Posts Tagged ‘schools’

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What if Senior Managers Told the Truth?

March 28, 2009

Good morning.

Before we start our first INSET session today I am going to waste ten or fifteen minutes with introductory remarks. This is because nobody else wanted to do this and we had some time to fill this morning. To begin with I’d like to start by saying that I am very happy about much of what I have seen happening at the school this term. I am particularly happy about my pay-rise and my fact-finding trip to study teaching methods in the Bahamas. I have been less happy to see that people have noticed that no child ever does a detention. I am also concerned that the biscuits at governors’ meetings have changed from bourbons to custard creams.

Our main focus for INSET today will be teaching and learning. By “teaching and learning” I mean a bunch of ridiculous gimmicks that nobody sees the point of or actually has time to do but which we are convinced OFSTED will be looking for.

Firstly, I will go through the schedule for today, even though nobody really cares about any of it except when lunch is and how early we can go home.

Our first session will be with our least stupid assistant head. He will drone on about using data. During this session some graphs will be shown to suggest that we aren’t doing too badly, and to suggest some targets that will never be met. It will be heavily implied that if the targets aren’t met then it will be your fault.

Our next session will be about some nonsense known only by its initials. This will be led by an incompetent middle manager who we had to promote out of harm’s way. You will expected to incorporate what you learn into your lesson plans for the next six months, when it will be replaced by some other initiative with a different set of initials.

After this we will break for tea and coffee. We will expect you to hang around outside the hall complaining about how bored you are, discussing what was the silliest INSET task you ever did, and speculating as to whether we will finish early.

Then we will send you to your departments to carry out some mind-numbing task vaguely related to the waffle you have heard. In case you ignore the instructions and try and do something useful instead we will insist you report back after lunch. Whichever member of your department is least able to avoid it will be expected to present something to the rest of the staff. We don’t care what they say, so long as the whole session takes up at least 45 minutes.

In our final activity, we will all write platitudes about what kind of learners we want our school to produce and our most stupid assistant head will read them out. Nobody will suggest we want them to be “clever” or “academic”. Finally I will return from my office to announce what a successful day it has been.

Before we begin I’d just like to say a few words about the members of staff who are leaving today. You’re all bastards. Thank you.

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Success

November 15, 2008

Scene 1: PSHE training

“Okay, now we have finished our icebreakers let’s talk about the next unit in the program. If you look at page 7 of your booklets, you can see where you should be leading your form group. The definition of success that you want them to arrive at after discussion is ‘trying your best to achieve a goal’. Yes, what is it Andrew?”

That’s not a definition of success.

“Sorry?”

You could try your best at something and not achieve it, I could try all I liked but I’m not going to run a four minute mile, or give birth to twins.

“Well, yes, I see your point, but I think the really important thing to get across here is that if you do try your hardest you have succeeded.”

You’ve succeeded at trying, but you haven’t necessarily succeeded at whatever it is you were trying to do.

“I think you are being a bit too traditional here, Andrew.”

But what if one of my form group points out that this isn’t the definition of success?

“I’m sure they won’t, they are only year 8.”

Scene 2: PSHE Lesson

Okay everyone, that was interesting to hear what you thought about success. Now let me tell you what the book says about success. It says that success is ‘trying your best to achieve a goal’

“Sir, sir”

Yes, Jade?

“That’s not what success is. You could try your best at something and not achieve it.”

Er… yes. Well like I said that is what the book says, we don’t have to agree with the book.

“But it’s stupid. It just isn’t what the word means. You can’t go around just changing what words mean.”

Er … yes, I certainly see your point and have to say I do agree with it. I think perhaps we just need to consider what success means in our own lives.

“Sir, sir”

Yes, Jade?

“Why do we have to discuss our own lives? Isn’t that just interfering in our own personal stuff? Why is my private life any business of anyone else.”

Well, the school is responsible for your emotional well-being, Jade.

“What’s that?”

How you feel. Whether you’re happy.

“But that’s mad. How I feel is my own business and nothing to do with the school.”

Well I see your point. You might want to try getting elected to the school council next year and making that point there to the people who decide what we do in PSHE.

“I’m making this point to you, Sir”

I’m afraid it’s not up to me. I don’t choose to teach PSHE, to be honest I’d much rather be teaching my own subject”.

