The spectacular rise in standards of living in recent years within the English-speaking nations, especially amongst the English themselves, has created an extraordinary paradox. The busier and wealthier we have become the less time we seem to have for each other. This has created a crisis in how we educate our young people. It is a crisis of many parts that threatens the very basis of civilised life.
We undoubtedly live in extraordinary times, rich in opportunity yet loaded with uncertainty. While it is predicted that a healthy child born today in the UK has a 25% chance of living to the age of one hundred, only a decade ago the then President of the Royal Society gave humankind only a 50-50 chance of surviving that same hundred years… because, he argued, our technological knowledge is outpacing our wisdom, and our ability to make balanced judgements: a most dangerous mismatch.
The truth has to be that, the more confused adults feel themselves to be about the big issues of life, the less willing they are in their turn to give their adolescent children the space in which to work things out for themselves. Uncertain adults breed uninvolved, inexperienced adolescents: a society that has to rediscover reasons for its faith in the future is a mean place in which to bring up our children.
Beyond the nursery or the classroom – in the everyday affairs of life – two narratives are competing for our support. The stronger, more apparently attractive and certainly the most strident since the 1980s is that life is improved by maximising your wealth so as to participate as fully as possible in the good life. The second, upon which the future of our planet and the survival of the human race may depend, has emerged progressively over the past five years; it is about the need to adjust individual life aspirations so as to achieve planetary, ecological and social sustainability. These are very different, and competitive, narratives – the first argues for the rights of the individual, the latter for interdependence and community.
The struggle is being fought over the remains of much older narratives, well-known in their different guises to our ancestors. These older narratives had been about moderating and civilising the competing drivers of human behaviour that would otherwise bring chaos to individuals and societies by establishing a sense of the common good. In today’s “let’s have it all now” society we have forgotten the social significance of those spiritual traditions which in the past sought to “bind” the individual and community together for mutual benefit and create a sense of meaning.
With the weakening of commonly agreed codes of behaviour and morality, governments have seen it necessary, even desirable, to describe in ever finer detail what individuals must, and must not, do. What has life become if we are so reduced to doing only what we are told to do, that we no longer have it within us to rise to the challenge of being personally responsible?
A whole new way of doing things has to be found. It is not just the political realm, or the economic, or even the scientific or the spiritual realms, but it is all of these elements of human experience that have to be considered. And considered in their entirety, not separately. Some Body in this country – or some self-selected group of dedicated individuals – have to have the foresight, energy and imagination to transcend the comfortable rules and procedures of self-defining disciplines and embark on a synthesis of facts and theories that, however inconvenient this might be, seeks to appreciate the entire situation. Like an Impressionist painting composed of thousands upon thousands of apparently disconnected dots, we only understand the brilliance of the artist when our focus shifts from seeing the separate dots to suddenly appreciating the picture as a whole.
Even when we have the whole picture nothing can be achieved without a fundamental change of heart on the part of the people themselves. To activate a population involves constructing a persuasive, alternative vision which is so compelling that the contemporary narrative is shown up for what it is – something shallow, utilitarian and demeaning to the grandeur of the human intellect.
A campaign to reverse an overschooled but undereducated society cannot be masterminded by any single, brilliant strategist. It requires distributed leadership, and for that to be effective everyone needs to be really knowledgeable about why they are involved and the rightness and urgency of the cause.
Our post-modern society has done its best to convince itself that there is no such thing as a shared moral code. But without such commonly held beliefs simplistic, politically-correct statements that reflect only the lowest common denominator, squeeze the life out of education by dulling the vigour of pupil and teacher alike.
For young people to utilise their innate predispositions to the full, they need both a formal, rigorous curriculum and a whole experience of life that will later sustain and make them strong enough to deal with all the vagaries of life. John Milton, a man of towering intellect and much practical common sense, spoke from a time before reductionism sought to undermine the glory and complexity of what being human could mean. He gave a definition of education nearly four centuries ago that we need to rediscover;
I call therefore a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously, all the offices both public and private, of peace and war.
Ponder those words – an education that was complete and generous (no half measures here), that fits (like a tailor making a bespoke suit), so as to perform (not just talk) justly (so requiring a fine appreciation of ethics) skilfully (Milton’s definition of skill included the practical as well as the theoretical) and magnanimously (with a big heart and empathy with others), not only in his private affairs but publicly when things were going well as well as badly. The rounded person, the adaptable, free-range person, not the efficient and single-purpose battery hen. People who can think for themselves, however complex the situation.
To establish such a national vision of education for our own times, in terms comparable to Milton, has to be the starting point for a strategy in England that would reverse our overschooled but undereducated society, and recognise that education has to start far away from the gates of the school.
It should be self-evident that the better educated people are, the less they need to be told what to do. Unfortunately, the reverse is equally true, for the less educated people are the more government feels it necessary to issue larger rule-books. As regulation is extended quickly it becomes self-perpetuating, for the more people accept being told what to do, the less they think for themselves. Which is the tragic point England now seems to have reached. We have become so over-taught that we have lost the art of thinking for ourselves.
