The Culture of Emotional Manipulation

I’m currently reading, at David Didau’s suggestion, The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education, which was published in 2009, when the DfE was still the ‘Department for Children, Schools and Families’, and ‘Every Child Matters’ was spreading its tentacles vigorously through the nation, as Labour poured millions of our hard-earned pounds into it. The culture it describes may no longer be pushed so vigorously by the government, but it is so deeply ingrained, and serves so many vested interests, that one wonders whether that matters very much.

The therapeutic turn in culture, which has had a huge impact on education, but also on management and on policy more widely, depicts humanity according to what the authors call ‘the diminished self’. In this understanding, people are all fragile and vulnerable. They all have problems which they need to acknowledge, and once they are acknowledged, suitable professional help can be arranged. From their earliest years, children are inducted into this culture, as they are manipulated into confessing their private thoughts and feelings in circle time. If they refuse to talk about their inner lives in this public context, they are seen as ‘repressed’, and certainly in need of help to overcome their inability to express themselves. It’s a Catch 22. Admit your problems, and we’ll interfere. Refuse to admit your problems, and that’s a problem, so we’ll interfere. The authors comment that

therapeutic education is profoundly dangerous because a diminished image of human potential opens up people’s emotions to assessment by the state and encourages dependence on ritualised forms of emotional support offered by state agencies. (p xiii)

It’s a gift for anyone who is seeking ever greater funding for state agencies which propose to manage all of the frightful emotional problems from which every person is presumed to be suffering. It’s also a wonderful culture for promoting ever greater sales of drugs such as Ritalin and Prozac.

This view of humanity pushes to one side the traditional view that we all have free will and reason, that we need to struggle to achieve anything, and that suffering is an ordinary part of human experience. Struggle is good; it is not a ‘problem’ that needs to be ‘managed’. Instead of viewing humanity as rational and capable of making free choices in difficult circumstances, the therapeutic narrative presents us as prey to an overwhelming flood of emotions which the professionals will help us to manage.

In the therapeutic culture, we have all become victims, and the biggest victims are the ones who gain the most attention. No one shall be allowed to battle on calmly and quietly, refusing to draw attention to themselves. Everyone shall be required to expose their inner lives to public scrutiny, in a manner which our forebears would have considered self-indulgent to the point of obscenity.

This culture makes rational argument almost impossible. Those who propose rational arguments and refuse to be drawn into emotionalism are seen as cold, harsh and uncaring. The ‘circle time’ approach to discussion forbids correction. No one shall be told that they are wrong. No one shall be told that their personal feelings, however strong, do not in fact alter reality. The important thing is that everyone expresses themselves, and that we are all ‘non-judgemental’.

The consequences of therapeutic culture have been made very clear in the recent coverage of Brexit. We are informed of incidents of racial abuse, and called upon to express our outrage at them. Of course they are to be deplored. But it is the next step which is so pernicious. Because of these deplorable incidents, we are supposed to abandon any rational arguments in favour of Brexit, and instead allow ourselves to be emotionally blackmailed into agreeing that it must be wrong.

He who suffers, wins. Presumably this is why Palestinians are to be allowed to express their national identity, while British people are not.

It’s time to stand up for the dignity of ordinary human beings and fight against this culture of emotionalism and manipulation.

Voting Leave: Home at Last

Fundamentally, our understanding of the EU referendum reflects what we believe a nation to be. If a nation is a business arrangement, then the EU is just fine. A business has employees who come and go. There is no expectation of unswerving loyalty to a business. If a better opportunity comes up, then an employee can negotiate an exit and take that opportunity. An employee would never be expected to sacrifice his life to preserve the existence of the company. He does not expect his children and grandchildren to work there either. His commitment is simply a matter of temporary mutual convenience; love does not come into it.

