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Born Bad

February 24, 2018

The dominant model of student behaviour used by educational progressives (and therefore by the education system in England which still takes its assumptions from educational progressivism) is therapeutic. If a child is badly behaved, then this is a symptom of some other problem. The correct response is to diagnose the problem and resolve it. The problems tend to be:

  • the teacher;
  • society;
  • SEND.

This has led to a denial of two key factors in behaviour:

  1. Social influences. The peer group and the culture of a school are absolutely key to a child’s decision to misbehave. Put the same child in a different class or a different school, and you would see radically different behaviour, even if somehow they still had the same teacher, the same SEND and the same external society.
  2. Human agency. Badly behaved children are assumed to have very little agency. Their choices are a response to either internal or external circumstances. They are considered to be perpetually not guilty due to diminished responsibility. Effectively, if a child is badly behaved, they must be insane and need treatment for their insanity.

This latter point is particularly bizarre. When kids see an adult won’t hold them responsible for their actions then they will exploit it ruthlessly. Nothing undermines a kid’s efforts to improve their behaviour than being told they aren’t responsible for it. Schools put a lot of resources into curing badly behaved kids of their “underlying problems” (often these are called “unmet needs” and the bad behaviour is described as “communicating unmet needs”). My experience is that these resources are largely wasted. I have known so many children who have been subjected to “intervention” to help their behaviour on this basis, and yet I cannot think of one child who was “cured” and can think of several whose behaviour became worse as a result. Children do improve their behaviour. Sometimes they just mature; sometimes they realise the consequences of continued misbehaviour; sometimes their peer or family group changes and that’s enough. Rarely does any child’s behaviour improve because their “unmet needs” are identified solely from their behaviour and cured. Beyond asking “what can I do to help you behave?” very little useful information is gained from the search for unmet needs, because while a whole host of factors may affect behaviour, very little behaviour has one over-riding, treatable cause.

So why are progressives so convinced of the therapeutic approach to behaviour management? The most obvious explanation is that it is in accord with their beliefs about human nature. There is a romantic, utopian tradition in both liberalism and socialism, that sees human beings as natural saints who are corrupted by society. Once the right institutions exist, or the wrong ones are destroyed, we will reach the promised land. In this account, no child could be motivated to do something bad without some external influence.

This is in contrast to a conservative account of human nature. In this account, none of us are natural saints. We all feel the temptation to do wrong and we all give into it from time to time. We all do things that we know are wrong and no external agent has encouraged us to do. Even toddlers who have never experienced violence, may decide to shove another child out of the way. No crime that we can imagine is so alien to human nature that nobody has ever tried to commit it. There is darkness and cruelty in human nature.

This is one of those “debates” where one account is obviously true. We are blatantly not natural saints. We do have selfish impulses we have to learn to control. We do suffer from pride and laziness. We do get angry when we shouldn’t. We don’t always consider others as much as we should. Nobody ever had to make us this way; it’s who we are and anyone claiming to be above such impulses would be mocked for their self-righteousness. It’s almost impossible to see where anyone could even begin if one wanted to make a case for our natural moral perfection.

So what can be done to continue a debate where one position is obviously wrong and the evidence that it is wrong is so abundant that it would be impossible to know where to start if somebody asked for it?

There are two main strategies for those who deny human nature: the ad hominem and the straw man.

The ad hominem argument is to point out that belief in our fallen nature is part of Christianity, part of the doctrine of original sin, and therefore, anyone who believes in it, must believe in it on that basis. It has a certain plausibility. I’m sure people who think the state can remake human nature from scratch are less likely to be religious than those of us who worry every day they might fall into temptation. But, of course, no proposition can be disproved by a statement about who believes it and being a Christian belief doesn’t make something inherently false, particularly if it’s obviously true. As G.K.Chesterton said, original sin is “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved”. Moreover, do atheists always adhere to the romantic view of human nature? Probably the most pessimistic statement about human nature I can think of (far more pessimistic than my beliefs) comes from arch-atheist Richard Dawkins in the Selfish Gene:

“Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.”

He later conceded that we do have more of a natural tendency to altruism than he admitted here, but there is no possibility that he had somehow become temporarily religious when he wrote the claim I quoted.

The other argument, is the straw man. The view that our worst impulses are not necessarily unnatural, can be misrepresented as the view that our natural impulses are only our worst impulses. When I say we are “born bad”, I mean we are born with some bad impulses. We cannot blame our inclination to do wrong only on what has happened to us since birth. It is not a claim that nothing good in our natures is there from birth. It is not a claim that children have no good instincts. However, to those who want to misrepresent me, then what I am saying is that children deserve to be treated as if they are just plain evil. I never cease to be amazed that when I discuss the flawed nature of all human beings, including myself, people will paraphrase whatever I say as referring only to kids and then use it as evidence that I hate children. Of course, I don’t think children are exceptions to human nature, to say otherwise would be to treat them as not actually human. But nobody is under any obligation to believe children are natural saints who do not need boundaries or guidance in order to do the right thing.

