Respect is earned, not taught in school

10th June 2005 at 01:00
The name of the new political party founded by George Galloway is "Respect".

The same term is used with increasing frequency by Tony Blair when he seeks to explain the basis of many new Labour policies, including those designed to curb antisocial behaviour and promote stronger discipline in schools.

It would be an interesting exercise to bring Galloway and Blair together in a television studio to be interrogated by Jeremy Paxman on precisely what they mean by respect. I imagine their interpretations would be somewhat divergent.

In my more Victor Meldrew moments - which I am trying to keep in check - I could be persuaded to sign up to the view that there is a general lack of respect in society, evidenced not only in the way some young people behave in and out of school, but in the conduct of many adults, whether at football matches, in queues at supermarket checkouts, or behind the wheels of their cars.

Old-fashioned courtesy is not much in evidence these days and, for some people, particularly (but not exclusively) the elderly, travelling on public transport or simply walking down the high street can be an unnerving experience.

Faced with public concern, politicians respond by introducing high-profile initiatives which attempt to tackle the symptoms but fail to address the underlying causes. Thus we have discipline task forces, antisocial behaviour orders (Asbos) and measures making it easier to evict neighbours from hell.

These may have short-term effects - and provide some relief to the victims - but they are unlikely to bring about deep-rooted attitudinal changes in those who are subject to constraints.

Politicians should realise that they themselves are part of the problem.

They are widely regarded as unworthy of public trust and respect, and inadequate as role models for the young. Likewise, many of the traditional sources of moral authority in society, including the churches and a range of public and private institutions, have been damaged by revelations of sexual misconduct and financial irregularity.

The professions, such as medicine and the law, are increasingly viewed as protection agencies for their members, rather than as guardians of high standards and ethical ideals. Against this background, it is not surprising that there has been a general erosion of respect within civil society.

Simply to attribute blame to the young is to oversimplify and deflect attention from deeper issues.

Nowadays, respect has to be earned. It does not - and should not - come automatically from class, rank, age or qualifications. Nor can it be produced simply by the imposition of the sort of control measures currently being promoted by government. For schools, the challenge is daunting because what is happening in wider society makes it difficult to create the climate of mutual respect between teachers and pupils on which worthwhile learning depends.

The personal qualities of individual teachers can do a great deal to inspire the respect of youngsters but they cannot compensate for a deficient social climate wherein many of those charged with leadership roles are perceived as seriously flawed. A political culture characterised by news management, rhetorical deception and broken promises is ill-placed to harangue the young about their lack of respect.

There is undoubtedly a problem, however, and an effective solution would require a moral revolution. A great deal of policy effort has been based on the idea of building "social capital" through individual effort, informal networks and community involvement. Whether this will reach the most alienated and antisocial is, however, dubious. For schools, a more profitable starting point may be an exploration of the relation between self-respect and respect for others.

Walter Humes is professor of education at Aberdeen University.

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