Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Caleb Anderson: Breakdown of our schools - a generation in freefall

Recent research indicating that New Zealand school students are among the most disrespectful, violent and poorly behaved students in the OECD will have come as no surprise to many.  

While there is never a single cause of anything, I am going to suggest two causative factors that I believe are the primary contributors to this shocking situation  ...  the absence of the teaching of a coherent set of values is the first, and the willingness (in fact keenness) of the state to fill the void is the second.

The origin of values is an age-old debate in philosophy, and more latterly, psychology.  What exactly are they?  Where do they come from?  Do we discover them, or do we invent them?  Do they meet some deeper need for meaning and purpose, or do they simply help us get what we want?  Is there such a thing as genuine altruism, or are values simply a servant of utility? 

While the origin of our values is not entirely clear, or uniformly agreed, we do know that they come from somewhere deep.  

Some see them as a function of evolution, chiseled (epigenetically) through natural selection, to others, they indicate some sort of archetypal orientation to meaning, a response to a higher calling  ... and even a derivative of some transcendent reality or being. 

On a trip to the Netherlands some years back I was struck by the absence of hills and mountains.  When travelling in the Netherlands you are almost entirely dependent on maps and road signs, as opposed to heading in the general direction of a landmark.  This is a disorienting experience for those used to terrain. 

Values work similarly.  They orient us in certain directions, re-orient us when we are off-track, and assure us that, with due care, we will reach our destination.  They also give us some semi-objective concepts (or abstractions) of what it is to be decent. Values produce shame and feelings of guilt when we fall short.  This, in turn, generates inner conflict and ultimately the possibility of insight, and even of righteous action.  

In my view, what is bugging young people most is that too many of them have a poorly defined, and sometimes utterly dysfunctional, sense of what it is to be decent ... of right doing, of duty, and of responsibility.  Of course there are many exceptions, but as a general rule, I think that far too many young people (and maybe not so young people) are missing the values that serve as guardrails, that orient toward the good and fruitful, that bind relationships, that call us toward duty, order and sacrifice, and, most of all, perhaps paradoxically, enable us to feel OK. 

In short, too many young people don't feel OK, because this generation's "OK" is more poorly defined, and more precariously anchored, than at any time in recent history.  

Young people are drifting.  They want freedom but, at a deeper level, not too much.  They want options but, at a deeper level, not too many.  

Young people kick at the metaphorical guardrails because, paradoxically, they need to know that the guardrails are there.  Thus at the deepest level, they yearn for a "thus far and no further" imperative.

But the guardrails for too many young people are no longer there, and the state has continued, at breathtaking speed, to devise substitutes. The message is that values are subordinate to feelings (and to equity and justice in and of themselves) ... they are personal, evolving, contextual, negotiable, malleable and, ultimately, dispensable.  

This makes risk-taking that much more risky.  It creates anxiety and it creates anger.  Too many young people have been sold short.  

The West has moved at astonishing speed, and with surprisingly little resistance, to make values and morality matters, not of transmission and example, but of personal contemplation and convenience.  

The message to young people has been to find what works for you!   

Values are no longer the constants on which we can reliably depend, the glue that binds and unites.  The wisdom of generations, and of lessons hard learned, have been replaced by a void ... a deep and dark void ... and the result is a generation in freefall.  

Consequently, we may have one of the most fragile, and least psychologically and socially integrated, generations in history, uncertain of direction and devoid of resilience.

During my undergraduate years in the mid-eighties I would visit my high school English teacher.  I don't think she was religious in any regular sense, but, one day, lamenting the state of society, she commented that, once people had believed generally in the Ten Commandments as a foundation of the social contract, as useful rules for living, as was of knowing right from wrong.  She commented that there was general buy-in to this idea even by the non-religious.  

I note that toward the end of last year even Richard Dawkins, perhaps the world's most active and vehement atheist, commented, in response to the inroads of Islamism in Britain, that the West was culturally Christian and should remain so.  This was not a concession to Christianity per se, but an acknowledgment that some of the values that came with it had utility.  

