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A Fisherman’s Reflections on a beautiful but troubled world
Chapter 23 - Welfare, Health and Education

“At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.   “Plenty of prisons” said the gentleman, … but under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the unoffending multitude, a few of us are endeavoring to raise a fund to buy the poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and when Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied. “You wish to be anonymous?”  “I wish to be left alone” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas, and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the prisons and the workhouses — they cost enough — and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”   “If they would rather die” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

* * * * *

From the foldings of its robe, (the Spirit) brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.   “Oh, Man ! Look here. Look, look, down here !” exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.  “Spirit ! are they yours?”  Scrooge could say no more.  “They are Man's,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased”.

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.   “Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”     The bell struck twelve.

                                                                   From  A Christmas Carol,  by Charles Dickens

Memories of childhood years that are still vivid in my mind, include some glimpses of the impact of poverty, unemployment and homelessness on men and women made in God’s image.  We saw little destitution in Morayshire, unlike what existed in Glasgow and the cities in England in the immediate post-war years.  But I will never forget men singing in the street as they sought a few pence to supplement their meagre diet.  One semi-invalid old man in our town played a gramophone on the sidewalk.  There was no begging, but these victims of misfortune sought to entertain passers by with a little music.  Those among them who had seen active service in the first world war would display their few medals to attract sympathy. 

One hot summer’s day 50 years ago, I went into an Elgin café for a lemonade.  A poor elderly woman came in with two shabbily dressed men, presumably relatives who were visiting her.  I guess she lived in one of the ‘doss houses’ for homeless persons.  They sat down at a table and when the waitress came the woman asked for two glasses of water.  The waitress kindly brought them without question.  The woman then laid two pennies (two old pence) on the table as payment.  Despite the heat, she did not ask for a glass for herself. That simple incident has remained impressed on my memory.  I still feel the embarrassment that a young teenager could be well-dressed and enjoy a sweet cold refreshment, while three aged citizens could barely afford a glass of water.  Yet it was nothing in comparison with the horrors of life then in slum parts of some of our major cities. 

In later years I was to observe want and deprivation in its various sad forms in many parts of the world.  I recall an old fellow in a village to the west of our station in the Zambesi valley in Africa.  I guess he had no living relatives as he was destitute and depended on the generosity of the village which itself had little to offer.  The guy was a bit simple, perhaps slightly senile, and came up to the District Officer who was conducting a brief meeting with local leaders.  Despite the attempts of the Boma guards to usher him away, the old man kept asking for some provision.  I was later to send him some clothing, and modest supplies of food we could easily spare, whenever our truck went that way, until the poor fellow passed away.

In Turkmenistan, it used to pain me to see old people sitting on the pavement with a few simple possessions laid out on a cloth for sale, or to see a group of ‘babushka’s’ with hungry faces, examine some frozen kilka sprat and calculate whether between them they could purchase enough to form the basis of a single meal. The tattered clothes and hungry expressions of unemployed or under-employed people in African states like Mozambique and Sierra Leone during their difficult years, are also imprinted on my memory. 

But even now, in the 21st century, the social problems persist.  Very recently I met a woman who was selling the Big Issue outside large stores in Scotland.  She had been a victim of domestic abuse, and I understand had an addiction problem for a period.  But during bitterly cold winter weather, she was sleeping in a tiny tent on waste land by a river. Some friends worked tirelessly to get her accommodation and some income support, but it was not easily obtained or approved.  If anyone thinks that our welfare system is over-generous, or panders to the idle and spongers, - let them find a genuine case of need and try to guide them past the bureaucratic hurdles, and the gatekeepers who can deny assistance for any of a multitude of reasons.

Unemployed man selling the Big Issue

It is the human cost of society’s failure to provide for the sick or aged, or those deprived of work, that impacts most powerfully on our hearts and consciences.   As one of the earlier sincere socialist MPs said when showing a friend around homes in Glasgow’s slums, - “It has to hit you here”, striking his breast.  “You have to feel it in your gut”.

I comment elsewhere on the imperfections of our modern safety nets and welfare systems, on the importance of seeing these issues as society’s responsibility rather than just the government’s job, and on the need to provide motivation and opportunity for people to undertake remunerative work.  But I believe it is absolutely vital that we understand the need for those measures, and the dreadful results of inaction, before we begin to criticise current welfare systems.

Welfare systems are under increasing pressure as we enter the 21st century.  They are beginning to be seen in some quarters as a well-meaning but naive experiment that has had its day.  National health provisions, free education, old age pensions, unemployment benefit, council housing, disability allowances, and other provisions for the disadvantaged or deprived, are now being eroded if not wholly abandoned.  To discuss the issue in a knowledgeable way we need to go back to the beginning of the welfare state – to the Beveridge Report, - and even beyond that, - to the social evils of the previous 200 years. 

