started Achievement Specialists, which provides coaching and trains coaches. Last year, her book, The Life Coaching Handbook, was a number-one bestseller in the UK and US.

‘Everybody has a hidden agenda,’ she explains. ‘If you become very successful, a family member may not like that because you’re not going to be there on a Friday night for her. A friend may feel you’re going to meet other people. There’ll be some kind of sabotage stuff going on. A life coach is like a cheerleader on the sidelines of your life, to cheer you on for the good times and support you during your challenges.’

An alternative view would be that a life coach will never judge you. While friends may challenge and argue back, and see your life with all its history and habits, promises and peculiarities, the coach will just ‘cheer you on’. ‘In this respect,’ says Furedi, ‘it’s no different to when a prostitute smiles at a client and tells him how good-looking he is.’

What if you didn’t like a client? Martin blinks blankly. ‘With telephone coaching you don’t meet them, so there’s no judgment.’

However, not all life coaches are quite so impartial. Fiona Harrold, described by the press as ‘a guru who has got inside our minds’, ‘the queen bee of British coaching’ and ‘the most positive person alive’, is known for challenging her clients and telling them what she thinks (she calls this ‘feedback’). Harrold, author of bestsellers with titles like Be Your Own Life Coach: How to Take Control of Your Life and Achieve Your Wildest Dreams, first learnt self-help from her father, the most successful washing-machine salesman in Northern Ireland, who read his daughter How to Win Friends and Influence People at bedtime. She now has 25 coaches on her team and 20,000 subscribers to her website.

As an advert for coaching, Harrold’s own life appears a model of efficiency. She lives in Fulham with the teenage son she raised alone, describes herself as ‘fabulously, happily single’, but has scheduled marriage for the near future. Though she doesn’t know who to. (‘I haven’t got that person in mind right now, but definitely over the next two years.’) Her home is as you’d expect - pristine, spacious, candles and cushions - her clothes look new age but expensive, and her speech is Ab Fab luvviness (‘Darling’, ‘Wow. I mean? Really?’ ) mixed with a lurking Belfast twang. According to Harrold, her life is devoid of drama and chaos. ‘I don’t have people in my life I don’t want,’ she explains, simply. ‘The people in my inner circle are carefully chosen - I don’t have a problem letting go of people.’ Including her clients, if they don’t make the grade.

‘People come to me because they want to get things moving, they want me to give suggestions and point out what I see.’ For example, there was the management consultant who wanted to be a guitarist. When that was sorted (he went freelance and took up guitar lessons), he wanted help around women, so Harrold found him a fitness coach (‘He was a bit scrawny, then he bulked up and looked great…’) and a style coach (‘He dressed a bit nerdy so we handled that too!’).

Sue Loveluck, who lives in Berkshire with her 14-year-old daughter, is a recent client of Harrold and can only marvel at all she has achieved as a result. ‘I contacted her because I’d read one of her books and sent an email complimenting her,’ says Loveluck, a headhunter. ‘At that stage, I wanted to get my business to the next level. I was successful, but 90 per cent of my business came from one client and I wasn’t developing, I was in a comfort zone.’

Harrold made practical suggestions to simplify Loveluck’s life as a single, working mother. ‘She helped eliminate the problems that held me back. I was driving my daughter to her private school, which took three hours a day, and when I told Harrold, she said, “Honey, just stop it!” She told me to talk to the bursar, which I did that week and they arranged transport.

‘I also had a little dog that was always barking. I worked from home and it was like having a baby in the house. Fiona told me to solve that problem and in one week I found a dog minder. They are little problems, that you accept as part of your life - Fiona freed me up. She looked at what was holding me back and didn’t let me come up with excuses. She made me believe I could do it.’

In the past nine months, with Harrold cheering her on, Loveluck has flown to America to meet venture capitalists, expanded her income by 30 per cent and is now setting up another company. ‘Fiona helped me to start acting like a CEO. She advised me to stop reading those trashy celebrity magazines and to cut them out of my life - which I did.’ She also turned her attention to Loveluck’s appearance. ‘She’d say, “You’re too suburban, honey!” and “Go to Liberty, darling, the sale’s starting!” As I came to see her, I started changing my image from black suits to Ted Baker and Joseph. Although she was critical, it never felt negative because I knew she was on my side.’

However, not all of Harrold’s clients are so obedient. Those who consistently fail to carry out the agreed weekly tasks, she ‘lets go’. ‘They’re mostly people who’ve done a lot of therapy and acquired the habit of talking without doing anything,’ sighs Harrold. ‘It’s a disastrous habit and people don’t need to use me for that when they could get a counsellor for a fraction of the price. And I find it boring. I don’t need that nonsense. I’ve got plenty of fabulous people who want to crack on with their lives and don’t want to look at their navel endlessly.’

All coaches are very particular about this counselling/coaching distinction - and with good reason, since coaches can charge a lot more. The idea is that counselling will go over your past, your feelings, your unconscious mind, while coaching will find out what you want for the future and help you take the steps to get there.

But while the cost of counselling varies and is often free, coaching usually starts at £50 for 45 minutes - and that’s cheap. One session with Curly Martin costs £250. Four sessions with Harrold - plus email and emergency calls - costs between £700 and £1,500.

Professor Stephen Palmer has thought about the high price of coaching, and one of his concerns is that it reflects neither training nor experience. Coaches who set up last week after a few months of online learning - or not even that - start high. One of the most distinguished faces of British coaching, Palmer is president of the Coaching Association, and also a professor of psychology and founder director of the Centre for Coaching and Centre for Stress Management. He also coaches online, by phone, even by text.

‘I think the whole culture of counselling is that it’s a voluntary activity - you see it a lot in the voluntary sector,’ he says. ‘Coaching has never been voluntary so people expect to pay for it.’ Research by Palmer and his students has shown that British people also tend to view coaching in a more positive light than counselling. ‘It’s the stiff upper lip,’ he says. ‘People are far less prepared to say, “I’m going to see my counsellor” because it may suggest there’s something wrong, they’re not coping. There’s embarrassment around it. But life coaching is seen almost like a sports-coaching model. It’s a positive thing to make your performance better, to help you achieve your life goals.’

Not surprisingly, UK counsellors don’t agree. Philip Hodson, fellow of the BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) believes TV lies at the root of the coaching explosion. ‘There are so many coaching programmes because it’s much easier to accommodate on television than counselling,’ he says. ‘It’s a quick fix. It’s skimming the surface, shunning one of the most important developments of the 20th century - the unconscious mind. Counselling is tough on the attention span.’

It’s unarguable that watching coaches turn toddlers into little angels and knock 10 years off frumpy, menopausal women is enough to send thousands of viewers in search of a similar service. But Palmer believes this isn’t the primary reason we want coaching. ‘It’s been a gradual change, but we’ve become less and less stoical as a nation,’ he says. ‘There have been huge changes in the way we’ve raised our children, and now, from a very early age, we’ve learnt that whingeing and throwing a tantrum will get us what we want. We’re impatient. We believe we can have what we want. That’s why we have road rage, air rage, trolley rage. We have higher expectations and get stressed very easily. So when we’re thwarted by life, the universe and everything, we don’t accept it. We’re more likely to go to a coach.’

