Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Lacking purpose: how our culture undermines passion and purposefulness

If we take the useful notion that we are all here for a purpose and that our duty is to find and cultivate that purpose, then we can begin to examine the nature of burn out at school in its symptoms and meanings for what we can do about it.

Before we go into semantics inquiring into the metaphysics of purpose and the meaning of life, let's just keep it simple that possessing a purpose is much more useful or reflective of our nature than not having a purpose.

Purposefulness of purposelessness - what sounds better to you?

When we have found a passion, we have found purpose.

And passion and hence purpose comes from dreaming about what could be. As Einstein noted, imagination is so much more important than knowledge. Why? Because imagination can change things - from the little things in life to the well being of millions.

Our culture - our schooling and media - tend to kill passion. Oh celebrity may be adulated - but that's so superficial compared to the great passions that stir men and women to great feats or to insights and performances that in turn inspire.

A passion may be a primary overriding purpose that consumes our waking moments and our entire social and commercial activity. Or our passion may be a primus inter pares, a first amongst equals, that sits equally with several activities that bring great joy and happiness to life. Either way, passion creates purpose or purposes.

But many people don't have a passion for anything.

Their dreams have been slowly squashed or never been allowed to flourish in the first place. They assume who am I to want things? Well, if that's how they think, the universe (the millions of interactions they have with the world and people around them) will provide for their lack of purpose - they will be used up accordingly whether in relationships or in work. I have clients who say I don't know what I want. Again, the universe will provide an unknown path, a life of floating on other people's actions and dreams... (I wrote about this in my first novel, Wither This Land, which follows the actions of a young student caught between two opposing political forces.)

Let's review how a normal person can be devoid of purpose and passion - or how many of us are in the quieter moments of life. When does it begin and what can we do about it?

Now, I can be critical of schools - as I don't see any great evidence supporting the casting of children into an institution as being terribly helpful to psychological and creative development: much of a person's personality has to be squashed by institutional learning. It's practically inevitable, as the young have to meld their behaviour and mentality to something not of their making. But the blame cannot be laid at the feet of the school system: we get out of school what we put in. So let's go back further.

When a baby is born, it has so much potential. But that potential is dependent on a healthy upbringing, one that recognises the child's individuality but most importantly one in which its needs are met with love and kindness. The role of the mother (and surrogates - aunts, friends, grandmothers) is vital. Unfortunately we often witness, or have ourselves experienced, alienated mothering in which the child's emotional needs are ignored by mothers who have culturally learned to separate baby from themselves postpartum. (I'm still reading this next book - it created a rather large emotional upheaval!!)

Our culture cultivates separation, but we're a social species needing a lot of emotional attachment and love in the early years until we are weaned as it were from mother's care (if we ever truly are - seeing my father say good bye to his mother at her funeral was an image that will never leave me).

The newborn gets "his own" cot, "his own" room even, and is then subjected to the current abusive fashion of conditional crying - letting the child bawl until he learns not to. Babies cannot dial child helpline - but their screaming should be read that they are trying.

When the baby becomes silent it has given up on its mother as a source of love.

Just like statins, one day the mass media will wake up and say, oh, the separation of infants from their mothers has caused a lot of damage. (Ever wonder why so many teens have, for the past few decades, been into highly destructive behaviour ranging from "Gothic" culture of isolated melancholy to drugs). What do we hear? Oh, she just wants to be picked up... by a mother who refuses to pick the child up. The effect is telling in the teenage years and the mother wonders why she doesn't have a great bond with her daughter and takes comfort in the crass media that explore this as somehow normal.

Paraded around shops and malls in a forward facing pushchair with no sense as to why it turns left or right with a dummy in its mouth rather than a nipple, fed industrially produced formula and jabbed with a range of chemicals (vaccines) no doctor has yet to offer to drink, the child becomes increasingly alienated and disaffected. Marxists should have a field day here analysing the subtext of modern parenting, but alas they they are far more interested in notions of wage slavery and the need for woman to become independent of natural chores and the rights to abortion rather than an insightful anaysis of the newborn and the importance of loving and nurturing. Our culture encourages us to cast our bairns into an isolated universe, removed from his natural connection to mother and others.

