It's not often we find an academic who appears to talk any kind of sense, but Frank Furedi from Kent University does. What's even more surprising is that his subject is sociology, a discipline that ranks alongside philosophy, media studies and drama at the very bottom of the "fit for purpose" league table in most minds - including ours.
But Furedi, who came to England from Hungary at the time of the 1956 uprising and was active in the Trotskyist movement in the 70s, takes a down-to-earth and critical approach to his study of modern society, with books and articles that include "Therapy Culture: cultivating vulnerability in an uncertain age", "Punishing parents: the campaign against smacking is based on the poisonous notion that children need to be saved from their parents", "Don't underestimate managers' ability to treat you as an idiot", "The Culture of Fear: risk-taking and the morality of low expectation" and "Paranoid Parenting: why ignoring the experts may be best for your child".
He is, in our view, a quintessential grumpy old sod. He would like to deny this, and has even written a long article on the subject, but methinks he doth protest too much. It takes one to know one, after all.
And like most grumpy old sods, what he has to say is usually right. Here he is on the subject of child-rearing "experts" …
"They basically assume the high ground: 'I am the supernanny, unlike you, the incompetent, bumbling idiot'," he says. He warns that the wealth of advice available risks demoralising parents. "Parents who don't believe in themselves are not going to be very confident," he says. "The main thing is that it leads to estrangement. Mothers and fathers become estranged from each other and their children. Rather than a family developing a strong sense of itself, it is looking too much to the outside."
"Over the past 10 years, virtually every aspect of childrearing is turned into a problem that requires support or intervention," he said. "Targeting parents has become a national sport. New Labour politicians appear to take the view that almost every social problem is caused by bad parenting. This allows failed politicians to avoid confronting their policy failures - in health, in education and in community building. Parenting has become an industry. It's no longer about the relationship with your children, it's something for politicians and professionals to have an opinion about."
Something else that has featured many times in our own pages is the "blame culture". Professor Furedi again …
We live in a world where we can no longer accept that accidents or disasters are natural. In recent times we still talk about natural disasters but we increasingly look for someone to blame. As a result the view that disasters are caused by acts of nature is being gradually displaced by the idea that they are the outcome of acts of human beings.
In the aftermath of a disaster today, the finger of blame invariably points towards another person. Government officials, big business or careless operatives are held responsible for most disasters. Today, floods are less likely to be associated with divine displeasure than with greedy property developers recklessly building in flood plains. Events like ….. New Orleans are seen as destructive events that could have and should have been avoided. When a train crashes or a mine is flooded we spontaneously ask the question "who is there to blame?"
It is worth recalling that although 20 million people died as a result of the influenza pandemic of 1918 there was little finger pointing or blame. Today, even a small flu epidemic would lead to an outcry against irresponsible officials, politicians or health professionals. Whatever its causes the blame for the loss of lives in such an epidemic would be placed on people rather than nature.
And a bit closer to home, here he discusses the prevalence of cheating and plagiarism in modern schools and colleges …
In a poll carried out by the Times Higher Education Supplement, one in six undergraduates admitted copying from friends' work. Sadly, most academics know only too well that plagiarism has become a widespread practice. Discussions with social-science colleagues - including chief examiners - in different universities suggest that 20%-25% of assessment work contains either wholesale or partial unacknowledged reproduction of someone else's work.
The really interesting story is not the disturbing extent of cheating but the increasing normalisation of it; it is treated as a learning problem. In universities one often hears the argument that some students simply lack the skills to understand what is meant by cheating. Consequently many institutions are devoting greater resources towards providing students with the "skills" necessary to avoid the problem. However, in reality undergraduates have a reasonably good grasp of what it means to cheat. The problem is that they are encouraged to regard it in a morally neutral way. That is why students caught cheating are far more likely to feel a sense of irritation at being caught out than to feel a sense of shame, humiliation or remorse.
Last week, a senior figure from Oxford University blamed schools for creating a culture of work "cobbled together from the internet". Tragically this culture of cheating afflicts children from a very early age. Children as young as seven or eight arrive at school showing off polished projects that have benefited from more than a little help from parents.
But parents are not entirely to blame. From day one in primary school they are told that the performance of their children is intimately linked to how much support they get at home. In a desperate attempt to improve standards of education, parents' concern for their children is manipulated to draw them in as unpaid teachers. The outsourcing of education by schools encourages a dynamic where many parents become far too directly involved in producing their children's homework.
Surveys suggest that parents spend on average six or seven hours a week on homework duties. Official guidelines go through the motions of advising parents to hold back from doing homework for their children. But once it is seen as a joint enterprise by parent and child it is hard to draw the line between helping and cheating.
If we genuinely want to do something about plagiarism then we must acknowledge the true scope of the problem. And the best place to start is with primary-school children. Teach them that it is only their own work that we value.
All good stuff, we think. You can read a lot of his articles on his own website - thoroughly recommended.
Just one thing, though, Frank. You're grumpy. No use denying it. You can dress it up as serious journalism, you can hide behind your professorship, you can surf the tides of anger on the buoyant board of your own academic distinction, you can split semantic hairs until the cows come home but you can't fool us. Like it or not, you're a grumpy old sod. Come on, admit it …
either on this site or on the World Wide Web.
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