“You’re good at that, sir. You’re a good teacher. So why do you have to do this PSHE crap? It’s just interfering in our own private business for no reason.”

Jade, I… Oh is that the time? Everybody, pack up quietly and hand your posters in on the way out.

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Needs

November 1, 2008

Agreement about needs, then, depends upon agreement about values. An adolescent, you may say, needs freedom to express himself; I may say that he needs to consider other people’s feelings. To claim, therefore, that education should ‘meet the needs’ of adolescents (or any other category of pupil), or to argue that the curriculum is a good one if it ‘meets the children’s needs’, by itself is meaningless. ‘Needs’ for what? Unless goals are specified no ‘needs’ can be identified. Even then, unless goals are agreed to be good ones, ‘meeting needs’ is still far from being justified. A young bully, for example, from his point of view may ‘need’ to find victims. Plainly this is a ‘need’ which, though identifiable, should not be met. Further still, though, even if we managed to reach agreement about which of his ‘needs’ we satisfy, it would still have to be shown that it was education, specifically, which should be employed to bring about these deprivations and satisfactions.

P.S.Wilson (1971)

So far I have discussed the three main explanations given as to why children are blameless for their behaviour. These were:

In practice, it can undermine the case against personal responsibility to use several different explanations. Jordan can’t have told me to “fuck off” because he’s young and because he’s poor and because he has an undiagnosed medical condition. A willingness to use all three explanations only serves to show up the fact that these explanations are functioning as nothing more than excuses.

Describing all three as examples of a broad category of “needs” gets round this difficulty. A child’s immaturity, poverty and disability are all “needs” to be met. Not only that, but it can then be claimed that any teacher who wishes to hold a student to account is deliberately letting a students’ needs go unmet out of personal malice. After all, who would dare deprive a child of something they need? All bad behaviour is then declared to be a result of unmet needs. A propagandist for this idea might then try to give examples such as a hungry child being bad-tempered, a young child crying, a deprived child being punished for not bringing expensive equipment to school, or a colour blind child using the wrong pens when drawing a diagram as typical examples of bad behaviour. The logic is simple, if a child behaves badly it is simply a sign that the teacher had failed to be kind enough, or understanding enough, to meet that child’s needs. Alternatively it can be claimed that whole schools have failed to provide enough expertise to identify all needs or failed to recreate themselves as what Peters (1966) called “orphanages for children with parents”; institutions concerned with all possible aspects of student well-being, rather than their education. All that is needed is kinder and better trained teachers, and more sympathetic schools, to diagnose and treat all needs and bad behaviour would just disappear. The cloak of pseudo-scientific expertise can then be adopted by appealing to Maslow’s (1943) Hierachy of Needs a psychological theory which attempted to list and rank all human drives as “needs” of one sort or another.

Of course, such an argument is fundamentally incoherent. As Wilson (above) pointed out, needs do not exist in isolation; something can only be needed for a purpose. When we recognise this then the idea that we can categorise a wide variety of human conditions and human wants as “needs”, let alone the idea that we can use these needs to explain bad behaviour or absolve people of responsibility for their actions falls apart on many different grounds. There are a number of unanswerable questions and objections to the model.

Firstly, we have the problem of identifying what counts as a need and in particular which needs educational institutions have an obligation to meet. We can’t even agree that we need food and air unless we first agree that we want to live. The purpose of meeting psychological and social needs is far from clear. Happiness? Psychological health? Are we really obliged to make all students happy and psychologically healthy? It would be an absurdity to try and provide everything our students want, but it is far from clear which of their desires count as a need or not. Maslow has helpfully included sex as a basic need, a fact often forgotten by those who would quote him in an educational context, as the obvious implication would involve turning schools into brothels (as well as orphanages). However, if it is not possible to identify what needs we should be meeting then we can’t possibly declare that needs haven’t been met.

