Saturday, 13 September 2014

The Scottish Referendum: head versus heart

It looks as if I am a 'glutton for punishment', as my mother would say, writing another post on the Scottish Referendum. (My Calvinist mother was a great believer in punishment.) However, the previous post has received more readers more quickly than almost all my other posts, except the one on Mrs Thatcher, with which it is neck and neck. It seems that a combination of politics and nationalism draws in the crowds.

So, here goes.

A lot has been made in the media of some sort of contest between Heart and Head in making decisions about a Yes or No vote in the Scottish Referendum. The Yes vote seemingly depends on the heart. No, however, appeals to the head.

For someone who has worked in education all her life, this is a very interesting concept.

Babies and toddlers are all heart. When happy, they chortle belly laughs, completely absorbed by their immediate stimulus. When unhappy, they scream as if the world were coming to an end, their mother had vanished into a black hole and the supply of food had ceased until the end of time.

As they grow through infancy, children are taught by their parents to develop a sense of proportion, to become aware that there is a tomorrow and a day after that and that this moment isn't all that there is. There will be food tomorrow, their mother will come back. In other words, they learn to remember, recall and predict.

Their parents and, increasingly, their teachers then teach them to understand the reasons for things being the way they are, to comprehend cause and effect, to consider the consequences of their actions (If I pinch Mary, she may cry and I may get into trouble.). Children learn explanations for things, they begin to understand the way the world works, to classify (these animals are 'dogs') and to interpret (there are clouds in the sky, therefore it may rain).

As children move through school, teachers carry on the process of helping them to use their heads. Children learn to apply what they know. (I need to plant the bulb so that the roots grow downwards and the shoot grows up. I won't play with these matches because I might set light to my sibling's hair.)

By the time young people reach secondary school, they should be capable of analysing issues for themselves. They learn about primary and secondary sources and how to weigh the evidence they find. (This evidence has come from an eyewitness. That other evidence was recorded many years later by someone who wasn't there.) They learn the difference between fact and opinion. Students learn about the links between, and relationships among events. They find out how to record the findings of their research in a form which enables them to retrieve and use them later on. They learn to collate the results and write up their conclusions.(All major religions believe in concepts of fairness and honesty. They all have creation myths and stories to explain the first time things happened, for example the first murder, why plagues happen.)

Later on, young people learn to carry out their own research structured by questions they have devised themselves. They discover how to construct a hypothesis and set out to prove or disprove it. They carry out experiments and judge the results. In other words they learn to evaluate theories, propositions and evidence, and decide what they think themselves. They learn to look critically at language and identify the methods which writers use to influence their readers, and (if they are lucky enough to attend a school which teaches media studies) how photographers, filmmakers, journalists and politicians manipulate their feelings and thoughts. Young people develop their own views based not just on their instinctive gut feelings but on logic and evidence. They are taught not to dismiss out of hand those with whom they are debating or to ignore the evidence of experts. They are taught instead to listen to members of their discussion groups and to respond courteously, giving reasons for their views.

Finally - or, more probably, at the same time - young people learn how to create music, art, literature for themselves. They start developing their own ideas: devising a new world system, a way of eradicating poverty, a technique for saving water or electricity.

Educationists call this way of looking at child development Bloom's taxonomy after the man who devised it. It is a way of mapping the process of learning. All children follow a similar course of development, some reaching further up the ladder than others. All of them, however, are thoroughly engaged in learning to reason, to think, to use their heads.

However, all this doesn't mean that feelings don't matter. On the contrary, both at school and at home, children learn to deal with their feelings and gut instincts, to look objectively at them, to work out why they feel a particular way and to manage their emotions. When they read a poem, the teacher will ask them for their first reactions and will then help them to analyse the techniques the poet used to produce the particular effects which move them. Pupil support teachers will talk about personal relationships, and help young people consider the balance between emotions and reasoning.  Students will develop an understanding of the dangers of giving way to their feelings without considering the risks and consequences. Heart and head.

By now, you will all know what I am about to say. It is my belief that the Yes campaign has often been whipping up emotions, appealing to the 'heart', drawing on feelings about national identity and evading almost all questions which require hard thinking. Somehow it has managed to convince whole sections of the population, including, sadly, many failed by the education system. Some of these supporters may find it easier to react emotionally than to think things through and to reason. Some of the ideas being bandied about are potentially dangerous: that the Establishment and people outside Scotland are always to blame for the ills that befall Scots, and are always out to get them. Demagogues across the world have swayed crowds with a similar emotional message.

The No campaign, however, has tended to focus its strategy on developing logical arguments, drawing on evidence and coming to reasoned conclusions. In particular, they have done this in relation to financial issues. Many people don't like that. Understanding finance is difficult. Feelings are so much easier.

The contrast between heart and head emerges in a number of contexts, for example, in relation to risk and consequences.

Think of the National Lottery. It is a system, shamefully set up by a Labour Government, for extracting money from poorer sections of society and giving it, very largely, to support the interests of those who are comfortably off already. After all, what educated professional, excluding the odd fling, would regularly waste money on a lottery ticket knowing the odds against winning and the interest you would receive if the money were invested? But if you have very little already, the dreams the Lottery offers of untold wealth which will transform your life are so so tempting and the immediate thrill of expectation so seductive that week after week you hand over the money which would more sensibly go into an ISA. The occasional win by someone who looks just like you is sufficient to keep you passing your money across unquestioningly.

In a similar way, if you have very little already, the risks of independence, what you might lose, may seem unreal, but the benefits of being a citizen of what Alex Salmond is now calling the 14th richest country in the world may seem enormous.

In contrast, those who have investments and pensions (whether state or private) may have an understandably greater interest in the connections between the different elements of the country's financial system. They are more likely to be aware of the potentially destabilising impact to the whole of a sudden shock to one part of it. In any financial crisis, it will be the weak and vulnerable who suffer disproportionately. And understanding a bit more about the system as a whole does not mean that one is a supporter of the kinds of activities we have observed in the banking sector. It is about being aware of risks and consequences: key aspects of learning.

Think about it, in what other major decision in life would you be encouraged to forgo your reasoning skills and just 'follow your heart'? Would you do this when buying a car or a house? Would you do it when deciding whether or not your child should undergo life-saving treatment? Would you ignore rational arguments when deciding whether to emigrate to Australia?

And if evidence contrary to your convinced beliefs emerges, would you then dismiss it as the result of a foul plot by your enemies who have set out specifically to undermine and destroy you? Would you say it is scaremongering? Would you sneer, jeer and avoid answering any awkward questions or avoid bringing out any evidence to the contrary? Would you threaten those with whom you disagree with a Day of Reckoning?

To appeal mainly to the heart is to undermine the efforts of teaching professionals whose life's work it is to help young people to think logically and to take reasons and evidence into account when making important decisions. It is to infantilise a nation.

You may also be interested in my previous post: The Scottish Referendum: How I a voting and why

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