But while Palmer thinks his duty is to bring his clients back down to earth and help them develop ‘realistic goals’, most coaches seem to see their jobs as cheering on their clients whatever they’re after. For example, says Palmer, ‘If a client told me he wanted to go to the moon, I’d ask him if he had a million pounds, then try to come up with something more realistic.’ This is the opposite of Pam Richardson’s approach. ‘If someone says, “I want to fly to the moon,” I won’t say, “Get real!”,’ she says. ‘I’ll say, “Have you booked your place? Are you fit enough? How are you going to make it happen?”’

Life coaching is starting out, it’s in its infancy, but there’s no doubt it’s here to stay. At present, there are so many training schools and accreditation systems, and so little regulation, that each coach has a different definition of what they do and the proper way to do it. Some believe they are there to direct you, others just to cheer you on. Some wish to make your wildest dreams come true, others want to wake you up to reality. But in all cases, a coach is someone you pay so that, for 45 minutes a week, they are as interested in your life, your kids, your career, your clothes, your cancer as you are. ‘Once this would have been seen as the height of alienation,’ says Furedi. ‘Now, we celebrate it.’

Fiona Campbell came to the end of her life-coaching course with many of the same problems she had at the beginning - but considerably less money. ‘It is shockingly expensive,’ she says. ‘My coach was a lovely person, but at the end of three months I still had a career that was a bit of a mess and I was still a single mother. Life is tough. Nothing’s going to change that and you have to deal with your own life. Life coaching is lovely and life-enhancing and it focuses solely on you. But it’s probably best for people who don’t have problems.’

First published by The Observer, 22 January 2006

Did respect die or just f-fade away?
by Ben Fenton

Respect, from the Latin respicere, literally means to look back, although Tony Blair would rather we didn’t associate his new quest with any halcyon era of the past.

But we all have a sense that respect died some time ago, flattened by our juggernaut world of progress and left by the kerb.

We are harder pressed to figure out when it died, though. Is it long gone, and just a skeletal memory, or is the body of deference still warm, with a pulse tantalisingly detectable?

It’s tempting to think of watersheds for the death of respect, moments after which nothing was ever the same again.

Was it the quintessentially English film The Blue Lamp, in which old-fashioned friendly bobby George Dixon, played by Jack Warner, is shot dead by tearaway Dirk Bogarde, that opened the floodgates for violence against the main symbol of law and order in Britain?

In fact, in the Metropolitan Police, almost as many policemen and women (21) were killed by criminals in the 49 years between 1900 and the release of The Blue Lamp as in the 56 years since (23). As many London policemen (eight) died at the hands of the public from 1910-19 (excluding war-related deaths) as in the other most violent decade of the century, the 1990s.

And even the streetwise 1990s might have been shocked at the story of Sgt Thomas Green, who was beaten to death when Epsom police station was stormed by an angry mob in 1919.

Casting around for another moment when deference died in Britain might point to September 1953, when the Daily Express, searching for a phrase to describe the long-haired, drape-jacketed, drainpipe-trousered gangs suddenly appearing on the streets of London, coined the phrase “Teddy Boys”.

These gangs spawned the first of a number of moral panics in post-war Britain and their defiant individualism was perfectly suited to the music that arrived from America in 1956.

Frank Sinatra denounced rock ‘n’ roll as “the martial music of every side-burned juvenile delinquent on the face of the earth”, and the first tour of a paunchy Bill Haley and his middle-aged Comets gave rise to an epidemic of seat-slashing in cinemas, seen as the clearest expression of youth rebellion in the late 1950s.

Out of the Teddy Boys came the Rockers who battled the Mods on the beach at Brighton to the tunes of a new music, more closely derived from soul and blues, the sound of The Who and the Rolling Stones.

The romance of Elvis Presley’s Are You Lonesome Tonight? became Mick Jagger’s Let’s Spend The Night Together, leading us down the path towards such romantic sentiments as Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up. But models for these gangs, whether the Teds or the Mods or the Rockers, could all be found in pre-war Britain, on the racetracks of Brighton or the streets of Glasgow or the East End of London.

The sociologist Prof Frank Furedi thinks there is another side to the coin, with respect being killed off by those who once enjoyed it.

He agrees with Henry Buckle, the Victorian historian, who wrote: “When any class of men cease to be respected by the nation, they soon cease to respect themselves.”

Prof Furedi reckons his own watershed moment to be in 1963, when as a young Canadian he saw a British revue in Toronto.

“It was That Was The Week That Was and this was something really significant to me, because it was not just satire of the British Establishment by Angry Young Men from outside,” he says.

These were the alter egos of the Establishment, from the same schools and the same colleges as the people who ran Britain.

“There was a real sense of ‘This is the end’, that authority had lost its legitimacy,” Prof Furedi says.

Apart from the vicious satire of David Frost, Bernard Levin, Peter Cook and all the rest, there was the betrayal of the ruling class by its own members.

The Cambridge spies, toffs to a man, and Jack Profumo, the war minister who shared his prostitute girlfriend Christine Keeler with a Soviet spymaster, were exposed in all their dramatic treachery. That must have rubbed away the last veneer of worthiness from a governing class already exposed as hapless bunglers by the disaster of the Suez expedition in 1956 and as powerless bystanders by the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

There was, too, the sense of a new generation taking power in the early 1960s. In Washington, John F Kennedy, a new leader for a new decade, symbolically removed his silk top hat for his inauguration speech in January 1961.

Harold Wilson wore a raincoat, spoke with an easily ridiculed northern accent and saw spies round every corner.

The authority figures of the past - teachers, doctors, politicians, policemen, even parents - saw their symbols of authority blunted.

Doctors lost the trust of the nation. Teachers lost the cane. Both discovered the costs of litigation.

Politicians lost the protection of their crusty aloofness when they started to wear jeans in public. Policemen in panda cars lost local knowledge and the ability to clip the occasional ear.

Parents, bombarded by generations of lifestyle gurus with conflicting advice on bringing up their children, simply lost the plot.

Prof Furedi says: “The people who belonged to the Establishment, the old authority figures, no longer believe in the ethos that made them what they were, they no longer feel able to uphold the values they traditionally stood for.

“It began with a healthy challenge to deference from below and it became a crisis of nerves from above.”

 

First published by The Daily Telegraph, 11 January 2006

Why art is a dirty word
by Miranda Devine

Big Brother will be over next week but that doesn’t mean popular television is going highbrow any time soon. Channel Ten’s replacement ratings-puller, Australian Idol, has revealed in its first episodes performances of such woeful quality it’s a wonder plasma screens all over the nation don’t spontaneously self-destruct in horror.

But while it’s fun to hurl brickbats at trash TV, Big Brother is a symptom, not a cause, of our creeping philistinism, says the visiting British sociologist Frank Furedi.

At a lunch in Sydney this week hosted by the Centre for Independent Studies, Furedi had bigger culprits in mind. Cultural institutions such as universities, galleries, museums and libraries, which are supposed to nurture the best of art and culture, have lost sight of their purpose.

They are so anxious not to appear “elitist” or make value judgements, so intent on being “inclusive” and “relevant” they have become meaningless. They “no longer challenge us or encourage us to question what we know. Instead they flatter us.”

The reason, says Furedi, is that the state’s increasing propensity for social engineering has transformed cultural institutions into mere vehicles to “improve society”. He cites the example of British libraries. Where once they were all about books, now they are places of “inclusion”, de facto homeless shelters and “chill-out zones” where young people can watch MTV. The result, he says, is that more money is being spent on libraries but less on books.

Similarly, in Canberra, when the $155 million National Museum of Australia opened its doors in 2001, apart from its Holocaust-themed Aboriginal exhibit, the most profound items in the collection were an upside-down Hills Hoist and Azaria Chamberlain’s dress. The underlying message was that Australia’s white history was either a joke or too boring to dwell on.

