Double standards on peer pressure

18th September 1998 at 01:00
Teachers and parents often express concern about the effects of peer group influence. They criticise the ease with which youngsters succumb to commercially driven trends in fashion and music and, more seriously, give voice to worries about pressures to experiment with drugs and engage in early sexual activity.

In education, there is evidence to suggest that some, particularly boys, underachieve because they are subject to group values which disparage those who work hard at school. What is seldom acknowledged, however, is that adults themselves are highly subject to peer group influence and often lay themselves open to accusations of double standards.

Youngsters are not slow to spot hypocrisy and most of them, like Holden Caulfield in J D Salinger's classic novel Catcher in the Rye, possess highly sensitive "phoney detectors". Equally, most of them end up going the same way as the majority of adults. Part of the reason is that the world of education provides powerful role models of group conformity.

Pressure to toe the line begins in teacher training where students undergo a process of socialisation into "professional" values. They come to understand that it is sensible to follow "proper procedures" and to "give people their place", even if this involves the suppression of their critical faculties.

Those students who are most successfully socialised adopt conformist practices as habit and routine. The stage is set for a career of compliance and orthodoxy, qualities regularly rewarded in Scottish education. That such a pattern might have damaging effects on the experience of pupils is never considered. The picture is not entirely uniform, however, and there are interesting differences between sub-group pressure. Thus members of the Inspectorate soon absorb civil service virtues of confidentiality, discretion and verbal control. The golden rule is, if in doubt, remain silent.

Those that aspire to senior positions in the directorate are careful to cultivate political alliances and to pay tribute to the wit, intelligence and integrity of council leaders - qualities which are in such abundance in Scottish local government. Networking and ego-massaging are manifestations of a desire for acceptance within a particular social group.

In the case of teachers' organisations, such as the Educational Institute of Scotland, the pressure to conform comes from a traditional belief in the value of trade union solidarity. Over many years there have been strong links between senior EIS officials and Labour. This leads to an interesting paradox.

The self-image of teachers' leaders is that of the radical, committed to social reform. When it comes to reforming the educational system, however, the characteristic response is to adopt a highly conservative stance, opposed to change. "Professional" self-interest is a more powerful motivator than social justice. It would be instructive to check the record of the elected teachers' representatives on the General Teaching Council against this analysis.

These trends are not confined to the school sector. They can be seen in further and higher education. Fears for jobs and desire for advancement have proved much more potent than any sense of public duty. An American critic of trends in higher education on both sides of the Atlantic, Norman Cantor of New York University, has deplored the loss of "independence, innovation and creativity" in British universities and the production of students who are little more than "indentured servants".

Other professions exhibit the same peer conformity. In the medical world the power of senior consultants to shape the behaviour of young doctors - and determine their career path - is well known. Similarly, the legal establishment has ways of testing the suitability of aspirants to the senior ranks, not all of which have to do with forensic ability.

In cases of medical and legal negligence, the characteristic response is to delay, close ranks and deny the complainant access to information. Thus the test of social acceptability is partly a test of "professional" trust. Viewed in this way, peer group pressure emerges as a kind of sophisticated protection racket: sell your soul to the profession and you will be looked after in times of trouble. The persistent failure of the teaching profession to address the problem of unsatisfactory teachers can be explained in these terms.

There is, of course, a sense in which the functioning of any organisation or professional group - and, indeed, of society at large - depends on a measure of agreement among members. It is also true that most human beings enjoy the group support that comes from shared values. However, when solidarity leads to intolerance of difference or denial of the right to dissent the consequences can be ugly. History provides many examples of cruelty and injustice resulting from social hysteria "sanctioned" by the agreement of peers. In most cases, the perpetrators have been adults rather than children.

Adult behaviour serves as a potent model for the young. In its less attractive aspects, it is a model that is sustained by the political discourse of our times. We live in an age of spin doctors and public relations experts - "professional liars" would be a more accurate term - where it is quite possible to present events and actions in any light that is considered desirable.

Where there is a gap between words and deeds, that is regarded as a problem to be "managed", not a moral issue to be addressed. Language and truth are casualties in this process. Given the self-deceptions of the adult world, is it any wonder that young people succumb to peer group pressure at an early age?

Walter Humes is director of professional studies at St Andrew's College, Glasgow.

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