The industrial revolution brought with it much social upheaval.  Previously the bulk of employment was to be found on the land, or if in towns and cities, in businesses of relatively small size.  People mostly lived where they worked, and worked in direct contact with their employer.  Though cash wages were very small, accommodation and food were usually provided, and workers ate from or at the employer’s table. Most companies were family firms producing life’s necessities like crops, fish, meat, flour, cheese, wool, thread, clothing, shoes, leather, pottery, kitchen ware, tools, charcoal, candles, and furniture.  Most people lived and worked in the same locality all their lives.  This was the norm in Europe before industrialization, and remains to some degree in parts of the poor countries of Africa and Asia.  Mechanisation of farming, and growth of heavy industry and large scale manufacturing, changed the lives and conditions of workers and their families.  People now worked for wages out of which they had to pay for housing, food, and other necessities.  The result was often urban squalor and poverty.  Employers paid little heed to the low quality of life of their workers.  It took the early reformers like Lord Shaftesbury, activists like William Booth, and writers like Charles Dickens, to expose the shame of industrial exploitation in wealthy Britain.

                     Ashley Cooper, Lord Shaftesbury            William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army

In 1815 John Pounds of Portsmouth, a crippled shoemaker, was one of the first to provide free education for poor children.  His were the first of the “ragged schools”.  He was followed by Thomas Guthrie in Scotland, and by Ashley Cooper, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury in England who did much to promote the education and welfare, and relieve the suffering, of the poor.

               John Pounds, the cripple shoemaker                   Thomas Guthrie who pioneered         
               who started shools for poor children                     schooling for poor children

Drawing of a “ragged school”

A Guthrie school

An amazing education initiative in Cambodia

In 2008 our project office in Siem Reap, Cambodia, was asked to accept three pupils for work experience which we gladly did.  The pupils, all girls, were orphans who were being educated at a large school in Phnom Penh, established exclusively for children who were orphaned or destitute from family break-up, abuse, or social deprivation. The three delightful pupils were a pleasure to have assist us in the office, and on their departure they invited me to attend their graduation ceremony in the capital, due to be held a few weeks later. I gladly did so, and was overwhelmed by what I saw. 

The school, beautifully named “Pour un Sourire d’Enfant” (“for a smile on the face of a child”), had been founded by a remarkable French couple, Christian and Marie-France des Pallieres, in 1996, after they saw the appalling conditions of homeless or orphaned children on the rubbish dumps of Cambodia’s capital city. Together in 1993 they set up the association the school took its name from, and began with six children rescued from the dumps and the streets.  The children were filthy, under-nourished, and suffered from a range of health problems. Their hair was matted and greasy. Over the next ten to eighteen years, “Papa” as he came to be known as by the pupils, assisted by his wife and a small staff and band of volunteers, established and developed the marvellous PSE school.

From the beginning there was strict adherence to basic principles. All children enrolled had to be genuinely destitute or orphans.  They were housed with relatives or foster families. Those who could not return to their homes due to the dangers of abuse or drugs or criminality, were housed in a school dormitory. All children were fed and provided with uniforms. The education, meals, uniforms, and medical attention were provided absolutely free. Discipline was strict. Absence without just cause meant the pupil had to clean toilets and yards next day. More than 3 days absence without cause meant dismissal. Another principle was that the school accepted no financial help from national authorities, but was careful to sign agreement protocols with the government. The Royal Government of Cambodia later recognised the valuable service of Monsieur and Madame Pallieres by granting them honorary Cambodian citizenship.

By the time I visited the school, there were 3,000 pupils. Graduates already numbered 2,000 all of whom had obtained jobs. The school gained such a reputation, employers were keen to take on ex-pupils who were disciplined and eager to work. The PSE set up a small trade school wing to equip graduates with skills for the vehicle, mechanical, food, tourism, and hotel industries.

A personal observation : I am sure all of us looking back on our lives would love to have helped at least one destitute child to get an education and preparation for a decent life and a job. To have helped ten or twenty would be superb. Amazingly, Christian and Marie-France des Pallieres have given such help to 5,000 children !

