What do misbehaving students, a bus crash in Coventry, the Tottenham riots and our current government have in common?
The concept of empathy is one I have long been interested in. Differences between students can often be attributed to varying levels of empathy – persistent low level misbehaviour speaks volumes about that particular child’s lack of empathy for students around him or her. Generally speaking, the more empathetic a student is, the better their relationship with their peers and the adults around them; it comes as no surprise that these students often achieve more highly than less empathetic students.
Simon Baron-Cohen’s brilliant and precise ‘Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty’ had me thinking about the links between empathy and student behaviour. His assertion that certain people exhibit “a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others that begins in childhood or adolescence, and continues into adulthood” may seem only to apply on the surface to those with diagnosed pathological conditions and yet, as teachers, particularly in urban, deprived areas, do we not see these behaviours exhibited by our poorest behaved students on daily basis? These students turn into the adults of the future, sometimes taking their low empathy levels with them. Some of them become inconsiderate drivers, noisy neighbours, litter-droppers, looters and muggers.
Whose responsibility is it to teach people to consider others, to be more empathetic?
The curriculum (when we have one coherent one) ignores this life skill – it is overlooked by those who design the curriculum, perhaps out of a mistaken belief that it is not a teacher’s responsibility to develop levels in empathy in children. We don’t explicitly teach empathy; it is a by-product of studying History, Literature, PSHE and RE but it is not something that is taught as a life skill that can mean the difference between success and failure. It doesn’t fit onto a league table. It would look odd nestled in the data outlining A*-C grades including English and Maths. And yet, in our society – one that is struggling against a ‘me-first’ culture highlighted most horrifically by the Tottenham riots – we can’t afford to ignore the impact of ignoring this most human of skills.
Recently, in Coventry (a town blighted by the German bombing and then by some shockingly poor architectural choices), a bus carrying passengers crashed into a pawn shop, scattering the gold in the window display. I would like to think that if I was on a bus and this had happened, my fellow passengers’ first instincts would be to check on each other, to make sure that everyone was safe, out of danger and uninjured. But no: many of the passengers and onlookers began looting the gold, scrabbling in the debris for what they could gather up. They left the scene with their pickings. When reading this story, I couldn’t help but associate it with other instances of disintegrating empathy. Only someone with very low levels of empathy could set fire to buildings that may be occupied during the Tottenham riots; only someone with very low levels of empathy could assault a Malaysian student and pretend to be helping him. Lack of compassion has been very much in the news in the last few weeks – a recent study by the journal Psychological Science suggested this week that the less compassionate you are, the less moral you become.
Where, then, does a decreased ability to display empathetic behaviour come from? Have we always been this way? In a lesson with Year 11 students, we were discussing Hamlet. In analysing the line: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”, my students made the link between the quality and style of leadership and the knock-on effects on state and society. Claudius, the ‘king’, is rotten and therefore, the country is too. We don’t have to travel too far to see the parallels in our own society. Empathy is not a feature associated with the Coalition government, or those appointed by it. Sir Michael Wilshaw’s statement almost sums up my argument: “If anyone says to you that ‘staff morale is at an all-time low’, you know you are doing something right”. When you’ve finished being astounded by the sheer bullishness of the line, it is hard to find an iota of empathy in that sentence. The sacking of Downhills Primary governing body by Michael Gove can be seen as yet another nail in the coffin of empathy. The act in itself is the result of complex wranglings influenced by the need to demonstrate total control over a system that is powered, ultimately, by human beings with human feelings. Whatever our opinions on school underachievement, the end result leaves onlookers asking uncomfortable questions about the methodology of improvement on such a public scale.
Combine Sir Michael Wilshaw with Michael Gove, add in cuts to services such as domestic violence support charities, whisk in a whole host of measures that adversely affect women and ethnic minorities, and sprinkle liberally with a reduction in public sector pay in the poorest areas and you’re left with a potent mix that may account for the unease in communities. It’s a recipe that lacks one vital ingredient: empathy.
The inevitable consequence of a right-wing government that is more interested in the stick than the carrot and nothing in between can only lead to a society that reflects their own lack of empathy. Society is a mirror of leadership. I don’t imagine the Coalition government sees itself in the Tottenham riots, or the bus passengers that looted the pawn shop – but maybe it should. Maybe it should.
