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  1. Politics
7 February 2000

Peas in pods – what the hell are they?

Don't blame the schools for children's ignorance. The real teachers of the young are the advertisers

By Jeremy Seabrook

In winter, fresh local produce is not entirely excluded, even from supermarkets. During the past month, I have had to tell the young people at the checkout what turnips are (twice) and what beetroot is (twice). In the travel agency, I explained not only where Jakarta is but how to spell it. Last summer, I had to identify rhubarb and fresh peas.

To one of the young women unfamiliar with peas in pods, I said: “I suppose you never see them like this?”

“I don’t eat them,” she replied.

I said: “They tell us we’re supposed to eat five fruits or vegetables a day.”

“I eat sweets. Is that the same thing?”

She was not joking. A few isolated examples, no doubt, but they all occurred within a short space of time. Whatever the purpose of education in Tony Blair’s Britain, it is not designed to give young people a high degree of understanding of the world around them. The decay of the ability to name things is the beginning of a loss of consciousness, which is as damaging to the individual as it is dangerous to society.

This disturbing feeling was confirmed by a story in the papers of a young couple in Doncaster whose baby died from an excess of salt in a diet of Ready Brek. It reminded me of a similar case I had come across in India some years ago: a child died because she had been fed only biscuits. Such was the power of the company that marketed them that the mother imagined that this western-inspired food must contain all the nutrients her baby required.

When young parents no longer know – in spite of all the advice of health service staff, midwives, health visitors and paediatricians – what should or should not be fed to tiny babies, the ancient scourge of ignorance takes on a new urgency. It is no longer good enough to assume that the minds of the young have been filled with information more essential to their survival than knowing the names of foodstuffs they rarely consume.

Much is made of the future of the information society and the knowledge-based economy. It is becoming increasingly clear how this is to be achieved. First, the people must be robbed of the knowledge they have. It will then be professionalised, packaged and sold back. It represents a new and menacing form of landlordism: knowledge appropriated, enclosed and marketed.

This means that the principal instructors of the young are not to be found in the education system at all; these are easily bypassed by the creative crusaders of the advertising and publicity industries, the buccaneers and adventurers of marketing, whose busy exertions are supported by the eager promoters of the politics of appearances. This is a de facto privatisation of education, given that the education of children has now largely devolved upon private commercial interests.

The spokesmen of the market have become the main teachers of the young. Children no longer learn important things from their mothers; they learn them from the advertisers. Commercial jingles, not mothers’ songs, are what dominate child-rearing. This is why the television set has become an object of basic necessity in even the poorest households in the west. It is now the main channel of learning for a new generation of people who have to be initiated without ambiguity into the sacred mysteries of the society that nurtures them.

The excitement and sense of high purpose that is generated around education masks the deeper erasure of a consciousness that might have equipped young people to deal critically with the world around them. They are market starvelings, depowered and diminished; they must accept the version of freedom that means choice within the safe parameters of the global supermarket, beyond whose confines nothing else exists. It is a culture of punters, customers, clients and consumers, of perpetually renewed sub- ordination.

What all this amounts to is the reconstitution of society in terms of caste and station. Post-industrial society clearly bears a closer resemblance to its pre-industrial antecedents than the advocates of permanent “modernisation” would have us believe.

A new techno-peasantry is in the making: people so cowed by the power of science and technology that they submit to its tyranny, just as they formerly touched the brow and bent the knee in deference to those above them.

Those who actually operate and manipulate the system do not live in the same world of confusion. They understand the over-arching ideology, the architecture, the broader picture. It is their high calling to control and exploit the technological miracles at whose shrines humble pilgrims and postulants abase themselves.

All the anti-elitist rhetoric – empowerment, democratic egalitarianism – means the precise opposite of what it says. It is a sleight of hand and brain, whereby new forms of subordination are created, new poverties invented out of the very abundance that the world can provide. All the new pieties of the age enshrine – surprise, surprise – the continuing dominance of ruling classes and elites.

It is only in the terrible stories of those who have been a little too credulous in their acceptance of the marketing of appearances that we gain a glimpse of reality; but it is swiftly forgotten, and its significance is soon lost in the busy unconsciousness into which our young are falling so gracefully for the benefit of the future profiteers of a value-added ignorance.