What is education for?

I listened to the crime writer Val McDermid talking on the Jeremy Vine Show yesterday (Friday 20th March) about an educational experiment in the 1960s of which she was a guinea pig. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b055jv7n

The experiment by Fife Council in Scotland took the brightest and best kids from primary school and put them into secondary school a year early – a class known as 1E.

“Everyone knew that we were the weird kids,” she said. “There was this great burden of expectation. We were supposed to be the brightest and the best. It was a pressure cooker environment. Some people came out very successful and very driven. Other people crashed and burned and never reached their full potential.”

McDermid is a balanced enough person to weigh her anger at the experiment against the formative role it has played in her subsequent life. For example, although from a small Scottish town (Kirkcaldy) and from a working class background, she went to Oxford University. She also said that it took her to age 50 to realise she didn’t have to be first or best at everything.

Then this morning I read (in the Independent newspaper but I couldn’t find the article on its website so reference The Times instead (http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/education/article4001716.ece) that the UK is looking to follow the US (the UK always follows the US for no obvious reason) in promoting the idea of instilling grit, resilience and perseverance in our children via the education system. Presumably, those who crashed and burned in the Fife experiment would have benefited from some additional grit training.

My immediate and cynical thought was: If such a move is necessary then it is probably required to address the unintended consequences of creating an education system which has nothing to do with children and their enthusiasm for learning and everything to do with targets, performance indicators, levels of achievement, dumming down the curriculum – in short, poisoning education’s humanist roots and replacing them with a de-humanised scientific management model instead.

And this is the crux of the education debate, I think. The question is: What is education for? It is a subset of a bigger question: What kind of society do we want to make?

An emphasis on individualism and competition, and a focus on social mobility as a measure of success (based on an assumption that every child coming into the education system has the same potential for improvement as any other) will tend towards seeing education primarily as a preparation for work. We need educated people to stoke the engine of progress and development. The USA might be the model.

An emphasis on the emotional well-being of the child will tend towards an indulgent, comfort-zone, risk-averse society that might stagnate or regress as economic vitality waned and the more dynamic left for more exciting environments. The European Union might be the model – or at least parts of it. If London was in France it would be the fourth largest city in terms of its population of French-speakers. Lithuania’s population has reduced dramatically since membership of the EU gave its citizens the right to move freely inside its boundaries to look for work.

As in all things, the answer is to seek a balance. The Fife experiment on one measure achieved some of its aims but at too high a human cost.

The idea of bringing in ‘grit, resilience and perseverance’ lessons to counter what I suppose (I’m not actually sure what anxiety in the establishment this is meant to address) to be the falling levels of engagement and increasing alienation amongst young people who are killing themselves, self-harming and substance abusing at record levels.

We need to ask ourselves ‘have we got the balance right’. My answer is ‘no’. We are forcing our children to achieve in order to address our adult anxieties around economic competitiveness. A kinder, more humane, compassionate and humanistic education system is needed – one that doesn’t need to bolt on ‘life skills’ subjects to the curriculum.

What do you think, dear reader?


We are all racists

The attacks on mosques and other Islamic symbols in the wake of the murder of drummer Lee Rigby expose some primal instincts which, if unchecked, could provoke a worrying trend in English society.

Humans are social animals. In our prehistoric past, we formed groups of about 150 individuals, hunting and gathering, creating culture and religion to bind us together and to regulate our relationships. We delineated our territory and patrolled it against the incursion of others. We competed against other groups for scarce resources. We were vigilant to the constant threats against us and our troop.

These instincts are deep within us. We are born with them whether we want them or not. We are only 5.4 million years from the joint ancestor we share with the chimpanzee.

The development of our humanity is therefore relatively recent. We can all talk, plan, calculate, reflect, be reasonable and logical and civilised, and this sometimes obscures the deeper primeval instincts we still (all of us) carry around with us.