Things are slowly turning but for the past few decades we have created the Brave New World of separating babies from their mothers.

Coming home, the young child may be put in front of the tv or be given a basic electronic game to play, thereby stultifying its imagination from the first few months of existence. The ubiquitous plug in drugs of modern life diminish a child's imagination and abilities compared to naturally and freely frolicking with simple objects and construction bricks. The flat screen life certainly flattens his imagination. If you've not read it yet - please get a hold of this book: mandatory reading for anyone keen to help our youth grow up properly -

Then off to nursery or reception class administered by other controllers of the baby's life.

I have watched child minders and while no doubt they love children and enjoy spending time with them, they, perhaps of necessity, have to use controlling means to ensure the children obey their instructions rather than to be allowed free play. I've yet to be impressed by nursery schools. Brave New World lies therein. And what for? So mum and dad can earn an extra few grand a year. Now where that's necessary for economic survival, the importance of family time after nursery becomes so much more important. But when it's just a matter of having a few more doodads or keeping up with the annual purchase of a new car, it rather lacks moral weight - and for those who are wealthy enough to afford a nanny something is very awry.

Indeed, my good old friend, John Locke, wrote about such mischief in the 17th century. For him the family was the most important source of a child's education and upbringing. He would not have condoned sending young infants into the arms of strangers and into the perils of a life with other people's children. That was for the very poor who had no choice.

Also in the nursery, being thrown into the presence of other children, some of whom are so distraught over their mother's abandonment of them or mentally distracted because their vital formative years were spent sitting in front of screens, the atmosphere can be charged negatively, or be of such confusion as to render the world dark and dangerous from the young person's maturing mind. In such environments imagination and passion can swiftly die.

Is it surprising that in such environments, the young child learns that choice is not his or hers to make. She is the pawn in an adult game, the patterns of which may fall into a regularity and hence gain some sense of order, but in which nonetheless her choices and needs are secondary or peripheral.

Form nursery to school.

Drawn in by games and fun (controlled according to the administrators) the child is gradually subjected to the military equivalent of basic drill. She learns that her interests are secondary or even worthless. I recall one my students commenting that school lost it for him when the primary school dismissed his love of interests as it was not on the curriculum. I had another young girl, 9, who was put off art! Now that does take some incompetency on the part of the school. How do you put someone off art- that is where many of our pupils find refuge in self-expression. Well, she had to draw/colour as the teacher told her to.

Now, we can ask what is on the curriculum that does fire our passions? It may be maths, French, RE, or geography, or IT for some folk ... but then it may not be for the majority; some aspects of the courses may fire our interest for a moment but then it gets dropped as the curriculum moves on inexorably to an exam (which rarely enthuses us), or the pupil has to trot off to another class and lose track of where the subject was heading. (History's an interesting one here - often the GCSE syllabus is decided by the teacher rather than permitting pupils the choice over what is a wonderfully broad range of choices for an academic subject for young people.)

Finally, the student gets to choose a few subjects that he or she wants to do at A-level and degree level. At this stage, the use of a critical mind and the need for a passion and purpose are vital. Yet by then, much as been thwarted and repressed.

How do I know?

I work with teenagers and maturing people and getting some of them to make a decision is hard. For eleven or more formal years of schooling they have been told to do as they are told, follow the routine, change subject at time set by other people. At A-level we expect them to evaluate and judge arguments and theories - yet they have been conditioned to hold back their personal judgement.

Then they enter the work force and fall into a job. The rebellious and disaffected in school suddenly find that freedom means that they can create jobs and they often become business people; but most quietly move into the professional world, keep their head down, muddle along ... and get married and have kids and start the whole routine all over again - medicalised birth, separation of baby, push chairs and cots in separate rooms, off to nursery and school ... and so it goes.

For those who find it painful to make a decision, we start small with simple decisions over minor matters.

Then we try to cultivate aesthetic judgements and material goals (what kind of house would you love to design/live in; what kind of car do you really want...).

I watch my children focus on what they want and how the envisage the things they would like. They seek to alter the universe around them so they get them - not through pestering (they learn that doesn't work) but through working for funds (or saving gifts) to get what they want.

