05 September 2007

The pseudoscience of well-being

Is it a school's business to teach "well-being", or other social and emotional skills? The Department for Children Schools and Families clearly thinks so, and is proposing to make lessons in these subjects compulsory in secondary schools.

The answer to the question should be: depends on whether parents want it. (Or possibly, if you want to be radically libertarian, on whether pupils want it.) The usual test for whether something is wanted is: does the market provide it? At first sight it seems it does, since one of the pioneers of 'happiness lessons' is private school Wellington College and its head Anthony Seldon. It's not clear, however, how much this reflects parental demand, as opposed to supplier pressure — i.e. the ideological preferences of Wellington staff. The majority of British public schools do not offer such lessons as far as I'm aware, and another headteacher has described Seldon as belonging to a "lunatic fringe".

According to management consultancy firm 10Consulting,

for many years now, various employment and business related organisations in the UK, such as the Confederation of British Industry, have been highly critical of employees' lack of (so-called) soft skills. In 2004/5, Sir Digby Jones, then Director-General of the CBI, said of new graduates:
“A degree alone is not enough. Employers are looking for more than just technical skills and knowledge of a degree discipline. They particularly value skills such as communication, team working and problem solving. Job applicants who can demonstrate that they have developed these skills will have a real advantage.”
So you could say that the real point of the SEAL [social and emotional aspects of learning] programme in schools is to start providing kids with the necessary tools to develop their self-awareness, empathy, motivation, social skills and ability to manage their emotions, so that ultimately they can become successful members of the community and successful in the workplace. Makes perfect sense now, doesn't it?

Whether it makes sense depends on how you interpret Sir Digby's comments, and similar complaints about 'soft skills'. Is it that young people can no longer cope with the pressures of everyday life, because modern society is changing so fast, as educational experts would claim? Or is it that mediocracy fosters a mindset in which old-fashioned social skills (politeness, deference, not attacking other people's egos) are seen as redundant? Or is it simply the loss of the bourgeois work ethic, as the director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce seems to be implying in the following quote?

As I go round the country, from West Pembroke to Norwich, every company I speak to is using as much migrant labour as it can get hold of. It is always for the same reasons: workers from Poland come with far better skills and a better attitude — they want to work.

Loss of the work ethic is probably not something which can be reversed with lessons to improve 'emotional awareness'. And, while recovery of politeness and other bourgeois manners theoretically could be, judging by the material I have seen this is not what is going to be aimed at.

Is "well-being" a science, as the University of Cambridge's Well-being Institute maintains? Or just another meretricious humanities discipline, like "women's studies" or "peace studies"? Claims have been made for the efficacy of cognitive therapy (CBT) as a treatment for mild forms of mental illness, and well-being lessons are said to build on that. I personally wonder whether CBT is just another way to modify behavioural appearances without addressing underlying problems — though I suppose it's less objectionable than zapping people with drugs. In any case, it is unclear what place a putative treatment for depression has in a conventional school environment.

Pioneer of happiness studies Nick Baylis writes about the individual's "relationship with reality".

Reality is an environment that can put up a lot of resistance to our making progress and, consequently, it can build the mental skills for problem-solving. By contrast, escapist fantasy is an environment in which anything is possible, so our problem-solving skills begin to atrophy if we spend too long there. ... it is only our response to problems that determines their net effect upon us, not the problems themselves. *

This strikes me as the kind of stuff which is either trivially true — or highly speculative and potentially false. In either case, not really hard science.

The DCSF links to a website with resources for primary schools, where well-being lessons are already in force. Some of the resources, like the teaching aid shown on the left, are merely trivial, and remind me of management theory which teaches the obvious. "How can we help John to know what he is feeling, children? I know: let's get him to think about it. Then we'll get him to talk about it." (hypothetical illustration)

Others are more obviously ideological: for example, this resource about change, apparently designed to encourage warm feelings towards multiculturalism. "Azis forgot that changes are a part of life." "Azis stopped complaining and learned to see the world differently."

* in Huppert et al. (eds), The Science of Well-being, Oxford University Press 2005, pp.243-244.

Update: The Sunday Times reports on research which concludes that happiness classes "leave children depressed and self-obsessed ... It finds little evidence that the classes, which encourage children to express feelings openly and empathise with others, lead to any long-term improvement in emotional wellbeing or academic success." A summary of the research is available here.


Roger said...

British youth is profoundly depressed. I've personally known 2 people in 2 years with good talents and good characters who have commited suicide without warning.

I've met mental health professionals tell me that life is a joke: "it's just one thing after another". She didn't even single out any particular thing for criticism. She was expressing a Schopenhauerian attitude.

Kids on the bus tell you "life's shit innit? It just aint worth it".

Personally, I think death is breathing down Britains collective neck. You can read all about it in "Notes from Underground". Or perhaps Don Delillos "White Noise".

Fabian Tassano said...

The idea that a high proportion of Britain’s young people are depressed (in the old-fashioned sense of the word), many suicidally, is sad and shocking, but would not surprise me at all if true. Contemporary Britain is a depressing place, especially if you’re out of synch with the prevailing ideology.

Those who claim to be aware of the problem generally strike me as having very unrealistic ideas of how to address it, and as advocating remedies that represent more of what caused it in the first place. The Archbishop of Westminster thinks we need to have less ‘individualism’, but I think it's the degradation of the individual, in favour of emphasising the collective ('social justice', 'democratisation' etc.), which is partly responsible.

IMO the basic problem is what I call ‘mediocracy’ – by which I mean a constellation of things, not just mediocrity (see partial definition in sidebar).

I very much doubt that anything taught in schools under the banner ‘emotional skills’ will help rather than exacerbate the problem. Part of the reason young people (especially relatively intelligent young people) are depressed is probably that what's taught in schools these days has become crude, grim and joyless. (Sure, there is all the rhetoric about making learning fun – but have you seen what they mean by ‘fun’?)

AWOL Civilization said...

May I suggest some old-fashioned discipline, taught from a young age, as the solution to the problems discussed in the post. Of course this would fly in the face of current trendy psycho-educational theory.