It’s hard to watch the endless analyses of why the London riots happened and not feel incredibly torn. As a teacher, I find myself ruminating over the causes and finding very few answers to questions that the nation is now asking. What do we know? Despite the fact that the media have highlighted particular cases of looters charged and sentenced whom society wouldn’t have expected to be involved in a riot, we can’t ignore the fact that the majority of people charged are young men, largely unemployed and disaffected.
At various points I am angered by those who claim that the riots are just about criminality – to simplify this is as just a freak manifestation of inherent criminal tendencies is short-sighted at best. Now that the dust is settling and more and more information is presented to the public on who was involved, we cannot stand back and state categorically that the riots were caused by one thing and one thing alone. As much as I abhor what happened – to my own neighbourhood and to others’, I need to understand the complexities and not judge. Judgement is so final; I am saddened by the fact that the events of the last few days have given the extreme right an excuse to spew their vile nonsense – and especially, to find that people I thought I respected echo their words, in one form or another. Their judgements and pronouncements prevent us from understanding and therefore, from finding lasting solutions to the problems we have ignored for too long.
Dehumanising these acts by calling the perpetrators “scum” or “feral rats” allows us to abdicate responsibility – because the looters aren’t human, we don’t have to look for the human reasons behind the riots. Language is so telling and unfortunately, the language people are using, from both sides of the argument – those scared and affected by the riots and those committing acts of looting and violence – shows that we have reverted to categorising each other. We are no longer individuals, but “looters”, “thugs”, “rich people”, “the police”.
To watch the sentencing is also hard. One part of me knows that justice has to be seen to be done. But on the other, it feels so futile to lock some of these people up. It’s like watching a tsunami wash over the country only to be told that it’s okay, the swimming pools will contain the water. Jail is not the solution – we have known for years that they act as breeding grounds for further criminal behaviour, the rates of recidivism are incredibly high and they destroy any chance for people to be successful later on. There will be people reading this who immediately jump on my last statement and exclaim that they do not deserve success – they have done something wrong. I cannot ascribe to this view as someone who works with children; some children misbehave and if my message to them is that there is no salvation, no way back from that mistake, I am only perpetuating the problem, not attempting to resolve it.
Commentators from left and right have argued that the riots are a consequence of a sort of violent consumerism – as a society, we have taught a generation of young people that having is more important than giving. Perhaps this is true. I was lucky enough to go a school in inner-city Leicester where the motto was “Be Concerned”. My friends and colleagues laugh at this now, and I admit, it does sound like a dire warning. However, at the time, I knew that it meant that I had to ‘be concerned’ about people, my neighbourhood, the surrounding area. We used to take harvest parcels to the elderly and those in need. We learned to give.
I can’t help but feel that in our attempts to place highly on league tables, in our attempts to pass exams in the most artificial ways, we have forgotten what it means to truly teach. Some teachers do face the awful dilemma of deciding between focusing on the test and focusing on the child. In some cases, children do not have the guidance and care from home that they need to function in society, they are not provided with the ability to form a moral compass. We’ve also fooled them into thinking that by having a GCSE, an A-Level or a degree means that they are immediately going to find a job. Are we surprised that they feel cheated? Core values and skills – confidence, articulacy, literacy, a sense of purpose, a sense of identity – are they now just by-products of our education system?
In my department, there are three maxims that we share with students: ‘work hard, be nice’ (the assumption being that it may not get you everything, but it may make life a little easier); ‘there are no shortcuts’ (the idea being that quick fixes are not long term solutions – reading the York Notes on a text is not going to get an A*) and ‘don’t quit before the miracle starts’. The last one sounds cheesy, but we found that students gave up once the going got tough and that led to failure where there shouldn’t have been failure.
In September, schools are going to have to be the front line against what some people have called the steady erosion of values in society. I do not accept the pronouncements from Mr Gove about needing to instil discipline in schools – that is only part of the issue. The power to search someone’s bag, or to keep them in a detention without parental permission is not going to change the fact that some children don’t understand what it means to earn something. What teachers say to their students about earning respect and earning money and earning success is far more important.