Extrinsic Motivation Works

Quarry Hill flats: one of many utopian fantasies imposed upon the British people. This one was demolished in 1978.

In the past, I picked up the idea that if pupils were doing something under orders, that was somehow a failure. They should be doing something just because they wanted to do it. They should not be acting under external compulsion, because if they were, they were not building up their ability to think and act independently.

This way of thinking cripples teachers. Teachers need to be able to give the orders in a classroom. They need to believe that their orders should be obeyed, whether or not the pupil wants to do what they are asking. There are always going to be pupils who have no wish to work hard, to show respect, to stay silent when necessary. These pupils need to be given orders, or they will continue to follow their own whims, and destroy their own education and that of their peers.

Practically, then, extrinsic motivation is necessary. Education simply will not work when we make it a matter of choice for young people. We have to use systems of reward to motivate, and sanctions to punish those who refuse to comply. But will these systems prevent our pupils from developing the ability to think and act independently?

The truth is that there is no contradiction between independent action and extrinsic reward. Extrinsic reward is a fact of life. It is reality. There are good reasons why I get up early each morning and go to work, which have nothing to do with whether I particularly feel like doing it. I have a duty to my family and my employer. I would be ashamed of myself if I let them down. And anyway, I’m in the habit of getting up and going to work. It would feel odd if I didn’t. None of these things depend upon whether I feel a deep sense of inner joy as I gulp my coffee down and set out to the railway station.

All kinds of extrinsic factors are in play when someone faithfully goes to work each day and does their duty. We do not therefore say that they are somehow crippled and incapable of independent thought or action. The extrinsic factors are a help towards doing the right thing. Of course they are much reduced by the existence of the welfare state. My children would not actually starve or be homeless if I decided not to bother with working, because the state would pick up the tab. The consequences of reducing extrinsic motivation for work, duty and fidelity are all too clear in the welfare-dependent underclass. Theodore Dalrymple eloquently points this out in Our Culture: What’s Left of It:

Intellectuals propounded the idea that man should be freed from the shackles of social convention and self-control, and the government, without any demand from below, enacted laws that promoted unrestrained behaviour and created a welfare system that protected people from some of its consequences. When the barriers to evil are brought down, it flourishes; and never again will I be tempted to believe in the fundamental goodness of man, or that evil is something exceptional or alien to human nature (‘The Frivolity of Evil’, p8)

Whether or not I have some inner drive to work, and whether or not I find it particularly satisfying, it is important that there are external factors which put pressure on me to keep working faithfully. Without these external factors, it is harder for me to do the right thing. I do not believe that I am so pure and good that I should be released from these external factors. I am grateful for them, and in fact, I resent their corruption by the benefits system which takes away from my dignity as breadwinner for my family.

If extrinsic factors help adults do the right thing, they are even more important for the young people in our education system. Do we really believe that it will help them do the right thing if there are no external forces placing pressure upon them to do it? Do we really think that they are essentially pure and good, and that all that is required is release from the artificial, corrupting forces of society for them to discover this inner goodness?

Unfortunately, our whole education system is indeed haunted by the spectre of the ‘noble savage’, the fantasy of Rousseau, who developed ideas about the purity of mythical children while abandoning all of his real children to the orphanage. Whenever we find ourselves thinking that there is something wrong with young people’s doing something under compulsion, we must make the effort to exorcise this particularly malignant philosophical demon. Perhaps memorising these words and saying them to ourselves each morning would help:

When the barriers to evil are brought down, it flourishes; and never again will I be tempted to believe in the fundamental goodness of man, or that evil is something exceptional or alien to human nature.


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