The age of entitlement

Since the right to education was enshrined, students have slowly but surely come to see success as their due, rather than a reward for effort. An educational culture that values grades above all else is partly to blame, writes philosopher Julian Baggini
13th February 2015, 12:00am


The age of entitlement

Every child has the right to a decent education. But does this mean every child has the right to educational success? The question may sound absurd, but many teachers are concerned that this, in effect, is what the current cohort of schoolchildren think.

Student attitudes seem to have changed considerably in a short time. Trainee maths teacher Melissa McBride was dismayed to find that "a teacher is duty-bound to ensure that every student has understood every lesson, regardless of the effort, or lack of effort, applied".

It's as if there are no bad students, only bad teachers. If pupils fail, they believe it's the system that has failed them, because success is an entitlement, not the result of hard work.

In staffrooms around the country, educators are quietly grumbling about this misplaced sense of entitlement. And most are pretty clear about where the blame lies. "The drive to raise standards and outcomes has shifted responsibility from the student on to the teacher," says the head of a state sixth form who prefers to remain anonymous.

Rights and wrongs

But the roots of this culture of entitlement go deeper than recent education policy. One event in particular played a crucial role in its creation: the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 1948. From this moment on, rights became the central focus of political morality around the world - the criteria against which all governments were judged.

The declaration was an incredible feat of international cooperation. The countries that needed the most persuasion to adopt it were those in the more powerful West, since it threatened both racial segregation in the US and European colonial power. Its carefully crafted articles are as cogent and relevant today as ever.

The potential for wrong turns, however, was latent within the declaration. Most of the articles concern negative rights: rights of non-interference; rights to be able to raise children, worship, travel and work without hindrance. Other rights are positive: claims to basic goods and services. And Article 26 falls into the latter category.

This article specifies a right to education and is prescriptive about what that means. "Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages," it states. "Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit."

Over time, populations in developed economies came to expect more and more positive rights. This was perhaps inevitable, given this phrase in Article 25: "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family." As general standards of living rose, so did the notion of what was "adequate", which is entirely reasonable. But the question of what can reasonably be expected by right has become less clear: given that people generally claim as much for themselves as they can, we tend to err on the side of entitlement.

Another factor feeds into the burgeoning culture of entitlement: as the economy has grown, so has the availability of consumer goods. Advertisers sell the idea that all sorts of comforts are within our grasp, which perpetuates the feeling that we are entitled to a standard of living that includes what were, until recently, luxuries. Someone who wants a mobile phone, washing machine, television, car, microwave oven, freezer and DVD player would not be accused of seeking anything more than the basics of modern life.

Put these two factors together and the result has been a gradual inflation of rights, from the notion that we are entitled to basic human freedoms and public services to the idea that we are entitled to a good standard of living - and to an education that leaves us qualified to attain it.

Entitlement breeds entitlement

How children develop this sense of entitlement depends on their background. For pupils in deprived areas, whose parents likely left school at a young age, universities and professions can seem alien. I doubt that many feel entitled to either. They are, however, infected by the consumerist ethos of the age. And they take public services for granted, often expecting education to be delivered to them on a plate without any major effort on their part.

In contrast, children from highly educated families often assume that A-levels and university are just life stages that everyone in their peer group will experience. They fail to appreciate that they may not advance to those stages if they do not work sufficiently hard. After all, if almost half the population now goes to university, surely they will?

People have been worried about excessive feelings of entitlement for some time, with New Labour spearheading the Left's reaction against it. Former prime minister Tony Blair adopted the phrase of sociologist Anthony Giddens: "No rights without responsibilities." Giddens' fingerprints can also be detected in the Labour Party's rewritten Clause IV, which states that "the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe". This was not a radical change in the fundamental notion of rights, merely a new emphasis on the quid pro quo expressed in the penultimate clause of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible."

However, it takes more than slogans to reverse long-term societal trends. People may question entitlement culture, but that doesn't stop them feeling entitled to a great deal more than their grandparents had.

And it is not simply that the education system is instilling in children a sense of entitlement that the real world will soon bash out of them. When expectations are not met, I suspect the most common response is a sense of grievance. I've known people who were brought up to expect a good salary in a respected profession, but weren't able to come to terms with the fact that they simply hadn't achieved enough to get it. They do not see their expectations as unrealistic - they see society as letting them down.

