“If sins were transferable
I’d ask you to pray for me
Then you could ask your neighbour
And so on through eternity...”
From Mahro Ghanto Vagyo by Bachchoo
An eight-year-old British girl was telling me about an incident at her school and repeatedly referred to someone called Lawrence who had asked someone else to report to his office after school. “So how does Lawrence have an office?” I asked “He’s the head teacher!” she said. “So you call your head teacher by his first name, and not ‘Sir’ or Mr X?” “That was last year. We call all our teachers by their first names,” she replied. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard it. Very many primary schools in Britain are giving way to or imposing this contemporary conceit. It may be an attempt to break down barriers between generations and it could have far-reaching philosophical effects, making older people earn their authority rather than being invested in it by virtue of age. It could also lead to the presumptuous young assuming an unearned equality. In the last year in Britain the generation gap has played a severe hand in politics. First there was the Brexit vote. It is estimated that the under-25s largely abstained in this referendum and allowed the generation with inherited traditional prejudices to vote to leave. The oldies and wrinklies voted to keep foreigners out and harbour some illusion about “taking back control”, perhaps returning to an era when they felt like a world power with contempt for “Frogs, Krauts, Dagos, Bulgers and the like”. The young probably wouldn’t even know these insultingly characterising words for other Europeans. They may have never heard of the newspaper headline from Albion’s glory days: “Fog in the channel, continent isolated!” — and buying carloads of duty-free beer in Calais and holidaying on Spanish beaches, may not share the attitudes behind the headline.
The referendum was won by a generation who won’t be around for long and have left the young a legacy of economic disaster and political isolation. Then Theresa May switched sides from Remain to Leave and called a snap election with the intention of increasing her Tory majority in Parliament and making it easier for her to negotiate a hard deal with the EU and pass the copious legislation required to implement Britain’s exit. Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party very adroitly turned her snap election away from the single topic of Brexit and presented a manifesto which championed the needs of “the many and not the few”.
This manifesto promised to abolish the loans that university students are now obliged to take from the government, repaying them at very unfair fixed interest rates when they graduate and get reasonably paid jobs. As the promise was intended to do, it appealed to university students and school students eligible to vote. Again, Mr Corbyn connected with young voters by appearing on TV with pop idols and young Rap and Grime artists, debating the benefits of voting and changing things for the better. The young voted and their collective influence contributed to the closing of the political generation gap. So much so, that now Theresa May’s government is talking about reducing student loans, softening its stance on a “hard Brexit” and trying to steal very many of the clothes (or disguises) Labour wrapped itself in.
The latest advance in Ms May’s policy, calculated to win the black and ethnic vote, is a commission of inquiry into why there are a disproportionate number of citizens of ethnic backgrounds in mental institutions and in prisons. Is the larger proportion owing to racism of doctors who certify the mentally ill and the policemen and judges who arrest charge and sentence people? On questioning my young friend further, it emerged that the change from calling the teachers Miss and Sir to Tom, Dick and Mary, was initiated by the school council. “And who’s that?” “Two people from each class who are elected.” “But they’d be six to 10-year-olds” My friend just shrugged as though to say “what’s wrong with that?”
I haven’t heard of secondary schools — which have pupils between the ages of 11 and 18 — adopting the first-name convention, but it may work itself upward. So the procedures of democracy are imbibed at an infant age. Does that make good modern civic sense? I wanted to ask if the teachers had a collective veto on the decision, but didn’t pursue it as my friend’s attention wandered to other things.
Time and distance, time and changing tides! In my school in Pune all those years ago the teachers wore black gowns to remind the world that they were, through the authority that diplomas bestowed on them, the ruling elite of the institution. No one dared call it a community — the concept hadn’t been invented. We had very rude names for the teachers, which I am sure they were aware of, but we dared not use them in the presence of any one of them. Our headmaster was a dark-skinned Anglo-Indian and he was universally known as kaloo. Then there was our Parsi teacher Mr Gandevia, who was nicknamed with an abusive abbreviation unsuitable to reproduce. There were kinder names — the two Mr Oliver’s were distinguished by appearance and the subject they taught as “baldy Olly” and “Frenchy Olly”. Only the teachers we really respected and loved were referred to amongst ourselves, not to their faces, as “Bob” and “Tom”.
It seemed completely natural to us that the respectful forms of address were enforced. The masters had powers of corporal punishment and the cane was resorted to for very many misdemeanours. Indian schools inherited thrashing from mullahs and British public school ethics and perhaps even from some enthusiastic gurus and deviating monks. British schools only stopped the practice, through legal means, in the last three decades. Yes, the contemporary message is “authority has to be earned”, but calling your teacher “Bertie” or “Pam” may not be the best route to it.