The weight of numbers

I’ve never been one for crowds. I even find returning to school hard work for a while, simply because I spend much of the summer in the company of only a few people. I also find it difficult to reconcile my own earnest views with the compromise necessary to achieve a consensus – it’s the dilemma of when to defy the party Whip.

I do dislike the fact that the strength of numbers often means minority views are never really heard. It is not uncommon for numbers to silence those who differ, even when they have a point. I’ll go further: the peer pressure of groups often leads to situations where being on-message becomes more important than being right, where rational discourse is subjugated to the mere weight of numbers. The effect of group-think has been well-documented, and I wonder how many valuable insights go neglected because of the fear they might not meet acceptance.

A problem for those who would challenge this situation is that they inevitably sound as though they are perpetual nay-sayers. I resolved not to mention the name of a certain, currently-newsworthy politician again, but it seems to me that the reaction of those who disagree with him has been to drown what he has to say in a torrent of alarmism, rather than anything more constructive. That instinctively makes me want to listen more closely, not less, and I don’t think that this makes me just a permanent rebel: it’s just that quiet voices can contain their truths, unbridled by the desire to be popular.

I feel the same about my profession. The emphasis on professional obedience has perhaps never been stronger – despite the ongoing obsession with individual performance. This might not be a problem, were it not for the weight with which the majority/establishment view is invoked to define success: given that the absolute truths behind education remain as elusive as ever, using consensus to define what works may be flawed. Making a mark on one’s pupils is so much more subtle and diverse a process than any ‘consensus’ is likely to be able to define.

For example, in a profession that seems to consist largely of individuals whose expressed purpose on this earth is to be personal trainers for the young, it can be hard to argue that it is in everyone’s interest to draw limits around one’s work. No matter that experience suggests that rest makes for better teaching or that is entirely reasonable for those who wish to have a life of their own: to those for whom enough is never enough, this is easily portrayed as inadequacy, no matter how wise self-preservation might be in the long term.

This becomes a problem when narrowed judgements are made about individuals based on such premises. It is understandable why, for example, a school management would preference the person who never says No even if they will burn out within a few years – but it may not be wise. Is it more important that a teacher resonates with his or her pupils using their own techniques, or that they use officially-sanctioned teaching methods even if they work less well? Regrettably, my experience over the past decades is that those who do not sing from the approved hymn-sheet often suffer simply for being different, no matter how effective they might actually be – and I don’t think this is getting any better.

This long preamble brings me to the main point of this post. For all that I observe the undoubtedly genuine enthusiasm of those who can never get enough of this job, whose very being seems defined solely by their determination to be ‘better and better’ teachers (whatever that means), whose undying optimism transcends whatever happens to them, who believe that there is no such thing as luck, and who have an unswerving confidence in their individual ability profoundly to change the world, I cannot help but get a deep but sincere doubt in the pit of my stomach.

This may be a popular view – but is it really an accurate take on the world around us? Are humans really as in-control as such people seem to think? Are the things for which they claim credit really as much in their gift as they would have us accept? (And if so, why are bucks so quickly passed for things that don’t turn out so well?) And is even their vocation really best-served by early burn-out and the neglect of their nearest and dearest?

I have a nagging sense that much of what is being done in the name of our pupils is actually little more than an inverted form of the egocentrism that dominates the rest of society. Can we be sure that being ‘even better’ for our pupils is not really ‘even better’ for ourselves? This seems to me just a form of insatiability; is well-grounded satisfaction never enough?  It seems illogical to me that teachers invest so much of their pupils’ interests in the cult of themselves. Can we hand-on-heart say that this is not more about careers and professional profiles than real pupil welfare? And even if the answer is Yes, how is it possible to define ‘better and better’ in a way that has any useful long-term meaning for those pupils – as opposed to those teachers?

It seems to me that those who genuinely want the best might be more critical in their evaluations than that, more nuanced (dare I say mature?) in their understanding of the world and less prone to glib sound-bites. Similarly, the undying optimism of those who refute luck seems to me little more than an ostrich-like denial of the true complexity/randomness of the world, a hyper-narcissism (or naivety) than reduces the wider world to little more than a bit-player in one’s own life.

For me, public servants – teachers, politicians or whatever – should be self-effacing. This is neither pointless idealism nor defeatism, but it does mean that we are honest about what is self-interest what genuinely is not. Neither is it a position of total self-sacrifice – in fact quite the opposite. It recognises the limits as well as the potential of the obligations we have for each other, preserves the ability of the teacher to exist as a private individual in their own right – but also to use that individuality in the service of others. It means having a realistic view of the smallness of each of us, rather than the hyped opposite, and of the value in exploiting the esoteric in human nature rather than pushing group-think for ulterior purposes.

It also means accepting that I am not my pupils’ saviour, for all that I can have an important effect on them and society as a whole. But I see my pupils for less than one percent of their lives – and there are far stronger currents in those lives than me. Those lives have aspirations, time frames and definitions of success that stretch beyond anything which I can fully control. I can attempt to influence them – but not merely by conditioning them to jump through hoops.

This view certainly sees educational success as more than the exam results by which teachers are now routinely judged. Important though qualifications are, defining ‘outcomes’ in those terms is, I fear, little more than the hubris that I mentioned earlier: a shortened perspective on what we do that is of more direct use to teachers’ and schools’ prospects than the full lives of young people. And if that is so, I think I know why that pit-of-the stomach feeling is there: we have turned the language of altruism into little more than double-speak for self-interest.

Deep thought is not a defining characteristic of populism – but drowning out the quiet voices risks missing something valuable, for all that they may be superficially unwelcome: challenging ideas often are. But at very least we should allow them to follow their own course.

I doubt many will agree with me on the foregoing; several conversations had within the last week have done little more than reinforce my belief that unashamed self-interest is now so embedded as the prime-mover in British society that it will never change; why would teachers really be any different? Those who live it do not even recognise it for what it is – and the fear of confronting it will make them shout down those who dare question. A bit like what has happened to Corbyn.

Damn, I’ve mentioned him again.


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