If anyone has an argument that we are all natural born saints, that doesn’t consist of pointing and shouting “you hate children”, I’d be grateful to hear it. Until then, I will continue to believe that we are “born bad” in as much as human nature is not completely fluffy and that we should all strive for our own moral improvement.

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17 comments

  1. I think you can refute the Christianity attack with all the other religions similarly acknowledge human failings and contain teachings that are designed to help us to cope with this and show us better ways of behaving.

    It’s dehumanising children to argue that structure alone causes behaviour and that they have no agency. I think a lot of the time it is those people who make excuses for their own behaviour who do so for children too, in doing so they are modelling a pattern of escaping from reality, responsibility and consequences for one’s actions.


  2. Beyond asking “what can I do to help you behave?” …..

    I worked in SEBD for many years. I did wonder to what extent the answer was “give me no option”. This is partly because of the quite common career choice of the Army – this seemed to be fairly consistent over economic and social changes and not dependant on educational achievement either.

    In the Army, there will be little or no “empathetic” behaviour management (or wasn’t).


  3. This debate has been going on at least since 1766, when the English radical James Burgh reacted to the publication of Emile:
    “It will be possible to prevent all the faults…whenever M. Rousseau obliges the world with the discovery of a new chemical process by which all the weakness, the self-love, the passion, and appetite which have been hitherto found in human nature, may be extracted out of children, and mortals at once transmuted into angels.”
    Burgh, who ran a dissenting academy, knew whereof he spoke. However, I think all this misses the principal source of progressive blindness about behaviour. Both children and adults can be induced to work with relatively little difficulty if they are given tasks which are both meaningful and doable, yet most teachers still expect pupils to develop ‘skills’ in the absence of adequate knowledge (or anything like direct instruction). Pupils who lack the ability or resources to gain that knowledge are patronised with ‘differentiated’ worksheets that are an insult to the meanest intelligence.
    If schools really took safeguarding seriously, progressive teachers would never be allowed anywhere near these children. We should hardly be surprised when children misbehave after enduring 12 years of pointless frustration and humiliation. In probation work, in the building trades and in the Army I have worked with young men who left school with little more than a chip on their shoulder, yet responded enthusiastically to training that enabled them to obtain useful skills–and some self-respect.


  4. Great to see you posting about behaviour again Andrew, but a pity you’ve clearly felt you’ve had to do it in response to the usual social media attacks.

    Particularly pertinent to primary school is your point:
    ‘When kids see an adult won’t hold them responsible for their actions then they will exploit it ruthlessly.’ I doubt that there are many primary teachers in the country who have not sat through INSET sessions since the beginning of this school year where they have been told that ‘All behaviour is communication’ etc. Teachers at my school were recently told by SLT that we should have different behaviour expectations for Pupil Premium children because of their ‘unmet needs’. So that is; if you are poor you are not only allowed to behave badly, we expect you to behave badly. So, because they are poor, these children are not held accountable for their actions when they, hit, kick, bully, stab, swear at, lie to, steal from and manipulate other children and school staff. Surely it’s not that difficult to see that this is catastrophic for these children when they go to Secondary School and then enter the adult world.
    But it’s not just those specific children that will exploit not being held to account for their actions. Children in primary schools learn nothing useful from other children in terms of actual education and emotional and social development. However, if they see other children ‘getting away with stuff’ that they don’t, it leads to an acute sense of injustice and then they themselves will exploit the situation to see what they can get away with. So, the behaviour problems that manifest in secondary schools have their gestation in Years 1 to 3 of primary schools . You see it time and time again – classes in KS1 Or LKS2 that have just one child that hits or kicks other children, are (if this is not properly, rigorously and consistently addressed) the classes that become a nightmare to try and teach by Year 5, and are the ones the school cant wait to get rid of at the end of Year 6.

    So yes, we are ‘born bad’, but it is apparent that is possible to make children ‘badder’ – the educational progressive’s therapeutic model of student behaviour that you have drawn attention to doesn’t just fail to deal with the problem, when applied in primary settings it actively causes and exacerbates the behaviour problems that secondary school teachers have to deal with.


  5. […] Born Bad, by Andrew Old […]


  6. Had I read this post exactly 5 years ago I would have just commented:

    “Amen”

    (Though a heartfelt but, now in retirement, wholly abstract and perhaps, given the lasting harm which these foolish, cynical strategies have wreaked on my generation of teachers, more than a little bitter “Amen.”)

    Given that I am in fact reading it 5 years later, so to speak, I must desperately desperately sadly add:

    “And I hope you don’t let the man whom, to paraphrase Georges Bernanos at the start of the Spanish Civil War “I must reluctantly call the Bishop of Rome” see what you have written.”