As cultural institutions flounder around trying to craft mission statements about being “relevant” and socially “inclusive”, they become shallow and alienating, just as publications and political parties which rely on focus groups and polling to determine their beliefs wind up as empty shells spinning this way and that.

By spoon-feeding the masses pap we are assuming they are “too thick and too stupid to appreciate art for its own sake”, says Furedi. “We are systematically disempowering people. The consequence is to change what people are about.”

The Hungarian-born Furedi aims much of his criticism at Britain, where he teaches at the University of Kent. But the problem may be worse here, because of what Dr Barry Spurr has described as an ingrained “Australian anti-intellectual cultural prejudice against the lucid expression of informed and sustained ideas”.

Spurr, a senior lecturer in English literature at Sydney University, made the point last year in Education and the Ideal, a book of essays bemoaning ideologically driven philistinism in our schools and universities.

He says it is politically incorrect now to rank a work of art based on artistic value because that would be “elitist”. The result is armies of illiterate students entering university after passing an HSC in which Ginger Meggs is as valid a “text” as King Lear, the Alicia Silverstone movie Clueless is equal to Jane Austen’s Emma and Bush Tucker Man videos preferable to The Grapes of Wrath. Shakespeare has to be Baz Luhrmann-ised before we trust our students with it.

At school, As and Fs have been replaced by the inoffensive phrases “Working Beyond” and “Working Towards”. Everyone is gifted and talented, and “excellence” is a social construction.

Thus in last year’s HSC, 99 per cent of students passed the English standard course, and a 63-word answer to a 40-minute question in Advanced English was deemed to be a borderline pass in a guide for markers.

Educators will claim they are trying to make a syllabus relevant to a generation weaned on Nintendo, short sound bites and with even shorter concentration spans. But Furedi says setting our expectations of students so low does children a grave disservice, denying the capacity of ordinary people to comprehend great ideas or great art and be transformed.

We are so intent on immunising our children from any challenge which might “traumatise” them we aren’t teaching them anything of value, Furedi says. “We find it difficult to accept that choices must be made.”

He points to the success of the Harry Potter books, with millions of children across the globe devouring the latest dense instalment. J.K. Rowling’s creations resonate with their imaginations and demonstrates that children are the same as ever, perfectly capable of reading long books.

Furedi says the only way to combat dumbing down is by speaking up. There has been a “loss of nerve by intellectuals in their own beliefs”.

“Both left and right have become estranged from what they really are,” he says. “They no longer have a web of meaning through which we can interpret our lives … a sense of right and wrong.”

For fear of being seen as old and uncool, or worse, socially conservative, those with a natural aversion to such cultural trash as Big Brother or Piss Christ avoid speaking out by adopting a libertarian, live and let live attitude.

Of course most of the intellectuals Furedi claims are too cowardly to man the barricades against philistinism have actually been too busy for decades destroying those barricades. Their cultural institutions didn’t succumb by accident but by deliberate design - the “long march” of the left advocated by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who died in a fascist prison in 1937. They were long ago captured by the idea that all art is political and has no objective value.

Therefore philistinism might be seen as a valid defence mechanism against destructive ideas, the consequences of which (70 million deaths) are catalogued in Jung Chang’s new book Mao: The Unknown Story, just for one example.

Is it better not to think at all than to think destructively?

First published by Sydney Morning Herald, 11 August 2005

The sum of our fears
by Michael Duffy

Frank Furedi is one of the most interesting thinkers in the humanities today. If he had a personal motto, it would probably be the same as George Pell’s: be not afraid. But where the Cardinal’s concern is mainly personal, Furedi sees fear more broadly, as the defining emotion of our time.

Fear is on the increase and it’s corrosive of our humanity. In a series of books and articles, Furedi, who is professor of sociology at the University of Kent in Britain, has sought to alert readers to this and urges us to seize control of our lives and our futures.

One of the events that alerted him to the climate of fear occurred when his child was born nine years ago. A surprised Furedi was told by the hospital, “Don’t worry, everything is all right. We’ve got a really good system here to make sure your son doesn’t get kidnapped.”

“Until that point,” Furedi recalls, “it had never occurred to me that this was a risk I was facing. But I noticed from that stage on that virtually every experience, every developmental stage to do with children, has some sort of risk attached to it [by professionals]. Everything comes with a health warning.”

Furedi is in Australia to talk about fear. “Fear itself has become a perspective on life,” he explains. “There used to be a time when people had specific fears, such as fear of spiders or heights. But increasingly, as we’ve lost touch with other people and become more lonely and isolated, we’ve adopted a perspective where just about every experience is looked at in terms of the worst possible outcome.” This leads to an increase in counselling and therapy, which often increases fear instead of diminishing it, and an impoverishment of politics due to timidity and low expectations.

These are large claims, but then Furedi has always been interested in the big picture. Born in Hungary in 1947, he moved with his family to Canada after the failed revolt of 1956. By the 1970s, he was living in England and helped found the Revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britain. He moved on, wrote many books, and today is one of those behind the edgy libertarian internet magazine Spiked Online. It has a particular interest in the ways people deal - or fail to deal - with risk in daily life.

In his book The Culture of Fear (1997), Furedi set out the paradox of modern life that lies at the root of much of his writing: the less we have to worry about, the more we worry. For instance, we are healthier than ever yet as a society worry about health more with each passing year. Safety, he says, was the fundamental value of the 1990s, when in Britain fear of tap water doubled sales of bottled water in just five years, and the frequency of words such as “trauma”, “stress” and “counselling” skyrocketed in newspapers.

“Today,” according to Furedi, “the fear of taking risks is creating a society that celebrates victimhood rather than heroism. We are all expected to compete, like guests on a television program, to prove that we are the most put-upon and pathetic people in the house, the most deserving of counselling and compensation.”

Our expectations have been lowered; merely to survive is now considered a wonderful achievement. One example of this is the changed attitudes within the women’s movement.

Furedi says feminists in the 1960s and early 1970s were keen to portray women as empowered and strong. But by the 1980s this had swung around to the idea of women as victims that is still so pervasive. As a result of this trend, he believes, our lives are impoverished: “The celebration of safety alongside the continuous warning about risks constitutes a profoundly anti-human intellectual and ideological regime. It continually invites society and its members to constrain their aspirations and to limit their actions.”

Why do we worry so much? Furedi believes we have a diminished sense of control due to things such as the growing complexity of society and the increase in loneliness brought on by the breakdown of families and institutions such as churches and trade unions. The nervousness induced by such major changes is fed by the increase in knowledge and an emotionally rapacious media, and the fact that our ability to assess risk is at least as woeful as ever.

An outcome of this trend has been the boom in therapy. In 1980, there were 1800 individual and 160 organisational members of the British Association for Counselling. By 1993 this had swelled to 10,000 individuals and 500 organisations. Turning to experts so frequently leads to a surrender of our sense of responsibility for our own lives. And often, Furedi says, it doesn’t work. Counselling can make problems worse not better, thereby contributing to, rather than breaking, the cycle of fear.

