Home > Uncategorized > If “Competitive Self-Interest” and “Extreme Individualism” ARE Harmful, How Should Schools Respond?

If “Competitive Self-Interest” and “Extreme Individualism” ARE Harmful, How Should Schools Respond?

October 15, 2016

In Guardian writer George Monbiot’s thought provoking article, “Neoliberalism is Creating Loneliness. That’s What’s Wrenching Society Apart”, he describes the epidemic of mental illness besetting young women in Britain:

recent survey in England suggests that one in four women between 16 and 24 have harmed themselves, and one in eight now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Anxiety, depression, phobias or obsessive compulsive disorder affect 26% of women in this age group. This is what a public health crisis looks like.

And what is the root cause of this? Mr. Monbiot posits the following:

There are plenty of secondary reasons for this distress, but it seems to me that the underlying cause is everywhere the same: human beings, the ultrasocial mammals, whose brains are wired to respond to other people, are being peeled apart. Economic and technological change play a major role, but so does ideology. Though our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the lives of others, everywhere we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism

The parallels between what is happening in Britain and our country are clear: statistics show that roughly 1 in 5 adults have some form of anxiety disorder and the consequences of the self-medication that accompanies that problem plague our country and the isolated adult child playing video games in the basement is a trope cited by pundits and politicians, often in derisive terms. Mr. Monbiot’s description of the cycle of physical distress that emerges from loneliness paints a different picture:

It’s unsurprising that social isolation is strongly associated with depression, suicide, anxiety, insomnia, fear and the perception of threat. It’s more surprising to discover the range of physical illnesses it causes or exacerbates. Dementia, high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes, lowered resistance to viruses, even accidents are more common among chronically lonely people. Loneliness has a comparable impact on physical health to smoking 15 cigarettes a day: it appears to raise the risk of early death by 26%. This is partly because it enhances production of the stress hormone cortisol, which suppresses the immune system.

Studies in both animals and humans suggest a reason for comfort eating: isolation reduces impulse control, leading to obesity. As those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder are the most likely to suffer from loneliness, might this provide one of the explanations for the strong link between low economic status and obesity?

And as I read Mr. Monbiot’s article I was struck by how our public schools contribute to the ideology that Mr. Monbiot links to the onset of mental distress experienced in Britain and how little we are doing to combat it. The premium placed on getting good grades and developing a good resume to get into college discourages the kind of social bonding that overcomes loneliness and implicitly encourages the consumerist mentality that attempts to address problems with the acquisition of “stuff” and/or the use of some kind of medication. Schooling today, with it’s emphasis on competition between students and the need to get to a good school so that they become wealthy or retain their economic standing reinforces the message that they will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism

Schools that wanted to focus on well being would place a greater emphasis on developing healthy social relationships, on developing self-awareness in students, and on developing empathy for others. Instead, as Monbiot notes, schools respond to the message given by:

…men who have spent their entire lives in quadrangles – at school, at college, at the bar, in parliament – (who0 instruct us to stand on our own two feet. The education system becomes more brutally competitive by the year. Employment is a fight to the near-death with a multitude of other desperate people chasing ever fewer jobs.

THAT message, one of Social Darwinism, is an ideological one, and is a message that divides people, pits them against each other, and leads to the mental distress we are witnessing now. It might be time to find a new ideology.

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