The second part of the strategy involves exploiting the findings from neurobiology and cognitive science. This will give us a whole new way of looking at the evolved grain of the brain, and calls for a pedagogy that works to progressively wean the growing child away from its dependence on instruction.
That pedagogy has to honour the principle of Subsidiarity;
It is wrong for a superior to hold to itself the right of making a decision which an inferior is already qualified to do for itself.
Just as parents have to let go of their children as they grow older, so subsidiarity necessitates a relationship of trust, not control. If, as an adult or an inquisitive young person, we equip ourselves to be able to do something and are then constantly over-ruled or micro-managed, we fast lose our motivation as control slips away from us.
Thirdly, England as with many other nations, needs an education system that will reverse the priority first gained by Dr Arnold for secondary education in the mid-nineteenth century and further extended throughout the last century, in favour of seeing the primary sector as the time and place where the essential foundations for lifelong learning are built. Once that essential design fault has been recognised then the senior years of education would involve teachers and schools sharing with the greater community the responsibility for providing adolescents with a range of in-school as well as community-based learning opportunities.
This is hugely challenging both to the current structure of education, and to the public’s perception that schools should be the place to do with children what adults now think they are too busy to do for themselves.
A clear vision that links self-starting individuals to the needs of dynamic communities, based on a form of learning that goes from cradle to grave and is practiced as much beyond the walls of the school as it is within classrooms, would rapidly reinvigorate the youth of England. Quickly they would accumulate the skills and wisdom necessary to direct mankind’s technological discoveries in ways, as proposed by the then Sir Martin Rees (now Lord Rees) at the Millennium, that “would lead to a near eternity filled with evermore complex and subtle forms of life” rather than “one filled with nothing but base matter”.
At an earlier conference to discuss these issues in the United States an American participant said with obvious passion “Knowing what we now know, we no longer have the moral authority to carry on doing what we have always done”. To Americans with their philosophic tradition deeply rooted in 17th Century Puritan thought such high-flying sentiments come to them more easily than they do to the English. A century and a half later when Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence he had in mind the kind of covenant the Pilgrim Fathers had signed aboard the Mayflower: “We whose names are underwritten… solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one another, covenant and combine our services together in a civil body politic.”
In a covenantal relationship, no amount of shoulder-shrugging, no anguished appeal to politicians, no recourse to blaming other people’s inertia, can ever excuse the knowledgeable individual’s responsibility to get up and do it for themselves. Later the 1662 Prayer Book, the work of literature which stood only second to the Bible in the formation of American philosophic thought, said;
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done;
And we have done those things we ought not to have done;
And there is no health in us.
To fail to do something which you are required to do is one thing. But not to do something which you know ought to be done makes a person equally culpable, in a covenantal relationship, of letting other people down.
Now, in 2011, this remains the critical point. Four years ago evolutionary psychologists reinforced what Darwin had acknowledged a century and a half earlier that while high standards of morality give slight or no advantage to individuals, research now shows that altruistic behaviour most certainly benefits the genes of the whole group. They summarised this as “selfishness beats altruism within groups; altruistic groups beat selfish groups every time”.
To evolutionary psychologists, as to sociologists, head masters house masters, chief executives of corporations as well as to politicians struggling to understand the Big Society, the concept of “group size” is critical. Recent research underlines the psychological demand on primates of living in large groups means that the preferred group size correlates closely to a species’ brain size … and it has been demonstrated over and over again around the world that this for Homo Sapiens means a group of around 150 – be it in living on a housing estate, a member of a company of soldiers, or actual friends on Facebook … “friendship” is defined by those people we actually know, and who know us, and amongst whom there is a sense of positive reciprocity.
Over history successful empires were always those with the highest levels of collaborative behaviour… that is why those who enthusiastically seek to embrace the concept of the Big Society can’t, at the same time, advocate social policies overtly based on competition and hierarchies. They simply don’t mix.
This has nothing to do with performability, or regulation. Policy-makers have frequently forgotten that most day-to-day activity has nothing to do with the law; it is about getting on with our neighbours and creating a quality of life that depends on our access to people we trust, like, admire and find fun. Children need to learn this everywhere – from their mother’s knee, to the nursery, to the playground and in all their interaction with members of the community.
Society is “an aggregate” (something formed from a mass of loosely connected fragments) of people living together in more or less orderly communities, held together through its own natural, organic procedures. Being an aggregate is society’s strength; or, put another way, society is the aggregate of what people think for themselves. Through the sharing of our thoughts we come to appreciate the diversity and the collective of society as a whole…..and are the richer for that.
Many of us will have come together, as we have done for the better part of the past 25 years thinking that we need to discuss a “crisis in schooling”. What we have been extraordinarily slow to recognise that this is only a symptom of a far deeper, more insidious, problem. It is the way in which market efficiency has become, for politicians, the determining factor in so many aspects of social policy. Writing in 2004 a journalist, a self-confessed atheist, commended two bishops for being concerned with “ the yearning for happiness and fulfilment … and for an ethic of human flourishing that is rooted in human nature.”