Secondly, we have the problem of identifying what exactly is needed. It might be easy to recognise that a hungry child needs food or that a child with no legs might need, say, a wheelchair. It is less clear as to what, say, a dyslexic, child needs. By this I don’t mean that there are different treatments for dyslexia that we would have to select between, I mean that there are value judgements to be made before we can judge what is needed. Specifically, do we believe that a dyslexic child needs to gain the greatest possible skill in reading and writing or do we believe that they need to be assisted with reading and writing where it might obstruct them? This is not a minor issue that can simply be answered by saying “a bit of both”. If we take the first option we will be trying to make them read and write as much as possible, even to the extent of giving them extra lessons in reading and writing and removing them from conventional lessons, or even mainstream schooling. If we take the second option then we are choosing to give them as little reading and writing as possible. Two exact opposite answers to what appears to be the same need. Without a value judgement about the aims of education (i.e. an answer to the question of whether we want the student’s school experience, or their abilities, to most closely resemble what is “normal”) we cannot decide what it is that the student needs. This problem doesn’t end with learning disabilities. How do we confront a child’s poverty? Or their immaturity? I am not simply saying that these problems are difficult, I am saying they are insoluble without identifying a purpose alongside a need. It is only by knowing explicitly what we are trying to achieve that we can judge what is needed to achieve it.

Finally, we have moral and psychological questions about “meeting the needs” of badly behaved children. Assume that answers existed to the question of which categories of needs should be met and how schools and teachers can meet them. We still have problems relating this idea specifically to badly behaved children. Even if we could find a situation where meeting a need was not contentious in general, we might still find it difficult to see meeting that need as a way to deal with a particular child’s poor behaviour. To pick the most extreme example, imagine a school that discovered many of its students were starved of food, that this could not be dealt with more effectively through other agencies, and the school had the resources and facilities to feed these students. It seems clear that, unless you favour child starvation, there is an obvious moral case for meeting this need, and the available food would be given to those who most needed it. Now imagine we accepted the belief that meeting this need was not, a moral duty, or an act of charity, but a method of treating the underlying cause of poor behaviour. We would cease looking for the most famished child to feed first and start feeding the worst behaved. Here is where the moral and psychological problems begin. We would be rewarding the worst behaved child with something they wanted. Yes, we could tell ourselves that every child, even the worst behaved ones, deserve to be fed, but we would nevertheless be providing the badly behaved hungry child with preferential treatment over the well-behaved hungry child. This is an obvious and blatant injustice. If this moral problem was something that we could ignore (perhaps by convincing ourselves that all hungry children are badly behaved and any well-behaved child simply cannot be terribly hungry, or by denying any relevance of morality to the “science” of behaviour management), we still have the psychological problem. For that child, and no doubt their peers, we have established that you are rewarded with food for bad behaviour. This will serve only to reinforce and encourage the bad behaviour. Now, if this is the case for the most obvious and blatant need, for a case where the only action taken is as morally desirable as you can get, it seems highly unlikely that there are going to be any cases at all where meeting needs (in the sense of providing a student with something they actually want) is a just, or an effective way to deal with bad behaviour. If feeding the hungry might be harmful or wrong in this situation, imagine how more contentious other types of “help” (like extra attention, free holidays, help in lessons or immunity from punishment) might be. They are likely to be even more obviously unjust and counter-productive.

Of course, the incoherence and injustice of the needs-based approach to education is inevitable. Modelling human beings as bundles of needs is to rob them of their humanity. Whenever we view human beings as something other than moral agents we are likely to end up advocating solutions which are in conflict with both our consciences and our knowledge of the human mind. As long as we expect children to have no conscience, then we cannot help them, we can only dehumanise them.

 

References

Maslow, A.H. A Theory of Human Motivation, Psychological Review 50 1943:370-96, 1943

Peters, R.S. Ethics and Education, Allen and Unwin, 1966

Wilson, P.S. Interest and Discipline In Education, Routledge And Kegan Paul, 1971

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The Blameless. Part 3: The Afflicted

October 25, 2008

Here I will address the claim that children are not responsible for their actions because they have a medical or psychological condition.

There are two versions of this argument. The first version suggests that if a child is behaving badly in a lesson they must secretly be unable to do the work, and that the most likely reason a child might be unable to keep up with their peers is some form of disability or illness. There are two main flaws in this argument, both incredibly obvious. Firstly, there is no clear reason why a child unable to do their school work would misbehave rather than simply say they couldn’t do it. At the very least it assumes that the penalty for admitting to personal academic failure is greater than that for disrupting the learning of others, which would itself be a disordered situation, where personal responsibility needs increasing, not denying. The second flaw is that it assumes that assessing a child’s inability to complete work is a difficult task, probably requiring expertise beyond that of the classroom teacher. In actual fact, this form of assessment is an integral part of teaching and while doctors and psychologists might be required to find a root cause of an inability to complete work, nobody is likely to be more effective than a teacher at identifying a failure to be able to do work. These two flaws mean that the argument is dependent on the circumstances of both the child being unreasonable and the teacher being incompetent, which, while this may sometimes be the case, is a ludicrous assumption to make when dealing with poor behaviour in general.