But if a nation is more like a family, more like a household, then the EU is a violation of the dignity of that household. The EU claims to provide prosperity, but at the same time stipulates that the householder shall not be able to decide who shall enter. A real sense of belonging, a sense of possession, is thereby denied. You can have wealth just as long as you don’t want to have a home. Because a home without four walls and a door you can lock is a chilly place. It is, in fact, not a home at all.

Love is not general. It is specific. A man who loves women in general is a lecher, and not to be trusted. A man who loves one woman in particular can be a husband and a father, and establish a household securely. A man who loves any country that pays him well does not genuinely love any country. A man who loves one country can serve his country well. He is a patriot. His love for his country does not imply hatred of others. He does not love it because he believes other countries are inferior. He loves it because it is his country. Possession is essential for loyalty; it is essential for love.

Without borders, there is no country to love. Without borders, there is no possibility of patriotism. Patriotism is in effect banned, because anyone who expresses it represents a threat to the vague utopianism of those who claim to promote ‘love for humanity’. But there is no such thing as love for humanity, only love for individual human beings.

Specific love is real and concrete, and permits the one who loves to work with a sense of meaning and purpose. He works to build his household so that he can pass on what he has achieved to his children and grandchildren. He fights to protect his country so that his children and grandchildren can be preserved in freedom in the homeland which they possess.

Everyone wants a home, unless they have been educated out of that desire, and taught to think that abstract utopianism is superior to concrete and specific loyalty. Patriotism is a natural and a beautiful thing, which is just as basic to humanity as the child’s love of his family and the husband’s jealousy of his wife.

There has been a concerted effort by the liberal elite to educate ordinary people out of the desire to belong to a specific place and specific people. Once they have been splintered into isolated individuals with no deep-seated loyalty, they can serve the interests of international capital more efficiently. But this inconvenient human desire to belong, to be loyal, to love, simply will not go away. As G K Chesterton puts it, the common man ‘has been offered bribes of worlds and systems; he has been offered Eden and Utopia and the New Jerusalem, and he only wanted a house, and that has been refused him.’ (from ‘The Homelessness of Jones’, in What’s Wrong with the World).

‘Bribes of worlds and systems’: the abstract notion of European solidarity is no substitute for actually having a place to call your own.

That’s why the EU referendum wasn’t fundamentally about economics. All of the squabbling about how much money goes back and forth was irrelevant, or only important insofar as it impinged upon this one central question: are we going to be allowed a country to live in, or must we surrender it? Are we going to be allowed a home? Are we going to be permitted to love our country? Because we can’t very well love her if she has been legislated out of existence. Strangely, liberal middle class Remainers who agonise about self-determination for Tibet and Palestine are distinctly queasy about allowing the same thing for Sunderland. A white working class person is banned from wanting to possess his country, while the oppressed peoples who form the pet causes of the chattering classes are lauded for wanting this.

I grew up reading The Guardian, convinced that most British people were stupid and needed guiding by their betters, and viewing flag-waving patriotism as boorish and distasteful. After what happened on 23rd June, I am shaking off the last chains of the arrogant liberalism which I absorbed in my youth. I can stand shoulder to shoulder with all those ordinary people who refused to be bullied into surrendering their country, who insisted that they had a right to a land which they could call their own. Well done Britain; I love you for this.

Memory and Liberal Education

This is the text of a talk I gave today at a conference on liberal education.

Liberal education aims for broad knowledge, so that students can gain a connected view of things, so that they can see the wood for the trees, so that they can escape the trap of being stuck in the present with no points of reference in the past, or the trap of being stuck in one place without points of reference around the globe.

Those who propose a liberal education for the young tend to be those who have acquired, to a greater or lesser extent, such broad knowledge. When they see a current political event, they have a rich range of comparison points from history, both modern and ancient. They want to share this richness with those who have not yet acquired it. But there are many obstacles to doing so. I want to focus on the importance of memory, and especially of the traditional practice of explicit memorisation, for overcoming these obstacles.

