Justin Bieber could teach kids a thing or two about history (Independent)

When it comes to the thorny question of education, there are plenty of points of view around, with Michael Gove urging more rigour and the teaching unions staunchly opposing his plans.

But left or right-wing, one thing we’d expect everyone to be united on is that a teenage pop star probably doesn’t make the best history teacher.

Yet thanks to Justin Bieber’s arguably inappropriate guestbook comment, this week some of Britain’s youngsters may have had their first exposure to the Holocaust and to teenage diarist Anne Frank.

His fans certainly think that’s the case. “Reading tweets I saw that other teens my age and some who were even older had no clue who Anne was, which really surprised me,” says Leah, 15, whose Twitter handle even has “Bieber” in it. “If he and other celebrities begin to mention more icons like Anne then it will help.”

“Justin is someone people look up to, so they may want to find out more,” adds avowed Belieber Emily, 16.

Given that Justin is unlikely to follow his tour of The Anne Frank House with a trip to the Somme – “where did they plug their ipods in?” – or start quoting Shakespeare on Twitter, we can leave the rights and wrongs of his tribute to one side. But the incident raises the question of role models, and whether it is worrying that many teenagers would rather look up to Jessie J or Harry Styles than Anne Frank.

“On the whole their role models are celebrities or sports stars,” says secondary school religious studies teacher Simon. “Most of them have a few who they see as somebody to look up to – who they are rather obsessed with and drool over.”

But other teachers point out that pupils often consciously choose not to follow the crowd, and say we should give them more credit. “In my college it’s more about Beyonce, Nicki Minaj and Kendrick Lamar,” says history A Level teacher Andrew. “Some idolise them uncritically, others just appreciate their films or music but recognise their fallibility.”

“My pupils talk about celebrities a lot, often expressing admiration,” says Josh, a secondary school science teacher. “However, do not underestimate their ability to decide make their own opinion of what is worth following. With boys and footballers – they are just as likely to view them negatively as positively.”

Simon used Bieber’s gaffe to start a discussion about the surrounding issues in a Monday lesson. As a football fan, he finds it can be useful for pupils to “know that you are interested in things they are interested – teachers who can’t sometimes struggle relating to the kids.”

Although he wouldn’t generally cite a specific celebrity, he would introduce a topic with “an analogy with something in their cultural realm.”

“Some of them were talking about football violence today [after clashes at the FA Cup semi finals],” he adds. “If something in the media tickles their interest they are much more likely to talk about it than If I say ‘let’s discuss racism.”

“If in my case Justin was to tweet about an issue, I know that the next morning my friends and I would be discussing it,” says Leah. “If Justin and other celebrities did mention Anne and other icons from history then they would definitely get people’s attention.”

“I find the use of ‘celebrity’ in the classroom extremely powerful. It can introduce young people to topics in a manner that parents and teachers are simply unable to,” explains Josh, “But for some students, if used as anything more than simply a ‘hook’ it can blind them to the real lesson. And there is certainly a danger when the celebrity does not know much of the world they are stumbling into, such as Bieber and the Holocaust.”

Of course, it is tricky territory; one pupil’s idol is another’s laughing stock. More than that, there’s the worry that a onetime mention will be interpreted as an endorsement of everything that celebrity does. Simon refers to one pupil, who changes her hair in response to her favourite star’s prerogative. “What if that celebrity started to self harm?” he asks.

And teen idols, from Lindsay Lohan to Miley Cyrus, are known for falling from grace – in different ways of course. Bieber might be reminding his fans about the Nazis this week, but what if he gets into a brawl tomorrow? “It can lead to certain difficult questions down the road,” says Simon.

According to Jonathan Freeman, national director of mentoring network Mosaic, the real problem is when they lack additional role models within their own lives.

“The young people with whom we work recognise very clearly that media stars rarely offer them a realistic goal to which to aspire,” he says. “Sadly, too few have examples of individuals who have achieved significant success in their careers from within their own social and family networks.”

It’s not always an option to brush a celebrity’s behaviour under the carpet, especially when pupils see that person as a role model. Teachers have to proceed with caution, but they also have to engage with what their pupils are talking about. “A good teacher will always find a way to help students relate to any subject,” says Josh. “A celebrity is simply one tool.”

And those complaining of the dumbing down of a generation would do well to remember that Anne herself had posters of her idols on her walls, as many teenagers do today.

“Is it worrying at 14?” asks Simon. “For the most part they grow out of it and realise it’s immature to see that person as a role model. I can’t imagine too many of them being obsessed with Jessie J at university.”

To see the original and read the comments, click here.