The second version of this argument claims that medical or psychological conditions directly cause involuntary incidents of poor behaviour. Obviously children shouldn’t be punished for actions influenced by Tourette’s or having a coughing fit. However, such situations are incredibly rare. In order to allow for more wide use of this excuse medical and psychological “conditions” have multiplied to cover virtually every human inclination. Such conditions are usually impossible to explain, let alone identify, without using a comparison with some view of what is normal for a child (often this is tied in to the concept of “developmental levels”). If a child is more energetic or inattentive than normal they have ADHD. If they won’t follow instructions as much as expected then they have Oppositional Defiant Disorder. If they are anti-social or even annoyingly pedantic then some form of autism will be suggested. (The latest condition I have encountered, admittedly online rather than in real life, is a parent who claims her children have “impaired proprioception” a physiological condition, symptoms of which include such supposed anomalies as “crashing into things, throwing themselves onto the floor, swinging as high as they possibly can”). In the event that no specific behaviour disorder can be identified then, conveniently, almost every failing can be covered by “low self-esteem”.

Now identifying what is abnormal is probably a very useful principle in medicine. It is deeply flawed as a way of considering the causes of human behaviour. Our behaviour, including our bad behaviour, is based on our desires. Different people have different desires. The worst behaved kids will, of course, have a desire to misbehave that is either stronger, or less well resisted, than that of the better behaved kids including the average (or “normal”) child. If this is grounds for seeing the behaviour as abnormal and in turn diagnosing a “condition” then the obvious result of this is that what are clearly just character traits, that should be as susceptible to human judgement as any other, will become seen as uncontrollable quirks of fate. Worse, the more extreme a moral failing, the more it is claimed to be beyond conscious control. In the case of those who argue that children are naturally good we gain a particularly spectacular piece of circular reasoning: All bad behaviour (unless covered by the previous explanations) must be abnormal; therefore it has a psychological or medical cause; therefore it is not under the child’s conscious control; therefore the child is naturally good; therefore the child’s bad behaviour is abnormal.

The confusion over what counts as a disability, and what is simply a matter of character or ability, has created the Special Needs racket, a system where help intended for students with genuine disabilities is lost in a swamp of claimants and the disgraceful efforts to “include” badly behaved students at the expense of those who do behave. Baroness Warnock, who was responsible for the creation of so much of the Special Needs system, is reported to now be in the position of disowning it:

“Mary Warnock, architect of England’s special needs education system, is to publish a damning report on how it has turned out in practice. Baroness Warnock says pressure to include pupils with problems in mainstream schools causes “confusion of which children are the casualties”. She also says the way the most severe needs are assessed is “wasteful and bureaucratic” and “must be abolished”. .. Lady Warnock says that it was expected that 2% of pupils with special needs would receive statements. That statements were actually given to 20%, she says, reflects the lack of clarity over their application.”

From http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/4071122.stm

A final note: once again the word “need” has appeared when discussing a way of absolving children of moral responsibility. In the next few days I will look at this more closely.

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The Blameless. Part 2: The Poor

October 20, 2008

Here I will address the claim that children are not responsible for their actions because their behaviour is determined by their background.

When children’s bad behaviour is excused as being a response to circumstances (or to their environment), then this is usually circumstances that result from them being underprivileged. It is easy to observe that the claim is often made that children (or even adults) are badly behaved because they are poor. There is some evidence to support the idea. Even if we eliminate as unhelpful examples related to being unable to afford school equipment or uniform, we can still see that there is a lot of bad behaviour in schools where there is a lot of poverty and deprivation. It is easy for me to think of badly behaved children I have taught who were suffering from incredible deprivation. There is a link of some kind between poverty and bad behaviour and so it does appear plausible that poverty itself causes children to misbehave. Or at least it does until you stop looking at whether badly behaved kids are poor, and start looking at whether poor kids are badly behaved.

