Affluenza education

I don’t tend to believe in the quick fix, so I don’t really expect to find books that really are life-changing. Yet one that came close was Affluenza, by Oliver James, which while imperfect, has had a significant impact on both my personal and professional life – and the interaction between them. It was one of the first psychology books that I read, and it has led me onward to many other related works. I think it should be required reading for anyone whose work in any way impacts on social wellbeing.

The word Affluenza derives from the name of a well-known illness, and ‘affluence’. It is the dysfunction brought about by effects of societal greed and envy, and its symptoms are very real; I see them daily in school in the values and attitudes of pupils, parents – and sometimes colleagues. James attributes it to the development of hyper-materialism in society and the dominance of the broadcast media in our lives that reinforces it.

Commerce, he argues, requires constant consumption in order to perpetuate itself. This leads businesses to stimulate consumer demand by means of advertising; the broadcast media reinforce this by propagating strong messages of both social conformity and desirability. A potent element in the mix is basic human greed; by encouraging people to compare themselves (unfavourably) with perceived role models (and even their supposedly more fortunate neighbours) commerce cultivates a sense of perpetual dissatisfaction, the highly-available antidote to which is, of course, further consumption. Naturally, this is in vain, as one’s supposed competitors are all doing the same. Keeping up with the Joneses is not a fulfilling activity.

James is most concerned with the impact of this phenomenon on personal happiness and ultimately mental illness. He finds that once basic needs are met, there seems to be little correlation between wealth and happiness. One becomes accustomed to new wealth, at which point its novelty wears off, and the only way to combat this is by seeking bigger and bigger ‘hits’. Susceptibility to Affluenza is determined by the types of comparison people make – if they focus on their good fortune they tend to be happier and less Affluenza-ridden than if they are constantly making negative comparisons. A new Mercedes will bring only anxiety, if everyone else in the street has two.

James goes so far as to link Affluenza with the growth of anxiety, sub-clinical depression and various behavioural disorders. The connection, he claims, lies in the impact of negative patterns of brain activity on the production of serotonin, which in turn regulates our sense of wellbeing as well as physiological functioning. These levels can be measured, and correlate with people’s self-reported levels of happiness. There is a significant amount of clinical citation at the back of the book.

The clinical aspects of this are concerning enough for the wider wellbeing of both teachers and pupils but for me, this analysis correlates extremely well with both my own wider personal and professional experiences. Middle-age has perhaps divested my wife and me of our youthful attention to material wealth. We have by now furnished a modest home to our taste, and earn enough to pursue our (largely creative) interests. We have increasingly lost interest in the machinations of the commercial sector; where we do engage with it, we tend to look for smaller, specialised enterprises that operate at a human-scale and with an ethical dimension. We have adequate income, so that both professional and personal motivation now also comes from job-satisfaction, quality of life and altruism, rather than the desire to earn more.

We have almost entirely stopped watching television – not through any great ideological objection, but more through a lack of time and a surplus of more engaging things to do. The almost complete banishment of screened advertising from our lives has been cleansing, and it has had a noticeable effect on our contentment, simply because we focus more on what we already have and less on what we don’t. It has also thrown our own lives into stark relief with much of what we see going on around us. It’s  amazing how crass advertising can seem once you get out of the habit of watching it.

My view of current-day education has also significantly altered. It seems perfectly possible that entire organisations can become infected with Affluenza; indeed commercial organisations that weren’t probably wouldn’t survive. In my view this has spread to the education system as it has been directed to model itself on the commercial sector. The aims of education have been shifted from the non-material (intellectual self-realisation) to the material (career, salary, promotion) as politicians have increasingly seen it solely as a driver of the economy rather than a means of wider popular enlightenment. These expectations have been very readily transmitted to both pupils and parents – particularly ambitious, would-be high-achievers.

