‘Mindfulness’ — a practice that has its roots in Buddhism — is fast becoming the latest fad in schools and colleges, according to a professor of education from the University of Sheffield.
Speaking at the annual Family Education Trust conference, in June, Prof. Kathryn Ecclestone set the rise of the mindfulness industry against the background of a therapeutic ethos that has grown over the past 40 years.
With reference to official reports, acts of parliament and government initiatives, such as the Every Child Matters and Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) strategies, she demonstrated how the definition of ‘vulnerability’ has spawned a whole new vocabulary.
Schools can attract additional funding for pupils deemed to be ‘vulnerable’, and we now hear about children and young people with ‘fragile identities’, or with an ‘exhausted learning identity’, the ‘disaffected, disengaged and hard to reach’, and ‘low self-esteemers’.
As the number of children being officially diagnosed with emotional and behavioural disorders has grown, schools have introduced universal therapeutic interventions, delivered by such para-professionals as ‘learning support assistants’ or ‘inclusion mentors’.
In this context, mindfulness has become the latest psycho-emotional intervention for which extravagant claims are being made.
Its advocates claim that it can counter ‘chaos-surfing’, ‘distracted parenting’, ADHD and autism, and it has the backing of neuro-science.
Mindfulness is not only being adopted by many schools and universities, but by large global corporations such as Google, Apple and British Airways.
But, in spite of the claims that are made in support of this and other therapeutic initiatives, Prof. Ecclestone noted that little work has been done by way of serious evaluation.
Yet the therapeutic ethos is changing the purpose of education itself. It is no longer viewed in terms of acquiring knowledge, but rather as a lifelong personal development project.
Some university counselling services staff are reporting that they have created such a sense of need among students that they are now unable to meet the demand.
Prof. Ecclestone also expressed concern that all this will contribute to a narcissistic and introspective society, so self-obsessed that it will find difficulty addressing real problems.
Prof. John Haldane, professor of philosophy from the University of St Andrews, also addressed the conference. He argued that history was not so much driven by ideas as events like famine, war, plague, disease, economic collapse and economic ascent.
He said the role of philosophy was not to lead the way, but rather reflect on changes that have already occurred and provide an explanation for them. The sexual revolution therefore needs to be understood against the backdrop of key events in 20th century history.
Prof. Haldane suggested that the First World War had shattered people’s optimism and belief in the possibility of a certain kind of order, and there had been no time to rebuild society before the outbreak of the Second World War.
In the post-war era, people felt that they were entitled to ‘a break’ and so sought the removal of social constraints. A kind of careless partying began.
While intellectuals such as Freud, Marx and Nietzsche undoubtedly exerted some influence on the social changes, people’s lives on the ground were the real shaping influences.
Prof. Haldane remarked that people took comfort from assurances that the changes they saw all around them did not represent social disintegration, but rather progress. Similarly, amid the chaos of family breakdown today, many find it reassuring to be told that we are witnessing a celebration of diversity.
He observed that the culture of consumerism extended into aspects of lifestyle choice and argued that the introduction of no-fault divorce was not unconnected with the mentality that if a product does not meet with the customer’s satisfaction, it can be returned.
Also, the meaning of the word ‘tolerance’ has been reinterpreted, firstly to mean approbation, and now to mean celebration. ‘Intolerance’ is now defined as refusing to celebrate something with which you disagree.
He said, ‘If we corrupt our language, we corrupt our thought; and our thought is our best chance to try to work out and understand important things about human life’.
Citing G. K. Chesterton, Prof. Haldane remarked that, in human affairs, we must first identify the cure before we can identify the disease. It is only when we recognise how things should be, that we can recognise what has gone wrong.
If we are to combat some of the destructive trends of our day, we must refuse to be intimidated by fancy theories and ideas and have confidence in two realities. The first is that it is part of the human form of life to exist in families. The second is that children are shaped in the context of families that are the product and expression of complementary reciprocal sexual relationships.