She went on to observe, “it has become almost unthinkable to go to politicians for this kind of language or ambition. [If they told us] that their main intention in public life was to make us happier, or to challenge us to rethink our values we would laugh in their faces. The political arena has shrivelled drastically, back to a technocratic promise to use our taxes to provide services a bit more efficiently than the other lot.”
Herein lies the problem which now infects every aspect of our schools, homes and communities. It is the way in which the meaning of efficiency has been perverted to become an end in itself – not a means to a more significant set of ends.
Efficiency is a concept dating back to the Greeks, but the Greeks defined efficiency in a significantly different way to early 21st Century advocates of open markets. To the Greeks, efficiency was a means towards achieving virtue, both for the individual and the state, it was about the best combination and utilisation of human resources to achieve the ideal state.
Using Subsidiarity as a concept to define the evolving relationship between a pupil and a teacher, and between parents and children, is not a principle that appeals to advocates of the market economy. To them subsidiarity is too imprecise, messy, problematic, and individualistic to be applied to a system driven by known inputs and measured in terms of quantifiable outputs. Yet subsidiarity was the principle (even though not known by that name) that drove the craft ethic that gave splendid birth to the Industrial Revolution. Those men were entrepreneurs because they felt in control of their destiny.
The scientific management of labour that Fredrick Winslow-Taylor and others later set out had absolutely no regard for the Greek concept of the virtuous state. What these men offered was a process that had so many immediate material benefits that men in their tens of thousands forsook the concept of the equitable distribution of labour, for the benefits of the accumulation of capital for those with the money to do so, and the almost inevitable dumbing down of those whose only role was to labour.
What England has been appallingly slow to do, however, is to recognise that the industrial model of schooling with its heavy emphasis on control, prescription and uniformity simply enshrine efficiency as an end in itself. Under the guise of continually reforming the conventional model of schooling, England is failing to see the need to rebuild the process of learning around the way in which children actually accumulate and use knowledge.
The nation that once prided itself on its practical approach to life has become blind to the need to empower people to work things out for themselves. In the name of empowering people it has substituted instead a crude system of uniform credentialism, and imposed on education – as with other facets of social life – the tightest regulated and heavily managed set of systems.
Writing in his book “Growth Fetish” the Australian Clive Hamilton observed; “Today the compulsion to participate in a consumer society is no longer prompted by material needs (these have been largely solved) but rather by political coercion. It is prompted by the belief of the great mass of ordinary people, taking their cue from political leaders, that defined happiness as society, as with individuals, must be forever getting richer, regardless of how wealthy they already are.”
This is a basic contradiction of a profound evolutionary principle; to satisfy human basic needs increases happiness, but the ongoing search an ever-expanded set of “wants” as set out most persuasively by the advertising industry, is largely an illusionary journey with no end in sight. Robert Wright, the evolutionary psychologist, put it neatly and succinctly; “we are born to be effective animals, not happy ones”.
It seems that we are at our most satisfied when we feel that we have genuinely earned our reward and are proud of the job which we have laboured to do. The basic problem in our society is that too many people don’t have that level of involvement with their work. A reward too easily gained (either in school or in one’s greater life) means little to us. Therein lies so much of our dissatisfaction with modern life.
Some while ago the President of the American Psychological Association attributed the massive rise in unhappiness, as defined by him as various forms of depression, to four factors; an excessive emphasis on individualism, the constant attempt to bolster self-esteem , the belief that any mistake is due to victimisation (and is not your fault), and the continuous cult of consumerism. Of course teachers have been sensing for a long time that the convergence of these four factors in children’s homes creates such deep tensions which are then transmitted into the classroom – many of which schools are totally powerless to rectify.
This is why Milton’s statement about a complete and generous education made all those years ago is so entirely relevant to our own times if, and only if, we can accept the responsibility of defining a society characterised by justice, skilfulness and magnanimity.
For the sake of the children, our children, other people’s children, this cannot go on any longer.
There is one key issue to address. In 1946 John Maynard-Keynes said “the day is not far off when the economic problem will take the back seat where it belongs, and the arena of the heart and the head will be occupied or reoccupied by our real problems – the problems of life and of human relations, of creation and behaviour and religion”.
That was a depressing 60 years ago.
As the sense of civil society weakens so the social contract on which the bringing up of your own child is assigned to someone else can all too quickly lead to education becoming a matter for private gain, not for public good. When that happens civil society is still further undermined. Functional civil society and genuine democracy walk hand in hand, if they don’t, one, or each, stumbles.
The belief in performability, of management by objectives, is at long last starting to falter, and it is faltering for very human reasons. Humans are a collaborative species – it is how we are. We are driven to think for ourselves; it is how we survive. Remember that, and Responsible Subversives have everything we need to deal with problems facing national society.