The models and mentalities employed are completely Affluenza-compatible. The drive to maximise ‘student outcomes’ (for which read profits) reeks of enough-is-never-enough greed and skewed ambition. People in a more benign world are usually satsifisors rather than maximisers – most of the time, the ‘n’th degree really doesn’t matter very much – but the system now teaches them that they should never be satisfied, that even the sky is not the limit, that they should only crave ever more. All the more so if failing to attain it might mean an imagined competitor gaining the upper hand. It also conditions people to expect a very direct, deterministic relationship between expectation generated and product consumed – this is education as Big Mac. And since both are now consumer ‘rights’, the failure to acquire can only be blamed on faulty service.

This is very different from healthily encouraging young people to try their best; I have witnessed at first hand the anxiety educational Affluenza can create in pupils who feel they will never be good enough – who on scoring 99% only ever see the missing one percent – and the surge of relief on being offered an alternative perspective. The consequences of over-ambition are not trivial – for example encouraging people to have unrealistic academic expectations can lead to traumatic failure as the intellectual demands on them rise. And ironically, the higher up the scale of success one goes, the greater the stakes seemingly become – this is a rich society’s problem.

Affluenza permeates the very way we now think about education: the notion of progress being quantifiable and sliceable into individual lesson-chunks implies that it is some kind of consumer durable; likewise, the hysteria that now surrounds exam results day is more redolent of supermarket sweep than any contemplative pleasure in intellectual success. The measures by which schools evaluate themselves have become increasingly aspirational and competitive – and the demands placed upon the workers (both pupils and teachers) in the system have expanded out of all reasonable proportion to sustainable inputs, in the quest for ‘ever-better results’. Affluenza is characterised by a permanent insatiability that shows no regard for the impact on the provider.

In a consumer-led world, any failure must be down to faulty service. This, again, is teacher as fast-food-joint operative. The ruthless ramping-up of target-expectations that occurs in many successful schools creates even more stress – and is probably in any case counter-productive.

A side-effect of this has been the abandonment of professional disinterest. Once, while schools and teachers took pleasure in their students’ results, they ultimately remained removed from the outcomes – the purveyors of intellectual development, for the student to use as they would. Affluenza-education now places such pressures on teachers to deliver, and so raises the stakes for the failure to do so,  that they have largely abandoned their professional neutrality – let alone their wider professional remit – in a Faustian push to deliver maximum rewards to their charges and bosses. This risks both malpractice and burnout.

Likewise, teachers themselves have had their own innate greed manipulated. Once it was accepted that teaching was a ‘dead-end’ job. There’s nothing great about that, but to be a teacher meant accepting that one’s pupils’ education came before any career aspirations one might have oneself; this probably didn’t matter while the rewards were more cerebral. Nowadays, teachers are told that they can both be outstanding teachers and have stellar careers; in fact the two very often directly conflict, and quite apart from any damage done to pupils’ prospects by teachers’ ulterior motives, the impact in terms of stress and burnout again can be serious. This hardly makes for better teachers, and what is more, Affluenza teachers transmit these values to their pupils.

Another symptom of Affluenza is that sufferers are not generally aware of it. That it has saturated  educational thinking  can be seen by the all-pervasive dominance of the economic view of education; whatever happened to the other important aims and effects of education ? Were one to re-frame the objectives, a lot of the Darwinian scramble for ‘standards’ and the crazed, self-defeating anxiety and stress would simply disappear, as they did from our own lives when we unknowingly immunised ourselves from selfish consumerism. Education could then return to a more considered, more balanced climate when economic priorities were but one among many.  I’m probably dreaming again, but it was this retrospective insight that made me resolve never to promote Affluenza values in my own professional practice if I can help it.

In Affluenza, James identifies perhaps the defining social problem of developed nations in our time.

Given the multitude of global difficulties we face, education should be seeking to offer future-adults perspectives for resolution or reconciliation in their own lives – be that avoiding mental illness, defining one’s life constructively in an era of uncertain employment and incomes, or reducing consumption to tackle the growing environmental crisis. We should not be stoking the very furnace that fires these problems.

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