Compassion and the achievement culture

I listen to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme while I’m gearing up for the day. It’s essential but frustrating listening. Last week we heard a juxtaposition of two connected stories. David Laws, the Liberal Democrat education minister, blamed teachers for hindering their students’ ambitions and called for a stronger achievement culture. He particularly wanted teachers to encourage students to aim for a career in investment banking. Then we heard about Sofyen Belamouadden‘s brutal murder by other school students at Victoria Station. The presenter expressed incredulity that ‘decent’ university-aiming schoolchildren could possibly be so violent. It is a shocking story and, indeed, I find it impossible to think into a person’s mind who can put a sharp object into someone else’s flesh. It’s a good case study for the ‘Lord of the Flies’ phenomenon: the power of a frenzied desperate crowd to transform behaviour. Beyond this phenomenon, I think answers can be found within the groupthink in our culture, increasingly global, where virtue is equated with beating others to better yourself. Our cultural heroes are the winners of contracts, prizes, reality TV contests, games and wars. In England, this culture is promoted through mainstream media (including the BBC) and institutions such as schools, and is structured through policy changes in DCMS and DfE (especially Michael Gove). I suspect that the steps are shorter than we might think from departments of policymakers saying ‘educational achievement increases your chances of success’ to companies of brokers saying ‘I deserve rewards because I make a lot of money’ to gang members saying ‘crime raises your status’.

I want to make clear that I’m not dismissing the value of mastering skills, becoming educated and having those attainments acknowledged. I’m critical of the abiding and linked notions that a) educational success is equivalent to academic success and b) that educational success is pursued for the purpose of economic betterment and social status over others. I know that many teaching professionals are also critical of those notions and are giving their all to their students. I’m not attacking schools per se but the extreme focus on achievement and social mobility by those who fund and drive the education system.

In particular, I’m critical of the excising of compassion, secular ethics and creativity from the new curriculum and inspection regime for English schools by Michael Gove. These dimensions should form the foundations of learning, not an extra-curricular garnish. They should be the foundations which create whole people able to contribute to the common good, not just to a life in business.

This groupthink can also be seen in the excising of compassion, ethics and creativity from the mainstream view of good business practice. We hear this focus on ‘the bottom line’ going unchallenged all the time, not least on the BBC programme The Bottom Line. For example, Hilary Devey on Desert Island Discs, explained her success as being able to ‘take the compassion out of business decisions’. On Woman’s Hour today, an episode about the Power List, the only definitions of power given by women were about individual influence not group solidarity towards a common cause. This is a week in which the culture of the BBC as an institution is under great scrutiny and I hesitate to wade into this. I just want to highlight something at a macro level in UK society, to do with how we perceive children as having little autonomy. They are seen as malleable, through disciplinary sticks and consumerist carrots, to become players in a society where exploitation is hidden beneath veneers of decency.

The Conservative ideal education or training is effectively aiming to produce constructive psychopaths who can submit to orders and split off from compassionate emotions, in order to exploit people and nature for profit. How has this culture come about and how new is it? It’s been around long enough for Rousseau to have something to say about it in 1762 in The Social Contract, when he argued that modern man was a victim of divided subjectivity, split between his natural needs and the need to be seen by others as successful, using accoutrements to create status. Rousseau also argued that compassion (or pity) is inherent in animals and therefore in humans. We originate in a state of identification with others, including other species. Out of this empathetic state we develop the capacity to categorise nature in more objective ways.

Ideas about how we can live compassionately with others are very old. I’m not arguing for a regression to old times but for a progression to a phase when compassionate thriving might come to the fore, when we might call out unthinking promotions of individual power and betterment over others. It might help if we understand that you and me, all of us humans, are the most dangerous predators on the Earth. It is an immense effort to bring our power under control, to channel our wildness into building a safer future.

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2 thoughts on “Compassion and the achievement culture

  1. In Scotland at least there was a lot of discussion around widening the scope of achievement – what is achievement? where does achievement take place? in or out the classroom? (the short version :)) and then how to recognise it and assess it. I’m not involved any more but I bet the debate is still raging on. In school recognising and assessing achievement still needs to happen in ways that can be measured not only towards qualifications but for external statistical surveys. Young people need pieces of paper to take to further education and employers and governments need to be able to provide statistics that report on how well learning has taken place and can be compared against learning other countries. Hmmm… I guess achievement happens in an economic and political context. Maybe there is no escape! 🙂

    Of course widening achievement in so many ways might risk making extra-curricular activities that were simply enjoyable into more competitive activities or turn them into a chore. But I think pupils and students are generally quite happy for things like their football, music and dancing to be classed as achievements that are formally recognised and they can be proud of and maybe make something of after school.

    Politicians often sound idiotic especially when they try narrow education into a training ground for business, and the media don’t help, but having worked with teachers and educationalists I found most compassionate and encouraging in any ways they can and really do want best for children.

  2. Really interesting and important post Bridget, thank you. I think it is so important that we recognise that education is for the whole person. An education which nurtures and facilitates the development of the whole person within the context of their community and ecology, not only results in happier, healthier people, who respect and value difference and play a more positive role within society, but creative, knowledgeable, successful people too. Its not either/or. When people are happy and are engaged in their learning they learn better, its as simple as that.

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