If poverty caused bad behaviour in itself we would expect recent immigrants from poor countries, particularly the children of asylum seekers, who often arrive with very little, to be the worst behaved kids. This is exactly the opposite of what is the case in my personal experience. Although there are exceptions, recent immigrants, even those who have arrived in the worst possible circumstances, are often the most eager to learn and work hard. Of course, my experience could be unrepresentative, so let’s have a look at the statistics.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation “Rates of poverty were highest for Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Black Africans, reaching nearly two-thirds for Bangladeshis. Rates of poverty were also higher than average for Indian, Chinese and other minority group households.” So if poverty itself caused bad behaviour we would expect Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Black Africans to be the worst behaved children in school.

Does this hold up? Here are the figures for permanent exclusions by ethnic group (From http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/rsgateway/DB/SFR/s000793/SFR14_2008TablesAdditional10Julya.xls):

PRIMARY, SECONDARY AND SPECIAL SCHOOLS: NUMBER OF PERMANENT EXCLUSIONS BY ETHNIC GROUP AND GENDER England, 2006/07 (ESTIMATES*)

Boys

(Percentage of school population)

Girls

(Percentage of school population)

Total

(Percentage of school population)

White

0.19

0.05

0.12

White British

0.19

0.05

0.12

Irish

0.23

0.04

0.14

Traveller of Irish heritage

0.54

#

0.35

Gypsy/Roma

0.78

0.28

0.54

Any other White background

0.14

0.03

0.09

Mixed

0.35

0.11

0.23

White and Black Caribbean

0.56

0.16

0.36

White and Black African

0.31

0.10

0.20

White and Asian

0.18

0.04

0.11

Any other Mixed background

0.27

0.09

0.18

Asian

0.12

0.01

0.07

Indian

0.06

0.01

0.04

Pakistani

0.16

0.02

0.09

Bangladeshi

0.15

0.02

0.08

Any other Asian background

0.07

0.02

0.05

Black

0.35

0.10

0.23

Black Caribbean

0.57

0.19

0.38

Black African

0.22

0.04

0.13

Any other Black background

0.39

0.11

0.26

Chinese

#

0.00

#

Any other ethnic group

0.10

0.03

0.07

Unclassified (8)

..

..

..

Minority Ethnic Pupils

0.21

0.05

0.13

All pupils (4)

0.20

0.05

0.13

* Figures relating to permanent exclusions are estimates based on incomplete pupil-level data. See Notes to Editors 5.

# less than 5, or a rate based on less than 5 exclusions.

Totals may not appear to equal the sum of component parts because numbers have been rounded to the nearest 10.

Figures for fixed period exclusions show:

PRIMARY, SECONDARY AND SPECIAL SCHOOLS:

NUMBER OF FIXED PERIOD EXCLUSIONS BY ETHNIC GROUP AND GENDER England, 2006/07

Boys (Percentage of school population)

Girls (Percentage of school population)

Total (Percentage of school population)

White

9.32

3.22

6.33

White British

9.39

3.24

6.38

Irish

9.88

3.91

6.92

Traveller of Irish heritage

24.87

7.00

16.24

Gypsy/Roma

25.90

12.44

19.33

Any other White background

6.21

2.13

4.22

Mixed

13.03

4.96

9.04

White and Black Caribbean

19.76

7.79

13.77

White and Black African

11.45

4.71

8.08

White and Asian

6.96

2.01

4.54

Any other Mixed background

10.54

3.89

7.27

Asian

5.08

0.96

3.08

Indian

2.90

0.59

1.78

Pakistani

7.09

1.23

4.25

Bangladeshi

5.35

1.17

3.26

Any other Asian background

3.81

0.77

2.34

Black

13.28

4.68

8.99

Black Caribbean

18.57

6.81

12.67

Black African

9.76

3.26

6.51

Any other Black background

15.36

5.55

10.61

Chinese

1.27

0.38

0.83

Any other ethnic group

6.10

1.67

3.98

Unclassified (6)

..

..

..

Minority Ethnic Pupils

8.50

2.75

5.68

All pupils (5)

9.34

3.19

6.32

Totals may not appear to equal the sum of component parts because numbers have been rounded to the nearest 10.

