Shaping debate on religion in public life.

We Teach Children About Financial Flourishing, But Not Spiritual Flourishing

15 Oct 2015

When John Atherton wrote his contribution to our “Christianity and the New Social Order” (see pp.125-129 in particular) and constructed his own updated version of Temple’s original guidelines for a good society, his first two focus on children and education. The flourishing of every child, he writes: “involves the nurturing of children in the material and the immaterial, including spiritual experiences of life”. He then extends this to education as lifelong learning for all which should “encompass efforts to increase our knowledge of the world, ethics and religion, with the acquisition of skills as only part of such processes”.

These are concerns which tend to slip through the net of the work of the William Temple Foundation, yet, as Atherton says, they are fundamental to building a good and better society. So it is time to take the temperature of the current context to see how well we are doing. Scholarship is largely agreed that “childhood” is itself a social construction going back no further than the 17th and 18th centuries (see for example, Phillipe Aries “Centuries of Childhood) who argues that it was the work of philosophers such as Locke and Rousseau who laid the groundwork for this understanding. Up until then “children” were simply smaller and younger adults and not the subject of particular concerns or protection. The rise of developmental psychology and writings such as those of Piaget and Kohlberg in the 20th century added evidence to support this new approach.

Having recently had an OFSTED inspection in our village school, one of the main areas that governors have to address is safeguarding, now extended to include concerns about radicalisation and the government’s “Prevent” agenda which requires all staff and governors to undergo an on-line training package. This also impinges upon RE and the wider debate about “British Values”. In the meantime, other deeper concerns go unaddressed, including the numbers of children now living in poverty and those dependent upon foodbanks. Flourishing and wellbeing appear to have been reduced to national security issues. The family lives of children determine much that happens in our schools but present more intractable challenges. When I asked our primary school children at the end of an assembly about “Daniel and the Lion’s Den” if they could give me examples of their own “lion’s dens”, one child answered that it was when a loved one was sent to prison for committing a crime yet one still wanted to love and care for them. Another put his hand up and said that his dad was about to take his mum to court. It would seem that we are not doing a very good job of protecting children from the harsher realities of life, even in a village primary school. At the school harvest we will be asking why it is that we are collecting goods for the local foodbanks. Considering such daily challenges, there is little surprise perhaps that a survey of teachers has revealed that 53% are considering leaving the profession in the next two years.

Moving on to adolescence and the problems being stored up with that age group, there has been recent research which documents the disturbed sleep patterns of many young people who take their mobile phones to bed and keep them switched on all night because they are afraid of missing any communications. So they arrive at school weary and unable to function as one might expect. There has also been international research which suggests that the use of technology in schools does nothing to enhance the educational progress of young people and may even detract from it. As I noted in a previous blog on the impact of the digital, we do not appear to have developed appropriate disciplines for making the best of these advances, and instead allow the technology to shape us in ways that are detrimental to our wellbeing. I also learn from other colleagues who work at the secondary level, that there is an increasing incidence of young people self-harming, and to which the counselling services are struggling to respond.

Finally, these concerns extend to undergraduate level and evidence of increasing mental health problems now emerging. Perhaps it is the case that there is now less stigma attached to acknowledging these, but it is still a cause for worry. The pressure to “succeed” in purely academic terms which itself will lead to better employment prospects and greater material wellbeing, appears to impinge from day one of undergraduate existence, and detracts from the capacity to enjoy as well as learn from the overall experience. Student isolation is also on the increase from listening to those who have a responsibility for their welfare. So what exactly are we doing to our children and young people, despite all the grand claims about safeguarding and personal development?

As I listened to a parent of a teenager telling me that her daughter would not consider becoming a doctor because the pay wasn’t good enough, and she wanted to go into accountancy instead where the rewards were more lucrative, I ask myself what aspirations and ideals we now present to our young people. (This needs to be seen against the background of student tuition fees and the cost of attending university, which I have seen calculated as around £52,000, also the difficulties of entering the property market for younger generations). Has the material, understood in purely financial terms, become the only objective worth pursuing? Where is the immaterial, and the thirst for knowledge and insight, which can counter the requirement to produce skills and command of the technology? Education was always motivated by the need to produce a compliant and skilled workforce for the economy, and indeed the need to “warehouse” children so that both parents could participate in that economy, so perhaps the ideals that Atherton mentions were only ever a gloss on the realities. Yet there is clearly a growing cost to this for the mental wellbeing of the young people themselves, let alone the impact upon families and educational establishments and their staff. It would be good to see a faith agenda which promotes flourishing and wellbeing above the purely pragmatic concern to retain a stake in education, but this particular “entanglement” is difficult to negotiate in the current climate (see Chapter 6 in my co-authored book “A Philosophy of Christian Materialism”).

At the moment we run the risk of colluding with an approach that will create a new scandal of childhood (and beyond).

John Reader is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation.

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