Saturday, 27 November 2010

Schools, Personal Responsibility and Johann Hari

For various economic and political reasons, there's been a great deal of political focus on education over the past few decades.  There's also been an expansion of a school's traditional focuses, away from just 'the transmission of knowledge' and towards a range of personal and social aims. Thus, the Department of Education was renamed the Department of Children, Schools and Families, and most schools will offer a range of classes or programmes aimed at teaching good parenting skills, stopping kids getting pregnant, stopping kids smoking, stopping kids being anti-social, stopping kids being radicalised, getting kids to eat healthily, getting kids to understand a bank balance, getting kids to switch the lights off and cycle to school, etc. I could go on, but you get the gist.

This approach has led to some worrying that we might lose focus on a school's core activities. But it also has another significant problem.  It denies personal and parental responsibility.  You can have the best sex ed, finance ed and healthy eating ed in the world and there will still be kids who will go out and blow their week's pay packet on a binge drinking session, a Maccy Ds and end up in bed with a total stranger. If you don't believe these activities aren't a problem, then of course there isn't a problem; if you do believe these activities are deserving of blame, then I would humbly suggest the individual should share the larger part of it, then the parent, then perhaps the school and teacher, then perhaps society.

And so, onto physical education. Here we have Johann Hari, writing an entertaining piece about his problems with weight, unhealthy eating and lack of exercise. It's very funny and engaging and there is a sense of uplift as he starts exercising and realises the benefits it brings him.  But then, of course, he has to blow it.
And then, suddenly, I felt angry. It occurred to me that what I had been given so brilliantly at Matt Roberts was a physical education. I had been taught how my body works, what will keep it in good condition, and what best fuels it. I had been taught how to exercise and stretch and eat. And I thought – why was I never taught this at school? 
Of course, of course, of course. It's the school's fault.  Never mind that Johann Hari has gone to one of the best universities in the world and for about a decade has worked in a knowledge industry where he cannot fail to have become aware of at least a few of the above facts. Never mind that he very obviously has the research skills to have investigated the above questions, or that for at least a few years now he must have been making enough money to have employed a personal trainer far earlier than he did. Never mind all of this. IT'S THE SCHOOL'S FAULT.

Hari then commits the next classic error of assuming that his schooldays - two decades ago - bear even a slight resemblance to what happens in schools now:
Yes, there is a subject called physical education – but it does precisely the opposite. Just a few phrases will remind every mildly unhealthy person in Britain of what that experience is like: "All four corners of the gym – go!" "Pick a team!" "Jump OVER the horse!"
I am about the same age as Hari, and I don't remember any school PE lessons like this.  PE lessons today are even less like this. In fact, if you get a GCSE in PE you do lots of the things that I assume Hari wants - reading up about muscles, body shapes, exercises, etc. Of course, what this means is that you don't do as much of the running around outside as you used to, so you can get an A* in PE whilst being unfit and overweight. Plus, most of this sort of stuff is Biology-lite - stuff that really should be a smaller part of a Biology curriculum, and which was a part of the Biology curriculum when Hari did his GCSEs. But of course he doesn't tell you this because then it wouldn't give him someone to blame for his utter failure to do any exercise in the decade and a half since he left school:
Since school, I had carried a deep and profound sense that exercise was horrendous. And it isn't. It isn't at all. It's actually quite fun. But I had to be deprogrammed to see it. 
'Deprogrammed'. That is not only how Hari sees humanity, it's how he sees himself. A robot who is subject to being programmed and deprogrammed by unseen powers, utterly lacking the willpower and personal agency to work things out for himself.

Which is odd, because Hari hasn't needed deprogramming to see the wrongs of capitalism. He hasn't needed deprogramming to see the wrongs of the free market. I bet you that when he discovers a general press consensus that, say, a policy of the coalition's is good, he doesn't need 'deprogramming' to work out why the general consensus is wrong. I bet you there are a tonne of issues with very great media and societal consensus that Hari challenges every day, and I am fairly sure that he owes his success in his career to an element of original thinking and analysis of evidence and sources.  Why couldn't he challenge his own consensus that exercise was horrendous? Especially when he must have confronted a lot of evidence that that wasn't the case. There is one small element of honesty here - very near the end of the article Hari does grudgingly admit personal responsibility before immediately slipping in a 'but' which completely denies the force of it:
Yes, I know I bear personal responsibility for it, too – nobody forced me to eat chicken popcorn – but I do think PE had a perverse effect on me and a lot of overweight people. 
The fact is, Hari could have had the best, most sensitive physical ed lessons imaginable at school, but I bet he'd still have ended up fat. The reason why he's started exercising now is the same reason he didn't exercise then.  Personal will. He didn't want to exercise then, he does want to now.  He did want to stuff his face with fried chicken then, he doesn't now. I've got some sympathy with him. I have always enjoyed exercise, but I really really struggle against the tendency to eat buckets of KFC for every meal. The difference is I know I have greedy and unhealthy tendencies and I fight against them. Hari wants to blame his PE teachers. Is it any wonder people don't want to become teachers when on top of putting up with unruly classes and interfering governments they also have to take the blame for every teenager's insatiable appetite?

What is worrying is that the cult of 'blame someone else' is not just present amongst people who genuinely have been affected by things outside their control, or by poor people who have had fewer advantages. The cult of blame someone else is present amongst fabulously successful and advantaged people who not only want to blame someone else for their failures, but even seem reluctant to acknowledge their success. Hari should give himself a pat on the back.  Just as he deserves most of the blame for being a fat lump till his early thirties, he deserves most of the praise for getting his act together now.  He's right in that it isn't easy to change habits, especially as you get older, and that is why he deserves praise. But whilst it might be difficult to change habits, there's no short cut and it's the only thing that will work.

I guess that's the sort of thing his PE teacher might say...

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