Children suffer from their parents’ insecurities. Our kids are far more healthy than in the past, but we worry about their upbringing endlessly, seeking advice from a bewildering range of experts. While attacks on children are even more infrequent now than before, we take far more precautions to prevent them. Children grow up thinking the world is a dangerous place full of risky strangers. The proportion of British children taken to school by car quadrupled between 1971 and 1990, while the number of activities that children undertook on their own nearly halved. This is wrong not just because risk-taking is one of the most important expressions of our humanity, but because it makes children less capable of dealing with the unexpected. (Many parents today like to think their twentysomething children won’t leave home because they enjoy their cheap creature comforts or love their mums and their dads. But maybe they’re just scared?)

Furedi thinks these problems are worse in the Anglo-American part of the world than in other countries, where formal relationships have not broken down quite so much. He recalls walking down a street in Brussels a few years ago.

“I knew something strange was happening,” he says, “but I didn’t know what it was. Then I looked and saw there was a bunch of six-year-old children going to school on their own with little backpacks, and they were all squealing and laughing and yelling and walking down this busy street. That’s what I used to do when I was a kid, but I haven’t seen it happen in England for 15 to 20 years.”

Protectiveness towards children has now reached absurd levels. Furedi says he is forbidden to photograph his son playing football unless he gets the permission of every parent on the field. “This is next to impossible. So basically it means I don’t have a pictorial memory of my child doing athletics and football, which to me is a symptom of the fact we’re all looking at the world from the point of view of the pedophile. We think every adult is a potential pedophile, and ultimately that’s a triumph of pedophilia over common sense.”

Furedi says the rise of fear has rendered the old political labels fairly useless. “In the old days,” he told me last week, “the left was very pro-experiments, pro-science, pro-future, while the right was much more hesitant. Today there’s been a complete reversal. For example, supporters of scientific innovation tend to be on the right.”

Furedi’s optimism about science has attracted some criticism from the left. Writing in The Guardian in 2003, commentator George Monbiot described Furedi as “the godfather of the cult” of a group of ex-communists who now, thanks to campaigns such as one in support of genetically modified food, were destroying public trust in science and medicine with their “repugnant philosophy”.

He’s no longer of the left, but Furedi rejects the claim of fox-hunting philosopher Roger Scruton that he’s now a conservative. Furedi says: “Today conservatism has collapsed. Many conservatives are scared to uphold tradition. Old conservatism had beliefs, a system of thought and morality. New conservatism upholds nothing except an unswerving conformism to the present. It seems to me that conservatives have given up on the past while the left has given up on the future. We now live in a kind of infinite present.”

Furedi describes our times as “pre-political”, by which he means politics has lost the desire and confidence to change things in a big way. “The larger debates of the past have been replaced by single issues such as literacy in classrooms or school lunches or the environment,” he says. “These issues don’t have much to do with traditional politics. They become the focus for almost arbitrary divisions among people. I call them arbitrary because they don’t have much to do with the future, or with morality. They concern people’s lifestyles. Sometimes today our most heated debates are over nothing more than individual preferences rather than things that affect us deeply as human beings.” He has written about some of this in his most recent book, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone? (2004).

So what is to be done? “We need to become much more interested in the past and learn from it, but we also need to embrace the future.”

And be not afraid.

First published by Sydney Morning Herald, 6 August 2005

Child of our times
Gillian Bowditch

IT’S 5PM on a Saturday afternoon in Bridge of Allan, Stirlingshire and a clutch of pre-teen girls are getting ready for their first “under” (as in under-18 disco). The fake tan has been applied, toenails have been painted, boys have been texted. With two hours to kill and no more lip gloss to apply, they run into the garden and start to bounce on a giant trampoline. Dressed like adolescents but playing like toddlers, these 11-year-olds are suspended between two worlds. Watching them, one thought occurs - honey, we’ve shrunk childhood.

Computer literate, fashion-conscious, wealthier and more worldly-wise than their parents, today’s children are subject to more choice and arguably more pressure than any previous generation. They live accelerated lives, as milestones - physical, emotional and social - are passed at younger ages. They have more rights, more say and more possessions than their parents, but they have less freedom and independence. Is the price they are paying for their new-found status too high?


The answer, according to Richard Louv, an American author who has just published Last Child in the Woods: Nature-Deficit Disorder, is yes. An essential element of childhood, he argues, involves playing in woods and fields, mucking about on ponds and riding bikes through the countryside. An entire body of literature, from Swallows and Amazons to The Famous Five has taken children’s relationship with nature for granted. Louv believes cultural changes in the last 20 years - such as the technology boom, the emphasis on academic attainment and parental paranoia - are leading to what he calls the “first denatured generation”.

“Never before have kids in western culture been so separated from nature,” says Louv, speaking from a Denver hotel room where he is on tour to promote his book. “Kids watch lots of nature programmes on television. They can tell you all about the rainforest, but they no longer have the hands dirty and feet wet type of contact with nature, which their parents and grandparents had. This is happening at the very moment that we are discovering that contact with nature may be essential for healthy childhood development. Studies done over the last eight years show that adults, as well as children, get important stress reduction from contact with nature.”

Louv says children now present to doctors, “not with broken limbs sustained from falling out of trees, but with repetitive stress injuries from playing too many computer games”. When children do play outside, it is in sanitised play parks with bark chips under their feet, a fence round them and adults hovering on the sidelines. “We are in danger of criminalising outdoor play,” he says.

In Britain, snowball fights, conkers, marbles and skipping have been banned in some schools because of fears for children’s health and safety. If parents turn up at accident and emergency on three or more occasions with a child who has bruising or broken bones, they risk an investigation by social services. Critics warn that we are in danger of breeding a generation of mollycoddled wimps.

But like so many of the changes to childhood, the decline in unstructured outdoor play has been driven not so much by children’s changing tastes, as by adult fears. “Parents are essentially worried about abduction,” says Louv. “They see stranger-danger as the biggest threat. The irony is that in the United States, the number of abductions of children has actually been going down for at least a decade. Having said that, I am a parent of a 17-year-old and a 23-year-old and I certainly felt that fear.”

A recent survey of 1,400 children for the children’s charity, 4Children, showed that, while more than 50 per cent of children rated an open space in which to play as the most important feature of their neighbourhood, only 44 per cent ever played outdoors.

But perhaps parents are right to be paranoid. In Britain, abductions and attempted abduction of children rose by 45 per cent to 864 in the 12 months to April 2003. Half of these involved attacks by strangers. Actual abductions remain extremely rare, however. In 2002-3, 68 children were abducted by strangers. Parents, however, remain extremely fearful that if they allow their children out unsupervised, they will come to harm. Research by the Policy Studies Institute indicates that, while 80 per cent of eight-year-olds were allowed to walk to school without an adult in 1971, that figure had fallen to nine per cent by 1990.

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent and author of Paranoid Parenting, says the biggest change to have occurred in childhood over the past generation is the way children are perceived by society. “Children are increasingly defined by their vulnerability. The implication is that children lack the resources to cope with life. Adults have decided to insulate children from life-experiences.

“Everything, from the food children eat to the games they play, is now viewed from the position of risk. The more you regard children as being an endangered species, the more you regard the threats out there as being impossible to deal with. Threats to children are now considered both routine and extreme.”

At The Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, the concept of childhood is frozen in an aspic of Corgi toys and old dolls houses. But the consensus among the visitors is that children today have a harder time than their parents or grandparents had. Linda, from Nairn, feels that there are increased dangers. “I read recently about a child who was abducted from her garden. It really makes you think.” Andrea, from Edinburgh, feels that the days of children heading out to play on their own all day are gone for good. “When I was growing up, all the kids in the neighbourhood played together in a gang. These days there aren’t the spaces in the city for kids to play outdoors.”