Cognitive science gives us many indications about how it is that a novice makes the journey to expertise in any given subject. The first thing to note is that knowledge is based within specific subjects. It is domain specific. There is no such thing, in fact, as general knowledge. Knowledge is always specific. In any specific domain of knowledge, the beginner must build up a foundation of overall knowledge which will help him to fit each successive new item into its place. This is called a schema. In history, he will need to begin with an overall understanding of the different eras in history. This knowledge needs to be firmly in place in order for him to make sense of the detail of historical events within each age. It needs to be mastered. It needs to be memorised so thoroughly that the pupil can recount it fluently, almost without thinking, in the way that we speak our native tongue. Only once this has been achieved can the pupil build on firm foundations in studying more detailed historical events.

A thoroughly memorised schema is vital for making sense of knowledge, for building it up in a connected way. But it is also vital for enabling pupils to really think in any given domain. Human working memory is extremely limited. It can hold between four and seven items at a time. Thus if we wish to think about anything broader than what is immediately in front of us, if we even want to understand a sentence that is more than a few words long, we must rely upon memory. For broader thinking about history, we must depend upon what we have stored in long term memory. We perceive a particular event, then we draw out various examples of other events that we have memorised. Without a large store of such material in our long term memory, we will be simply incapable of thinking historically.

The problem for liberal educators today is that it is very unlikely that they acquired their broad knowledge through an explicit programme of memorisation, as this has virtually disappeared from our general education system. Therefore someone who has acquired broad historical knowledge is, by definition, an exceptional person with an extraordinary amount of intrinsic motivation and intellectual capacities well above the average. When they attempt to pass on this knowledge to the young, they therefore have a tendency to expect such motivation and such capacities in them. In the vast majority of cases, they are disappointed.

If we want to extend liberal education to the large majority of young people, we must reintroduce thorough and systematic programmes of explicit memorisation. Young people must be drilled in the foundations of each subject discipline, and drilled so thoroughly that they have fluency in them. This is not exciting and thrilling in itself. It requires dutiful hard work on the part of teacher and pupil. But without this dutiful hard work, we are abandoning the vast majority of people to a narrow, intellectually crippled life.

The process may not be exciting, but the result is. I have seen myself, after a year of drilling my pupils in core knowledge of literature and history, how much they can learn when simple, traditional methods of memorisation and oral drill are used. I have also seen how capable they then are of making reasoned arguments based on objective truth, not vague waffle about their ‘personal opinions’.

Teachers: Know Your Limits!

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Teachers are no more superhuman than are their pupils.

Discussion of education focuses most often, naturally enough, on the pupils: their strengths, capacities and weaknesses. Based on a Romantic philosophy of the inherent goodness and the sanctity of the child, progressive education tends to emphasise pupils’ strengths and ignore their weaknesses. The traditional view is that children are unformed and must be trained. They need knowledge to enlighten their ignorance, and discipline to strengthen their will. Or, to put things in more twenty-first century terms, progressives will admire mystical, nebulous mental attributes such as creativity, while traditionalists will point to the severe limitations of the human mind as described by cognitive science.

But what is less often discussed are the strengths and weaknesses of teachers, who do, after all, belong to the same human race as the young people in their charge. Every debate about pupils finds its parallel in questions about teachers: who they are and how they function.

If pupils are inherently good and should trust their instincts rather than subjecting them to the cold light of reason, then so should teachers. Therefore, if teachers have a ‘hunch’ that something ‘just works’, they should go with it, because it ‘feels right’. If some pesky person comes along and makes a logical argument, or points to some research, which undermines their precious hunch, they are at liberty to dismiss this, because after all, it is the dead hand of science, and they fly on the ‘viewless wings of poesy’, which is much more fun.

If pupils do not need knowledge, but only thinking skills, so that they can exercise their inherent creativity, then teachers do not need knowledge either. They can teach anything, because they have an abstract skill called ‘pedagogy’ which is entirely divorced from the dull weight of facts, and soars free into the realm of . . . something or other. This is handy, too, for managers, who are at liberty to exercise judgement on any teacher, regardless of their ignorance of the subject they are teaching.

