Current trends in education thinking and practice were subjected to careful scrutiny in two papers delivered at this year’s Family Education Trust conference in June.
Professor Glynn Harrison, emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of Bristol, highlighted the growth of the self-esteem movement over the past 50 years. He noted how self-esteem ideology has invaded schools and discouraged competition on the basis that all must be winners and there must be no losers.
Churches have not been immune. Prof. Harrison referred to a church website that carried the strap-line (of humans), ‘You’re incredible. We’re here to celebrate you’. He said this message contrasted with the biblical call to repentance that carries the implication that, ‘You are not as good as you think you are’.
As an aside, he noted the tendency of evangelicals to play down the call to repentance, because it seemed out of kilter with the spirit of the age and its desire to make people feel good about themselves.
The conference was treated to an overview of research on self-esteem, which demonstrated that it was based on false science, but had gained momentum because of its compatibility with the culture of individualism.
Researchers have found that there is no evidence that boosting self-esteem delivers the health, educational or social outcomes claimed for it. Prof. Harrison concluded: ‘Self-esteem ideology really amounts to the work of amateur philosophers, where we expected the work of professional psychologists’.
He argued that instead of seeking to boost self-esteem, educators, including parents, should encourage a rounded self-concept and seek to build resilience and character virtues in children.
However, he said this required some understanding of who we are and what we are here for — issues that self-esteem ideology has failed to answer and that raise deep philosophical questions that secular humanism cannot resolve.
In the second paper, Dr Mark Pike from the University of Leeds applied the thinking of author C. S. Lewis to the contemporary education debate.
While the educational establishment has largely substituted subjective interpretations and relativism for objective truth and moral absolutes, C. S. Lewis had reminded us that there is such a thing as a universal, natural or moral law, to which our consciences testify (Romans 2:15).
Dr Pike said education must, therefore, not be content with academic success, but seek to awaken moral sensitivities and cultivate good character. Lewis had contended that each of us is more than a head (an intellect) and more than an animal with an appetite (a stomach), since we all have a moral sense and character (a chest).
Dr Pike noted that many teachers have found it deeply problematic to subscribe to any set of values in a pluralistic society and so often ‘commit themselves to nothing in particular, or to a sort of undefined humanism, where the only question is one of personal feeling’.
As a result, he said, they are ‘tempted to remain hands-off and assume a non-interference policy when it comes to the topic of moral choices and commitments’. This, in turn, is opening the way for ‘pushers of pornography and other anti-social vices’ to gain an entrance and poison the minds of children and young people.
C. S. Lewis had looked to ‘real mothers’ and ‘real children’ to preserve the sanity of the human race. He was a staunch defender of liberty and defended the right of an individual ‘to live life in his own way, to call his house his castle, to enjoy the fruits of his own labour, and to educate his children as his conscience directs’.
But in the present climate, that will require of parents a determination to protect their children from what Lewis described as ‘the man-moulders of the new age, armed with the powers of an omni-competent state and an irresistible scientific technique’.