The tensions in England between some Moslems and a section of the white English population increase with every provocation. A provocation is a stimulus to which our powerful and speedy Ape reacts first. Unless he or she has been nurtured and managed to react to such stimuli in a way which creates a different response to how a chimpanzee would react to a threat.

Elements in both communities (usually young men who, in evolutionary terms, are the warriors who would patrol and fight to protect their troop) are now hyper-vigilant to perceived or real threats from the other. Any communication will be filtered through this context of threat and suspicion to confirm each side’s view of the other as an enemy.

Vulnerability and neuroses spread like a stain through communities and infect others who may have previously made a better job of managing their primal responses to provocation.

On the English side, the increasing status of the armed forces is one response to our insecurity. Hardly a day goes by without my local news channel covering a regimental home-coming, thanksgiving, or march through a town – 20 years ago such events would have been largely ignored. There is also some evidence that the fall in attendances at Church of England services has stablised with some holy services, such as Christmas, seeing an increase. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-22426144. If tensions between Moslem and English communities continue to increase I would expect to see church attendance increase.

The English – or large numbers of them – sees themselves as under threat, if not actually under attack. The primal fear of having a different group sharing their physical space and competing for resources, suppressed because authority punishes rather than rewards a physical response, continues to lurk within and is fed with a narrative which confirms the fear rather than confronts it. It is significant that one of the most active groups involved in this stand-off has the word ‘Defence’ in its name. They are claiming the territory (England) as theirs and they are defending it against others. The symbolism of Lee Rigby’s Help for Heroes tee-shirt could not have been more provocative for either side.

Young male Moslems, for their part, were mainly born in Britain yet feel alienated from it. English society, to many, is decadent, ungodly, and counter to the laws of Islam. British troops have been present in Islamic countries fighting Moslems in order to protect the home territory. Authority figures on both sides unwittingly widen the divide through their impoverished rhetoric which reduces the ‘other’ to a caricature, stripped of humanity and all the easier to attack and destroy.

What to do? How can we stop this spiral of provocation and counter-provocation? How can we break the stimulus-response mentality which will see tensions rise until the next event release that energy in violence? How can we live in peace and harmony?

We can start by acknowledging our Ape-like tendencies and admitting that everyone on earth shares them. This appeal to our universal commonality – what makes us similar rather than what makes us different – may of itself create a common language and understanding.

Civilisation is in part about how we resolve difference and dispute without violence. We create institutions to channel our Ape-like instincts into rational human form. I’m not sure our institutions are fully fit to handle the challenge of reconciling two communities growing increasingly suspicious of each other. Do we need to create a new institutional space where communities can come together to air frustrations and resolve issues?

My own solution to addressing the instincts of my inner Ape was to seek contact. I had had no previous meaningful contact with Moslems or others outside of my Troop. I am proud to be a Trustee of a small charity which serves a largely black and minority ethnic community. My fellow Trustees are all Moslem, as are some of the staff. I now have other patterns in my brain to counter the narratives that seek to divide us.

I have never had a strong Troop instinct – I’m not what politicians would call ‘clubbable’ – so I accept I may be unusual in this regard.

However, unless both communities have the will to come together to find common purpose while respecting our differences then we are in for troubled times ahead.

The importance of being believed

The late celebrity Jimmy Savile is thought to have abused or raped more than 200 people, many of them children, over decades.

As his star crashed to earth, many of his victims  were able to come forward and tell their stories for the first time – stories they had locked away inside themselves, unable to find an ear that would listen to them and, more importantly, believe them.

This need to be believed and the consequences of not being believed are the focus of this week’s Blog.

A big question in the Jimmy Savile case is: How did he get away with it for so long? How could he abuse so many people and not be brought to justice in his lifetime?

This raises, for me, other questions: What is it about the distribution of power in our society that affects the nature of truth? How can we ensure that our institutions and the people who work in them are conscious of the bias inherent in the distribution of power and are able to take account of it so that the powerless are not disadvantaged?

