A little confidence goes a long way

14th January 2005 at 00:00
Centre for Confidence and Well-Being has been set up in Glasgow under the directorship of Carol Craig, author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence. She argues that "indigenous Scottish values bleed confidence from people" and that it is wrong to explain the Scottish cringe solely in terms of our political relationship to England.

Take egalitarianism, for example. Scots interpret this as meaning that, if we are all of equal worth, then nobody is special and we shouldn't think we are better than others. As a result, a certain perverse pleasure can be derived from seeing people who have done well coming a cropper in their personal or professional lives.

Craig compares this with American attitudes to success, which she says are "aspirational" and much more likely to celebrate achievement. Scottish egalitarian values, by contrast, are "levelling". She further argues - and this is the really challenging part of her case - that this attitude does nothing to counteract inequality. In fact, it reinforces it by encouraging people to "know their place".

The new centre aims "to encourage more positive attitudes, confidence, individuality, creativity and innovation, recognition of success and understanding of the importance of well-being". For Carol Craig, this last point is especially important. She says that enabling people to be themselves, without fear of being criticised or judged harshly, is at least as important as political processes in effecting cultural change.

In all of this, the implications for education are substantial.

Traditionally Scottish education has been strong on criticism, intolerant of individuality and often harshly judgmental. This is beginning to change, and there are some good examples of projects which encourage enterprise and creativity. Politicians tend to see these in terms of their potential contribution to future economic prosperity - but their value to individuals, in allowing freedom of thought and enabling them to develop a positive self-image, is at least as important.

Another implication is that we should welcome diversity and acknowledge that there are many different ways of achieving desirable results. In education there has been a tendency to seek the one "right way" of doing things.

This may be administratively convenient but it leads to a dull uniformity of approach. On this analysis, many of the "professional" disputes about alternative teaching methods are largely a waste of time. Some children respond well to certain methods but not to others. The value of routine must be set against the need for variety.

Similarly, the desire of policy-makers always to reach a "consensus" is suspect. Many of the central issues in education are highly contested and, in a post-devolution Scotland that is seeking to redefine its place in the world, there should be scope for experiment and even risk-taking. The "one size fits all" model of Scottish education should be consigned to the scrapheap.

Carol Craig comments on the sense of liberation felt by some Scots who leave the country to live and work elsewhere. Many go on to achieve much more than they could have if they had stayed. When they return, they often say that they find Scottish attitudes narrow and restricting. We should be careful not to dismiss these observations as the arrogant assertions of folk who have got above themselves. Such "outside" views may contain uncomfortable truths about our characteristic modes of thinking.

The creation of a Centre for Confidence and Well-Being will not, in itself, bring about a cultural revolution. Potentially education has a vital part to play in the process. Are we brave enough to reflect critically on the extent to which the outlook of some children may have been damaged by the prevailing ethos of traditional schooling?

Walter Humes is professor of education at Aberdeen University.

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