A life of happiness or despair is not a foregone conclusion

6th January 2012 at 00:00
Headlines proclaiming the miserable lives ahead for today's young only point to one potential outcome: it's our job to equip students to create their own future

Children's lives to be worse in the future", read a headline after a recent Ipsos Mori survey where almost two-thirds of people thought the current generation of children will have a lower standard of living than their parents.

Such a headline chimed with something Professor Graham Donaldson, former senior chief HMIE for Scotland, recently identified when he referred to one of the greatest challenges facing Scottish education as a young person's perceived sense of "destiny".

It's ironic that Graham should use such a word, given its significance to Scottish history - I refer, of course, to our iconic "Stone of Destiny". However, in Graham's sense of the word it was not to be a hopeful, aspirational or confident view of the future, but quite the opposite. In fact, he was referring to a "hopeless" view of the future, a future set out for you by dint of your socio-economic background, which - to our eternal shame - has more of an influence upon your educational outcomes and future than in just about any other country in the developed world.

It was this notion of hopelessness that triggered for me a connection with what psychologist Martin Seligman termed "learned helplessness". The idea refers to the phenomenon where a person's sense of personal agency, to do and achieve things for themselves, is undermined by circumstances from which they cannot escape. Eventually the person gives up and accepts their situation, regardless of the harm it may be causing them.

By linking Donaldson's notion of a damaging destiny and Seligman's concept of helplessness, I wonder if we are facing an even more pervasive limit to personal growth. I am referring here to the challenges facing all of our young people, regardless of socio-economic background, as a consequence of the global economic downturn. The concern here has to be that our next generation becomes so conditioned by circumstances as to accept their "destiny" and in so doing fall victim to "learned hopelessness".

Imagine the impact upon a generation of children and young people who come to accept that their future is hopeless and learn from their peers, their parents, the media and society in general that they cannot expect to experience the "happiness" of previous generations.

Such an assumption might lead those of us involved in education to conclude that whatever we do as teachers, our young people are destined to have unhappy and unfulfilling lives, as their standard of living is going to be lower than our own generation.

However, such an assumption is based upon the premise that happiness is in direct proportion to one's standard of living. If that was the case, it would have to follow that our parents were unhappier than we are, and their parents, in turn, must have been unhappier than them, and so on.

In fact, the evidence is for the opposite with a 2009 OECD report showing that for most of the past 25 years, people born between the Great Depression and the end of the Second World War were more likely than early baby boomers to report being very happy.

It is surely the role of teachers then to challenge the orthodoxy that young people's futures will be "worse". For what is teaching if not to plant a seed of hope in the future? No successful teacher I have known has resigned himherself to believing that their efforts are not imbued by that sense of hope. That is perhaps the single most defining factor between the teacher who goes through the motions of teaching and the teacher who transforms the lives of young people by sharing their belief that anything is possible.

For it seems to me we have two choices. Firstly, we could accept that children's lives will be worse, regardless of whatever action we take. Alternatively, we could believe that our efforts will provide a foundation upon which a young person can find happiness from being absorbed in a personal interest; can be resilient and can cope with future challenges, live a life of personal meaning by having a sense of belonging, and have the wherewithal to accomplish their personal goals. Above all, we must recognise that a person's happiness will depend on their capacity to build and sustain social ties as part of a community, or even communities.

Surely such an inventory describes what we are attempting to achieve through Curriculum for Excellence. Most parents I speak to first and foremost want their children to be happy. At a time when we see students with five "A" passes at Higher and first-class degrees struggling to make their way in the world, it has never been more important that we take a more rounded view of education in order to equip young people with the skills to face an uncertain future.

If, then, we are to avoid "learned hopelessness", we need to ensure that we are not "teaching hopelessness". In order to achieve that goal we would be well advised to learn from a small country such as Bhutan, whose strategy for promoting the national well-being of its population is based upon its commitment to "Gross National Happiness", or does such a notion fail to resonate with the Scottish psyche?

Don Ledingham is director of education and children's services in East Lothian.

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