Above Sokuntheary, one of the first six children rescued off the city dump in 1993, explaining the structure and programmes of PSE.  She is now attending university.  Above right, “Papa” and “Mama”, Christian and Marie-France des Pallieres, the remarkable founders and directors of “Pour un Sourire d’Enfant”.  Behind them is former pupil Sokuntheary, and myself. (information at )

Flashback below:  Little Sokuntheary (right) and her sister Thiery as they were when found by the des Pallieres, scavenging on the city rubbish dumps in 1993.  On the right, the two sisters when pupils in the PSE school, “Pour un Sourire d’Enfant”.   Sokuntheary is on the left.

Sokuntheary and her sister when scavenging on the city dump, and later in the PSE school.

The UK Welfare State, and the five giants

By degrees, the poor law provisions, and attempts to introduce health care, free education, better housing, and relief for the destitute, invalid or unemployed, made life better for the needy and disadvantaged.  None of these measures were adequate and there was no comprehensive attempt to create a national system of welfare, until in 1941, a 62-year-old civil servant with a flair for manpower planning and management, was asked to chair a committee on co-ordination of social insurance.  Sir William Beveridge was bitterly disappointed by the apparent demotion of a man of his abilities and service record, but eventually set about the task with his legendary capacity to grapple with complex and intractable problems, and to forge a workable framework out of the confusion and chaos.  He recognized five ‘giants’ to be confronted on the road to a just and equitable society; - Want; Ignorance; Disease; Idleness; and Squalor.  They were to be tackled by a comprehensive raft of measures that were to include a national health system, unemployment benefit, old age pensions, free education, and widespread housing provision.  His report, an instant sell-out, was published on the first of December 1942. It was to out-sell every HMSO publication until the 1960’s.  Its radical proposals were largely implemented within the next ten years.  This was an immense achievement by any measure.

William Beveridge, architect of                Cartoon of Beveridge’s “five giants”
Britain’s post-war welfare state

In the Introduction, Beveridge mentioned three principles.  First he wrote that the time was ripe for a revolutionary movement.  Second, that the social security system was primarily an attack on Want, but that Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness, had also to be addressed.  His third principle was that of cooperation between the state and the individual.  Beveridge said that “the State should offer security for service and contribution, (but) in organizing security it should not stifle incentive, opportunity, and responsibility … for voluntary action by each individual to provide more than the minimum for himself and his family.”   He was to broadcast details of his proposals and to address packed meetings, batting down the critics who said that the proposals would lead to feather-bedding and moral ruin.  To an American who claimed that if his ideas had been in force during the Elizabethan era, there would have been no Drake, Hawkins or Raleigh, he responded “Adventure comes, not from the half-starved, but from those well-fed enough to feel ambition”.

Being two years old when the Beveridge Report was published, I guess I was one of the first generation to benefit from the welfare state from childhood.  Apart from wartime and post-war rationing, we saw little of the hardships or deprivation that were widespread in the first half of the 20th century.  Pockets of squalor and misery remained in the slums of the large cities, but we saw little of them in rural Scotland. In the 1950’s we looked forward with confidence to a lifetime protected by cradle to the grave welfare provisions.  But the utopian scheme began to show signs of stress by the 1970’s.  Its cost escalated, and some sections of society began to be trapped by the welfare rules, in a situation of hopelessness, while others exploited the system dishonestly.  What was more disturbing was the spread of depression and related illnesses among welfare recipients.  Communities of unemployed or low-paid workers lived in ghettos of dreadful multi-storey flats or ugly council flats.  Hostile anti-government and anti-authority attitudes flourished like weeds on waste ground, together with bitterness towards those fortunate enough to have decent jobs, houses and automobiles.  This of course was not true of all unemployed or all persons on low wages, but those who maintained dignity and self-respect in those circumstances were probably a minority. 

Then, with the arrival in power of Margaret Thatcher, the principle of the welfare state began to be questioned, its provisions reduced, and its structures dismantled.  What she began, Tony Blair has continued with a missionary zeal, which is amazing for a supposedly Labour politician.  The Government appeared to wash its hands of responsibility for prescription costs, dental treatment, old age pensions, and free tertiary education.  Both Prime Ministers had the weight of right wing capitalist thinking behind their policies.  The argument ran along the lines that however good and well-meaning the original Beveridge plan was, the idea was naive and ultimately unworkable due to the increasing costs of and demands for the services. This logic was reinforced by national economic decline, an aging population, and expensive new technologies available to the medical and defense sectors.  Its proponents could point to the collapse of communism and socialism throughout the world to confirm that only monetarist, capitalist policies could work in the long term.    Someone has noted that while the communist threat remained, the gap between the wealthy and the low-paid was within reason.  Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, that gap has tripled in the United States.