Put the onus on ownership

Is a slide from rights to entitlement inevitable? I don't think so. The key for schools is to encourage the idea that no doors are closed but to complement this with the message that none of us has an automatic right to walk through those doors.

The way we currently think about education works against this. First of all, the high ideals of student-centred learning have to some degree been perverted. "This system, supposedly based on the needs of the `learner', overemphasises the role of the teacher," McBride claims.

Genuine student-centred learning has to place the burden of responsibility squarely on those students, which means allowing them to fail and refusing to place the blame on anyone else. Without this, "success" loses its meaning. We are fools if we don't think students know this; when almost everyone passes, only failure is a big deal. But increasing pressure on schools and students to get decent grades leads to far too much teaching to the test.

"Accountability through exam results is followed through remorselessly, so that school leaders, teachers themselves and parents see it as the teacher's job to help students get the grades they `need'," says John Taylor, head of philosophy at Rugby School in Warwickshire. When education is just a functional means to the end of gaining qualifications, it's hard to motivate students to engage more wholeheartedly in their learning.

The only solution would be to downgrade the importance of grades. This is far from unimaginable. Even without reform of the basic structure of GCSE, AS- and A-level exams, universities could take the lead and place greater emphasis on factors other than results. Similarly, the problem with league tables is not simply that they don't contain the right information but that people value the headline measurements too much.

But how do we encourage students to aim high if they feel no entitlement to success? Inculcating greater confidence is certainly important. Products of the state system, like me, always notice the air of assurance that privately educated people have, which is not to be confused with emotional self-esteem. Rather it is an unwavering belief that they will be able to do whatever they might wish to do. They see open doors where others see daunting drawbridges, and stroll through them boldly.

The trouble is, of course, that this confidence is not just a matter of attitude: it is grounded in the regrettable truth that more doors are open to the wealthy. We've heard a lot recently about internships being affordable only for the rich, but even getting one often depends on knowing the right person. We want all children to feel as though they have a wide range of opportunities, but we would be doing them a disservice if we taught them the trite mantra that anyone can be anything they want to be.

So how do we get our motivational pitch right? The key is to stop talking about expectations and focus instead on aspirations. No one should ever expect success. All we should be able to bank on is that, if we do our best, we will have as much chance of success as anyone else who performs as well (or, at least, almost as much chance). It is an injustice if we pretend to students that success is within their control. There are no guarantees of success, but not trying is a sure route to failure.

The final aspect of this debate has become increasingly topical. The culture of entitlement appears to work against the development of character, which many are now advocating as a core educational objective. As McBride puts it: "In our desire to protect students from failure - and to protect our place in the league tables - we have shielded them from opportunities to develop resilience and determination."

If the source of the problem is found in the structures of society and education, the idea that it can be solved by explicit character classes seems hopelessly misguided. The best way to develop character is to create a school environment that develops character. This must be one in which students are supported yet learn to take responsibility for their own performance. It must be one in which everyone is valued as long as they are active members of the school community, irrespective of their academic, artistic or sporting talent.

Students need to learn that not everyone receives prizes, but that there are prizes for more than just coming top.

Physician, heal thyself

Perhaps most importantly, we need to make sure we don't just see this as a problem for schools. If we are dismayed by the culture of entitlement, we must look at ourselves and acknowledge that we have taught the younger generation to think in this way; they are merely holding up a mirror to wider society. If they believe education is about grades - and that it's a school's job to make sure they get good ones - it is because that's the message we've sent them.

This is why there is no easy solution. For schools to change, society has to change. We have to challenge our own sense of entitlement, whether it's related to the kind of home we expect to own, our pensions, foreign holidays, parenthood or a long and healthy old age.

As much as we might hate the label, the truth is that the parents of the entitlement generation are Thatcher's children: we grew up thinking that we could have it all with a credit card and a bit of attitude. We know now that we were wrong, but that doesn't mean we've shed all the bad habits and attitudes we acquired.

Ultimately, character is taught by example. "It is not a remotely uncommon experience as a teacher to be trying to deal with the issues surrounding a particular student, then to meet the parent and suddenly everything begins to make sense," says Richard Wheeler, head of sixth form at St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School in Bristol.

Parents are, of course, just one piece of the jigsaw. If we don't like an aspect of the character emerging in schoolchildren, we need to ask ourselves tough questions about the example we are setting - as a society, as schools and as parents and guardians.

Julian Baggini is the author of The Pig that Wants to be Eaten and 99 Other Thought Experiments. He is co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Philosophers' Magazine

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