We all (I hope) know the story of the experiment about fleas in a jar. It illustrates the fact that if we do not remove constraints from people, they will eventually grow to accept the conditions imposed on them, and then, when the constraints are lifted, they will not rise beyond their low expectations, even though we have lifted the constraints off. This is a common management scenario and at school it is instructive, both with adults and with children. It is also unutterably sad. Dealing with children who are amply meeting their parents’ (or teachers’, sometimes) low aspirations for them, and then have no idea where to go from there is a deep challenge for schools and one that should be at the front of our thinking. Developing a high expectations culture lies at the root of both the brain-based learning that we use at school, and in the work of people like Carol Dweck in seeking to develop growth mindsets amongst children and adults. It is also at the root of transformational theology, where we encourage one another to grow into the likeness of Jesus Christ, and deal with the barriers and obstacles to growth that we encounter on the way. It is at the root of pilgrimage and at the heart of discipleship. It is all good. In popular and educational culture, this leads to the sort of phrases we often use – reach for the stars, mistakes are the route to achievement, learning without limits, beyond our wildest dreams, no-one can stop your dreams, etc. Again, provided it is accompanied by a sensible worldview of what matters, this is all good.
And backing this up is a culture that encourages us to get out there and show others what we can do. At its low point this leads to the sort of self-delusion that you get on the early rounds of the X-Factor, but within the same TV culture, it can give a tiny number of people a sense of success and having achieved their potential and dreams.
However at this point, most thinking people begin to get a bit ambivalent, both about the achievements themselves and about the culture that supported and aspired to such achievements. The uber-competitive culture, the bated breath, the whole shallow razzmatazz that surrounds such enterprises – all of it simply for the consumption of a global TV audience. Nothing, actually, to do with the competitors, who are getting emotionally exploited along the way. And so we get the sight of grown adults joining Big Brother or I’m a Celebrity, which add nothing to an aspirational culture of any value whatsoever. We have arrived at a place, culturally, where it is OK for young people to say “I want to be on Big Brother” and it is an accepted or acceptable ambition. This is an enormous cultural problem, with deep roots, and a natural outcome of a longing of a society that simply wants, as is sometimes said, “leisure, pleasure and treasure”. At the heart of it is a society which has departed from the longing of its Creator to build community through fellowship, right living, love and compassion for the weakest. That, by the way, is not a solution, just a comment. Getting back to that may never be possible, whatever the level of spiritual awakening we face, because we have become, long ago, religious and secular, deeply reconciled to the concept of convenience and the worship of technology.
So, if you are reading this, can I urge you just to stop for a minute and read this fascinating interview with Albert Borgmann, published about 10 years ago. Borgmann is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Montana, and I came across his work reading Eugene Peterson’s Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. In the interview, Borgmann outlines some of the central problems about the use of technology, identifying a point in the middle of last century where technology perhaps moved from being our servant, with us being able to control it, to being our master, and us acquiescing to the ease it offers. Neil Postman has made similar observations in Technopoly, Amusing ourselves to death, and The End of Education. All of these are worth a read, and outline, with Borgmann in his most recent book Power Failure, the need for thinking humans, made in the image of God, not in the image of any other thing or person, to assert their community and what is valued (focal things, focal practices, as Borgmann puts it) that contribute to that community and sense of createdness.
Which of course brings us back to the work and thinking of Wendell Berry. In a fascinating passage in his novel Remembering, he describes a time when the hero of the book, the agricultural journalist Andy Catlett, goes to interview the owner of a huge mechanised farm of 2000 acres near Columbus, with a highly intelligent but ulcer-ridden and debt-burdened farmer, and later on, travelling towards Pittsburgh, ends up in Amish country and meets and befriends one Isaac Troyer, ploughing part of his mixed 80 acre family farm with a team of horses, “the more successful of the two, by any standard I know” as Catlett later reports to his predictably infuriated boss. The story develops so that Catlett eventually flies back to Port William (KY) where he has grown up, and determines to buy and farm a piece of land that has fallen into disuse and make something good and beautiful from it again.
The issue here is constraint. Just because you can expand, should you? Just because you can mechanise, should you? Just because you can buy your neighbour out and farm his land, should you? Just because there is an opportunity for investment, should you take it? Just because something has a monetary value, does that define the way you see it? Berry argues powerfully for the retention of certain constraints because these very constraints are the factors in our lives and communities that place the boundaries of neighbourliness and love, of fellowship and rootedness, where we need them. It is allowing the family, the land, and the relationships that flow from those to determine the constraints we have on our lives. It is not anti-technology at all – there are many good and useful technologies that Berry celebrates in his work. It is the unnecessary technologisation of our lives, that can lead to the creeping industrialisation of our life processes and our culture, that is accursed.
All this has led to a dilemma. As a British admirer of Berry, I only really have access to his fantastic work through companies like Amazon. There may be others, but they are more complex to get to, and some (like Waterstones) don’t seem to know he exists. And yet Amazon itself is the most guilty of many mail-order firms in the mechanisation and robotification of the humans that work for them. The recent article in the Financial Times about the effect on the workforce of Amazon’s investment in the Staffordshire town of Rugeley is quite an eye-opener. And yet I have bought hundreds of pounds of equipment, books and music from them. Suddenly I feel ambivalent, again! Clearly, I am contributing to a form of oppression, or at least, using services whose working practices are the opposite of those I believe in and would wish for my children – those of craft, workmanship, taking time and affection for your work.
Should we work more slowly, expect a slower response from one another, slow down our buying and selling processes and accept the constraints again that we used to work under, or carry on at our speed-obsessed, delivery-next-day culture?
And then, how can we help children grow into the dreams that they want, but give them the wisdom to accept the constraints that will lead to a slower, better, more reflective and more compassionate life?
At the end of this morning’s collective worship (the amazing Thistle Class leading us!) there was a prayer from one of the children, which contains an insight that is worth meditating on:
Dear Lord, help us to show compassion as we live our dreams each day.
For a bunch of 6-year olds, this is pretty aspirational. If God honours this, it will make our school, and the little world these small people inhabit, a better place, and a slower place, to be. Compassion is rarely fast. It is one of those things in life that slows us down, a brake on ambition, a brake on the ruthless pursuit of wealth at the expense of people. This is a good prayer, and we should pray it often.