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Posted: Feb 7, 2006 10:10

A View From Scotland

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By: Bill Colley
Caledonia Training
Perth, Scotland

Not long ago, whilst renovating a house, I lifted some old dusty carpets to find the floor had been lined with local newspapers dating from 1967. What struck me was just how much the world had changed in the intervening period.

Nowhere in that old newsprint was there any reference to email, spam, websites, broadband or electronic viruses. Our language today is filled with the Trojan horses of the computer age, and a very changed world that would barely enable us to function within the restrictions of the 1960's lingua franca.

In all areas but one that is, 'the behaviour of young people today.'

The editorial comments in those newspapers were strangely familiar. Children were not being 'taught respect;' the permissive society was leading to a breakdown in moral values; parents and teachers failed to exercise discipline at home or in school.

In fact, not one word, phrase or sentiment written at that time would seem out of place in one of today's newspapers. More importantly, few, if any, articles written and published today would appear strange and insightful to the newspaper readers of 40 years ago.

The new frontier was space and in the years that followed we managed not only to land men on the moon, but to shift our horizons beyond our own solar system. Why then, can't we find the answer to the problem much closer to home, how to help the disenchanted, disengaging youth amongst us?

The answer is relatively simple. Human behaviour is very complex. It is susceptible to countless environmental and genetic variables, and we have yet to develop a way of discussing our behavioural challenges that allows intelligent, objective and dispassionate opinions to be given due consideration. Children's behaviour in particular, stirs up passions and strong opinions from all angles and all areas of society. We all have an opinion because we were all children once, and because our own experiences mould our thinking into fairly brittle and finite values about what is best for others. We often think that 'we,' and not 'they,' have the answers.

Not that we can take for granted that this 'irreversible' social change is actually taking place. There is much evidence to suggest that British schools are actually quite well run, disciplined and safe. Sure there are difficult schools, where staff and pupils feel intimidated and threatened. They cannot function effectively in a way that allows them to both give and receive the education to which we say they are entitled, but these schools are in a minority.

High level violence is rare, and in being rare, it gets reported. What frustrates teachers more than anything is the low level stuff that disrupts lessons and causes unnecessary negativity in the learning relationships they have with the pupils in their class. Much evidence can be found to support the suggestion that there has been a significant increase in such problematic behaviour over the last few decades, and many reasons have been put forward to 'explain' this rise.

Our family structures here have changed dramatically with fewer two-parent families, declining positive male influences and usually Grandma lives over on the other side of the country.

Parents today are less authoritarian and 'negotiate' rather than tell their children what is expected of them. Children have 'rights,' and we make sure that they know what their rights are. "You can't tell me what to do" is a phrase we hear with some regularity in our playgrounds and social spaces.

Some blame the declining respect for teachers on the demise of corporal punishment, whilst teachers blame parents for failing to support them in school, and for failing to instill in children a basic respect for others. They seek, and we provide, instant gratification.

Sport and outdoor adventure has given way to DVDs and computer games. Children seem happier interacting with images on a screen than with their friends and siblings.

We, as parents, seem to have less time to spend with our off-spring these days. Mum has to work of course, because we are now worried about what will happen when we become economically inactive and our paltry pensions can no longer support the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed. So we too 'flop' at the end of the day and plug ourselves into the latest electronic entertainment, which sets an example that our children will inevitably follow. They will play with their Playstation in their own room in order to avoid the demands that a shared experience with parents might entail.

We no longer eat meals together, and what we eat is cooked up in a matter of moments after being stored, dried, desiccated and frozen for long periods of time. We don't even seem to care where it comes from.

And the latest 'fad' is to use 'labels' such as ADHD to explain, and of course excuse, behaviour that we find unacceptable at home and in school. ADHD in this country, is regarded in many quarters as "An American disease," which came no doubt from California where it was cooked up by bearded psychologists to explain why parents in the USA can no longer control their children. Only 0.6% of Scottish children take stimulant medication. The figure in America is closer to 3%, and in some parts higher still.

The latest outcry is that there has been a massive increase in Ritalin use and that we are using a 'chemical cosh' to control a problem that is really caused by societal ills.

I am not so sure.

The next frontier of human discovery is sure to be, not space or the oceans, but the human brain, and neuroscience through scanning technology is beginning to open-up a whole new world for us to explore. We are beginning to understand how our genes interact with the environment to produce the personalities that define us and guide our behaviour.

I do not believe that society is heading towards collapse. But I do see in those children who disengage at an early stage from the education system in our country, a very bleak future of personal failure and individual under-achievement. And I see in science the opportunity not only to increase our understanding of how we function as individuals, but the possibility of allowing us to separate truth from opinion and so engage in rational debate.

Perhaps we will abandon prejudice in favour of wisdom, and lazy thinking and casual causation for something a little more objective.

Only then might we see the papers filled with stories of hope and optimism, and with articles that would and should seem out-of-place in the faded pages of those 40 year old publications we dig up from under our carpets.

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