A libertarian inclined blog for teachers and learners of all ages. Comments, emails and links to other educational stuff welcome.

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Next entry: On the sociology of obnoxious-but-nice middle class teenagers
Previous entry: What schools provide depends on who is paying and for what
Monday April 28 2008

Friend and Telegraph blogger Alex Singleton has a piece up about teaching good manners in schools:

Today’s Daily Telegraph reports on a new survey showing that Britain is becoming less polite, with 73.8 per cent believing manners should be part of the school curriculum. Being an optimist, I’m not normally one of those people who think the world is in terminal decline (millions of people worldwide will be lifted out of poverty this year, after all).

Nevertheless, there is something severely wrong with the ethos of Britain’s schools today.  Far from being places where people learn responsibility and civility, schools are too often anarchic. The old world of distant, overly-strict teachers and corporal punishment is thankfully long gone. But an overly-liberal teaching establishment has led to the baby being thrown out with the bathwater.

I wonder.  I don’t wonder about whether manners are getting worse.  I am sixty, and of course they getting worse!  But I do wonder how exactly schools are supposed to improve matters.  I agree with Alex that schools being allowed to expel would help.  But is that enough?

I am, I suspect, with various commenters on this blog who say things like: “My ideas about what to do about this problem are far too radical to fit into a comment”, having previously hinted that they find whatever rather bossy opinion I have just expressed to be rather bossy.

In Brian World, school attendance is voluntary, and there are plenty of other things that a young person might do instead, the basic one being: work and earn money!  I favour the reintroduction of child labour, of the economic exploitation of children.  Certainly of adolescents, which is where I would start, were I a politician with any chance of making such notions stick.  During or after stints of paid work - because the work was really good, or really bad - children might then see a clearer path forward into productive adulthood, and decide for themselves what sort of educational stuff might help with that.  In short, when attending a school, or anything like a school, they would be there for a reason, and hence anxious to fit in and play by the rules, in order to get what they came for.  If they don’t and can’t get what they came for, they leave.

All of which, I suggest, would be much more polite than the etiquettically deteriorating world of compulsory school that Alex Singleton describes, even the leaving bit.  Rudeness has its origins in compulsion.  Politeness has its origins in reciprocity.  If a teacher is teaching you something you want to learn and you don’t want her to stop, you will put up with her foibles and demands, her occasional spells of irrational bossiness.  If an employer is paying you wages that you appreciate and want to keep on getting, ditto.  You will sympathise that he perhaps has a lot on his plate, several employees to worry about (to say nothing of suppliers and customers).  She has many pupils to teach.  Good manners are, in essence, seeing things from the other person’s point of view, and trying not to hurt their feelings, even if they are being rather rude to you.

Another way of putting the above is to say that schools should be more like universities are now.  For all their faults, universities are an order of magnitude more polite than schools, because everyone there decided to be there, and can bugger off if they remain too childish (interesting word that) in their behaviour.

I recall once, several decades ago, helping out at a local youth club near where I lived.  Well, trying to help out.  In truth very little good was being achieved by anyone at this enterprise.  Anyway, while getting to know these boys, I started to notice how very much more polite and sensible they would suddenly - suddenly - become, once they had stopped being mere boys with no particular reason to be polite to anyone, and had become wage-earners, with every reason to be polite or the wages might stop.  I repeat, suddenlyThe Rules changed overnight, and so did their demeanour.

They had always known what good manners are.  The difference was that now they had a reason to practice them, whereas before they had had no reason to be bothering with them.  If Britain is becoming less polite, I think that’s because a significant minority of people in our society now seem to have no need or opportunity to work, ever, at all.

Rather ill-thought through, I realise.  But blogging is often more like thinking aloud than presenting the well-ordered results of such thinking.