Early days of the welfare state

Correlli Barnett has been one of the most eloquent and forceful critics of the welfare sytem which along with loss of empire and trade union power, he blamed for the steady decline of Britain since World War II.  In The Audit of War, he identified post-war socialist policies and adoption of the Beveridge Report as responsible elements in deterioration of British power, wealth and influence.  He also attributed blame to our lack of investment in industry, and to higher education institutes and universities which undervalued science and technology, and gave primacy to classical subjects.  I am inclined to agree with him on the latter point, though today we seem to have ditched the classics, but instead of investing in science, have filled our curriculums with ‘politically correct’ and socially acceptable subjects.  As one who has been involved in development of technical and science education in developing countries, I can confirm that they are not cheap options, and that in every organized society there is a weight of suffocating, bureaucratic influence that favours sterile theory over practical skill and scientific knowledge. But was Barnett correct in his critique of the welfare state, and his analysis of Britain’s problems ?   The following excerpt from Nicholas Timmins’ book gives us much food for thought. [Nicholas Timmins, The Five Giants, a biography of the welfare state, Harper Collins, 1995.]

Facts and Myths about the Welfare State

In examining social policy in Britain, for all its myriad faults, it seemed that some form of collective provision was the least bad way of of organizing education, health care, and social security.  The challenge was how to improve the welfare state, not how to dismantle it.  Virtually every day since 1948, the NHS has been said to be in crisis.  Each time unemployment rises, the unemployed are blamed as work-shy scroungers.  (The ‘scrounger’ accusation is also thrown at immigrants each time their numbers increase.)  We should challenge the myth that there was a Golden Age when a lavishly funded welfare system operated in a rosy glow of consensus.  But we also need to expose the myth that the Conservative party never really supported it, and always had plans to dismantle it.  And we should recall that the Labour party (including Gaitskell) also at times had draconian proposals to slash benefits.  On the extreme right, some saw satanic socialists bent on controlling the nation by cradle-to-grave feather-bedding, that would sap its moral fibre and take the ‘Great’ out of Great Britain.  One must look at what actually happened, not at the thoughts harboured by some in each side.  The welfare state and its boundaries is a being that moved back and forth under both parties the past fifty years.

It is impossible now (1995) to travel on the London underground or walk the streets of our big cities without finding beggars.  That, in my lifetime, did not happen before the late 1980’s.  There were down-and-outs on the Embankment.  There were places that housed alcoholics and others who fell through the safety net.  But there were no young people, their lives blighted, sleeping in doorways in the Strand.  Yet the welfare state still exists.  Its services still take two-thirds of annual government expenditure totaling £ 250 billion.  It can hardly be said to be dead.  However, create a strong enough perception that it is dying, and you make it easier to lop off further chunks without anyone asking where they went.                                 

                                              (from The Five Giants, adapted and abbreviated for space purposes)

Having spent over half my life trying to improve the lot of poor farmers, fishermen and artisans in Africa, Asia, the Far East, and the Pacific, I am inclined to view our state welfare system as a poor substitute for care by the family and the community, which is what does the same job in the poorer parts of the world.  The more the welfare system is divorced from the recipients’ relatives and neighbours, the more he or she is tempted to take advantage of its provisions, which so many do in a variety of ways.  My sister-in-law in Canada worked as an industrial nurse for a period, and was regularly depressed and annoyed by the blatant pretence of healthy employees claiming disability payments from their employers (most often from ‘backache’ which was difficult to disprove medically).

A more serious and more widespread misuse of welfare and medicare, is carried out knowingly or unwittingly by thousands of patients who treat the health service as a panacea for emotional, psychological or nervous troubles that in many cases are self-inflicted or self-perpetrated.  I have lost count of the number of doctors who have complained to me about such people who make up so much of their work.  Now I am sure some will hold their hands up in horror at my prejudice and lack of sympathy, but my argument is that for many such unfortunate persons, the cure, or rather the healing, lies elsewhere.  And my own view as a total amateur in medicine, is that pharmaceutical drugs often compound or aggravate the problem, or else reduce the patient to a state of dependence.  Of course, there are genuine and serious cases of mental and emotional illness that some medications and professional counseling can help.  But too often such illness is a result or symptom of a society that has ceased to care, that has eroded human and family values, and that feeds its victims on trash diets, both mental and physical, that can only add to the malfunction of body and soul. 