But if children have less freedom than their parents, they have much more in the way of material goods. The average cost of raising a child in Scotland is estimated to be £6,638 a year. By the time they graduate from university, £140,000 will have been spent on them, according to the Liverpool Victoria Friendly Society. The typical ten-year-old’s birthday costs £270, and the average amount of pocket money for children aged 12 to 16 is currently £9.82 a week. Pocket money has risen by more than four times the rate of inflation in the last year, according to The Halifax.

Andrea believes that children’s toys today leave little to the imagination. “All they do is sit in front of a screen,” she says. “And kids today expect so much more. When I was growing up you got one big present at Christmas. Now they get five or six big things.”

Juliet Schor, an American academic whose book Born To Buy examines the relationship between children and marketing, believes consumerism is consuming our children. “Children,” says Schor, “have become conduits from the consumer marketplace to the household, the link between advertisers and the family purse.” A 1997 study found that 70 per cent of parents were susceptible to pester power. One-quarter of children aged seven to ten now own their own mobile phone, and sales to youngsters are the fastest growing sector of the market. More than 50 per cent of primary school children in Scotland have an e-mail address. But the backlash against the consumer culture has already started. Next year, the British pop-psychiatrist Oliver James brings out his book Affluenza. His thesis is that materialism and over-consumption have wrecked havoc with our mental well-being.

Researchers at the University of London have found that the number of children and teenagers on antidepressants has been increasing year on year. Of the nine countries studied, the increase has been highest in Britain, where the number of under-18s taking antidepressants now stands at around 60,000. Furedi says the growth in unhappy children is in part due to the fact that they are absorbing their parent’s anxieties.

“Kids are still kids, but they are conscious of their parents’ view of the world. It’s not uncommon to hear nine year-olds talking about being ‘stressed out’. Children aspire to be adults and that is good. It’s an important part of their development. But we want to make them more dependent. We are afraid to let them stand on their own two feet.”

Affluenza-style books already abound in the US, where statistics show that parents spend seven times as long shopping as being with their children. Connie Dawson and David Bredehoft, the authors of How Much is Enough?: Everything You Need to Know to Steer Clear of Overindulgence and Raise Likeable, Responsible and Respectful Children say overindulgence has hit every social group, not just the Beckhams and Osbournes.

“It happens when a mother offers the breast to a baby every time he squeals,” say Dawson and Bredehof. “It happens when a three-year-old gets what she wants when she wants it.” Older children, who are exempted from chores, and young adults who live a carefree life at home waited on by their mothers, all suffer from overindulgence, the authors claim. “It’s not just children pressuring parents; it’s other parents pressurising parents. Society likes overindulgence.”

That overindulgence can take some destructive forms. An Edinburgh University study of 7,000 Scottish pupils last year found that 34 per cent of 15-year-olds and 13 per cent of 13-year-olds were drinking on a weekly basis.

But if children’s entry into the adult world is happening faster than at any time since we stopped sending small boys up chimneys, it may in part be because children are physically growing up earlier. In the last century, the average age of the menarche has fallen from 14 years to 12.5 years.

Many of today’s children also experience more emotional upheaval at earlier ages. One-quarter of dependent children in Britain live in lone-parent families, almost twice the proportion in 1981. According to the Economic and Social Research Council, 70 per cent of children today have working mothers, compared with 53 per cent in 1980. “As relationships between adults become more fragile, parents make a bigger emotional investment in their children,” says Furedi. “If a woman knows her husband or boyfriend will leave her, she looks to her children to fill an emotional gap.”

Back at the Museum of Childhood, Linda believes that even in two-parent families, the pressure is intense. “In lots of families, both parents work, and when they do get time with the children, they are tired.”

Since the 1950s, there has been a growing sense of the erosion or disappearance of childhood. Social change, which a century earlier might have been interpreted as progress has, since the Second World War, been interpreted by many religious and political groups as a threat to the sanctity of the family and the innocence of childhood. The trend accelerated in the 1980s with a body of literature, by authors such as Neil Postman and Marie Winn, which suggested that children were entering a new Dark Age. They predicted that childhood, as a separate time in life, free from the worries, expectations and responsibilities of adulthood, was coming to an end.

David Buckingham, professor of education at London University’s School of Culture, Language and Communication, says: “There is a popular argument which suggests that children in the past didn’t have access to adult secrets and that they have now been exposed to adult knowledge through sexual content in the media,” he says. “While boundaries between adulthood and childhood are blurring, this theory plays into a rather melodramatic view of how the world is changing. A lot of the arguments are overstated. Children always knew about sex, but in the past the fact that they knew was not apparent to adults. Now adults know that children know. It’s about adult awareness not the fact that children have gone from a state of pristine innocence to a state of complete knowledge. The interesting point is not about the sexualisation of children per se, but about the fact that responsibility is being placed on children at a younger age to make decisions about their lives.

“In an age when there is no longer a clear moral code and where many more things are tolerated, the responsibility for working out how you want to live your life is something that children are having to confront much more on their own. Children have a great deal more choice but in some ways they also have a burden of choice. What I don’t buy into is the idea that children have been prematurely dragged into adulthood and that this is damaging for them. People increasingly talk about children’s rights and about children being consulted. So even if that blurring of boundaries is happening, and it is in certain areas, then it is a positive development. Children are increasingly being seen as citizens with rights.”

Furedi, too, believes children are much more robust than we often believe. “I think kids are really good at coping,” he says. “They are much better than adults in many ways.”

Buckingham points out that, despite adults’ fears, parents remain the most important influence in children’s lives. In a recent 4Children survey, 70 per cent said the person they most admired was their mother, while 62 per cent said the person they admired second most was their father.

“Dialogue between parents and children is as important as it ever was,” says Buckingham. “What is changing is child rearing. That is due in part to the changing structure of the family. In single-parent families, children are involved, by necessity, in decision-making at a much younger age, so they have more power. But even the traditional nuclear family is moving away from an authoritarian style of parenting towards a style of parenting which involves much more consultation with children.

“Parents want to arrive at consensus through debate, not through imposing a strict set of moral values. This places more of a burden on children, but it also makes it harder for parents. It’s much harder to negotiate than to just lay down the law. There are material changes in family life, particularly as people have fewer children, but also as they become more affluent. Children do have more power within the family, not least as consumers. Kids are growing up in a much more complex world, but I don’t think you can interpret it as parents losing control or abandoning their role.”

It could be argued that, rather than childhood disappearing, what are actually disappearing are children themselves. In Scotland only 22 per cent of households contain dependent children. In 2002, the Scottish birth rate fell to the lowest level since records began in 1855. But having fewer children means valuing them more as individuals. In the last 50 years, parenting has developed to include paying attention to children’s psychic and emotional needs as opposed to simply their material wants.

Back in Bridge of Allan, the disco is underway. The girls are ordering soft drinks and comparing body jewellery. The boys are refusing to dance. Then, suddenly, the party takes off as everyone starts to do Crazy Frog impersonations. We may have shrunk childhood but it still seems to fit.

First published by The Scotsman, 23 July 2005

Who knows best - mother, or TV?
by Judith Woods

I was recently bemoaning to a fellow parent that my three-year-old daughter was going through a phase of refusing to go to bed. I had barely finished the sentence when my friend scuttled off, purposefully. I presumed she had gone to fetch a stiff gin and tonic, but no. She returned, triumphant, waving a book.

“This has got the perfect strategy for that kind of flashpoint situation; it’s just what you need,” she said, with evangelical zeal. “It’s the spin-off from the television series Little Angels and it’s a revelation.” I mumbled that I had actually intended just muddling through, as always. But it seems I was wrong.

Without proper guidance, and possibly a clinical psychologist staked out in the spare bedroom, wearing a headset and barking commands in my ear, I would be lucky if I didn’t destroy my marriage, shatter my mental health and turn my bright toddler into a pint-sized sociopath.

Given the recent plethora of television series, such as Bad Behaviour, Who Rules the Roost?, The House of Tiny Tearaways, Driving Mum and Dad Mad and Supernanny, how dare, I, a mere mother, have the temerity to suggest I might know best? More important, how could my daughter possibly survive her formative years without a “naughty step”, hours of “controlled crying” and a welter of other tortures?

One moment in the aforementioned Little Angels is etched on my maternal soul. A mother quietly announced: “I feel stupid.” No one chipped in to disagree. It was excruciating to watch.

“Modern parenting programmes are based on a prior assumption of parental incompetence, and that parents are too stupid to handle child-rearing on their own,” says Prof Frank Furedi, of the University of Canterbury’s sociology department. “From the beginning, there’s a very poisonous, corrosive atmosphere, where mothers and fathers are treated like inferior amateurs compared to ‘experts’ with ‘special skills’.”

Furedi, author of Paranoid Parenting, points out that parenting programmes may purport to be useful - educational, even - but they are first and foremost entertainment. And exploitative entertainment at that. “If you really want to help people who are having problems with their children, then you don’t do it in front of a camera,” he says. “The self-aggrandising experts place themselves at the centre of things and relegate the parents to the role of audience.”

This summer sees the launch of a new ITV series, Baby House, in which six women in the final stages of pregnancy and their partners move into a Big Brother-style house and have their every anxious move filmed. We will see them preparing for the birth and possibly having curry and sex to precipitate the first contractions.

Then they will bring their newborns “home” and endure sleepless nights and leaking nipples in front of the cameras. Why anyone would want to expose such an intimate chapter in their lives to prying lenses utterly defeats me. Yet there’s worse to come. Oh, yes. A new programme has just gone into production for BBC Three. It’s called Honey, We’re Killing the Kids. Really.

Using Larkin’s premise that “they f—- you up, your mum and dad”, this “groundbreaking” series aims to create detailed pictures of how a group of children will turn out in 20 years’ time, and to demonstrate what useless parents they have. “Many of the children are found to be unhealthy, unhappy underachievers - and it’s all their parents’ fault!” crows the press release.

The programme uses data compiled from scientific and medical tests, together with state-of-the-art graphics technology to create a detailed profile of how each child will look and behave. Then a government health adviser-cum-child psychologist will lay down new guidelines for them (the parents) to follow, on everything from diet to sleep and leisure activities, in order to save themselves before it’s too late.

Presumably, television producers will soon be snatching off the streets any child spotted eating a bag of chips (abuse!) and whisking them off to the BBC studios at White City to bring them up properly. At licence payers’ expense.

But how on earth did all this happen? We British traditionally hate being told what to do. We thumb our noses at outside interference, and cavil at European attempts to change our way of life. Yet, in recent years, we have grown shamefully supine in the face of an army of self-styled television experts.

They sneer at our interior decor and castigate us for our household hygiene. They poke fun at the partners we choose and humiliate us over the way we dress. And now the schedules are awash with programmes highlighting our appalling inadequacies as parents. The human drama of these shows is exhausting to behold; semi-feral boys running wild at mealtimes, Violet Elizabeths who screech for attention, tiny despots whose rule of misery beggars belief. Yes, of course their distraught parents need help, but is the result informative and enlightening, or simply car-crash television?

“Parenting programmes have little behavioural impact on people,” says chartered psychologist Jack Boyle. “They are simply the sort of facile entertainment that people seem to want these days. You don’t become a better or worse parent because you’re watching one, and how a child turns out in life depends far more on its genes than its parents’ childrearing techniques. Parents shouldn’t feel bad about themselves, most of them do a pretty reasonable job.”

Sasha Nicholas, 40, mother of three boys aged two, three and five, admits that she is hooked on such programmes. “I’m just fascinated to see how hideously behaved the children are. It makes me feel so much better when my lot are kicking off, to know that they aren’t a patch on the spoilt little horrors that are featured on television.”

It’s hard not to conclude that some sort of open season hasn’t been declared on parents, as we are lambasted for not giving our children the right sort of play and told that our “poor baby-settling routines” are to blame for our exhaustion.

But according to a provocative new book, just published in the United States, parents are all too easily manipulated by experts. A fascinating polemic, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, examines what makes a perfect parent.

The writer, Steven Levitt, draws on a wide range of research into educational achievement to conclude that nature far outweighs nurture in determining a child’s destiny: children turn out the way they do, not because of what the parents do, but who the parents are. “Here is the conundrum: by the time most people pick up a parenting book, it is far too late,” he says. “For parents - and parenting experts - who are obsessed with child-rearing techniques, this may be sobering news. The reality is that technique looks to be highly overrated.

“Parents who are well educated, successful and healthy tend to have children who test well at school; it doesn’t seem to matter whether those children are trotted off to museums, or spanked, or frequently read to, or plopped in front of the television.”

Yet parents on both sides of the Atlantic now find themselves continually bombarded with diktats on how to bring up their offspring.

In Washington, business is booming at the Parent Coaching Institute, and the Parent Coaching Company charges £125 for six weekly sessions designed to “MoT your parenting style”. No wonder first-time parents in particular can find their confidence undermined.

“Fear is a major component of the act of parenting,” observes Levitt. “No one is more susceptible to an expert’s fear-mongering than a parent.”

But out-and-out despair is every bit as potent a driving force as fear. According to Laura Mansfield, executive producer of the BBC’s The House of Tiny Tearaways, more than 1,000 people responded to an advertising campaign for volunteers. In the series, families come and live in the Tiny Tearaways’ house for a week, where the behaviour of both adults and children is carefully monitored via secret cameras.

“You have to be pretty desperate to pick up the phone and say: ‘I want to come and spend a week of my life trying to sort out my kids’,” says Mansfield. “There’s a huge demand out there for sources of help. People don’t know where to find the help they need.”

But television exposure is not to every expert’s taste. Gina Ford is the de facto godmother of modern parenting manuals. Her famously prescriptive bestseller, The Contented Little Baby Book, has sold millions and been translated into languages as diverse as Dutch, Hebrew and Taiwanese.

Six books later, she has just completed The Gina Ford Baby and Toddler Cookbook. Yet she has steered clear of television; the current vogue for high-octane confrontation doesn’t chime with her robustly traditional values. “I don’t watch parenting programmes, although I’ve glimpsed at some of them. I’m not into reality TV,” she says. “If I ever found a production company that would not try to sensationalise and sex up my work, I would go on television. But it would need to be a serious documentary.”

A serious documentary might perhaps be going a little far in the opposite direction. I do, however, believe I can offer a compromise solution: an idea for a brilliant new parenting programme.

It’s radical, not to say revolutionary, in its approach. It’s bound to strike a chord with millions. Its title? Just Muddling Through. I shall sit and wait for Channel 4 to ring.

