We are sadly living in an age that is becoming increasingly selfish; not just in terms of self- interest but, more worryingly, in how we view others, especially the most vulnerable in our society. This article is not going to be a polemic about the reasons for this, but it has made me think how important it is, as an educator, to help young people be compassionate.
However, first, we must teach in a system that is compassionate. Our system is increasingly harsh for those teaching in it as much as for those being educated in it. In fact, the likes of Pierre Bourdieu would call many of the ways our current education system works is committing acts of symbolic violence, or psychological abuse, on a daily basis on young people. These acts include the constant messages of never being good enough. This could be in a subject like maths or English, or being put through what is for most the tortuous experience of GCSE resits. This could be punishment for “bad” behaviour; or the accusatory meritocratic fable of just not trying hard enough.
'It is your fault'
Whichever the experience, the message is loud and clear – it is your fault. Young people are shaped into thinking they are individually accountable for their failures.
With mainstream news being controlled by fewer and fewer people, more than ever in our democracy, we need to consider how this shift is shaping young people’s views of society.
Targeted news feeds of social media platforms and a general move to depoliticisation within education, all within a post-truth era, I believe makes it very difficult for young people to get a balanced perspective on socio-political issues and therefore to feel compassion for refugees, the homeless, the unemployed, those who are different in any way, shape or form. It is no surprise to read therefore that in 2016-17 there was an increase of 29 per cent in hate crime, according to Home Office statistics. At a time when we need to be more outward looking, we are becoming more insular and more uncaring in our attitudes.
'Each to their own'
As life for the majority gets harder, the danger is that people become more uncaring and less compassionate in the name of self-preservation. This is all understandable in the current era of austerity where society is becoming “each to their own”. This polarisation, however, will have negative consequences on all of us.
I believe being compassionate is something that can be achieved within the ethos of our teaching; giving young people the opportunity to gain an understanding of the situations in which people may find themselves, through no fault of their own, and in need of support.
As the political purses tighten, living costs rise whilst wages stagnate and front line social services are cut, life becomes harder and harder for all of us, but especially those with less. The current media hyperbole is very proficient at pitting the less advantaged against the much less advantaged in this era of ideologically-imposed austerity.
Our sterile curriculum leaves little room to examine key social issues. Yet as these issues come to affect young people now, and in their futures, it is vital that as educators we help to create compassionate young people who care about themselves, and each other – whether family, friend, neighbour or someone in their local community, national community or global community.
This article came about from a lesson where I put up a picture of a park bench with spikes and asked the students, a group of trainee teachers, to tell me their thoughts and feelings in reaction to this picture. Rather than being recognised as an example of “disciplinary architecture”, it was simply described as a way for local councils to make money.
This shows how disconnected we all are, not just young people, from the intentional ways in which social divisions are being enforced in public spaces through practices of exclusion. Setting people apart, “out of sight, out of mind”, helps to create hostile attitudes and harden misconceptions about vulnerable groups in society who then come to exist as separate from the rest of us. This is what we need to challenge and explore with young people to build a compassionate society that values all those who live in it. I believe, it is the responsibility of all us to address these social issues within the classroom.
Sasha Pleasance is an FE teacher educator and the author of Wider Professional Practice in Education and Training