Doctor attending a patient

Pharmacy shelves of drugs and medicines

Unemployment benefit and its related allowances, that were such a life-saver to families during the depression, have become for many an obstacle to re-employment.  I met numerous persons who dearly wanted to work but were caught in the welfare trap.  Then there are those who have lost all will to work and turn their energies instead into maximizing the number and range of benefits they can extract from the system.  Although brought up in a socialist family, I have always felt that no-one really wanted the ‘dole’ as we termed unemployment benefit.  People wanted a job that gave them dignity and something to take pride in and yield an adequate income that they had earned by their own efforts.  Hand-outs could never do that.  The old Pauline church rule that said “if any will not work, - neither should they eat”, may seem severe to our modern ears, but that is pretty well the situation in poor countries where the invalid and aged are cared for, but not the indolent.

Management systems

So what is wrong with our systems that we spend such colossal sums on and yet from which we see such poor or unsatisfactory results ?   Two major mistakes in my view are - too much emphasis on management, and too little attention to actual impact or desired outcome.  Numerous informed students of the situation have come to similar conclusions.  Good management is something all businesses and societies want, but the management systems themselves contain the roots of their excessive and perpetual growth.  In the jargon of that science, this is known as “positive feedback”.  

Elements that support the self-perpetuating tendency, are the obsession to document everything, and the technique of appropriating power through control of financial and staffing decisions.  Despite numerous attempts to reduce or limit the growth of bureaucracy, few governments or large organizations have been able to do so.  Governments of both the liberal and conservative persuasion (but mainly the conservative ones), have been elected on manifesto pledges to cut bureaucracy.  Practically all have failed.  The administrative juggernaut rolls on regardless.  The consequences of management proliferation, according to David Ehrenfield, are – bad decisions, demoralization of producers, and the loss of skilled practitioners or their replacement with ‘paper pushers’.   We can all recount umpteen examples of the stupidity and pointlessness of modern management decisions that cause despair and frustration in the workforce, yet are defended like infallible doctrines by the high priests of our administrations.

On the subject of management proliferation, one of our parishioners in Edinburgh once asked me to accompany her to a social services hearing on why her children were not attending school.  She was a pleasant and decent women in her own way, but like many in her situation, could paint a picture to present herself in the best light.  She waxed eloquent about the lack of support from her husband, and even hinted at his drinking (I knew the man and he drank sparingly if at all, and was often alone caring for the kids when I visited the home).  The real reason I surmised for the children’s non-attendance was the cost of their bus fares which the social services would not pay since they could have attended a school within walking distance but somehow chose not to.  However, that is all just background to my point.  The meeting we attended took well over an hour.  There were about 15 professional social officers and school administrators of one sort or another in attendance.  Only the chairperson spoke, and no-one challenged any of the mother’s statements, but instead nodded sympathetically at every point made.  In the end no decision was made that I recall, so the children continued to skip school as often as they pleased.  My point is that if this was typical, - one solitary case demanded the attendance of large numbers of paid officials, then – a). the system is very poorly managed in terms of productive use of personnel, and b). since there appeared to be zero result, much of the system and its operation, is quite ineffective.  I called the chairperson later and offered my own perception of the problem from my knowledge of the family, but she dismissed my views.

Do we not need to focus on the ultimate aims and objectives of our organizations ?  All our expenditure of money, energy and labour in health, education and welfare systems, has to have a clear goal, and these objectives are really quite simple, if difficult to realize.  We want our people to be healthy.  We dearly want our children to be able to read and write and count, and to acquire skills appropriate to their chosen careers.  We want to treat our aged and infirm with dignity and care, and to provide those going through a period of no remunerative work, with the necessary temporary assistance to survive and find fresh economic activity.

Most of the medical profession will agree that our health services need to focus more on holistic medicine and livestyles that are preventative towards disease and illness.  We also need to move more and more towards dietary cures and use of herbal remedies and other natural medicaments.  We should be reducing our reliance on manufactured drugs, and cutting back on non-essential operations.  As long term goals we need to aim to minimize the number of new tobacco addicts, and binge drinkers.  And let us in the name of sanity, protect our children from the proposed legalization of marijuana.  It would also help if we could cut drastically the consumption of sweets, soft drinks and sugared cereals, especially in children.  We do not need to be kill-joys.  One can make a soft drink or iced lollipop from fresh fruit juice, just as easily and almost as cheaply as from sugar, flavouring and colouring. 


Our schools and halls of learning have become battlegrounds for control by political correctness brigades, and experimental laboratories for those who would encourage and teach abominable soul-less secularism, individualism and weird lifestyles.  As Professor John McKnight has put it, ‘the bereavement counselor has replaced family and friends’ and kids are conditioned to think they can handle grief without tears.  The poor teachers themselves are, like the policemen and women, made to be scapegoats for society’s failures.  Discipline and correction are dirty words.  Teachers have to spend more and more of their time on mindless, meaningless form-filling, while our children graduate with less and less ability in the three ‘R’s.   In higher education we are neglecting science and engineering, literature and history.  Let’s have less modernism and novelty subjects, and more of the bread and butter of the subjects that are of most value to society.

