• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Monday 11th January, 2010

Just when you thought you were making things better!

Imagining they might find themselves balancing a principled argument in favor of social and emotional education with the need for better evidence as to its value, some researchers at a Nottingham seminar were taken aback, last year, to find themselves in the middle of a much more fundamental – and fiercer – philosophical argument.The UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) ran a series of six seminars through 2009 at different university venues, to promote “interdisciplinary perspectives on emotional well-being and social justice in education policy and practice”. The Nottingham meeting was the last. The advertised proposition was that it should bring all earlier perspectives to mind and draft the messages for policy and practice. But part of the underlying intention – probably not very hidden – was to bring closer to the light the specter of the "diminished self”.Did the fast-expanding social and emotional education industry have a dark side? Might it be that the concern for child and student well-being, the preoccupation with the relationship between educational attainment, mental health – and happiness, far from being a manifestation of government commitment to social justice, belied an almost opposite condition: defeated belief in human potential?Organizers of the seminar series included Kathryn Ecclestone, Professor of Education and Social Inclusion at Birmingham University, and her UK Midlands colleague Dennis Hayes, Head of the Research Centre for Education and Career Development at the University of Derby.Both achieved a certain notoriety in educational circles in 2008 when they published The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education, in which they argued that "therapeutic education exposes children ... to intrusive interventions that probe, elicit and assess their emotions, and make them accountable for them. This reinforces a view that they are vulnerable and at risk". [See for example: 'Infantilised' students and staff rapped.]Aspects of that argument, somewhat at odds with prevention science's view of “vulnerability” and “risk” as conditions a just society seeks to alleviate, surfaced during the Nottingham seminar and were amplified by Kathryn Ecclestone at around the same time in a collection of essays edited by psychotherapists Richard House and Del Loewenthal.Most of the contributors to their Childhood, Well-Being and a Therapeutic Ethosreflect on the poor showing of the UK and US in estimations of children's well-being and see it as evidence of the need to bring educational and therapeutic sensibilities to bear. Kathryn Ecclestone's contribution is to look for the worm in the bud. She surveys, “a thriving commercial and educational industry” that flourishes around policy and practice, “encompassing a range of slippery constructs, such as emotional well being, emotional literacy, emotional intelligence, self-esteem, mental health and well being, and emotional competence”.And she detects what Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, Frank Furedi has defined as: “a cultural perspective that regards most forms of human experience as the source of emotional distress”.She writes:

    Diminished images of human potential that lie behind the contemporary preoccupation with emotional vulnerability are illuminated by work in cultural and political studies, and in sociology that explores a deep cultural shift from belief in human potential and collective and individual striving for agency towards demoralization about humanity and people’s capacity for agency.
And she continues, more doomily:
    Discourses of emotional well being and engagement mask a pessimistic tone that privileges damage, vulnerability, and fragility. Despite optimistic promises made for emotional intelligence and emotional literacy, a pessimistic emotional determinism underlies them in a thinly veiled concern about social disorder.
Show her the manuals for any social and emotional learning curriculum whose trial evidence suggests reductions in adolescent drug or alcohol abuse problems or in aggressive or violent behavior and, doubtless, that would be the withering response – to see "emotional determinism" written all over it.House and Loewenthal's collection is refereed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who admires Ecclestone for her sharp and skeptical eye and acknowledges her anxiety that education and nurture are in danger of becoming so problem-driven that children are cast “in the light of helpless and hapless souls who require endless therapeutic attention”.Elsewhere, he does some disconcerting definition-flipping of his own. Prevention science thinks it strives innocently to secure better outcomes for children through its efforts to remedy deprivation and social inequality. Rowan Williams catches sight of the same specter.“It seems undeniable,” the Archbishop ventures, ”that one of the roots of the expanding and well-documented unhappiness of children and young people in our culture is the sheer impatience we exhibit in the long period of latency that characterizes the human animal. We want to supply a storehouse of skills and to measure their acquisition at every step. But what if this biologically unusual latency is in fact itself a treasury for human well-being? What if hurrying children though it is one of the most effective forms of deprivation we could devise?"And covering the therapists’ ears against Kathryn Ecclestone’s structures, he writes: “Therapy does not necessarily imply that we begin by assuming a state of ‘victimage’ on the part of all young people … it is to do with an attempt to heal an entire social climate that is unduly obsessed with outcomes and panicky about wasting productive time, focused overwhelmingly on fantasies of individual success…”• Childhood, Well-Being and a Therapeutic Ethos edited by Richard House and Del Loewenthal is published by Karnac Books.

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