Winners and losers

ANCIENT societies often had strange rites of passage for adolescents to mark their passage from childhood to adulthood. In the modern world we have exams and the exam season is looming. These exams cause our teenagers incredible amounts of stress and anxiety, leading them to take drugs, drink high caffeine drinks, lose sleep and often become quite ill with worry.

They are led to believe that their performance in the exam room will determine their whole future; that failures are doomed to a miserable life of grinding poverty and low achievement whereas those who manage to pass will get to a good university and a life of wealth, fulfilment, open choices and comfort.

This is not true. By the time most are in their 30s life will have happened to them: human relationships, work, marriage, parenthood, accidents, illnesses and chance happenings that will change the direction of their lives, and they will end up in a job that has little or no relation whatever to the facts and figures they desperately tried to cram into their heads in the week before the exams.

The ones who “fail” and end up seeking a job instead of going to college often end up materially better off in the long-run. “Failure” is certainly not the disaster most teenagers believe it to be. Their life may take a totally different turn from what they had hoped but that can end up just as rewarding and fulfilling.

Students’ chances of passing are affected by lack of sleep, headaches, hay fever, the drugs they have taken to suppress headaches and hay fever, bladder problems and many other things. Within a month the facts and formulae they have desperately stuffed into their heads from revision aids will be just a muddled jumble in their quickly fading memory.

So what is the point? It is all part of inculcating in them a culture of judgement, rating and ranking of their human worth to the needs of the ruling class, based on arbitrary criteria. It is part of an induction into middle class thinking to turn them into useful middle managers, business people, minor professionals and so on.

Some will have come from working class homes and it will be necessary to banish working class values (solidarity and compassion) with competitive, individualistic values where those who are relaxed about their lives are doomed to be losers and sympathy for others is a waste of time.

The really top jobs will still go to those who went to very expensive public schools with almost guaranteed entry into the better universities and the ruling class cliques.

The idea of rating and ranking children has now been spread to very young children. There are now tests for four-year-olds, though thankfully the teaching unions have resisted these becoming compulsory and few schools use them.

But life now for too many teachers and children is one of preparing for tests, exams and inspections rather than simply learning about the world and themselves. It does teach children — that in this world there are only winners and losers and they had better not be losers, making them anxious for the rest of their lives.

A lot of reality TV shows are also brainwashing us with this culture; they are competitions of some kind or another where at every stage someone is picked as inadequate and eliminated until only one survives. “There can only be one winner,” is the mantra. At every stage pressure is piled on the competitors and the cameras linger on their desperate faces as the host of the show takes a very long pause before announcing who has won and who is to be thrown out.

Some of these programmes are very light-hearted and fun — but the message is still there: winning is for a tiny elite minority and most of us are losers, failures and low-achievers — and everybody else is your rival and ultimately your enemy.

This is a sad culture that allows us to tolerate a tiny minority to claim all the wealth in the world as their prize; the vast majority are low-achievers working hard at the bottom to create wealth for others but not expecting to enjoy any themselves. And in the middle are the desperately anxious, striving middle classes fighting each other to survive.