The victims often explained their inability to accuse Savile by their fear that they would not be believed. Even when some could no longer keep their secret to themselves and had to tell someone ‘in authority’ they were not believed.Here’s a representative example, taken from a BBC interview:

Another of Savile’s victims, raped as a young girl in 1970, has revealed how she also summoned up the nerve to tell police what had happened. But nothing ever came of it.

“They were not very interested really,” the woman (who asked to remain anonymous) told the BBC. “I didn’t feel I was really believed. It has sort of haunted me quite literally. It has depressed me. It has made me feel disgusted with myself.”

It is part of the human condition to glorify certain individuals, to put them above the rest, to make them heroic. Once we put them there we have a tendency to want to keep them there. We make allowances for their foibles (or ignore them); we invest them with superhuman-ness based on their culturally significant gifts (whether it is the ability to win battles or to sing a moving love-song); and we project our own hopes and fears on to them. Our society continually reinforces this ‘halo effect’. Young people are told to find role models. The media feeds us a diet of celebrity trivia made meaningful only because it relates to someone we see on our TV or cinema screens. Football fans where team shirts with their player-hero’s name on it while they’re out shopping.

Television in particular is in the game of making celebrities – they are the currency of television. The BBC made Savile and having made him became enslaved to him – a bit like Frankenstein and his monster.

With such glorification comes power: Power to earn, power to indulge, power to command, power to abuse. Savile had power. It was both his shield and his weapon. He used it to conceal and deceive. He used it conspiratorially to bring those who could hurt him (the police in particular) into his orbit of influence. He was a star, a god.

His victims, on the other hand, were innocents unwittingly introduced to the altar of Savile’s sexual peccadilloes. The psychological harm they suffered by the need to keep secret what he did to them was worse than any physical harm he may have done them.

The negative impact on health from unspeakable trauma is well documented. See James W Pennebaker’s book Opening Up.

While Savile was alive and in his pomp, his halo protected him. His victims had to suffer in silence. Society and its institutions didn’t want to know. Being traumatised and your trauma not being believed has left more than 200 people damaged.

My suspicion is that another Savile will emerge unless as humans we learn to think better and understand, examine and act on our psychological biases.

Savilegate: What the BBC should have done

Okay, hindsight is easy.

But believe me when I say I was uncomfortable at the BBC’s initial response to the gathering storm that is the late Sir Jimmy Savile.

For a media organisation, which you would think be in tune with the zeitgeist, the BBC showed worrying ineptness in its handling of the crisis.

A phrase on BBC Breakfast this morning that the BBC was ‘behind the curve’ of where public interest and opinion were, neatly sums up the lesson for all organisations caught up in scandal.

Regardless of the legal advice I’m sure they sought and acted upon, the BBC looked, in its passing over the case to the police, like it was also passing over responsibility for the fact that Savile was in their employ for decades and that their continual (and to some inexplicable) feeding of his celebrity status provided something of a sexual passe-partout.

The public will always be on the side of the victims in these cases and the BBC’s unwillingness to side publicly with the victims and to share in the public outrage made it look defensive and Pontius Pilate-like.

‘Behind the curve’ means they appeared out of sync with public opinion. The new DG George Entwistle talked about the importance of public trust in the BBC, a recognition that on this occasion the BBC did not do enough to justify that trust. He’s admitted it.

For an organisation like the BBC that is puzzling.

At least they have now ordered two internal inquiries into the affair, but the feeling will remain that their first response was all about damage-limitation and distancing itself from Savile and his alleged crimes. Some internal PR person may even have advised such a strategy in the name of Reputation Management. I hope not, but we’ll probably never know.

What the BBC and all organisations should do is in such cases is to apologise, take responsibility, acknowledge the pain of the victims and leave no stone unturned in getting to the bottom (no pun intended) of the allegations.