    O tempora, o mores.


  7. I doubt anyone is interested in my counter-opinion because people who read these sorts of posts to the end are probably of like mind.
    I am not going to challenge every statement and assumption – I don’t want to start an argument. I have spent the last 30 years working with children with social emotional and mental health problems.
    The views expressed above strike me as incredibly ideological and massively short on solutions to the problems these children and those who are challenged with educating them face.
    You wrongly characterize those trying to find solutions as wooly-headed and it is a truly ‘straw man fallacy’ to suggest we think of children as damaged saints. Where did you get that idea?
    If anyone is interested in finding out what can be done, rather than what can’t, please leave me a comment. You might like to review my recently completed book ‘The relational approach: a user guide and manual’ (in press as I write).


    • You can’t say you have a “counter-opinion” to mine *and* say that I am arguing against a straw man. Either I am arguing against a straw man, and therefore, you actually agree with me, or you disagree with me and it’s not a straw man.


    • “I am not going to challenge every statement and assumption – I don’t want to start an argument.”

      Perhaps then you might settle for a debate. With several counter examples cited.By you.

      “The views expressed above strike me as incredibly ideological and massively short on solutions to the problems these children and those who are challenged with educating them face.”

      On opinion with which I for one disagree.

      The pejorative overtones to the word “ideological” suggest to me nothing more than that you don’t like the post. Which is obviously your prerogative. But if you want to debate the topic, you might also be challenged to provide some counter analysis or arguments stronger than merely asserting that the post is “ideological.”

      As for solutions ? The solution posited by Old Andrew, and one which certainly convinces me, is that as long as we pretend that children are innately good we are never going to make progress.

      Put the opposite way, once we acknowledge that children, and adults, including bloggers and posters on websites as Old Andrew is at pains to point out, are not innately good then we can at least begin to seek solutions based on a modicum of insight into human behaviour.

      “…it is a truly ‘straw man fallacy’ to suggest we think of children as damaged saints. Where did you get that idea?”

      I cannot speak for Old Andrew obviously but I got the very clear impression, in spades I would venture, that such is the prevailing orthodoxy from over 30 years spent teaching almost exclusively in what Alastair Campbell, through his mouthpiece Tony Blair, once infamously described as “bog standard [English] comprehensives.”

      Though I did have a few brief spells over the period in other educational milieux which confirmed to me that it was not just in comprehensives that this Rousseauan mirage was king but rather that it held near total total sway in almost all English educational thinking (sic) .


      • This is my full reply. Do get a copy. This is what works. Declaring children as bad is ideological and nowhere near a solution.


        • “….This is my full reply. Do get a copy. This is what works….”
          Notwithstanding the issue of using public fora for commercial ends, a quick glance at the contents, coupled with the 3rd sentence above, shows that you are much much closer the field of therapeutic intervention than to mainstream education.
          “But it works….”
          Well so you assert.
          But Ofsted (not I freely admit a body whose judgements I normally endorse or defer to) seem underwhelmed by the reality of your own school, Inaura.
          Substantially so at that.
          The fact that their October 2016 report showed great improvement over the main January 2016 grading of your school’s performance is a given.
          But the score of 4 X Inadequate and 2 X Requires improvement out of the only 6 features classified in January’s report is hardly a ringing endorsement of your claims to offer feasible solutions; whether for free or at a price.


          • You rather make my point for me Frank – Ofsted state in the report on Inaura school that the school is successful in ‘helping children overcome the trauma they have experienced’. And we are successful because we use the Relational Approach.
            My original criticism of this post is that it is ideological. It treats children who present as problematical as all of one kind making numerous assertions about ‘Badly behaved children’. There is no such type or category. Statements about this pseudo-group are false generalizations which ignore individual differences.
            I’m signing out of this discussion now.
            Thanks for reading.


          • You rather make my point for me Frank – Ofsted state in the report on Inaura school that the school is successful in ‘helping children overcome the trauma they have experienced’. And we are successful because we use the Relational Approach.
            My original criticism of this post is that it is ideological. It treats children who present as problematical as all of one kind making numerous assertions about ‘Badly behaved children’. There is no such type or category. Statements about this pseudo-group are false generalizations which ignore individual differences.
            I’m signing out of this discussion now.
            Thanks for reading.


        • “[The article above] treats children who present as problematical as all of one kind making numerous assertions about ‘Badly behaved children’. ”

          The fact that even the most cursory of inspections of the article shows your claims to be untrue is all the reply needed.


  8. Love the last point… we should all strive for moral improvement


    • “Love the last point… we should all strive for moral improvement…”

      Whilst it is to some extent at a little bit of a tangent to the main thrust of the article, the societal alternative to “striving for moral improvement” is precisely what ?


  9. This is my full reply. Do get a copy. This is what works. Declaring children as bad is ideological and nowhere near a solution.



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