For adults, the journey back to that inherent love of purpose may require thinking like a child - seeing the world for its wonderful abundancy and vast opportunities. Harness the childish love of life to adult dreams and we can once again find our purpose(s).

So  how can we help our children? School is a must for many people because of economic constraints. Fine.

But explore after school - learn together by watching your child and see what they're interested in.

If nothing is forthcoming because they are quiet after school (and you're really, authentically not in a position to pull them from a place that is slowly stripping them of vitality), pick up your own hobby - music, drawing, a sport, something that uses motor co-ordination and activity (rather than, oh, let's put on the dvds...)

Show them your passions and interests and they will soon pick some thing up for themselves. In the extracurricular many students do find their passions.

But above all, don't feel guilty for the culture that we have all been brought up in - we didn't choose how our parents were conditioned and how we too were conditioned in turn; it is hard to go against the peer group which expects us to tow the line. But we can make a difference from this moment on - we can learn about the forces that condition us to behave in the ways we do (from marketing to government policies and our parenting and schooling) and think about them. Talk about them. Discuss them with our kids. 

Be yourself, no matter what they say, sang Sting. Quite right. But let's help foster that healthy self!

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Should children be targeted?

Okay, a pun.

For the past two decades or so, UK pupils have been given targets to aim for in their work. While there is much to support the notion for aiming for some value or goal in life, academic targets fall short of authenticity and are open to manipulation.

An authentic target is one that self-chosen, that reflects our deepest values and the purposes we have.

For instance, if a teenager wishes to go to medical school then her primary value may be to serve people through providing better health and alleviating pain and illness. To reach for that goal, she will need to go to medical school (or a complementary school depending on her philosophy of care); to get into medical school, she will have to secure excellent grades from her A-levels and GCSEs and show her commitment through work experiences and voluntary work. It's a heck of a track, but if that's what she wants, then commitment and hard work are part of the course. As tutors and coaches we can then work with her on her scores and encourage her to be accountable, listening out for deviations from the targets and considering options and potential changes of values along the way.

If a pupil wants to go into business, then scholarly grades are ostensibly less important than gaining experience in many different business environments; now the emphasis is on securing key values that make sense to the pupil. How many businesses does she want to run, what turnover, how much money does she want in the bank account by the age of 30 (a good question for all pupils!), how many customers does she want to serve and in what manner (services? manufactured goods?). School work becomes a means to an end in which the knowledge gained should be viewed as a stretching of the mind, gaining important research skills (all business people need to be able to research), picking up a language for international work; on the extracurricular side, we'd expect to see commitment to people through sports, leadership, teamwork, and individual initiative - all great values without which people flounder in business.

The target thus needs to be adapted to the individual and the course of studies moulded to his or her primary values. Only then do scholarly courses and targets make sense.

However, students are saddled with course choices that are not part of their overall game plan. They waste many hours having to research and study for projects that do not make sense to them and which  they often come to resent. From the perspective of an all rounder, such feelings are sad to see in young people: 'what do you mean, you don't like history??!' And when they are expected to gain certain targets, pulled out of the blue, for such courses, they do feel incredibly disgruntled - more importantly, such feelings can spill over to learning in general, which is something we do not want to have.

To be targeted a grade in a course that has no primary meaning to one's life implies a form of social engineering, and our youth are quite sensitive to such manipulation, even though they rarely are able to voice what's going on.

Imagine telling an adult: right, you're going to sit this course, which will take up five hours of your week, no, I don't care that you don't like it, and we'll give you a target for it, and if you don't hit the target, you're in trouble.


In the business world, one of the greatest mistakes is putting the wrong person in a job.

This is what most of our schooling does - wrong person in a class, and then to make matters worse they are given targets to hit and have to explain themselves when things go wrong.

The other main problem with academic targets in schools is that the are historical in nature. I have pupils tell me that they are 'expected to get a C grade' or whatever and they cannot explain to me why they are so targeted.

