Life for the living;Career development

5th June 1998 at 01:00
Do you live to work or work to live? John White suggests a little less time spent in the classroom is good for teachers and pupils.

What is success? Or failure? With the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's review of the national curriculum for 2000 and beyond increasing the emphasis on personal and social education, these should be prominent questions. Our society is deeply confused on the topic, and pupils need guidelines - as do teachers.

Success is conventionally linked to money and status. To "make it" is to end up well-off or on some high rung of an occupational ladder. Pupils believe this if they hear nothing to challenge it. Those teachers believe it who aim at promotion as an end in itself or feel a sense of failure if it constantly eludes them. But the conventional view is inadequate.

It is true that a fulfilled life is a successful one. We flourish when we attain our goals. But goals is a wide concept. As well as getting our Open University degree or becoming a senior manager, it covers enjoying our favourite music or maintaining close personal relationships.

Life is more fulfilling if we achieve goals, and less fulfilling if we do not - through bad luck, bad management, stronger competitors or other reasons. So success in life is important, but not necessarily in the conventional sense.

Why, after all, attach such value to money and status? Everyone needs money, but this does not make the acquisition of wealth the yardstick of success. Climbing job ladders can bring more scope and power over others; but neither is essential to the good life. Money and status bring social recognition, but it can come from other sources.

We operate with an impoverished notion of success. Part of its hold over us stems from the work culture which has helped to shape our identities over the past three centuries. Wealth, hard work and vocational success were once signs of salvation, and their opposites, marks of damnation.

For many of us, the religious associations have dropped away but we are still left with similar criteria of a worthwhile life. For the puritans' aspirations to belong to God's elect, read contemporary desires to be part of the elite.

Teachers would do well to stand back from these conventional patterns of motivation and see them for what they are. Life is rich and many-sided. It is not a laboriously earned passport to beatitude beyond.

Teachers are not the only ones that need reminding of this. We all do. But teachers have a special task here. It is part of their job to challenge the grip of the work culture. Pupils need to question the belief that hard work should be the central feature of our existence, the cornerstone of our identity. Work is unavoidable if society is to continue, but this does not mean it has to be the very pivot of our lives.

A value to which nearly all of us subscribe is personal autonomy. Constrained work - work one has to do - can obstruct self-determination. There is a good case for reducing its extent, so as to free people up for a more autonomous existence. This will give them more time for personal relationships, physical pleasures, sports, the arts. It will also increase the scope for work which is not constrained, such as that of the artist, the scholar, the gardener, the parent.

Should we add the teacher to this list? Teaching can be a work of love, but the longer a working week becomes the more it is like constrained toil. The National Union of Teachers' recent call for a 35-hour week is thoroughly justified - and could go further. This would be good for teachers. It would give them more time for other fulfilments as well as making their paid work more enjoyable.

But it would also be good for pupils. For pupils would see in their teachers models of what more autonomous work and life could be like. And then, perhaps pupils might begin to question the extent of constrained work in their own lives - all those compulsory lessons they can't avoid and the increasing amount of schoolwork and homework as they grow older.

After a year of Labour in government there is no sign of breaking with the work culture. Quite the opposite. The nonconformist tradition that gave it to us in the first place is as strong as it ever was under Margaret Thatcher. Do we now need an Even Newer Labour to help us transcend the work ethic?

John White is professor of philosophy of education at the Institute of Education, London, and author of 'Education and the End of Work: Towards a New Philosophy of Work and Learning' (Cassell 1997)

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