First published by The Daily Telegraph, 15 June 2005

Out of sight, out of mind
by Chris Arnot

Professor Steve Fuller has a voice powerful enough to reach the back row of any lecture hall. He is using it to good effect this afternoon, expounding at full volume his ideas on intellectual life on both sides of the Atlantic and, indeed, the Channel. What the other denizens of the Pumpkin cafe at Coventry station make of all this is difficult to gauge. One is reading Glamour magazine; another is staring into space while clutching a bottle of Budweiser.

The professor is catching the 4.50 to Euston and then a plane to his native US. He is to be quizzed by students and academics in Chicago on his new book, The Intellectual. But he will be back well in time for next Monday’s debate at Warwick University, where he is a professor of sociology. Fuller will be opposing the motion, to be put forward by Professor Frank Furedi from Kent University, another sociologist, that the intellectual is an endangered species.

Furedi is the author of Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone? There is no shortage of big issues for them to tackle, he argues, citing global warming and stem-cell research. But he says there is a dearth of academics prepared to put forward complex and controversial arguments. “Public debates are generated by market researchers or thinktanks. Every week I get asked by someone in the media to comment on a narrow, anecdotal issue and that’s what drives it.

“As a result, intellectuals have become very defensive. They don’t take themselves seriously because they don’t want to come across as know-it-alls. A false, anti-elitist sentiment has sprung up at a time when, paradoxically, there have never been so many bookshops.”

Never so many people in higher education, either. Furedi talks about what he calls “the McDonaldisation” of knowledge - the way in which universities have had to reorganise themselves to “encourage predictable, bite-sized knowledge that can be digested by other sections of society”.

Is he suggesting, then, that scholars should remain cloistered in academia, holding conversations only with each other? “No,” he insists. “I’m a great believer in reaching out. We should be challenging ourselves, our students and the wider world. Instead we’re giving out more and more degrees while flattering the public, as if they were children, instead of drawing them into challenging dialogues.”

If Furedi and Fuller agree on one thing, though, it is that UK universities have become infertile ground for the sowing of ideas across a range of subjects. Even Fuller admits that “the way that academics are rewarded discourages participation in mainstream intellectual life. Increasing numbers are on short-term contracts. They don’t have the luxury of being able to speak across disciplines because they’re too busy proving themselves in their own discipline.”

He believes there is still a wider public in this country that academics could engage with. “Academic life is not the same as intellectual life,” he argues. “I’d say that you can’t have an intellectual life unless it’s in the public domain. Unlike Frank, I don’t believe that dumbing down is a problem.”

Surprisingly, considering concerns about how science is taught and how it is conveyed in a press dominated by arts graduates, Fuller believes the British public is knowledgeable about the subject (“compared to the United States, anyway”). This country has a bigger per capita readership of popular science books than anywhere in the world, he points out. What’s more, Richard Dawkins is the No 1 intellectual with the public, according to a survey in Prospect magazine.

But surely intellectuals are not re­garded as highly in Britain as they are in France, say. “Unlike the French,” Fuller concedes, “we don’t have sections of our broadsheet newspapers put aside for major intellectual discussion. The nearest thing we have to it are the review sections in the nationals. But it’s worth remembering that, during the Thatcher era, a lot of young academics found it difficult to find work in universities, so they went into the media instead.”

One or two found their media niche BT (before Thatcher). Professor Laurie Taylor, for instance, had established himself as a BBC talking head when he was still a comparatively youthful professor of sociology at York University. Today he presents Thinking Aloud on Radio 4, where he recently asked listeners to define an intellectual.

“I quite liked the notion that he or she was someone who goes to the library even when it’s not raining,” he says now. “Even better was the suggestion that an intellectual was one so preoccupied with great thoughts that he or she could walk into a kitchen at a party, spot a tea cosy and resist the urge to wear it like a hat.”

All of which suggests Taylor is not too worried by Furedi’s argument on the decline of intellectual life in the UK. But he adds: “Some of the ways that government is attempting to manage universities are absurd. Academics are forced to produce papers that will never be read by anyone in order to keep themselves in a job. Still, I think Frank has a slightly romantic idea about what universities were like before the era of research assessment targets. I’m not sure senior common rooms were full of people debating Kant and Kierkegaard. In my experience, they were more likely to be discussing how their geraniums were faring.”

Taylor did, however, meet with some raised eyebrows in the common room after his first BBC broadcast in the 1970s. “Somebody said to me on the Monday morning: ‘Why didn’t you mention Max Weber?’ - as though, by failing to mention a key figure in second-year coursework, I was somehow guilty of appalling philistinism. When I did a phone-in programme, I remember telling one of my academic colleagues that it was an exercise in counter-hegemonic discourse.”

Back at Coventry, Fuller is proclaiming: “It is the burden of an intellectual to make his or her ideas matter. He or she should be out there in the public domain, fighting their corner and rebutting argument. That’s the stuff of intellectual life. You’re not throwing it out like a message in a bottle.”

First published by The Education Guardian, 10 May 2005

Your child in their sights
by Gillian Bowditch

SHOP TILL YOU drop! - the cheerful, self-indulgent exhortation of Gucci-shod, Prada-clad women everywhere has taken on a sinister connotation. According to a new book by the American author and academic Juliet Schor, Born to Buy, consumerism is consuming our children, turning them into pasty-faced, stunted, miserable versions of the carefree spirits we want them to be.

Depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, psychosomatic complaints and obesity are almost as closely associated with childhood as Barbie, Game Boys and Happy Meals. But according to Schor’s controversial book, the latter is actually causing the former. Children, she believes, are now the main targets of an avaricious and amoral marketing industry which puts profit before everything.

The targeting of children by multi-nationals is a political issue in Britain, too, but so far it is only the food manufacturers facing the music. Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, announced last week that a third Labour government would “legislate to ensure children are not bombarded by junk food advertising when they are watching television”. Junk food advertisements may have had their chips, but, according to Schor, it shouldn’t stop there.

“By 18 months babies can recognise logos,” says Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College. “By two they ask for products by their brand name. During their nursery-school years, children will request an average of 25 products a day. By the time they enter primary school, the average child can identify 200 logos and children between the ages of six and 12 spend more time shopping than reading, attending youth groups, playing outdoors or spending time in household conversation.”

The children she describes are American, but it is not hard to envisage their British counterparts toddling behind them in Nike trainers. Jamie’s Dinners, the recent Channel 4 series which prompted Kelly’s pledge to ban junk-food advertising, showed a class of primary school children who could all identify Domino’s Pizza, McDonald’s and Burger King but did not recognise rhubarb, asparagus or leeks. Advertisers are using ever more sophisticated techniques to reach children, by-passing parents altogether and subtly sending out the message that adults are killjoys who should be ignored.

“Children,” says Schor, “have become conduits from the consumer marketplace to the household, the link between advertisers and the family purse.” Not surprising, perhaps, as a 1997 study showed that 70 per cent of parents were susceptible to pester power with children admitting to asking for a product up to 50 times before their parents gave in.

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, says it is a huge issue for parents. “As a parent, I recognise that advertisers have a very powerful influence on children. If a stranger knocked on your door and said he wanted to come in and talk to your children, you’d tell him to go away. But that is precisely what is happening to children when they watch television. It’s a huge challenge for parents. There are all these strangers out there who want to get at your children in order to get at you.”

“Contemporary American ‘tweens’ and teens have emerged as the most brand- orientated, consumer-involved, and materialistic generation in history,” says Schor. “At the same time, evidence of distress among children has been mounting. Rates of obesity are at epidemic levels. Diagnoses of attention- deficit disorder have risen dramatically and record numbers of kids are taking drugs to help them achieve self-control and focus.