A quick glance reveals that the poorest ethnic groups actually have rates of exclusion that are either about average (for black African students), or below average (for Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Chinese and Indian students).

As an additional point, if you know anybody who has taught in the developing world they are likely to tell you that (other than occasional problems with paying attention when hungry) children in some of the poorest countries in the world behave well in school despite appalling conditions of poverty. It simply isn’t poverty itself that causes children to behave badly. Communities can suffer poverty without suffering exceptionally bad behaviour in schools.

What we see in schools is not poverty making children behave badly, but many of the worst behaved children coming from poor homes. Given the retreat from discipline within schools it is hardly a surprise that students learn to behave, if at all, in their own homes. This provides us with a more plausible explanation of the connection between poverty and bad behaviour. Homes where children are not taught to behave or encouraged to learn are often poverty-stricken homes because a culture of poor behaviour and a culture of low aspirations go well together, but poverty itself does not cause low aspirations or poor home discipline.

I won’t explore how poor home discipline develops and it’s precise connection to poverty (but if you are interested Thernstrom et al (2003) would be a great place to start), but for now we can simply observe that when we identify the connection between poverty and bad behaviour to be one based on poor discipline in the home, then we cease to have any reason to excuse poor discipline in school. It is not that the badly behaved children from deprived homes are not responsible for their actions; it is that they are not held responsible for their actions at home and the case for holding them responsible for their actions at school is strengthened, rather than weakened.

Whereas most of the reasons for claiming that children aren’t responsible for their actions are usually justified with “psychological theories”, the claim that poverty removes responsibility is often justified in far more wide ranging social theories. There is a part of the British middle class socialist tradition that suggests the poverty is the cause of all of the moral weakness of the poor. (Often expressed in ways that make me think of this chap). If such an argument were to be taken seriously, it would, as Chesterton (1908) argues, give us grounds, not so much to improve the condition of the poor, but to exclude and disempower them:

I have listened often enough to Socialists, or even to democrats, saying that the physical conditions of the poor must of necessity make them mentally and morally degraded. I have listened to scientific men (and there are still scientific men not opposed to democracy) saying that if we give the poor healthier conditions vice and wrong will disappear. I have listened to them with a horrible attention, with a hideous fascination. For it was like watching a man energetically sawing from the tree the branch he is sitting on. If these happy democrats could prove their case, they would strike democracy dead. If the poor are thus utterly demoralized, it may or may not be practical to raise them. But it is certainly quite practical to disfranchise them. If the man with a bad bedroom cannot give a good vote, then the first and swiftest deduction is that he shall give no vote. The governing class may not unreasonably say: “It may take us some time to reform his bedroom. But if he is the brute you say, it will take him very little time to ruin our country. Therefore we will take your hint and not give him the chance.” It fills me with horrible amusement to observe the way in which the earnest Socialist industriously lays the foundation of all aristocracy, expatiating blandly upon the evident unfitness of the poor to rule. It is like listening to somebody at an evening party apologising for entering without evening dress, and explaining that he had recently been intoxicated, had a personal habit of taking off his clothes in the street, and had, moreover, only just changed from prison uniform. At any moment, one feels, the host might say that really, if it was as bad as that, he need not come in at all. So it is when the ordinary Socialist, with a beaming face, proves that the poor, after their smashing experiences, cannot be really trustworthy. At any moment the rich may say, “Very well, then, we won’t trust them,” and bang the door in his face. On the basis of Mr. [Robert] Blatchford’s view of heredity and environment, the case for the aristocracy is quite overwhelming. If clean homes and clean air make clean souls, why not give the power (for the present at any rate) to those who undoubtedly have the clean air? If better conditions will make the poor more fit to govern themselves, why should not better conditions already make the rich more fit to govern them? On the ordinary environment argument the matter is fairly manifest. The comfortable class must be merely our vanguard in Utopia.

When psychological theories are resorted to in this case then it is often with reference to theories about human needs such as those of Maslow. The use of ill-defined “needs” in education is a big enough topic to require another post at a later date.

References

Chesterton, G.K., Orthodoxy, 1908

Thernstrom, Stephan and Thernstrom, Abigail, No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap In Education, Simon & Schuster, 2003

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Blamelessness

October 18, 2008

Human wickedness, if accepted by society, is changed from an act of will into an inherent, psychological quality which man cannot choose or reject but which is imposed upon him from without and which rules him as compulsively as the drug rules the addict.

