Education Matters – 2023: “Consider the influencers – Obama, Pelé and Tate”

Well, strike a light! Back in January 1981, when I first stepped up to run Claires Court Senior Boys, I’d never had guessed that 42 years on, I would still be looking forward with great anticipation the New Year ahead at school. Many of my old friends in Education think I am bonkers by the way, having themselves stepped down into retirement. But there are enough informed voices out there reminding me that there remains a good job for experienced practitioners in schools to stay put and provide a voice for education that does not necessarily just promise something new, silver bullet shaped and untested.

Below I include 3 items of specific interest on people who have influenced the world we live in: 1. Advice to parents from Michelle Obama on parenting 2. A tribute to ‘Pelé’, a man whose life exemplified the very best individual values as well as one who gave remarkable service to his country and 3. a cautionary tale to parents on influencers coming down the ‘Spotify’ tubes!

Michelle Obama’s recently published book, ‘The Light We Carry‘, makes a really good attempt at positioning the reader as a parent growing up as the main caregiver for the children whilst her husband Barak seeks to rise up the political ranks. I was particularly taken by Libby Purves’ own take on the book in her Times column, and the quotes she takes from Mrs Obama are hysterical – try this one on the joys of Toddlers:

Grappling with the Christmas sugar-rush insurgency, wrestling small molten lumps of rage into wellington boots and manoeuvring spoons towards defiant little mouths, I suspect most families with small children were encouraged and amused by Michelle Obama’s breezy definition of toddlers as “terrorists” — demanding, irrational and needy, however much you love them.

Or this one on the Joys of co-parenting:

She made it even better by saying that for one fraught decade she “couldn’t stand” her husband Barack, who was powering on towards the Senate while she clung on to her own legal career and did more than half the childcare. She cited outraged wifely remarks like: “You’re going out? Where? You’re GOLFING?

Purves highlights even more importantly the recognition that Obama gave to the difficulties of dealing with her children when entering their adolescent years:

She spoke of her effort to ensure that despite their weird White House years, her daughters Sasha and Malia emerged with the ability to make ordinary friends, take a bus and find their way about. But more universal was her scorn for mothers and fathers who meet rebellious cries of “I hate you, you’re ruining my life!” with anxiety, as if trying to be a friend, not a parent. The Obama response is robust, apparently: “Go away, think that in your own room. I don’t need you to like me — I GOT friends!

And finally, Libbty Purves points to Mrs Obama’s advice on shielding your child “When you constantly shield a child from feeling fear you are stopping them from ever feeling competent”. As for the small but intense trials of childhood, those black furies at unfairness we all remember and proudly relate to our therapists, Mrs Obama said flatly: “Kids have to learn how to live with unfairness and unhappiness. They have to learn it in their own house. Their first bout of unfairness shouldn’t be at school. Or when they’re 30 . . . ”.

What is so important to convey is that the symptoms of childhood and adolescence are just that – to be expected and managed, rather than medicalised and pathologised. The last thing I wish to suggest is that mental health difficulties for all of us are not ‘imagined’, but what is so important is to use the body’s own coping mechanisms and those of the supporting family members to manage them, rather than to seek old or new fashioned remedies of alcohol, nicotine, food and ‘prescription’alternative’ drugs to change an adolescent’s mindset for the better.

Where the unfolding of the life and times of Edson Arantes do Nascimento, known across the world as ‘Pelé’ has added to the mix, is that clear demonstration that talent and hardwork are a magic combination. I am fortunate enough to remember seeing Pelé in his prime, through the arrival of colour TV in time for the World Cup in Mexico 1970. So much has been written about Pelé in the past, but time having moved on, it’s only his recent death that has brought his exploits back into sharp focus. Firstly, he became the first world wide sportsman, and led the elevation of football to the world-wide status it enjoyed from 1970 onwards. Pelé was born into poverty, and helped to make family ends meet by working in tea shops. He learned to play football with a grapefruit or ball of newspaper in a sock; whilst his footballing father’s support was invaluable, it was a former Brazilian national player, de Brito who mentored him from age 14, bringing his young talents to the attention of leading football clubs in Sao Paulo, calling the boy out as being ‘the greatest living footballer in the world”. After making his mark as a talented 15 year old, his career advanced rapidly and at age 17, he was selected for the Brazil national team in time for the 1958 Word Cup. His 6 goals, including a great hat trick to defeat France in the semi-finals made his fame permanent! He has set so many records, in terms of goals scored, titles won, as well as the longevity of his physical contribution to the sport, his demeanour as a man who played by the rules yet whose skills took him outside of the expected mechanics of play caused all to celebrate his contribution being named as ‘The greatest player of the 20th century’. His demeanour, his ongoing legacy of dignity and willingness to remain subordinate the sport for whom he became an iconic ambassador are ones he leaves as a legacy for other world stars to consider, indeed

Andrew Tate (The King of Toxic Masculinity) is one of many modern day influencers who has been able to develop a cult on the internet, following his career as a kick boxer and most recently because of his advocacy of extreme, misogynistic views and his outreach work amongst teenage boys via social media platforms, part of the ‘Manosphere’ collection of spaces, such as blogs, forums and websites, promoting masculinity and misogyny, and opposing feminism. The Manosphere includes communities such as Incels, pickup artists (PUA) and Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW). Tate is currently in the news because of his arrest in Romania, together with his brother Tristan, on human sex-trafficking allegations. Other powerful figures in this space include Joe Rogan, steering his post TV career into a multi-million dollar salary via Spotify, for whom his podcast currently tops their streaming billing. Many commentators are worried about Rogan, because of his careless attitude to material facts and because he restates those lies so often, his audience can be forgiven for believing them to be true. Perhaps even more sinister is the clear entrapment online by neo-nazis of the British teenage Rhiannan Rudd, who took her own life earlier this year following her arrest and charge for terrorism offences, the BBC now breaking the news of the decision by the Home Office that she had been a victim of exploitation. What worries professionals and parents alike about the INCEL culture is that its advocates like Tate are playing to the weaknesses and lack of confidence that so many teenagers have and giving them wholly false or ‘fake’ reasons that confirm their lack of worth, and strengthening their bonds to this negative culture.

Whilst in the past we have had such strange wacky ideas recruit people to cults, the arrival of so many available influencers on the internet and available via Spotify and chat zones in games such as Minecraft makes it clear that we need to work hard to provide plenty of counter-narratives and put them on show to promote positive attitudes and emphasise current societal norms. You can’t ban this current wave any more than parents could the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the ’60s, which welcomed in the arrival of hedonistic (for the time) pleasure and counter-culture views that rocked American and European society, and introducing us to mass protest movements of which perhaps Woodstock was the most famous.

Given the sheer explosion of Influencers providing lengthy podcasts to all and sundry, there is absolutely no way parents can stay up with the teenage ‘vibe’ for information and discussion in so many areas of absolute fascination for them. The Spotify podcast list 2022 shows that Joe Rogan is still at number 1, but that previous Ted Talks (2) The New York Times ‘Daily’ (3) and Michelle Obama (4) have been relegated behind Call her Daddy vlog (now at 2) hosted by Alex Cooper, providing some pretty deep insights into personal activities of friends and fellow stars, which are magnetically attractive to teenagers wanting to learn more about sex, life and their universe. What parents and schools must do is to find the time to awaken their knowledge of what their children are engaging in, re-take an interest in what is coming down the tubes and influencing their children’s thinking. Best perhaps to make sure that the adults provide conversation and regather normality for what our ‘real’ world looks like and how their sons and daughters can join them to participate. In short, remember Michelle Obama’s anger at Barak going off to play golf – and if you have a date with your golf clubs, consider taking your children with you to gather that life skill along the way!

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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