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The most difficult of all tasks is making sense of one's own time. Often, the problem is trying to understand why people - especially institutions - continue repeating the same self-destructive things they have gone on doing for so long. Why, for example, did 14th-century French chivalry lose battles by sheer mindless bravado? Why did Crécy not teach them something when they assembled at Poitiers - or the Crécy and Poitiers experience as they faced the English over half a century later, at Agincourt? The general answer, no doubt, is that human folly results from people being victims of the wrong paradigm. The French chivalry were supreme in the arts of the tournament, and they thought that a battle was just a tournament on a grand scale.

It is also hard to understand one's own time because the realities come encrusted within such a distracting array of circumstance. The Romans lived through the long and peaceful reign of Augustus, barely recognising, until Tiberius and Caligula, how, with the most delicate republican tactfulness in shuffling offices, he had equipped them, if not with a king, certainly with a master. Under Augustus, they had even developed, without quite realising it, some of the sycophancy needed to play the new game of despotism. Even changes of this kind in oneself can be hard to recognise, except in hindsight.

The question about our own time I want to explore is: why have the British (and to some extent other Anglophones) allowed family and school life to collapse so extensively? The collapse has not happened on all levels of society, but it is widespread enough to affect everyone. The statistics, for what they are worth, are remarkable. According to a Channel 4 Dispatches programme in January, a poll conducted for the teaching union NASUWT suggested that 97 per cent of teachers had disruptive children in their classes. Almost three-quarters (74.4 per cent) claimed to have problems with physically aggressive children, while almost half (45.5 per cent) noted that the disruptive behaviour of a minority was a daily occurrence.

A related change in British life is that school inspections are sometimes "finessed" by asking disruptive children to stay at home on inspection days. In a target-driven world, cheating brings benefits.

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