Children born in the early 21st century will be heirs to more than fifty years of extraordinary technical and economic developments which have fundamentally changed the way the England of their grandparents once lived. Does this mean that history has nothing useful to tell them, for life is apparently easier, the choices more extensive, and the possible rewards greater than ever before?
This is exactly what Adam Smith predicted would happen in an open, competitive market when imaginative producers of goods and services could deliver to consumers exactly what they needed. So effective has been the operation of the free market that it quickly satisfied people’s initial needs, and in a breathtakingly successful way, learned to inflate consumer demand by focusing on perceived wants or desires. ‘Got more, wants more’ has become the advertising industry’s motto, as it feeds our fascination with novelty, and our desire to hoard and collect. Families stagger home after a weekend trip to a shopping centre with goods that were never on their original list. Easy credit has made it possible for the average English family to spend nearly twenty pounds a week more than it earns – even with the average father already doing four hours of overtime each week.
Despite a continuous increase in real incomes over the past fifty years, the proportion of Americans reporting themselves as ‘very happy’ has fallen from thirty five percent to twenty nine percent, while the wealthiest hundred Americans show levels of happiness only slightly higher than an average wage earner’s1. The figures forEngland are comparable – as are the ever-escalating figures for clinical depression, and most desperate of all, for suicide. The proportion of ‘happy’ people inPoland is the same as inJapan, even though the Japanese are, as a nation, ten times richer than the Poles. There are some things money can’t buy, and happiness might be one of them – especially when it results from increased working hours and insecurity.
It was Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, the thirty three year old great, great grandson of an English immigrant, who sat down in Philadelphiain June 1776 and drafted out the American Declaration of Independence who elevated political thinking about happiness2. It was he who most effectively drew together in the public consciousness that man had an ‘inalienable right’ to link health and wealth with ‘the pursuit of happiness’. What he and his colleagues were expressing is, in effect, a statement of the obvious: that humans like to be happy. We have known this for centuries. It starts when we are very young – a baby’s exuberant enthusiasm, its playfulness and gorgeous smile that would unlock the hardest of adults hearts. Happiness develops as we form friendships and take delight in working together on challenging projects. Happy people are welcome company, ‘but cry and you cry alone’.
The concept of happiness is a most elusive one. Humans yearn to be happy, but happiness does not exist on its own; it comes with a price tag. Our ancestors, it seems, got their happiness from the satisfaction of doing a job well. To our nomadic hunter/gatherer ancestors possessions were a burden to be abandoned as soon as possible; happiness to them was not some future state of perfection, no land flowing with milk and honey, it was in the present. As an eminent evolutionary psychologist said in 1997, ‘We have evolved to be an effective species, not (necessarily) a happy one’3.
The new parents of 2006 should then be querying the perceived wisdom of the present education system with its assumption that schools should ‘fit with a new economic imperative of supply-side investment for national prosperity’4. They might also question whether pupils being driven very hard to gain good grades in the exams so as to get to the right University and on into the best paying jobs, is really just a trivialisation of education.
In the reformation of learning, everyone must take the responsibility of realising that learning is about much more than schooling, and that life is far more significant than just employment. The satisfaction of work itself is more valuable to both our physical and emotional well-being than its monetary rewards, be they outrageously large or unbearably small.
Thesis 17: 24th August 2006