By the end of her study Schor has concluded that: “Involvement in consumer culture causes dysfunction in the forms of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and psychosomatic complaints.”

IT’S A HUGE leap to make and one which is not entirely justified by the research, but before she gets there, Schor takes a stroll down Madison Avenue to interview the alpha males and females of the advertising industry. What they have to say would induce depression and anxiety in an eternal optimist.

The language is the language of war. Children are “targets”. Printed matter is “collaterals”. Impromptu interviews with consumers are “intercepts”. Advertisers spoke to Schor of “turning kids into users” and of “sending out a virus”. Nancy Shelek, president of the Shelek Agency, says: “Advertising at its best is making people feel that without their product, you’re a loser. Kids are very sensitive to that. You open up emotional vulnerabilities and it’s very easy to do that with kids because they are the most vulnerable.”

This can lead to some very miserable children. “In 6th grade all my friends basically dumped me because other people gave them grief about the uncool state of me and my clothes,” says Amanda, who is now 17. One advertising executive heavily involved in tween marketing, puts it this way. “I am doing the most horrible thing in the world. We are targeting kids too young with too many inappropriate things. It’s not worth the almighty buck.” Bucking the buck is another matter, however. Youth spending in America has almost doubled to $170 million (£91 million) in the last ten years.

Greg Philo, Professor of Communication at Glasgow University, says the pressure on both parents and children is immense and it is causing a great deal of unhappiness. “The message children are being given is that their status is inexorably linked with what they buy and what they wear. It causes a huge amount of conflict and misery. Working parents who feel guilty about not spending time with their children, compensate by buying them what they want. The whole of our society is predicated on buying. There is a huge amount of guilt involved.”

Schor is at her best when revealing the advertising industry’s trade secrets. One of the hottest trends in youth marketing is age compression, using marketing messages originally designed for older children and targeting them at younger children. Abercrombie & Fitch, the clothing retailer, sells thongs with sexually-suggestive phrases for children as young as seven.

Duel marketing is used to sell children one image of a company and their parents another. Think about the recent McDonald’s advertisements where parents are reassured by the idea of carrot sticks and yoghurt but the children are still targeted with burgers, chicken nuggets and toys.

‘Trans-toying’, where everyday objects are turned into toys - toothbrushes with characters, shampoo bottles whose tops are cartoon figures, sticking plasters made to look like tattoos and scratch and sniff jeans or socks - is another big trend in the US which is beginning to take hold in the UK. It may seem innocent enough, but child development experts worry that if every item becomes a toy, there is little space for imagination.

“If all children’s experiences are geared towards excitement, surprise and thrills, they may not experience that happiness and well-being are mainly gained through an appreciation of the quotidian,” says Schor. Harvard psychologist Susan Linn goes further. “Marketers would have us believe that the purpose of food is to play with it. Isn’t that an obscene value when there are people in the world who are starving?”

FUREDI AGREES THAT children are being more aggressively targeted by advertisers, but he also perceives another trend at work. “We are living in a society which finds it very hard to make a distinction between children and adults,” he says. “Look at cross-over films. It’s not unusual to see adults without children going to see films such as Shrek II. The Harry Potter series has been published with adult covers. A third of MTV’s viewers are adults.”

Schor, whose previous books include The Overworked American and The Overspent American, is part of a recent backlash against the traditional American Dream. She has helped to set up www.newdream.org aimed at more responsible and ecologically sustainable consumerism. Her research certainly gives ammunition to those who, like her, want advertising to children banned.

In Britain a groundswell of opinion for banning junk food advertising has been spear-headed by Jamie Oliver: “I’d ban it,” he says. “I’ve told Sainsbury’s. If they wanted me to make an ad for pre-packed foods, I wouldn’t do it. Kids are very brand aware.”

But those seeking a panacea in the ban of junk-food advertising need to be realistic. “In Sweden advertising to children has been banned ever since commercial television began there, but 18 per cent of Swedish children are overweight - much the same as in Britain,” says Winston Fletcher, who chairs the Advertising Standards Board of Finance and is a director of advertising agency DLKW. “Advertising to children was banned in Quebec more than 20 years ago, but 28 per cent of children in the province are overweight - about the same as in the rest of Canada where advertising to children has always been permitted.”

“There may be other forces at work,” says Philo. “But Swedish parents are certainly very appreciative of the ban, especially as far as toys are concerned.”

While it is impossible not to be shocked by many of Schor’s findings, there is an element of junk science in her work. Her conclusion that “consumerism is a significant cause of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and psychosomatic complaints” is based on interviews with 300 children using a questionnaire she devised. Her views may have some validity, but they would not pass muster in the medical world where double blind trials are standard and where researchers are very careful to correct studies for factors which could skew the conclusions.

SCHOR, WHO HAS brought her own two children up in a largely television-free environment, does not acknowledge the importance of the retail sector to the American economy or the benefits America has gained from consumerism, free markets and a low level approach to business regulation. She deals with liberal objections to banning advertisements in a page-and-a-half, arguing that consumption is not a matter of purely personal choice but a thoroughly social activity, where what one person buys and consumes affects other people’s choices. How else can one explain the popularity of Nike trainers or the fad for sun-dried tomatoes, she asks. Taken to its logical conclusion, it is a prescription for restricting personal choice.

Professor Furedi says: “It’s a very ambiguous area. Everybody targets children, not just advertisers. Government anti-smoking campaigns, drink and drug campaigns are all directed at children who are perceived as soft targets. But we are living in a society where this is happening all the time and it is part of our job as parents to help kids understand what they see on television. We have to teach children that most of the things they see in the advertisements are lies. But we mustn’t have double standards, we should teach them to question everything that is targeted at them, government campaigns included. It’s a good lesson to learn at a very early age.”

Despite his distaste for advertising aimed at children, Furedi is against banning it. “We need to equip our kids to deal with these advertisements. Children have to learn to live in the real world.”

He also takes issue with Schor’s conclusion that consumerism and too much television are the causes of depression and anxiety in children.

“Anything children do to excess is a problem,” says Furedi. “If they spend three hours a day looking at the sky, that can be a problem. But that is to do with the way that we parent. Parents can restrict television viewing to half-an-hour a day if they want. They can refuse to buy certain foods. What Schor is doing is confusing the failure of parenting with the technological issues. There is no point blaming the goods or the technology if the problem is with the parenting.”

The solution, says Furedi, is to change parenting culture. Parents need to get back in control and set some boundaries. You don’t have to give children television in their bedrooms, he says. “Yes, children are being targeted by advertisers and that is not good, but it is not just one sector that is targeting children. This is part of a much broader problem.”

Philo is passionately in favour of a ban and has argued for one before Westminster MPs. “It is a huge issue for parents. Family life is made extremely difficult by the way children are bombarded with advertising. It is causing a great deal of pressure and unhappiness. I think we should dump Christmas, too. It is just an orgy of consumerism, and instead give the money to people who need it. But it is not just about banning advertisements to children, we need to think about the kind of society we want to live in and the values we want our children to grow up with. That is the debate we need to be having.”

“The worlds of adults and children are merging,” says Schor. “In my mind, that’s mainly a good thing. But the commercial aspects of that integration are not working for children. The prevalence of harmful and addictive products, the imperative to keep up and the growth of materialist attitudes are harming kids. If we are honest with ourselves, adults will admit that we are suffering from many of the same influences.”

First published by The Scotsman, 28 March 2005