Wednesday, February 29, 2012
We don't need no education!
At the risk of sounding presumputous, I believe that I may have the answer to a long list of the problems that assail the world today, from Islamic extremism to teenage pregnancy, smoking, gun crime, gang warfare, drug and alcohol abuse... You name the issue and my solution stands a sporting chance of solving it. All we need to do in any of these cases is... to sprinkle it with a little pixie dust.
Ok, so I was being facetious. I shouldn't have said pixie dust. What I ought to have said was "education". There, now that makes a lot more sense, doesn't it? And unlike pixie dust, education really is the perfect word to utter when confronted with an intractable social issue. The second best thing about proposing education as a solution to the woes of the world is that almost no-one is going to disagree with you. Even professional contrarians like me are forced to nod sagely and acknowledge that yes, if everyone has been educated in the appropriate way, most of them will probably behave rather better. But that, as I say is only the second best thing. By far the best thing is that saying "education" is gloriously cheap in terms of money and effort. After all, much of the responsibility of actually cramming new ideas into possibly unwilling heads is always shunted along to someone else.
Which leaves the people who make and sell wine to go on making and selling wine, and the people who write about it to go on sharing their thoughts with the minority of the population that has already taken the trouble to listen to them. Education, for the wine industry, generally consists of holding tastings - for relatively small numbers of interested people - writing books and articles - generally for the same kind of interested readers - and trying - usually unsuccessfully - to get some mention of wine onto television or radio where it might hit a broader audience. Beyond this, there are efforts by industry-funded groups like Drinkaware in the UK to help parents and schools spread the word of moderation amongst the impressionable young. Though not, obviously, among their less impressionable parents, an apparently growing number of whom are doing irreversible damage to their their livers by drinking a bottle or so of wine every evening. (Some of you may have tripped over those words "apparently growing", but it's an inconvenient truth that alcohol-related liver disease has grown over fourfold in recent years in the UK, while the number of sufferers from all other major conditions is falling.)
Drinkaware does its best, producing packs that help schools and parents talk to children about alcohol and handing out grants to theatre companies to mount performances that encourage moderation. But even if/when Drinkaware gets the £5m annual budget it is projecting, this is a drop in the ocean when it comes to educating the public - especially when set against the drinks industry's £600-800m marketing budget. Now, it might not seem unreasonable to imagine that responsible adults who take the trouble to access the Drinkaware website to downoads that material might not be the ones in greatest need of help. But one might be wrong. While writing this, I have just talked to a French friend who lives in the UK and has worked in the wine industry. Last weekend she collected her 16 year old daughter from a party at which she and her friends were almost all too drunk to stand. Most, as she graphically described it, were lying in their own vomit.
These well brought up, middle class kids had all been "educated" by responsible parents about how to handle alcohol sensibly. Unfortunately, the vodka apparently trumped the education. But at least, when they sober up, my friend's daughter and her privately educated friends can read, write, divide and multiply reasonably proficiently. Unlike a frightening number of the young people who are currently on the job market. According to a 2011 survey of 500 of its members by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) over a third fail to meet basic mathematical skills and a terrifying 42% have inadequate literacy. These, don't forget, are young people who have recently emerged from being involuntarily educated on a daily basis.
When I raised the issue of wine-drinking middle class alcoholics last week and suggested that it might be a good idea for pubs to stop selling wine by the third-of-a-bottle, several people disagreed, saying that it was a "society" problem that needed a healthy dose of the "E" word. When I challenged one of these would-be educationalists to describe precisely how he would go about "educating" middle-aged, middle class men and women, he said that wasn't his job; he'd made a positive proposal. It was up to others to come up with ways to make it work.
Obviously, for reasons I've already explained, I'm not saying that education isn't a good idea; I'm merely pointing out that it's far, far easier to say than to implement with any success. And until someone proves that they really are using it as a remedy rather than a paliative, I think I'll go on making concrete suggestions for ways that the wine industry might try to address the problem rather than wait for the government to do so. Inconveniently, for people like me who don't like government regulation, there is some evidence that it can be rather more effective than the alternatives. In 2007, despite all the efforts of a broad array of well-meaning people (and quite a lot of education), 24% of under-18-year olds in the UK still opted to smoke. In that year, the government raised the legal age at which tobacco can be bought from 16 to 18. In 2010, according to a study by University College London, the proportion of young smokers had fallen to 17%. But then, I'm sure there are plenty of people who'll deny the existence of a connection between the two.
On reflection, I was wrong to pick on pixie dust as my solution to problems like alcohol abuse. Actually, cake would be a far better choice. I can see Marie Antoinette looking out at the revolting populace and uttering the words "let them be educated!"