• By Michael Little
  • Posted on Thursday 26th November, 2009

Well-being? Social justice? Fight!

I was invited to give a presentation in Nottingham UK at the last of a series of six ESRC-sponsored seminars gathering “interdisciplinary perspectives on emotional well-being and social justice in education policy and practice” It was intended to reckon with the implications for education policy and practice – could or should education attempt to develop emotional well-being as a response to deep-seated social problems?I found the meeting frustrating. It reminded me of a conference on violence prevention I attended years ago which ended in a fist fight between two of the presenters.The fundamental question raised by the seminar is an important one, nevertheless: in our efforts to improve the lives of children, are we visiting some kind of abuse on them? Several of the seminar participants had a very clear view about what education should and should not be about. Improving social and emotional regulation was not part of their definition.On the way home, I finished reading the last of J.M. Coetzee’s memoirs ‘Summertime’, in which he writes – in the third person – about his own schooling in South Africa:“….. he begins to recognise (in Dutch Calvinist educational theory) what underlay the form of schooling that was administered to him. The purpose of education, say Abraham Kuyper and his disciples, is to form the child as congregant, as citizen, and as parent to be. It is the word form that gives him pause. During his years at school in Worcester, his teachers, themselves formed by followers of Kuyper, had all the time been labouring to form him and the other little boys in their charge – form them as a craftsman forms a clay pot; and he, using what pathetic, inarticulate means he had at his disposal, had been resisting them – had resisted them then as he resists them now”.Reading this made me think. Is improving the well-being of children a dangerous game? Are the developers of social and emotional regulation and other evidence-based programmes any less socially manipulative or authoritarian than the neo-Calvinist Kuyper?On what criteria shall we decide? In my world, the yardsticks are need, ethics (including rights), effectiveness and demand. I accept the narrowness of my perspective, but to understand how limited and limiting it is, I have to know what wiser, more useful possibilities there might be. I don’t need a doctor to tell me I’m sick; I want to be made better.The sheer negativity of the criticism put me in a bad temper. It also struck me that many of the seminar participants seemed curiously willing to believe that whatever a government/local authority or school decides to do duly happens as if by political magic. In my world, it is much more often the case that initiatives inflicted on a community without ownership or engagement just wither away.As Coetzee learned to resist Calvinism, so today’s children and parents will not brook authoritarian interference.

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