If the limits of working memory can safely be ignored in pupils, and their minds crowded with extraneous information and distractions, then these limits can be ignored in teachers too. Teachers can be told to think about ten different things at once and there will be no discernible impact in their effectiveness. Why listen to the gloomy voice of the cognitive scientists who tell you multitasking is impossible? Why let reality cast its cold shadow over your interactive, busy classroom? You’re a capable professional; why let these naysayers tell you what you can and can’t do?

But most of all, if the will of pupils does not require discipline, if the surest way to happiness is to follow the whim of the moment and to spend one’s life in pursuit of amusement, if duty is a dirty word, if the first question asked of a child after any activity is ‘Did you have fun?’ then teachers too should reject steady, quiet work in favour of glitzy fads and fashions. Because the worst possible situation is to be in a job that no longer amuses you.

The Importance of Simplicity

In a classic example of the perils of ‘fun activities’, Daniel WIllingham describes a lesson in which pupils make cookies like those given to escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad. This was supposed to help pupils engage with the historical topic, but in reality, they were focusing their attention on cookie making, not history, and because you remember what you think about, they will remember lots about measuring flour, sugar and butter, but very little about the Underground Railroad, apart from a vague idea that escaping slaves ate cookies.

This is something we all experience in everyday life. We remember having a conversation, we remember the room in which we had it, the colour of the person’s shirt, and so on. But we forget what it was we actually talked about, or only recall it in the vaguest terms. We say to ourselves, ‘I remember having a conversation with Jane about work’, and that’s about it. The more interesting the medium, the more likely this is to happen. If we happen to find Jane attractive, for example, we may remember many things about her physical appearance and her tone of voice, but still very little about the content of the conversation.

Simplicity and plainness actually help. If there are to be any visual elements, they must be strictly relevant. But most of the content of academic education consists of facts and ideas which must be mastered, and these are primarily communicated and remembered using language.

For mastery to be secured, the language must be relevant and clear, and free-flowing conversation and discussion frequently do not meet these criteria. Discussion naturally wanders and digresses. Digression does have its role in the classroom. No one is forbidding it, but we need to be clear about what we are intending to do. If we are focused on transmitting certain definite knowledge, then we need to be disciplined in our focus upon it. It is all too easy for pupils to remember all of the tangents, and not the main point.

I experienced this recently, in one of those classic examples of memory testing that occurs in everyday life: remembering a name. I have a colleague whose surname is Davis. We once had an interesting conversation about the spelling of surnames. My surname – Radice, pronounced ‘Rah-dee-chay’ – always has to be spelled out to people. In some ways this makes things clearer, because people do not assume that they know how to spell it, so they tend to pay attention when I spell it out. Davis, however, is a fairly common surname, so people tend not to ask how to spell it, or they fail to pay attention when it is spelled out to them, and then they often end up writing a common variant of the name, Davies. My colleague explained all this to me, and one would have thought that it would have clarified forever for me how to spell his surname. But instead, I remembered the conversation about how an ‘e’ gets added to ‘Davis’, and managed to remember the error, rather than the correct answer. I ended up remembering that his name was spelled ‘Davies’ but pronounced ‘Davis’. I even explained this in some detail to someone who asked me how to spell his name.

Thanks to the complex mode of delivery, I had remembered an error. Now, if my colleague had wished to ensure that I did not remember the error, he would have had to strip away the complexity and focus my mind very clearly on the essential fact, that his name is spelled ‘Davis’. If instructed to do so, I could easily have memorised this, and if he had tested me on it regularly so I had to recall the information, I would soon have been secure in my mastery of this knowledge.

Simplicity, directness and recall practice: if we’re serious about core knowledge mastery, we need to do a lot more of this. We need to spell things out clearly, and test recall frequently.