Political power should begin in the classroom. Photo: Getty
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Voters can be misinformed by the media - it's time for basic political education in schools

It's time we taught children to learn to cut through media misinformation about politics.

Can you remember when it was exactly that you learned about the House of Lords?

As a question, it’s no “where were you when Princess Diana died?” but bear with me. Despite its tedious nature, it’s an important question to ask, because I’d wager that a fairly large proportion of adults in Britain never learned about the House of Lords at all. I’m not just talking about knowledge of the House of Lords’ existence (with such camp wigs and capes how could you miss it?) but also why it exists, what its function is, and how it relates to the House of Commons. How many people, I wonder, are taught any of that as part of their state secondary school education?

When it comes to examining our political structures, the aforementioned tedium is part of the problem. Like many people, my brain appears to have an automatic “wandering off” switch whenever I am exposed to anything that reaches a certain shade of greige. Whack a complex piece of political analysis in front of me and I’ll almost certainly start mentally humming an early Madonna track or thinking about carbohydrates. In fact, if you substitute early Madonna for “whatever auto-tuned toss that’s charting these days, played through a tinny mobile phone speaker”, then I’m not so different from your average schoolchild.

As a journalist, the fact I find mainstream politics intolerably dull is something I fight against every day. And it’s exacerbated, of course, by the feeling that politicians represent the privileged few and have no interest in confronting the problems that so many people of my generation are facing: the housing crisis, low and unskilled work, unemployment and benefits cuts, student debt, environmental Armageddon, Boris (I could go on). If you combine these feelings of disaffection with an unavoidable political bore factor, then you begin to wonder how on earth adults who feel this way should go about teaching politics to children.

Yet following the general election campaign, a new Change.org petition is suggesting that we do just that, by making “basic political education” part of the national curriculum. According to Katie and Tara, the founders of the petition:

There is still a large majority of young people out there who do not hold a basic knowledge of the political system and are vastly disengaged. We have witnessed some people stating they were voting in this election but didn't know why and nor did they understand what they were voting for; some admitting that they were voting but didn't know what manifestos and policies were, the difference between a PM and MP, nor what left and right wing meant.

This didn’t surprise me for a second. I don’t know how it could surprise anyone who went through the state education system (I don’t know about private schools, I didn’t go to one, but I’m assuming they brief you thoroughly on all the institutions you’re likely to end up in one day).

Were I Prime Minister, there are many things that I would add to the national curriculum, including, in no particular order: sex and relationships education that covers abuse, consent, and where to get the morning-after pill on a Sunday; money management classes with particular focus on the ins and outs of a consumer credit agreement; media criticism classes that equip pupils with the tools to critically analyse the media they are presented with; shitloads more art, drama, music and important creative exploration; important books that Michael Gove got rid of despite the fact that they teach children about the importance of kindness and not being a prejudiced bigot (To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men) and finally: politics.

Politics classes would teach pupils about the structures of power and how they benefit or disadvantage people in society. It would teach them how to participate in the democratic process (and just as importantly, why they should). It would not be partisan, but it should provide young people with the information they need to make an informed decision when they are standing in that polling booth (which they will be doing, because voting will be compulsory).

Political education should start young, before they have the chance to become bored, cynical, disaffected adults like myself, and at an age when teachers are still able to capitalise on young people’s enthusiasm and excitement at the thought of having a say in the world. I think I was about 17 when I was taught at school what the House of Commons and the House of Lords actually did, which is around the same time that I learned about how First Past The Post works. It was only because I did Law A-Level. We did a bit about politics in History but not as much as we did about medieval crop rotation, which means that most people leaving my school did so without any formal basic political education whatsoever.

Of course, many people make up by simply voting as their parents voted or by gleaning what they can from the media. Because of the election result, it’s now fashionable to understate the role that media plays in people’s perceptions of the world, but let’s be honest here: the media is the reason people think the Human Rights Act confers a human right to Kentucky Fried Chicken for burglars. If my personal anecdotes formed from sitting around enough tables with God knows enough Daily Mail readers aren’t sufficient (“I’m not sure how I feel about all this human rights business” – direct quote), then you don’t have to listen to me. Just look at this survey from 2013 that confirms British people are wrong about nearly everything.