My week in writing

I started the week with a blog post responding to Justin Bieber’s questionably appropriate message in the Anne Frank House guestbook, arguing that while not necessarily tasteful, it could be utilised in a positive way.

Back on rather more serious matters, I covered the once-a-decade announcement of the Granta young writers list, interviewing five of those who were honoured and discussing whether we were seeing a revival in the Anglo-Jewish literary scene. Staying with literature, I wrote about AM Homes making the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and the writers who were named as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in America.

I spoke to an artist about how his grandfather;s immigrant experience had prompted a sculpture of an upside-down-alien (now on display in London) and covered the annual Rich List, which marked its 25th birthday this year.

In domestic communal news, I reported on Laura Janner-Klausner’s decision to turn down an invitation to Margaret Thatcher’s funeral and heard from her why she felt it appropriate, and looked back in the archives at how the community marked Winston Churchill’s death.

Over in the comment section, I was pleased to commission a piece marking the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and looking at the wider history of resistance, which was illustrated with a breathtaking rare photograph from inside the ghetto.

Justin Bieber and Anne Frank: Why the fuss? (The JC)

Dear Kitty (as Anne Frank never wrote),

“I’m soo sick of being stuck in hiding, because my dad keeps telling me to turn down the volume on my Justin Bieber CD. If only I could get out to go and see him on tour…”

Clearly, Anne– the teenage diarist forced into hiding by the Nazis, who eventually died at Bergen Belsen – had more serious considerations than the average 21st century western teenager. In her diary, perhaps one of the most well-known examples of Holocaust-era testimony, she wrote of an everyday existence blighted by fear, death and hatred.

How tragic, knowing what became of her, to read her words: “Although I’m only fourteen, I know quite well what I want, I know who is right and who is wrong. I have my opinions, my own ideas and principles.”

Yet those who have read Anne’s diary will recall that, for all that her life was unlike many young people then and since, she was in many ways a typical teenager – frustrated by her mother, confused about boys. She could be petulant, she could be irrational. In another life, it’s not a stretch to imagine she might have been – as Bieber claimed this week – a fan of some fairly atrocious music. One of the many tragedies of her story is that she never got the chance to be embarrassed by her teenage passions.

Bieber is facing opprobrium for writing in the Anne Frank House guestbook that “Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.”

The correct response to a tale of persecution – to wonder whether the victim would have liked your latest video? Not to most of us, attuned to the sensitivities of discussing the Holocaust. As Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, noted, his message left her “a bit lost for words”.

Gillian Walnes, co-founder of the Anne Frank Trust UK, issued a sterner rebuke. “This is a place where Anne Frank spent two years,” she said. “Now 70 years later a pop singer is trying to hijack this for his own self-aggrandisement.”

She has a point, not least that Justin Bieber didn’t reach stratospheric levels of success without being a shameless self-publicist. If his visit had been purely a visit – rather than, at least in part, a publicity stunt – we wouldn’t even have heard about it.

Of course it trivialises the Holocaust to talk about whether one of its most famous victims would have been a fan of a singer with ridiculous hair; far more crucial to reflect on the piles of human hair, seized by the Nazis from their helpless victims, preserved at Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Of course the legacy of a girl who died before her 16th birthday for no other reason than being born a Jew, deserves more than contemplation as to how she would have spent her weekends if they’d been hers to spend.

Yet look on almost every news site around today. Yes, there are headlines about Bieber. But there are also headlines about Anne Frank, and the Holocaust – articles that his mostly tween fanbase would be unlikely to peruse without Bieber’s photograph accompanying them. Anne is even a trending topic on Twitter.

And it matters. It matters because in 2009 a survey revealed that one in 20 British kids thought Hitler was a football coach, and because in a decade, there won’t even be survivors left to talk to them at schools, or grandparents around to share their memories. It matters because when Baroness Thatcher died, the interest of a confused generation was piqued mainly by a tweet from Harry Styles. It matters because children listen far more to their role-models than they do to well-meaning teachers.

We can lament that as a sign of a generation brought up on reality TV and 140 characters of trash, or we can see it as an opportunity, and look to these “stars”, with their poor spelling and ignorant remarks, and recruit them to spread the word about important issues. They’ll do it if it gives them good publicity; teachers and organisations should seize on that.

We’ll never know whether Anne Frank would have been a “belieber” and, if we had the chance, I’d hope it wouldn’t be the first question we’d put to her. But if even one 14-year-old asks his parents or teachers today about why she lived in an attic, or reads her moving diary, then we’ll have Justin Bieber and his ridiculous remark to thank.