Neuroscience seems to suggest that values are not simply a human invention, something that we can adopt when it suits, play with, or dispense with altogether at our whim.  They are not just a brain process.  They come from somewhere deep.  

Further, values seem to lie too deeply to be explained by enculturation alone, they cannot be engineered by academic contemplation, imposed by political fiat, or drafted from clever policy design.  

Values seem to predate any experience of them, the conscience seems to bear witness to them in some mysterious way, they lie in a realm that is beyond the meddling and double-speak of equity warriors, social revisionists, and those with a disposition to reconstitute, redesign, and reorient.  

Those so inclined have done enough damage already.

Research indicates that values, and the guilt they sometimes produce, are often promoters of pro-social behaviour.  Moral decisions seem to produce altruism.  Altruism strengthens relationships, grows a sense of worth, motivates toward action, and mitigates the introspection and uncertainty that are so often the root of mental illness and social dysfunction. 

This is the message that young people need to hear.  This is where we have failed them.  This is what parenting books, and the near tidal wave of state-sanctioned incursions into the jurisdiction of the home (and schools), can never achieve,

We (parents, schools, and society at large) need to love young people enough to tell them this, to model and teach values, to enforce (not negotiate) reasonable expectations, to exalt personal sacrifice over personal gain, and to live with the kickback ... and to live with the fact that, for a time, they will not love us in return.

Personal sacrifice (something values demand) is the purest form of atonement ...  our young people need to know this ...  but it is also the thing to which contemporary society is so disinclined.

Caleb Anderson, a graduate history, economics, psychotherapy and theology, has been an educator for over thirty years, twenty as a school principal


robert Arthur said...

What distinguishes NZ is the maori/pacifica content. Brainwashing with the imagine decolonisation mantra has further discouraged connection with what others accept as normal.

Anonymous said...

Yes, values is at the heart of it. One of the most basic values missing in schools is discipline. Who primarily enforces discipline? Men.

My niece and nephew attended Northcote Primary and during a birthday party I noticed the children's inability to listen to instructions - like they had never been required to before. I attribute that to the fact that their school had no male teachers.

Even if there were some male teachers at the school the overall tendency would be towards female values.

Women value feelings first and facts second. Men are the other way around. We need more men in schools. Women who behave like men don't count.

Of course this will be dismissed out of hand as sexist - and that is exactly the problem.

Anonymous said...

and something that absolutely no-one in the West wants to say out loud... is that shared values is why true multiculturalism doesn't work. You no longer have a society of people that agree on a shared set of values to live by, instead you have people bringing conflicting values from different cultures and holding on to them, instead of adapting. So there is no cohesion. Richard Dawkins clearly understands this in regards to the issues the UK is facing with the increasing population who bring in and - crucially - hold onto values that conflict with traditional Judeo-Christian values that even non-religious people see the value in. And because this perspective is labelled as racist, we will fail to address the issue until it's far too late.

New Zealand will be facing the same issues as the UK soon.

Gaynor said...

Look no further than John Dewey, the father of Progressive Education for the decline of all traditional morality and discipline in our schools.

His ideas led to child-centered education whereby knowledge and truth were to be discovered by the student instead of being imparted by the teacher. For Dewey traditional schools incalculated obedience which he argued was a 'negative virtue' inconsistent with democracy.

Progressive Education has ultimately failed because its premise are anti-human with the student as merely an animal who functions in a stimulus/response/adaptation/cycle and the belief in collectivism devaluing them as individuals.

Progressive Education, the dominant philosophy in our schools, which every year
since the 1950s has grown in strength with reinforcement, more recently,from Marxism, with which it shares many tenets.

By dismissing traditional morality the inevitable has happened with the world of the young becoming uglier and increasingly self-centered.

Don said...

Brilliant and worthy of a wide audience. In my half century of teaching I realised the young want and need limits to save them from out of control actions and give them security. Adults try to be friends and equals with the young when their role is to guide them and lead them away from behaviour that will damage them in the long run. This may harm the popularity of the adult but gain respect in retrospect. Whereas adults who court popularity are often despised as weak and open to manipulation by the young. The word that covers what is needed to avert trends towards poor behaviour in the young and give them more certainty is DISCIPLINE.