Schoolchildren (in Thailand)

Numerous attempts have been made to improve education in recent years.  The most interesting are those that focused on the worst performing schools in Britain and America.  The common reaction of politicians and shallow observers could be summed up as “bashing the teachers; despairing of the pupils; and moaning about the budgets” !   My own conversations with teachers has increased my estimation for the dedicated people in that noble profession.  But I have been made deeply aware of the problems a school faces when pupils are drawn from districts characterized by unemployment, crime and vandalism.  Even in less troubled towns and districts, our schools can be a battleground where society’s ills are reflected in loutish behaviour, bullying, and lack of respect.  Drug dealers push their wares through children in the playgrounds and toilets.  Given the unfavourable background, it is a miracle that our kids still obtain a reasonable schooling.

                                   School playgrounds – happy places, or sites of bullying?

Among the successful programs in dfficult parts of U.S. cities, one worth considering is described by William Ouchi in his book Making Schools Work.   The approach involved giving maximum independence and flexibility to each school so they could better cater for the needs of the local district and its population.  Principals became autonomous and not subject to administrators.  The decentralized system had seven key elements, all of which are deemed needful.  They were :  1. principals become entrepreneurs;  2. schools control their own budgets;  3. everyone is accountable;  4. authority is delegated throughout;  5. student achievement is a major focus;  6. the school becomes a community of learners;  and, 7. there is real choice for families.  The results were remarkable, given the pre-program situation.  Pupils’ grades rose dramatically, general behaviour improved, and admission applications increased.  Here there is much food for thought for our central- government-controlled, bureaucrat-managed, politically-directed, systems of education.

Sir Ken Robinson, the brilliant author of “Being in Your Element”, and UK Commissioner of Creativity, has written and lectured widely on the flaws and failures of much of modern education.  He quotes figures that show how 33 per cent of young people drop out of formal schooling, or suffer through it without being inspired or equipped by it.  On the other hand, our colleges and universities are churning out thousands of graduates who cannot find employment.  The graduates simply do not have the skills that employers are looking for today.  

He believes our whole system of education is based on a 19th century model, an inert system of linear planning, based on the needs of industry and the civil service, and fails completely to encourage imagination and creativity.  Teachers and inspectors trained in the old model, have a very narrow view of the purpose of schools, and use extremely limited criteria to assess a pupil or student’s abilities and competence.  When such officials are confronted with the failures of conventional education, - rather than seeking a radical reformation of the whole approach, - they simply try to enforce the old system in the hope it will work more effectively.

Robinson’s brilliant analysis focuses on human development which is organic, and parallels the ecological principle of diversity.  Yet in most of our institutes of learning and systems of education, we stifle natural aptitudes and largely ignore the value and potential of imagination that has the power to excite young people and activate their latent creativity.

Roger Mullin has commented : “Sir Ken Robinson is not alone in his analysis of education. His type of critique has led to many social/educational experiments over the years from pre-school (such as free play, outdoor learning where it is the young child effectively who determines the focus of learning) through to experimental home learning, schools, open universities, and so forth.  Unfortunately, almost all such initiatives are taken by the private sector as most governments continue to cling to the 19th century model.”

I am not an academic, but I did teach at a university for two years, and worked on the establishment of another, as well as undertaking curriculum development and upgrading of staff, for several more.  I found that some professors had remarkably broad minds, sharp intellects and a great depth of knowledge. Rather many others appeared sterile, devoid of imagination, and quite ignorant outside of their narrow field of specialization.  It is said that our universities are know-how institutions, when they should be know-why institutions.  We need to move them away from ‘the crushing weight of unevaluated facts’ or ‘bare-bones cognition’ towards an understanding of life and humanity, value and purpose, and the inter-connectedness of the whole natural world to man’s long-term survival.  Science is important, but not in isolation from the most serious problems we face.  Cleverness is not understanding.  An IQ test may measure intelligence, but it tells us little about our wisdom, character, loyalty and moral stamina, - which are the qualities that will determine the kind of contribution we will make to the world regardless which career we may follow.  Universities need to be freed or protected from pure commercial or political pressures that would direct them into production of graduates equipped mainly to design expensive synthetic drugs, ever-more powerful weapons, or more sophisticated ways of managing, controlling and manipulating the public at large. 