Well, it's from statistical analysis of past behaviour. A moving average as it were - working back to their year 7 work through to their year 10 scores. So someone scoring a C along the way will be expected to score a C at the end of their exams. No account is made for the possibility of a change of momentum, which we do often see in 15 year olds as they approach their exams: the realisation dawns that the exams they will do this coming summer actually matter - and then they go up a gear, get really motivated, can be coached and mentored with ease (because they want to be), and hey ho, they pull an A.

Except we have a feudal system of exams: if a pupil is hovering around the 'C expectation', they are not permitted by most schools to take the higher papers which could gain them a B or an A.


Because schools don't want to risk that pupil messing up and getting a D, when they could easily score a C on the lower paper.

In other words, politics.

In setting targets for children, the teachers and heads will work the children hard to get the best resuls for the school - not the individual.

In my practice, we offer pupils a separate route. Smile and nod at school, as you're not going to change the system, but take the higher paper independently. In the commercial world, there is always another way of doing things!

So our youth certainly need targets: but those targets need to relate to their goals, their career choices, and their primary values. Then they will make sense to the pupil. When we ignore those, the targets are manipulative and even counter-productive. Schools could do this - and the better teachers no doubt reach out to explain why working at a certain level will be part of the game plan for the individual pupil; but they in turn are targeted by national statistics and this renders any attempt to work with the individual pupil nugatory - ultimately, the pupil is a statistic for the school, and beyond that for the government (and whatever pedagogic fashions hold sway).

To help your child - or yourself - think about what you want to achieve. Then work back from that primary value to secure the path that you'll need to take to get there. Then consider what courses and grades are then appropriate (and which are therefore inappropriate!). That's when we can all provide authentic targets for ourselves.

Monday, 13 January 2014

When should schooling begin? A strange question... Begin with homeschooling first.

When should schooling begin?

An interesting question that we in the UK certainly need to consider in more depth than what the government says! Over the past few decades there has been a pressure to get toddlers into some form of schooling! Two years old. Hmm.

Also the question presumes that schooling should begin at some point. Perhaps.

But it's not necessary to send your child to school (or legally mandatory in the freer nations of the west, although I believe Germany still forbids it...!) The homeschooling or home education movement is gaining strength across the UK and it's very strong in the USA reflecting many people's beliefs that school is either not conducive to learning for most people or just for their children.

Aristotle, whom I've written on (might be in paperback soon, so look out for it at stations, airports, WH Smiths...), argued that we owe our civilisation to the polis (the state) and therefore it's the state's duty to educate the children as it sees fit. Despite being a highly influential philosophy, it's not the philosophy of a libertarian or one who embraces the need for plurality, individuality, and creativity in life. State education, by its very nature, must be directed - the government pays for it and it will want to ensure that the taxpayers are getting their money's worth and therefore it will inevitably end up interfering.

It made it! It's in paperback...(Oct 2014)

Now to assume that all children's education should be directed by the state reeks, or it should reek if you know your history, of totalitarianism. It does not matter how 'well-intentioned' the politician is, or how 'in tune' with the people he or she is: imposing a curriculum upon the children is totalitarian. Quite simple really. It also explains why so many pupils (who want to learn) and teachers (who want to help them learn) feel repressed. The room for manoeuvre is crushed by such things as a national curriculum. And even though the UK government is allowing more flexibility in 'the system', it's still a system and systems attract systematisers and people who enjoy fiddling with the exam boards and curricula.

If you think, oh, but when I'm in power, or my party's in power, we'll do things better...that's the reason the classical liberal heritage exists: to block such moves. To curb such grandiose dispositions. Power corrupts, n'est ce pas? Such thoughts are totalitarian and our constitutions should be such as to inhibit any bureaucrat or politician imposing their values on others.

Instead, let's begin with the assumption that the child does not have to go to school and that schooling is something extraordinary. (Just because you went doesn't mean to say your children should go...anyway, did you enjoy it? Seriously? Or was it the social life you enjoyed?).

This is the move I make in political philosophy - begin with a small community who live without government (I'm not saying without laws): this is an anarchistic community.

Then try to justify the formation of a government...it's quite interesting and hard to do. (Rather than presuming the existence of the state, as Aristotle does, and then justifying its diminution or abandonment. You'll find most philosophers accept Aristotle's position and so abhor the notion that people could live without government, even though they have done for most of our evolution and continue to do so quietly and small groups - and such communities tend not to wage genocidal and total war campaigns against neighbours by the way, something governments are particularly good at...don't believe me? Please, look through a history book.)

