I travel around 12,000 miles per year to and from work – or put another way, that is around 350 hours each year observing the major public space that is the modern highway. All life is here, and I have witnessed all manner of happenings over the years. I think this is sufficient for me to say with some certainty that much of the most inconsiderate, most aggressive behaviour I see is from those in luxury vehicles who, one might have thought, have clearly done well enough out of society to manifest a greater sense of responsibility than they often do.
What has this to do with education? Well, the holiday-remove from the immediate daily concerns provides a space to mull over wider issues – such as the purpose of what we do. Working in education has become such an intensive experience that it is easy to lose sight of that greater purpose – but it is therefore more important than ever that we do take stock occasionally. So please bear with me.
Summer reading so far has been The Year of Living Danishly and The Impulse Society. These two have unexpectedly provided a contrast that was food for much reflection on the nature of the society that we are helping to create.
The Danes have been consistently reported as being the happiest nation on Earth. Helen Russell investigated why this is so – and her experiences shed as much light on what it is to be a driven Londoner as a laid-back Dane. Behind the light reading, there is some provocative comment on just how work- and career-oriented British life has become, such that Russell finds it difficult to cope with the time freed up by the short Danish working week. Initially she also struggles without the constant frenzied consumerism of London life where everything is laid on for the taking. She finds it difficult even to spend sustained time with her husband, so used are they to barely seeing each other.
And yet she gradually comes to understand how a slower, less aspirational life has its merits. It even allows her to conceive, something that had conspicuously not happened in her previous life. In summary, Russell attributes Danes’ happiness to:
- A deep sense of connection to the people and places where they live. People know each other and are more socially supportive than in racier societies.
- A sense of tradition, where the routines and customs of Danish life are widely participated in, which breeds a sense of belonging, stability and rhythm.
- Attention to their physical surroundings. High quality design brings a sense of calm and aestheticism to daily life, particularly important during the dark winters.
- A strong social security system, so that people are well supported during times such as parenthood, unemployment or illness. Taxes are relatively high (up to 56%) but people accept this since they understand the benefits. It also makes life more flexible – for example the 80%-of-salary unemployment benefit makes it viable to resign from a job and look at length for something more rewarding.
- Relatively high levels of social and economic equality.
- Danish corporate culture subscribes to the above, with little of the long-hours or hierarchical mind-sets of the British workplace. Employers widely recognise the importance of treating staff well and accept that Danes work to live, not the opposite.
- Possibly a genetic predisposition for happiness. This is supported by a lack of the material competitiveness seen in the U.K., so that people tend to focus on their good fortune rather than constantly yearning for more.
Having been able to spend more time in the small town where I live, rather than treating it as a dormitory, some of these issues became more evident to me in recent weeks: the simple pleasures of chatting to the local shop-keepers, of seeing people I know in the street, of being able to take a different, longer route, of not being driven by constant time pressure. These are all small things, but they noticeably contribute to a sense of wellbeing, perhaps a bit like the Danish concept of Hygge. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-34345791 In a difficult summer for world events, such smallness has been very welcome.
The Impulse Society, by contrast, shows just where other countries, the UK included, are going wrong. It questions whether providing for individuals’ every whim is actually advisable. The premise here is that modern abundance is incompatible with our primitive instincts, and many people are simply struggling to cope with the (commercially-fuelled) conflict that results.
Commercialised societies supposedly empower individuals by allowing them to tailor every aspect of their lives to their individual preferences, in the process excluding anything that is displeasurable. But this easily becomes a form of narcissism in which the individual’s very existence becomes dedicated to chasing ‘self expression’ – largely through the process of consumption.
The problem here is that welcome emancipation is rapidly overtaken by pure, basic greed. As people become more and more able to gratify themselves, their willingness to accommodate or compromise with others decreases; tolerance of diversity diminishes and people become increasingly insistent that they must prevail.
The result is an inflated sense of empowerment generated as every want is met, and a decreasing sense of obligation to anything beyond Self. This, Paul Roberts suggests, is why the wealthy buy large vehicles and then drive them badly. The heightened sense of status ‘entitles’ them to behave as they wish, while externalising the costs onto others, with whom empathy has disappeared. Bluntly, in a crash it is the other guy (in the smaller vehicle) who is meant to die. This certainly chimes with my almost daily experience.
Much of Roberts’ book is concerned with the effects of the growth (and crash) of high finance in western societies. This too is driven by the desire for ever quicker, larger and easier gratification. But the greed instinct means that any sense of restraint is quickly lost, even when the result is likely to be self-destructive. And equally importantly, Get-Rich-Quick sucks both resources and labour out of those parts of the economy that are more genuinely useful and productive. This is in part due to the fact that those tend to require more effort, skill and time to produce a benefit. Individual hegemony consequently diminishes the ability of societies to solve collective problems.
What has this to do with education? The answer, I think, is that our education system, as a significant part of our societisation process, needs to reflect very hard on the values, behaviours and attitudes it transmits.
Too much of what we do is now predicated on the individual benefits that supposedly accrue to those who pass successfully through the system. Much of that is expressed in purely monetary terms; much of it is about employability rather than a wider life.
The systems in place too often reflect the production lines of the workplace rather than a process of intellectual development, and they condition people to place this centrally in their lives. The extension of the school day into revision classes in evenings, weekends and holidays encourages a long-hours culture at the expense of wider activities, ‘consumed’ revision in place of self-reliance.
Too little attention is paid to the enhancement of quality, as opposed to the quantity – of life. While there have been improvements in school environments, there are many other aspects of quality of experience that are neglected simply because of time pressures.
Schools themselves have been encouraged to think in economic terms. Large school and class sizes may not statistically impact on ‘results’ – but the human experience of being a small cog in a large machine depersonalises the experience in just the way that Danish life does not. In terms of human experience, I increasingly conclude that small is beautiful, simply because it is manageable for the human brain. Small classes and schools feel better – and that is what matters.
More consideration needs to be given to how such values can be implanted in children. Liberal self-expression can certainly free people – but I think it is becoming clear that taken too far it has just as much ability to enslave as compliant small-mindedness. In fact, it can become just another expression of the same thing. Greater emphasis on shared values may be very desirable for all that it marginally restrains individual freedoms. In fact, it is too much freedom of expression that is at the root of low-level disruption in many classrooms; more conformism would certainly not go amiss in this sense.
Holidays feel good for a reason: they are good for the soul. They are only a problem for people whose lives have been so narrowed that they don’t know what to do when they are not working. Too much of daily working life feels the opposite; there is a reason for this too.
The Danes (and the Swiss who are in some ways similar in outlook) seem to understand how to reconcile a materially high standard of living with more humane values that provide genuine happiness and protect against the antisocial treadmill that daily life has become in many countries.
“Education should allow you to feel the equal of anyone – but superior to no one”.
And yet so much of what we do, even in the education system, simply perpetuates our difficulties.