Celebrities in Education?
Paved with the best intentions, schools have increasingly used celebrities to engage pupils and remain relevant, to ‘raise awareness’, remove stigma, and serve as ‘positive role models’. However, invoking celebrity references in education is a double-edged sword: in the short term, it may buy us some credibility by flashing our popular culture credentials, but in the bigger scheme of things we may be undermining ourselves and short-changing our pupils.
When giving a PSHE talk on body image recently, I was asked by a girl, “Isn’t it good that Billie Eilish is promoting body positivity by showing her body [in her underwear with stockings and suspenders] in Vogue? I mean, like, she’s really been there, she’s had body dysmorphia, depression and she cut herself too!” Others point to Taylor Swift being a truly empowered thoroughly modern woman and arbiter of quite a few things about life. She recently revealed that some days, she would “starve a little bit [and] just stop eating”, feeling “like I was going to pass out at the end of a show, or in the middle of it”. The rest of the time, she kept lists of everything she ate and exercised constantly until she was a size two. (BBC 2020)
All of this adulation coincides with the publication of a major review in the Journal of Health Psychology, ‘Celebrity influence on body image and eating disorders’, which concludes, “exposure to celebrity images, appearance comparison, and celebrity worship are associated with maladaptive consequences for individuals’ body image”. (Brown & Tiggemann 2021)
The ‘Beckham Effect’
A decade ago, researchers raised concerns that with the rise in celebrity culture, “the pathway for nearly anyone to become famous, without a connection to hard work and skill, may seem easier than ever”. (Uhls & Greenfield 2011) In Britain, educators referred to this as ‘The Beckham Effect’ when describing pupils’ mindset, that you become successful simply by being discovered.
In ‘The rise and risks of celebrity ‘teachers’, six PhDs and professors from the British Educational Research Association make this uncool yet vital timely point regarding “a rise in the number of ‘celebrities’ delivering online ‘classes’ to supplement ‘home-schooling’: “the fact that celebrity ‘offers’ were (often) enthusiastically accepted by some schools gives pause for thought for the profession … whereby celebrities can easily be substituted for qualified teachers … they simply cannot be replaced by any Joe Bloggs”. (Stirrup et al 2020)
The Association of School and College Leaders has also pointed out that while the appearance of celebrities in education “may appeal to young people … without wishing to sound like killjoys, we would emphasise that the priority must be to follow the schemes of work provided by schools … pupils should focus first on the ‘excellent learning support’ being compiled by their teachers”. (TES 2020)
Keep it Real
For children to develop into social and emotionally viable adults, they need a lot of experience with real life and the lifestyles and people they have a real-world connection with. By watching the behaviour of other people in their sphere, children learn what their various roles in life entail. Through a type of social osmosis, they learn about how to do life – from being a customer in a shop, to being a pupil, to being a sibling. The unprecedented and extremely high level of exposure to celebrities both outside and now inside daily education is an important factor in the formation of children’s social identity, and children are particularly malleable. The extremes of their lives make celebrities into unrealistic role models because their behaviour often does not fit into the context of a real-world life.
Professor of Sociology Frank Furedi made the interesting observation that “the ascendancy of the celebrity has been fuelled by society’s uneasy relationship with the question of authority …The tendency to outsource authority to the celebrity represents an attempt to bypass the problem” by figures of authority. (Furedi 2010)
By acquiescing to more celebrity culture, we are retreating from our vital and timeless obligation to be children’s main steadfast examples and role models in life. We’re also aiding and abetting the process of appearing even more dull and uninspiring than we were before in comparison to celebs. In food terms, if we routinely put E numbers and flavour enhancers in our children’s food we shouldn’t be surprised if they turn their noses up at healthy food.
Those working in education should be respected for choosing a profession because they actually care about children. They certainly don’t do it for the money or fame. And when it comes to knowing a thing or two about the environment or health, it’s very safe to say that an environmental science or PSHE teacher knows more, a lot more, than a celebrity.
This isn’t to say that children shouldn’t star-gaze – it’s in our nature – but the sheer ubiquitous volume and degree of idolatry to a range of changing celebrities is new and doesn’t look as if it’s beneficial. As part of pupils’ education in critical thinking, we need to introduce some home truths. Celebrities may be engaging, attractive and talented … but that does not necessarily make them arbiters of anything beyond their particular talent.
Unfortunately, we as adults have to be deeply uncool and make a value judgment that while celebrity culture, increasingly in school, may interest children, it isn’t in their best interests. Rather than getting down with the kids, we need to step up and put celebrities in their place.
BBC (2020) Taylor Swift reveals eating disorder in Netflix documentary.
BBC Entertainment & Arts. 24 January 2020 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-51234055
Brown, Z., & Tiggemann, M. (2021). Celebrity influence on body image and eating disorders: A review. Journal of Health Psychology, 1359105320988312.
Furedi, F. (2010). Celebrity culture. Society, 47(6), 493-497.
Stirrup, J., Hooper, O., Sandford, R., Harris, J., Casey, R., & Cale, L. (2020). ‘PE’ with Joe (Bloggs): The rise and risks of celebrity ‘teachers’ [blog post]. BERA Blog. https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/pe-with-joe-bloggs-the-rise-and-risks-of-celebrity-teachers
TES (2020) Coronavirus: Heads’ caution over online celeb classes. News.24th March 2020
Uhls, Y. T., & Greenfield, P. M. (2011). The rise of fame: An historical content analysis. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 5(1).