Arendt (1951)

In my last entry I talked about how, in the absence of more traditional views of human nature in which people are generally disposed to do wrong, it was necessary to come up with imaginative explanations of why children are not responsible for their behaviour, thereby allowing them to be innocent victims even when they are observed to be behaving like complete bastards.

The explanations were:

It is possible to imagine situations where this is true, but a moment’s thought would tell you that these sorts of situations are obviously rare exceptions to what is usual. But if you were a believer in the inherent innocence or goodness of children then it is impossible for a child to do wrong without some kind of explaining factor, an explaining factor usually picked from this list. Invariably what happens is that normal moral judgement is suspended and the discipline of psychology is bastardised to provide morality-free explanations of children’s behaviour to replace the obvious explanation. As if this way of thinking wasn’t damaging enough it also requires that teachers must be assumed to be oblivious of the “science” of human behaviour and require endless training in pop psychology. Then, having been thrown out the front door, moral judgement is sneaked in the back door in order to condemn the ignorance or intolerance of those who have not accepted the pseudo-scientific, psychological explanation of children’s sins.

The truth is that we don’t need a scientific model of the human mind to understand why we do wrong. We all have minds of our own (complete with weaknesses and a general susceptibility to temptation). A quick study of one’s own mind, and the minds of those one knows, suggests that people think, feel and do bad things. Trying to suggest a complex personal motivation for an individual’s history of sinning is like trying to suggest personal reasons why an individual might inhale oxygen or bleed red.

In the next few posts I will cover each of these “explanations” in turn and explain why they do not constitute grounds for ignoring the more obvious forms of moral reasoning. The likely complaint is that by identifying the human condition as an unavoidable cause of bad behaviour I’m not addressing how to “fix the problem”. My point, of course, is that I’m not saying it to “fix the problem”, I am saying it because it is true. People do bad things for no good reason. And this isn’t a frustrated statement about naughty kids; it’s a fact about human beings generally. This is a problem that we are not going to solve. We can’t change ourselves into saints through the application of rational principles, so why do we think that we can have that effect on future generations?

References

Arendt, Hannah, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Schoken, 1951

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Human Nature

October 14, 2008

Modern masters of science are much impressed with the need of beginning all inquiry with a fact. The ancient masters of religion were quite equally impressed with that necessity. They began with the fact of sin–a fact as practical as potatoes. Whether or no man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing. But certain religious leaders in London, not mere materialists, have begun in our day not to deny the highly disputable water, but to deny the indisputable dirt. Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved. Some followers of the Reverend R. J. Campbell, in their almost too fastidious spirituality, admit divine sinlessness, which they cannot see even in their dreams. But they essentially deny human sin, which they can see in the street. The strongest saints and the strongest sceptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.

Chesterton (1908)

… some American literati have professed their naïve belief that temptation and coercion are really the same thing, that nobody could be asked to resist temptation. (If somebody puts a pistol to your heart and orders you to shoot your best friend, then you simply must shoot him. Or, as it was argued – some years ago in connection with a quiz show scandal in which a university professor had hoaxed the public – when so much money is at stake, who could possibly resist?) The argument that we cannot judge if we were not present and involved ourselves seems to convince everyone everywhere, although it seems obvious that if it were true, neither the administration of justice nor the writing of history would ever be possible. In contrast to these confusions the reproach of self-righteousness raised against those who do judge is age-old; but that does not make it any the more valid. Even the judge who condemns a murderer can still say when he goes home: “and there, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Arendt (1963),

Those who wish to declare themselves to be either more compassionate or more enlightened than others are keen to appeal to the inherent goodness or innocence of a badly behaved child. Claiming that a fifteen year old who tells their teacher to “fuck off” has actually done something morally wrong, let alone saying that such a student deserves to be punished, is seen as unenlightened and unfair. Those who advocate blame and punishment are seen as either cruel tyrants who hate the adorable little kiddiewinks or superstitious primitives who have no understanding of the science of human behaviour.

