Does teaching need to be this hard?

Daily Mail

They said this was a first. It may have been, but it should not be a surprise.
It is in fact a symptom of the chronic disconnect which is now
commonplace between the key institutions in Western society – families,
schools, government. About 70 teachers in a school in Lancashire,
England, picketed their school because of a breakdown in school discipline. Staff at Darwen Vale High School in Darwen are
angry over a lack of backing from the head and other management at the
school when they confront unruly children.

Simon Jones, a local National Union of Teachers official manning the picket line, said: ”This
is not a strike against pupils. It is about management, and management
failure to support staff in dealing with challenging behaviour. No one
wants to demonise the children here; they are no better or no worse than
any other.” Pity the poor teachers, pity the poor pupils. In a broken
society all are victims. Few know why and even fewer know what to do
about it. This is by no means a “sink” school. In fact, in the latest
report on the school from the Office of Standards in Education last
June, Darwen Vale was rated a good school where pupils’ behaviour was
given a good rating.

Something really terrible has happened when an entire body of
teachers in a school has felt compelled to down tools and walk out of
their classrooms because they find themselves no longer able to do that
which should be second nature to them – relate humanly and
affectionately to the body of students in that classroom. What the exact
circumstances in Darwen Vale are may be special, but there is no doubt
but that the reaction of those teachers is mirrored in thousands of
classrooms around the Western world today where teachers feel they can
no longer cope. Why? It is not a deficiency in their skills, or in their
training, or in their good will. It is nothing less than a breakdown of
civilised human behaviour.

What has happened has been happening for a long time and is deeply
rooted in the culture of individualism which permeates Western society. A
good and wise man – who died back in 2005 – diagnosed a good deal of
this malaise in the course of his work for children and the American
education system over the second half of the last century.

Urie Bronfenbrenner, born in Moscow to Jewish parents in 1917, came to the United States at the age of six. After graduating from high
school he received a bachelor’s degree from Cornell in 1938, completing a
double major in psychology and music. He went on to graduate work in
developmental psychology, completing an M.A. degree at Harvard, followed
by a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 1942. After the Second
World War he returned to Cornell where he remained for the rest of his
professional life.

Bronfenbrenner’s observed that interpersonal relationships, even at
the most basic level of  parent-child relationship, did not exist in a
social vacuum but were embedded in the larger social structures of
community, society, economics and politics. These, he maintained, hold
the key to understanding our  current sad state of affairs. Already in
the early 70s he pointed out in his book, Two Worlds of Childhood, how a chronic erosion of the basic processes of true human learning was
taking place in the US as a result of rampant individualism. His study
consisted of  a comparison between the broad educational culture of the
US and the broad educational culture of the Soviet Union – and, strange
as it may seem, it was in the US that the more worrying trends showed

In 1979 he wrote: “In the United States, it is now possible
for a person eighteen years of age, female as well as male, to graduate
from high school, college, or university without ever having cared for,
or even held, a baby; without ever having comforted or assisted another
human being who really needed help. . . . No society can long sustain
itself unless its members have learned the sensitivities, motivations,
and skills involved in assisting and caring for other human beings.” (The Ecology of Human Development)

In Two Worlds of Childhood he described how a self-inflicted
generation gap in the US was cultivated had been through the constant
separation of generations in that society’s relentless catering for
generational tastes and interests, exclusive of each other. This led to
the breakup of family life, the break-up of cross-generational community
life, all with unforeseen but dire consequences.

“Children need people in order to become human”, he wrote. “It is
primarily through observing, playing, and working with others older and
younger than himself that a child discovers both what he can do and who
he can become—that he develops both his ability and his identity…. Hence
to relegate children to a world of their own is to deprive them of
their humanity, and ourselves as well.” (Two Worlds of Childhood: U.S. and U.S.S.R., preface)

The civilizing effect of work and the life of work – not only on the
person working but on all those sharing his or her life – was one of the
casualties resulting from the segregation of society along generational
lines which he saw all around him in the US in the ‘sixties and beyond. “One
of the most significant effects of age-segregation in our society has
been the isolation of children from the world of work. Whereas in the
past children not only saw what their parents did for a living but even
shared substantially in the task, many children nowadays have only a
vague notion of the nature of the parent’s job, and have had little or
no opportunity to observe the parent, or for that matter any other
adult, when he is fully engaged in his work.” (Two Worlds of Childhood)

This was for him one of the consequences of a merciless imposition by
society of pressures and priorities that allow neither time nor place
for meaningful activities and relations between children and adults,
which downgrade the role of parents and the functions of parenthood, and
which prevent the parent from doing things he wants to do as a guide,
friend, and companion to his children.

In a 1977 paper for the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation Conference on
Parent Education, “Who Needs Parent Education?”, he pointed out a
central fallacy in American thinking which he saw as leading to our
present predicament. This is essentially the thinking which is at the
heart of all individualism.

“Witness the American ideal: the Self-Made Man”, he said. “But there
is no such person. If we can stand on our own two feet, it is because
others have raised us up. If, as adults, we can lay claim to competence
and compassion, it only means that other human beings have been willing
and enabled to commit their competence and compassion to us—through
infancy, childhood, and adolescence, right up to this very moment.”

The failure to recognise these essential needs of the child, he
argued, manifested themselves in practical decisions by planners and
policy makers. What was critically needed, he wrote in Two Worlds,
in the planning and designing of new communities, housing projects, and
urban renewal, both public and private, was that explicit consideration
be given to the kind of world that is being created for the children
who will be growing up in these settings. “Particular attention should
be given to the opportunities which the environment presents or
precludes for involvement of children with persons both older and
younger than themselves.”

At the Flint conference he called for recognition of the need for
re-education about the necessary and sufficient conditions for helping
human beings to be truly human. They need to be re-educated not as
parents—but as workers, neighbours, and friends; and as members of the
organizations, committees, boards. The informal networks that control
social institutions and thereby determine the conditions of life for
families and children need to understand all this. There simply had to
be, in his view, clear recognition that a child’s development occurs
through a process of progressively more complex exchange between a child
and somebody else—“especially somebody who’s crazy about that child”.
The poor teachers, and the poor students, of Darwen Vale High School
find themselves far removed from this beneficent and crazy love.

Urie Bronfenbrenner foresaw the crisis now being experienced by our
society. “If”, he said, “the children and youth of a nation are afforded
opportunity to develop their capacities to the fullest, if they are
given the knowledge to understand the world and the wisdom to change it,
then the prospects for the future are bright. In contrast, a society
which neglects its children, however well it may function in other
respects, risks eventual disorganization and demise.” Are we there yet?
We can only hope not.

Michael Kirke is a freelance writer in Dublin. 
He blogs at Garvan Hill


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