Arthur Herman’s fascinating book on the Scottish Enlightenment traces the influence of Scots writers, artists, theologians, doctors, engineers, lawyers, architects, missionaries, businessmen, shipwrights, soldiers, teachers, reformers, and explorers, who together had an enormously beneficial impact on the rest of the world, out of all proportion to the size of their country.  Their devotion to learning and to the betterment of society was based on a strong sense of moral discipline and personal initiative.  This in turn was largely due to the moral and spiritual focus, and its basis in Biblical theology, of the Scots universities and their men of learning.  Few today realize how much of that kind of instruction made up the education of Adam Smith, Allan Ramsay, James Watt, Robert Adam and Walter Scott.  One wonders what they would make of the brazen Philistine attitudes of many in academic life and the media in Scotland today.   A quotation* from Herman’s book is relevant:

“They saw the doctrines of Christianity as the very heart of what it meant to be modern.  Robertson said, ‘Christianity not only sanctifies our souls, but refines our manners’.  As Hugh Blair put it, religion ‘civilises mankind’. …  ‘Industry, knowledge and humanity are linked together by an indissoluble chain’.  It makes men free, and enlarges their power to do good.  Virtue and enlightenment move together step by step.”               

[A Select Society : Adam Smith and his Friends, The Scottish Enlightenment, Arthur Herman, 4th Estate, 2003]

So, while we think about education – when oh when are we going to stop our amazingly potent and powerful media and communication systems becoming dominated by the vile, the stupid, the sensual, the sordid, and the sensational?  The lowest common denominator prevails on television and in the pages of the tabloid press.  The internet has given the world’s pornographers and paedophiles direct access to our children for their rotten wares and foul imaginings.  Surely it is not beyond the powers of governments to place controls and limits on the spawn emitted from depraved minds and unscrupulous profiteers.  One gets the strong impression that no one in government or the judiciary has the political will or the moral backbone to do anything about it.

Family watching television


Old age pensions have become impossible for governments to sustain.  Britain collected contributions from its working population for the past fifty years, and instead of investing the money, squandered it in the (false) hope that there would always be enough new contributors to maintain a cash flow to cover the pensions.  Now all governments realize too well that our senior citizen population is increasing while the relative number of wage earners is decreasing.  That is a recipe for bankruptcy of government pension schemes.  The problem is going to get worse before replacement schemes are fully developed.  So what can be done?

One suggestion of our government is for us to delay retirement.  While I feel repugnance at the callous and calculating proposals of our current administrations, this suggestion is one that I think has value, but for very different reasons from those of our treasury.  Men in particular, need to work.  Work should be and can be therapeutic, fulfilling and satisfying, quite apart from any earnings it generates.  Too many men deteriorate physically and die much sooner than they should because of lack of exercise for body and mind, and general lack of interest in life.  Even a modest pastime like gardening, or golf, or model making, can be a splendid tonic to a senior citizen.  But I also believe that those with a lifetime’s knowledge and skill should continue to use it, whether in the workplace, or in training others, or in voluntary work at home or abroad.

Our prosperity as a nation or people, (and our basic happiness), comes as much from our consumption patterns as it does from our earnings.  It has been said that the richest person in the world is not the man who has the most, but the one whose needs are met.  If we focused on our real needs rather than our greeds, we would be much more contented. In energy use, we could save enormously by the simple measures of insulating our houses and utilizing low fuel consumption vehicles.  So, in the national economy we could retain and increase wealth by reducing wasteful expenditures.  A good start could be made by cutting back on sophisticated military hardware.

A mega-casino in Nevada, USA

A mega-casino in Macao, off China

New Labour’s ministers would promote the growth of mega-casinos as they encourage and cash in on, the obscene national lottery.  Television programmes, from the ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’, to the ‘prosperity gospel’ evangelists, operate on the principle of encouraging and inflaming covetousness and greed.  Our grandparents believed that was a bad thing to do.  We have tried to make it a virtue, and a source of entertainment.  No one talks about the old-fashioned values of contentment and self-control.  Yet they are far, far more likely to produce genuine happiness and serenity than any of the appetite-inflaming productions of today’s hucksters and charlatans.   One day maybe, we will learn wisdom.  But perhaps, sadly, only after we have ruined ourselves and spoiled our children, pursuing the sham attractions of “Vanity Fair” in its 21st century forms.  

Drawing of Vanity Fair from Bunyan’s allegorical book, Pilgrim’s Progress

What Adam Smith really said

In much of today’s press and media, there is a caricature of Adam Smith and his writings, - chiefly The Wealth of Nations, that presents him as the father of modern capitalism in its most extreme and uncaring aspects.  It might be helpful and educational to take a closer look at what this gifted and eminent Scottish thinker and writer actually believed and said.