There is, of course, a problem with the suggestion that children are inherently good or innocent: it is not true. Children do bad things all the time. This is not a surprise as, of course, we adults do bad things all the time too and for the same reason. It is in the nature of human beings to fall short of moral perfection. We do not achieve moral perfection even for a short time, the best we can hope to do is to seek to recognise our moral failings and consider them grounds for admitting our fault; resolve not to repeat the offence; attempt to make restitution for the wrong, or in some way try to reverse the harmful effects of the wrong.

There are problems here because what I am describing are the religious concepts of Sin (literally “falling short”) and Repentance. In suggesting an existing inclination to moral failure I am echoing at least part of the doctrine of Original Sin. This is not to say these ideas rely on a religious perspective. What I have talked about here can be deduced from obvious observations of both the world around us and one’s own inner moral world, but that doesn’t stop them being seen as religious ideas. It may even be this that causes the difficulties and the claims to greater rationality of those who pretend that, morally, children are either blank slates or, worse, natural saints. We are in a culture where people don’t like to use religious concepts in moral reasoning and so there is an incentive to replace this view of morality with another more “modern” (or “progressive”) one. “Sin” in particular has become devalued, often in two opposite directions. One is to view it as simply a euphemism for sexual activity, as in “living in sin”. The other is to view it only as conspicuous, serious wrong-doing, leaving us without the terminology to discuss either our personal failings or the everyday failings of humanity.

Without the concepts of Sin and Repentance, whether they are expressed in religious or secular ways, we are at a loss to deal with moral issues, except by ignoring them. Ignoring our moral failings is something many are loathe to do explicitly – people usually stop short of announcing their own sainthood – but such a claim is implicit in any moral theory that ignores what it is actually like to do wrong. Sometimes they don’t stop short of virtual self-canonisation. Two teachers I know told me that they never sinned. (My response was to suggest it was about time they started.) But if we accept as genuine the universal human experience of doing, saying or thinking things that our best judgement tells us are wrong, then without an acceptance of our inclination to sin and the need to repent when we do so, we simply cannot explain our own moral universe. We cannot explain where we have been or where we should go. Without the concepts of imperfect human beings needing to confront their weaknesses, we end up with a contradiction: our convictions and beliefs are in opposition to our inclinations and actions. If we deny that this contradiction exists due to our own imperfect natures, then it can only be resolved by

1) abandoning our convictions

or

2) denying our responsibility for what we feel or do.

The first of these options (abandoning any principle in response to the inclination not to comply with it) is often disguised as a dislike for Puritanism or hypocrisy. “Why should anyone suggest I shouldn’t do what I want to do?” people ask, even in cases such as speeding or smoking where the harm (or potential harm) to one’s self or others is obvious. When applied to schools this takes the form of a mindless anti-authoritarianism. Teachers are portrayed as ogres, driving students to bad behaviour through their unreasonable requests and unpleasant personalities. Any teacher who has been told they were at fault for enforcing the school rules will be familiar with this form of disapproval.

The second option (denying responsibility for feelings and actions) is one that people are sometimes cautious about applying to themselves as it does have implications of insanity, although people increasingly do seem willing to express even obviously selfish feelings as if they can’t be judged for having them. It is, however, seen as tolerant and broadminded to deny the responsibility of others for their actions. Where once being non-judgemental meant refraining from the casting of stones, it now seems to require looking at the obviously guilty and saying “well they couldn’t help themselves”. Temptation can now be a considered a medical or psychological condition. Examples of this are easy to identify, just by flicking through a newspaper. I’m sure it was with a great deal of sympathy and good intentions that those who were inclined to drink excessively were told they were suffering from the “disease” of alcoholism, but I wonder if they would have accepted such a diagnosis if they knew it would lead to the promiscuous being diagnosed with the laughable condition of “sex addiction”. Where psychological and medical explanations don’t explain our mistakes, then the alternative is simply to separate actions from consequences. The results of our actions are simply quirks of fate beyond our control. It is presumably for this reason that newspapers now report women “falling pregnant” in the same way somebody might “fall ill” or “fall over”.

With regards to education, the belief that children are not responsible for their actions is the default position for those attempting to reconcile their denial of human nature with the rather obvious fact that all children do bad things. The usual explanations of why children are not to be held responsible for their actions are:

For those of you reading this who are teachers, is this sounding familiar?

References

Arendt, Hannah,Eichmann in Jerusalem, Revised Edition,Penguin, 1963

Chesterton, G.K., Orthodoxy, 1908

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