So the child is born to a family and a particular culture. It belongs in the family as a maturing person, gaining greater moral distinction and intellectual and spiritual independence as he/she develops. Okay - so why then pass the child over to someone else who will instil in him/her values that may be very different from your own and who will be thrown in with other children, many of whom, if you do have values of sorts, you would not invite back into your home?

To get an education you say.

Really, what kind of start is it when the young forming child is cast into a jungle warfare of children all the same age yet with highly variant needs and demands and actions (violent, sullen, fashionable, afflicted with poor diet and too much screen time...). Is the nursery or kindergarten or school such a great place to get an education?

Didn't do me much harm, you say. Really? It's hard to tell - most of us went to school and we survived. We enjoyed bits, we were bored for most of it, we were subtly and not so subtly manipulated and conditioned into accepting authority. Some wanted to gain that authority to wield over others, others collapsed with a failing sense of self-confidence in the world and end up working for the 'headmaster' bosses of the work place.

I exaggerate. Really? Why do many parents get nervous when they have to go and speak to the head of their child's school then? Why do so many yield authority to teachers when helping to forge their child's educational programme? Or why do others get so angry with school teachers that their rebelliousness is echoed in their distrust of the educational system and teachers in general...

But the teachers are trained to teach...

What is teaching? In a school, much of the teacher's skill is crowd control. It has to be given the curriculum and lack of freedom they possess: give that control up and they will have mayhem. The whole system is authoritarian and obedience by the individual to the dictates of the teacher is necessary.

Great education...? Now, are you literate? Can you do basic numeracy. That is all you need to impart to a child. Once they can read and do basic numbers, you can explore together (many great books on that out there, never mind the internet!) and you'll be amazed what your child gets interested in...and you will be learning with them rather than imposing. Much teaching is teaching ON children not WITH. There are many great teachers out there - lovely people, lovely values, people you would invite home and with whom the children feel comfortable: but the system is against them. The systems governments (inevitably) create attract managers and target manipulators rather than inspirers. There are inspirers and for goodness' sake - tell them! It's not just their salary that keeps them propping up kids' lives.

We (or I) have to work...

That's the big issue for most parents who would love to home educate. For a great part of the day, they require their children to be schooled so that they can earn the living required to live. Fair enough. But don't then expect that the school will teach all that you or they would like to learn: schooling is from 9-3.30, but education never stops. When you all return to the family nest, don't put the tv on (get rid of the damnable thing) - listen to your children, encourage new interests, expose them to your learning, learn something new yourself if you're not already (why should they continue to learn if mum and dad don't? - you're the greatest role models they have (or should be)). When the child is with you - you are home educating!

So the last resort is economic. For that we must turn our attention once more to how we got ourselves into such a state, in such a rich economy - why do we have to give up so much of our time to the market place?

Well, because taxes are so high, inflation rampant and there is so much distortion in the economy because of government intervention and regulation. I consider myself a feminist in the sense that men and women should be held morally, legally, politically, and intellectually equal, but it does seem as if we are poorer when both parents have to now work compared to the past. There is an economic necessity that both work - yet we are so rich as a country! Taxes, my friends, taxes, keep many from making the choices they would like to make. (Don't think taxes make a difference - check the taxes you pay...on everything, you may be dismayed by the proportion of wealth that is diverted through government offices [and at the moment of writing, Kiev is revolting over the amounts being diverted]).

If you can properly justify sending your child to school, explain to them why you do. That also helps kids, especially those going through a tough time for whatever reason.

Don't just say - you have to go to school. Because that is a lie. Be honest: you have to go to school because your mum and I have to work to pay for the food. But when you're back home, we'll have fun and learn about dinosaurs, the Romans, rocket science, Pythagoras, the use of calculus, politics, world issues, psychology...together.

Check out the books below for further research (there are many for those interested in home schooling, from educators who like structured school-like days, to those who prefer to let the children come to learning themselves, also called "unschooling"):