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.”
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