Do I think that the electorate is stupid? No, I do not. But I have met enough people who take everything newspapers say at face value to know that many people are misinformed. Couple this with an education system that fails to prioritise analytical skills or inform us, even in a rudimentary fashion, about the organs of the state, and is it any wonder politics looks the way it does?

Those in power either took it upon themselves to do one hell of a lot of background reading, are total politics geeks, or come from schools and families where a career in politics was historically expected of you. The fact that, as a country, we fail to educate our children about how they can go about participating in democracy is perhaps the biggest political scandal of all. Because if all children had a right to a basic political education, then we would not only be likely to see more engagement, more scrutiny of policies, more examination of the facts, but we’d also see more public dissatisfaction with our current politics, and even anger with the status quo. Indeed, when you think about it, it’s probably why they don’t have that right. But it’s exactly why they should.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.

Tracey Thorn. CRedit: Getty
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“Not technically beautiful, she has an engaging laugh”: 35 years of being described by men

For women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

I am sure you all saw the Twitter challenge that took off the other day – a request to women to “describe yourself like a male author would”, started by the writer Whitney Reynolds. There were thousands of hilarious replies, with women imagining how a bad male author would describe them. I thought about posting an example, but then realised, I didn’t have to imagine this. I’ve been being described by male journalists for more than 35 years.

Katy Waldman in the New Yorker wrote about the challenge, and how it highlighted clichés in men’s writing: “…prose that takes conspicuous notice of a female character’s physical imperfections. This is done with an aura of self-satisfaction, as if the protagonist deserves credit simply for bestowing his descriptive prowess upon a person of less than conventional loveliness.”

And oh boy, that hit home. Yes, I thought, that is precisely how I’ve been described, too many times to recall, so many times that I’ve actually sort of stopped noticing. The following aren’t direct quotes, but near enough.

“Not conventionally pretty, Thorn nevertheless somehow manages to be curiously attractive.” “Her face may not be technically beautiful but she has an engaging laugh.” “Her intelligence shines through the quirky features.” Often what’s irritating isn’t the hint of an insult, but just being wide of the mark. “She isn’t wearing any make-up” (oh my god, of course she is). “She’s wearing some kind of shapeless shift” (it’s Comme des Garçons FFS).

I’m not trying to arouse sympathy. I’m much thicker-skinned than you may imagine, hence surviving in this business for so long. But the point is, for women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

A few weeks ago, when I was in Brussels and Paris doing interviews, I was taken aback all over again by the absence of female journalists interviewing me about my album – an album that is being described everywhere as “nine feminist bangers”. As the 14th man walked through the door, my heart slightly sank. I feel like a bore banging on about this sometimes, but it astonishes me that certain aspects of this business remain so male-dominated.

Even the journalists sometimes have the good grace to notice the anomaly. One youngish man, (though not that young) told me I was only the third woman he had ever interviewed, which took my breath away. I look at my playlists of favourite tracks over the last year or so, and they are utterly dominated by SZA, Angel Olsen, Lorde, St Vincent, Mabel, Shura, Warpaint, Savages, Solange, Kate Tempest, Tove Lo, Susanne Sundfør, Janelle Monáe, Jessie Ware and Haim, so there certainly isn’t any shortage of great women. I’ve been asked to speak at a music event, and when I was sent the possible line-up I couldn’t help noticing that over three days there were 56 men and seven women speaking. The final bill might be an improvement on that, but still. Any number of music festivals still operate with this kind of mad imbalance.

Is it down to the organisers not asking? Or, in the case of this kind of discussion event, women often feeling they don’t “know” enough? It’s a vicious circle, the way that men and their music can be so intimidating. The more you’re always in the minority, the more you feel like you don’t belong. Record shops seemed that way to me when I was a teen, places where guys hung out and looked at you like you didn’t know your Pink Floyd from your Pink Flag.

I also have to watch songs of mine being described by male writers, and sometimes misinterpreted. I’ve got one called “Guitar” on my new record. There’s a boy in the lyrics, but he’s incidental – it’s a love song to my first Les Paul copy. That fact has sailed over the heads of a couple of male reviewers who’ve seen it as a song all about a boy.

That’s the trouble, isn’t it? You miss things when you leave women out, or view female characters through the prism of their attractiveness, or when you take for granted that you’re at the centre of every story, every lyric. I bet you think this piece is about you. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge