by tim middleton
There is much interest being shown at present in the US Presidential election and it is illuminating to note some facts about those who have been elected in the past. While the US Constitution states that “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States”, 12 Presidents were in fact Generals in the Army, with Dwight D Eisenhower being the last of them. Like Zachary Taylor and Ulysses S Grant, General Eisenhower was a career military man who had never held political office before becoming President; significantly perhaps, Donald Trump was the first President with no previous experience in either the government or the military. General Eisenhower was also famously known, like some other Presidents, for being an ardent golfer and fisherman.
These then are some of the things which Eisenhower has in common with other Presidents, but there are other things for which he is uniquely recognised. One writer has stated that Eisenhower’s foreign policy, with regard to the Cold War, “took on an “us-versus-them” mindset, and this view of the world, as one polarized between Soviet totalitarian communism (them) and American democracy and freedoms (us), saw Eisenhower’s administration both provide aid to dictators friendly to US interests and authorise covert CIA missions to overthrow governments sympathetic to the Soviets.”
Such then are some of the features of General Eisenhower. There is however another powerful General who has had a major impact on millions of people, though not by any election. Yes, there was General Eisenhower; now we have General-isation. The world loves generalisations and lumps individuals together with labels that amount to little more than lies. The problem with that is that firstly assumptions are made (for good or bad) by outsiders based on the label while at the same time expectations (to live up to the label) are formed by those who have been given those labels. Education is one field where this is very obvious.
To begin with, many people give labels to schools. If a school is mentioned in conversation, people invariably will label the school. So, some schools are given the label of being academic, others as being sporty; some will be defined as successful, others as bullying. In most situations, there is no evidence to support what can only be described as a gross generalisation; in others, the limited evidence may well be out of date, out of context or out of touch. General-isation is a dangerous creature; the labels, usually based on lies, become liabilities.
It has to be said too that people also give labels within schools. Sometimes these labels are done officially (though sometimes unknowingly), in the sense that every time we award Colours or prizes or Prefectship or even grades we in effect label the children (as successful, if receiving them, or as not successful if not receiving them). Academic classes are ranked higher than Commercial or Technical courses; pupils doing the Arts are labelled in comparison to those playing sport. It may be done unknowingly or innocently (even with good intentions) but the youngsters know it all too well. The labels are also brandished unofficially by the curt way we describe or characterise the pupils; children are put down as “jocks” or “nerds”, as “jokers” or “dullards”, as “troublemakers” or “goodie-goodies”.
We might even find that school reports about children are full of bland, common, similar generalisations — indeed, some schools might even have a “bank” of sentences that teachers could select to make up a child’s report, an a la carte selection of descriptions that could in fact describe any number of children. There is no space for the child’s real identity.
The problem here is that, as mentioned above, these labels, these lies, become self-fulfilling; the youngsters hear such statements made about them and so live up to people’s expectations of them, while all the time the generalisations have usually been based on little more than assumptions. Along the same lines as Kwame Anthony Appiah, a profound thinker with regard to people’s identities, having written such literary works as The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity as well as Mistaken Identities, we would do well to rethink how we see and define our children, how we stifle their identity by placing them under a string of serious generalisations. General Eisenhower may have polarised other countries, but General-isation does it far too often to individuals. General-isation has become a Major issue; he must not be elected. If he is, we will not come up trumps!
l Tim Middleton is the executive director of the Association of Trust Schools [ATS]. The views expressed in this article, however, are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of the ATS.