This does not tell us what Maddy thinks it tells us

It\’s year 10\’s English class in a ­London comprehensive. Forty kids are debating the purpose of a school. \”Teaching social skills,\” they suggest. Why do you need them? I ask, playing devil\’s advocate. \”To get a job.\” Is that the only point of having social skills? \”Yes, what else is there?\” One demurs, hesitant and not entirely sure how to ­express herself. \”No, there\’s more to life than a job. There\’s happiness. Social skills are needed to make you happy.\”

It was a fascinating illustration of how deeply the instrumentalist values of the market have penetrated our everyday thinking when kids talk in this way. \”Social skills\” is the type of phrase management experts dreamed up to put a market value on a set of human characteristics.

Well, yes, but….

These were bright and interested 14-year-olds, but if you ran this argument in any other school, you\’d probably get pretty similar responses. The gap that intrigued me was the absence of any notion of being a good person, or of the many values that might not be able to command a market price such as being challenging, courageous, truthful, honest, spontaneous, joyful or even kind, compassionate.

I started with this classroom anecdote because it seems a good way to make concrete an absence.

That absence being something that Maddy herself seems not to notice. Sure, schools are there to produce a certain set of social skills: I recall how hiding at the bottom of the ruck in the frost was supposed to build character for example. And there\’s also the simple basic idea of socialisation: teaching the little beggars that they are indeed part of a society, not just atomistic individuals.

But schools also have other things they\’re supposed to teach as well: like the basic tools to enable you to navigate the modern world. Readin\’n\’ritin\’ come to mind, sums, how to think, how to evaluate an argument, consider evidence, even, if you like, how the birds n\’ the bees thing applies to human beings.

Nary a mention of all of that: no, it\’s all Thatcherism, the triumph of the market makes schools so appalling according to Our Maddy. Absolutely no recognition at all of the things that schools used to at least attempt to teach and now seem not to.

6 thoughts on “This does not tell us what Maddy thinks it tells us”

  1. Being at school teaches you all about interpersonal reactions and social skills. Your peers teach you that it’s a vicious, competetive society and any weakness is ruthlessly exploited by a species that made it to the top by being even nastier than all the other species on the planet.

    Unfortunately, the formal lessons teach you that all the stupid grown-ups are fantasists who believe that society is a caring, sharing, inclusive, uncompetetive world, where the weak are tendered a helping hand and you as an individual can do no wrong.

    Which obviously gives rise to a problem because everyone from the age of 7 up now thinks adults are morons.

  2. No, the term “social skills,” despite bringing immediate ideas of superficiality in mannerisms and peer-related culture, is about as apt as any other brief summation (and better than many). And, yes, getting a job (by which one contributes to the well-being of others and “earns one’s keep” falls well within bounds of being a “social skill”).

    And (for John Miller)–you’re ‘way off base here.
    There’s plenty of competition out there in the rest of the biotic world in which outcomes are certainly more starkly final for the losers. As a matter of fact, most of the competition in human society simply involves pressure from the group intended to force each individual to contribute in the fashion that others value most by the simple expedient of making it the avenue through which the individual can most closely realize their own greatest satisfactions. And, until that day when the seas and streams are pink lemonade and we have only to “open our mouths for the roasted pigeons to fly in,” that’s about as good as it can get. But even here, one is not without alternatives. Suicide is illegal, of course–but it would be almost impossible to prevent if you were really determined on it as the best solution. Cheer up–everyone has such thoughts from time to time, however badly they are mistaken. Just think about it: if yesterday and today were as bad as you seem to think, tomorrow’s almost bound to be better! (And that though can not only keep you alive, eve more importantly, it can keep you sane.)

  3. If happiness is important then why not cut out the middle man and go straight to cocaine? This is what a fair chunk of the population is actually doing. So vox populi vox dei.

  4. I concur, Tim.

    the Libertarian Party approach is to “only”* require evidence of providing numeracy and literacy (as you suggest, critical reasoning, comprehension, clear expression of rational ideas and opinion) in return for educational voucher money. Exam boards, pedagogy, curriculum? Well, most parents will sift the chaff sharpish and for those who don’t they will almost certainly either get attention from good teachers who will found a school for them or get the reflected good sense from other parents in their proximity, so at least their kids can climb out.

    Currently we have a system that is like a bucket of crabs. As soon as one manages to get even a little way towards climbing out, the others grab onto them to get out themselves, so pulling the first back down.

    * as if this is already provided…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *