Presentation at the CEIFIN Institute, County Clare

Ceifin Institute

Values and Ethics – can I make a difference?

8th November 2002



A Framework for a New Reality



What, you may well be wondering, could have conspired to bring a father and son team to be standing up in front of you at the conclusion of this most important conference on Values and Ethics? The simple answer is that, some four years ago, I was struggling to complete the writing of an autobiographical description of my search to better understand how it is that humans learn. My usual verbosity meant that I was actually struggling to reduce the manuscript by 40 % and in an inspired moment I turned to Peter, who was about to go to Cambridge to read English, for help in précising.


As he worked on this, and as I finally decided to use Wordsworth’s excellent phrase “the child is father of the man” as its title, it seemed appropriate to suggest that Peter should write a postscript. He drove a hard bargain – he would only do it if I agreed in advance not to edit anything he wrote. With some slight qualms I agreed.


I should not have worried….it has been his postscript that has been reprinted in journals far more frequently than anything I wrote! Then Harry Bohan read it…. He was fascinated and so here we are. Both of us just a little nervous. We have not done such a double act before.


I have always believed that if something important is not working out as it should then it’s my personal responsibility to stand up and do something. Not that this gives me a Messianic status, but the sum of many “insignificant” people acting together can move empires, as Gandhi so obviously demonstrated.


There are two things I wish to talk about: value systems, and the process of learning. I hope to show you that they are both about a major moral issue – our respect, or lack of respect, for young people.


Early in life I learnt from my father that I had to play my part in making a difference. My father had intended to be an engineer until, in his last year at school, he decided to be ordained. To me he was as impressive in his workshop down in the vicarage cellar constructing all kinds of wonderful Heath Robinson-like contrivances, as he was delivering simple but powerful sermons. Himself the son of a yeoman farmer from Devon he embodied to me, as his son, all that rich oral and practical traditions of the craftsman developing an apprentice – determined that his apprentice son would one day be more skilled than himself.


I doubt if he ever knew – for he died young – of the American proverb: We have not inherited this world from our parents; we have been loaned it by our children. But he would immediately have concurred, because he always taught me that the older generation was answerable to the next generation. I think modern society is in danger of having completely forgotten that; we tend to blame young people for what is, in practice, our own inability to properly inculcate this with what it means to be a responsible adult.


My father was, in some ways, a tough taskmaster. He would rarely answer my questions directly, preferring to turn them back on me by saying, “Well, how would YOU explain that?”. My job, he believed, was to work things out for myself; when I fell he would, of course, pick me up.


Yet it was a ten year old boy who, when I was twice his age, gave me my most significant spiritual insight.


It happened like this. I was filling in time before going to university (TCD) by teaching in a small boarding prep school. Inexperienced as I was I had to feed on my enthusiasms to keep the lessons going, and that was hard. One Friday afternoon I just ran out of steam. “Let’s have a debate about space travel,” said the class of ten year olds. I agreed, anxiously watching the clock and willing the last bell to ring. There was a lively discussion.


Then one boy said out of the blue, “what would people look like on another planet?” The class was silenced save for one boy who got very excited and waved his hand so vigorously in the air that I had to let him answer.


“I know, I know,” he said. “They would look just like us.”


The class groaned. What a stupid answer. Timothy, the youngster concerned, was desperately upset and was close to tears. Gently I moved to help him out. “Tell us, Timothy, why you think they would look like us.”


He perked up. “Well, Sir, it’s easy. In the Old Testament it says God made man in his own image and so if we look like God, so must they.”


The rest of the class was silent, and then the bell rang. It was my turn to be perplexed. None of my father’s sermons had put it as clearly as that.


Now I have never attempted – thankfully – to be as literal as that. I know no more about what God looks like than any of us here today, and I probably have as many difficulties as any of you in defining what form Deity might take. But to regard every human creature as “being in the image of God” – to be an aspect of the Divine, however you define it – is to elevate our relationships one with another to the realms of the sacred.


Society is, however, fast losing that reverence for the “specialness” of every individual.


I spend much of my time studying the latest research from neurobiology, cognitive science and evolutionary studies to synthesize just what it is that we know with a degree of certainty about human innate predispositions to act in particular ways. These findings, at one level, reflect exactly what Adam Smith knew, what so many Eastern religions tell us, and what Genesis tells us about the quarrel between Cain and Abel – we are a confused species capable of great acts of altruism, and the most terrible acts of cruelty. We are competitive as well as collaborative. Every moment of every day we have to make decisions, we have to discriminate between what we think is right and what, through natural law or perceived culture, we see as wrong.


Such decisions are impossible to make without some sort of framework, a set of good stories if you like, that set the pace for individual choice within a culture.


A score of years ago I had a thesis bubbling in my head that I never really followed up. It went something like this. When the proportion of the population who believe that their reward will come in some form of the Hereafter falls below a certain level then the dominant mene in that society becomes the search for rewards in the Here and Now.


I just don’t know what that proportion is but I suspect it was never very high (as a species we are not good at delayed gratification) But I’m certain we have fallen below that. Above the line, as it were, and the influence of altruistic believers suggests a code of behavior for the majority in which greed is not acceptable; below that line and everybody sees it as being acceptable to go all out for no.1. “You only live once”, we say.


What has happened to the Seven Deadly Sins, those antisocial behaviors that the medieval world defined as being destructive of civilised behaviour? Have you noticed how capitalism now uses every one of them as drivers for material growth? What was once defined as bad is now defined as good: it may help the economy but it wreaks havoc with our present lives.


It shouldn’t have taken the evolutionary psychologist, Kenan Malik, in his book “Man, Beast or Zombie?” to remind us that we are, as social beings, more than simply the ‘beasts’ that evolutionary studies might suggest – trapped as we are in our ancestral urges – nor are we simply intelligent machines as defined by cognitive science.


John Eccles, the Cambridge Nobel Prize winning neurobiologist cautioned us: “The human mystery is incredibly demeaned by scientific reductionism…we are spiritual beings with souls in a spiritual world, as well as material beings with bodies and brains existing in a material world.” We are in danger of losing that humanitarian vision, says Malik: “Which is as much a consequence of our culture’s loss of nerve, as it is to scientific advance”.


So how are we educating the next generation to make good decisions, to steer our Stone Age instincts through the intricacies of the early 21st century? This is where I come to my second issue – the process of education.


“Thinking things through for yourself” is a deeply engrained human instinct, which generations of craftsmen, like my father, have struggled to encourage over the generations. Inquisitiveness is one of the 3 or 4 key instincts that we have inherited from our ancestors that makes possible our survival from generation to generation. The more you can think things through for yourself the more in control of your future you become.


Evolutionary studies show us that for several millions of years our minds and bodies evolved within small groups. For most of our ancestors until the late 18th century successful living meant knowing how to exist alongside a group of little more than 50 people – the farm, the shop, the ship, the craft workshop, or whatever. Within this everyone had to learn how to turn their hands to most things – they had to successfully multi-task, as told most compellingly in the story of Swiss Family Robinson.


Towards the end of the 19th century, when in America “big” was seen as “beautiful” industrial growth was inhibited, said the young engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor, by the idiosyncratic practices of craftsmen. Thinking things out for yourself was, Taylor argued, “unscientific”. Effective production, Taylor believed, meant treating men as if they were machines because “technical calculation” (in Taylor’s terms this meant doing things by the rule book) is in all respects superior to human judgment.


Scientific management vastly improved profits and increased wages but alienated workers: “You leave your brain at the door when you work at Ford,” said a bitter craftsman. But the human spirit in indomitable: “Trouble is,” mused Henry Ford himself, “when I hire a pair of hands I get a thinking human being.” Fritz Schumacher commented, “soul-destroying, meaningless, mechanical, monotonous, moronic work is an insult to human nature….and no amount of bread and circuses can compensate for the damage done.”


Yet for a hundred years society has been seduced by “economies of scale” and in scientific management – telling people what to do rather than letting them work it out for themselves – society has vastly increased its material rewards at the cost of “dumbing people down”.


Education systems – whether in the US, Ireland, Australia, South Africa or in England – rapidly adopted such scientific management techniques from as early as the 1920s, first as an economic way of providing education for the masses and more recently (as seen presently in England since the Educational Reform Act of 1988) as a way of rapidly raising achievement scores. In country after country school courses are being extended, content levels increased, and instruction has come to dominate over thinking it out for yourself.


“It’s the only way we can get through all the material,” plead hard-pressed administrators. Oscar Wilde would have had a filed day. Do you remember his definition of a cynic? “The person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”


Youngsters dislike all this intensely. To them it just doesn’t seem the right way to learn. For a dozen or more years there have been bio-medical technologies able to scan the functioning of the brain which are beginning to explain not only why this doesn’t feel right to the adolescent but, even more significantly, what is the long-term damage being done to the youngsters. Damage that is already wreaking havoc in society.



Very briefly let me explain. As a species we are born with relatively tiny brains (if this were not so the baby’s head would never get down the birth canal). Our species’ evolutionary achievement is that we are born with a vast array of innate predispositions to learn rapidly through interaction with our environment. Note, however, that these predispositions, shaped over millions of years as being techniques that help us grow our brain in ways that facilitate our survival, are innate. They don’t develop unless stimulated by their environment. As we use our brain so we shape it.


You all know about the apparently miraculous learning capabilities of children below the age of 5 or 6 to learn by a process that can only be described as osmosis. In the world we come from, where for millions of years you were old at 20 and dead by 25, this accelerated learning was essential for survival. But just to “soak up” skills and knowledge from the environment doesn’t give anyone the capability to think things out for themselves – to find imaginative ways around new problems. Nature has provided for that in the second of three periods of neurological restructuring that we call adolescence.


Modern society, tragically, seems more frightened than excited by adolescents.


Biologically this is strange. The energy of adolescents – its sheer bloody-mindedness if you like – the experimentation with new ideas that we fear leads to risky behaviour, is an essential part of the weaning of the individual’s  dependence on other people. It is also a key part of society’s resources to deal with change. Adolescents come to adulthood through learning to balance intellectual correct reasoning (the skills learnt around the campfire, or in a classroom) with practical risk-taking skills,


Such synaptogenesis in adolescence is, like inherited predispositions, probably time bound – roughly between the ages of 13 and 18. Like other predispositions however if you don’t use it you lose it.


Here, I believe, the influence of Winslow Taylor’s “scientific management” when applied by educational administrators-in-a-hurry is disastrous for the human race. That’s an extraordinary claim.


What do I mean?


Because our societies too frequently confuse information acquisition with education we have started to so extend the years of schooling and so fill these years with formal instruction, that we have by-passed the individual adolescent’s deep-seated desire to think it out for himself. If the adolescent is not allowed to do this when his or her innate predispositions are struggling to express themselves, we should not be surprised when, after 3, 4 or 5 years of university, the young adult may have all the paper qualifications in the world but he or she can’t organize a piss-up in a brewery!


That may sound flippant, but I am actually deadly serious. While the human race is without doubt the planet’s preeminent learning species we make the most awful mistakes if we see schooling and instruction as the dominant contributors to brain growth. They are not.


Lenin was one of Winslow Taylor’s greatest advocates. He applied scientific management both the rebuilding the Soviet economy and to purge Russia of freethinking intellectuals, amongst whom were the religious leaders. To help oppressed congregations refute such “dumbing down” Pope Pius XI in 1931 proclaimed the doctrine of Subsidiarity, which says “it is wrong for a superior body to hold to itself the right to make decisions for which an inferior is already well qualified to make for itself”.


As someone passionately concerned that there is something in the underlying principles that Western countries are applying to education that seems to result in the most awful unintended consequences of narrow thinking, dependency and a sense of unreality from world problems, I believe the doctrine of Subsidiarity shows just what this is.  We have so “overschooled” youngsters that they are not properly “educated”.


As teachers (including the very best) or parents (including the very best), we are nothing like as good as we should be in letting our young charges do things for themselves. I find the Doctrine of Subsidiarity most helpful when articulating what should be the proper evolving relationship between teachers and pupils, and between parents and child.


That is what I, as a father first and foremost, feel is my prime responsibility for my children. It is also the model I have sought to apply to other people’s children, entrusted to me within a classroom. For many years now I have come to realize that a very major problem in formal education – indeed I think it is the root of all the other problems – is the over dominance of the teacher (and of the caring parent) over the child wanting to exercise such a right to do it for himself.


This is where each of us has to think very carefully about the doctrine of Subsidiarity. It should be the end point of the intellectual weaning process. By “end” I don’t just mean the final act.  I mean it should be the “end” or the “aim” of the whole education process. It is a moral injunction as well as an organizing principle. Subsidiarity has to start when children are very young. Leave this sense of self-control too late and a sense of dependency (intellectual laziness) creeps in; this is not just I as the pedagogic speaker – this is a biological consequence of trivialising children.


It was not the late 20th century that invented the concept of “lifelong learning”. We have simply attempted to rescue from the desolation of the industrial approach to intelligence over the past 200 or so years, what is an intrinsic human predisposition – namely the ability, and the desire, to work things out for ourselves. In this rescue process, however, we seem poised to make another mistake. Late 20th century educators have seen the opportunity to extend the institutional provision of education on a scale hitherto unthought of: university lecture halls for 50% of the population of late teenagers! Our Stone Age ancestors would have gone crazy!


We are in danger of missing the point. A point we have actually understood for many years, but done little about.


If children were to receive when young, an education that consciously sought to give them a progression of skills and attitudes which, as they grew older, would put them more in charge of their own learning and make them less dependent on teachers for instruction, this would release that deep-seated urge “to do it for myself”. To be responsible. It’s what maturity’s all about.


I would like to reverse the current assumption that we, in England and in many other countries, do have a problem with our children, especially teenagers.


I would suggest we rephrase this: teenagers have a problem with us because we just don’t know when to let them take over. Why? Because, deep down, we know that we never gave them the skills when they were very young that would give them both the confidence and the competence to do so when they are older.


It’s a problem of our own making because we have never really understood the tenet of Subsidiarity.


We compound this because we have lost our moral bearings. We have to rediscover our humanity – we have to reposition ourselves and understand why it is we are more than just evolved animals or intelligent automata; we are conscious beings faced with the challenge of making sense of ourselves.


We have to look more carefully at ourselves, rather than simply blaming the teenagers, and accept that if youngsters are currently confused about our values, that’s our fault, not theirs. In a sense it is we, the older generation, who still have to grow up.