Born in Kirkcaldy in 1723 , the son of a customs inspector, Adam Smith first thought of becoming a minister or a lawyer, but once coming under the influence of Professor Hutcheson in Glasgow University 1737, set his heart on being a moral philosopher.  Francis Hutcheson was the son of a Presbyterian minister in Northern Ireland.  He lectured on Natural Religion, Morals, Jurisprudence, and Government, as well as delivering Sunday sermons on the excellence of the Christian religion.

Hutcheson focused much on the freedom and happiness of society.  He believed that freedom’s ends were governed by God through our moral reasoning and taught that the nature of virtue was as immutable as the divine Wisdom and Goodness.  Smith was to succeed Hutcheson to the Chair of Moral Philosophy at the University.  That educational background is reflected in the full title of his earlier and less well-known book : A Theory of Moral Sentiments, which its author considered a better work than Wealth of Nations.  The Scots university professors debated long and hard on whether mankind was basically selfish or basically good.  This reflected the tensions between the dogmas of Presbyterian Scotland, inherited from John Knox, the view of the Catholic Church, and the growing rationalism and humanism of modern thinkers.  Like a good Presbyterian, Smith saw mankind as basically selfish, but also saw how that self-interest helped to build capitalism and drive industry and commerce.  However, the self-interest was balanced to a degree by the need for cooperation that was brought about by the division of labour and the inter-connectedness of industrial society.  He had little time for government interference in the economy, which he viewed largely as unhelpful, or worse, except however, for the protection of the weak and vulnerable.

A full century before Karl Marx, Smith identified the human problems resulting from monotonous work in miserable factory situations.  His pin factory example illustrated well the mental mutilation of workers in cramped places in the chain of production, where there was no room for the enlargement of mind and spirit.  This merited the most serious attention of government and civic institutions to counteract the deformity of human character resulting from the division of labour.  He did not believe as some had avered, that society benefited from becoming entirely ‘commercial’ in its mentality and attitudes.   Steps had to be taken to correct and counter the bad effects of commerce in both capitalist and worker alike.  A major step would be public support for schools to ensure that the benefits of a civilized culture reached the public at large, (like the parish schools of Scotland).  Adam Smith understood that a modern capitalist society would be committing suicide, politically and culturally, if it failed to establish a decent system of education for all its citizens. 

Capitalists were susceptible in his view to losing sight of the larger picture, and to viewing life in the narrow terms of their businesses, profits and losses.  Smith believed that a free market would help to curb the greed and power of some merchants.  He had criticized them for their inconsistency in complaining about high costs, while saying nothing about the bad effects of their huge profits.  Smith deplored the mean rapacity and monopolizing spirit of the greedier merchants, opining that the government of an exclusive company of merchants is perhaps the worst of all governments of any country.  We have seen evidence of this the past century and at present, in regimes where a handful of businessmen have obtained either political or monopolistic control, (or both), be they drug barons, oil barons, sugar barons, diamond dealers, or loggers - and they have gone on to act with brutal uncaring greed and selfishness.


Adam Smith, the much-quoted Scots economist and moral-philosopher

Our view of prosperity is strongly influenced by the barrage of messages we receive from every form of media, that equate economic well-being with the value of shares traded on the stock exchange, the excessive profits made shamelessly by large corporations, rises in the gross national product, and the amount of lending facilitated by our banking and  financial institutions.  By these measures, countries like the south Pacific states, Cuba, the Faeroe Isles, or the Maldives, may appear to be poor and insignificant, but their people on average enjoy a better and more peaceful environment, with enough to eat, and adequate systems of education and health.   For ordinary people, quality of life may be good when GDP is low and can be miserable even when the GDP is high.

Our press and media regularly express disapproval of the excessive profits made by big business, and of the obscene salaries and bonuses that the captains of industry award to themselves at every opportunity.  Politicans wring their hands and claim to be offended by the behaviour, - yet none of them do much about it.  It has appeared to me that there is a basic dilemma posed by their blanket acceptance of the capitalist free-market system, and the opportuniies it gives to human greed, corruption and weakness.  Without a strong  fundamental integrity in society, the entire system encourages and rewards sheer greed.  But then we have long since ceased to teach the cardinal virtues or the seven deadly sins in our schools.  The Bible is rarely read by students unless in a critical or myth-ridiculing spirit.   And our judicial systems are much more lenient on the white-collar criminal than they are on the opportunist street thief or rapist.

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