I recently spent a day teaching Maths at a school in Sussex. I’m not quite sure why; I am a History teacher, and Maths has never been a great strength. It turned out, though, that teaching Maths to bottom set GCSE students is not particularly difficult. Even with my limited mental arithmetic skills, I was still streets ahead of the fifteen and sixteen year olds that I was teaching. The reason? Whilst I recognise that Maths is not something that I enjoy or am good at, when I’m asked a question I know that with a little effort on my part, I can normally come up with an answer. The kids I saw in Sussex lacked any willingness at all to even attempt an answer. The response that I heard time and time again during that day was, “I can’t be arsed.”
There was one particular student sixteen year old student who was struggling to calculate what 3 x is, when x = 3. I explained that to get the answer all that was required was to multiply three by three. When that simple equation left him baffled, I suggest that we looked at it another way, 3 + 3 + 3. I asked him what 3 + 3 is, to which he responded that he didn’t know. I advised him to think about it rather than simply saying “I don’t know,” because with a little bit of thought, he might come up with the right answer. His response was, “I can’t be arsed.”
I’d love to say that this attitude is very rare, but as a teacher I have seen it far too often. During that single day in Sussex, I must have heard it a dozen times. Whilst working at a “difficult” school in south Essex, I heard it a similar number of times every day for six months. Even teaching at a “posh” exclusive boarding school in Sussex, I often heard it. Rather than stopping, engaging their brains, reflecting on what the answer could be, students simply come out with “I can’t be arsed” in the hope that the problem will go away, or that someone else will simply tell them the answer.
Even when teaching intelligent, hardworking students, the perception often seems to be that my role, as teacher, is simply to provide my pupils with knowledge, to tell them the answers to the questions that will confront them in a future examination, to minimise the amount of effort that they have to invest in discovering knowledge, reflecting on what that knowledge means, and critically analysing the data they have before them.
I find this situation very worrying indeed. Whether it’s as a consequence of poor parenting, inadequate teaching, or the tendency to spend leisure hours engaged in mind-rotting activities such as playing computer games or watching trash on television, the number of people who have no commitment to basic thought seems to be rapidly increasing, particularly amongst our young people. Schools, private and state, “good” and “bad” seem to be failing in their responsibility to help future generations to think.
Perhaps that’s a good thing. Perhaps in a service society such as the one we have in the UK today, it is best to prepare our young people for the mundanity of a life stacking shelves in Tesco according to a plan devised by someone sitting in an office somewhere in Hertfordshire. Perhaps there is no need for someone who works in a call centre to have the ability to think for themselves when their job simply involves following a script that appears on a screen in front of them. Perhaps by encouraging thinking we’re actually harming our young people, since when they encounter the realities of life they’ll find it much easier if they don’t think.
Perhaps drumming free thinking out of people in these circumstances is a good idea. But if we want to drag our economy out of recession by promoting entrepreneurship, if we want to encourage scientific research, if we want to encourage a new generation of film makers, writers, and artists, if we want to ensure that our society does not simply stagnate and die under an enormous cloud of apathy, drumming free thinking out of people is the worst possible thing that we could do.
It’s not free thinking but this “I can’t be arsed” attitude that must be drummed out of our children, and the sooner the better. We must not drip feed them answers. We must not do everything for them. We need to make life more difficult, not easier. When they can’t answer a question, we must press them to think about it and come up with a response, to take a risk that whilst it might not be correct, it might be. We must raise our expectations of what all of our children are capable of, and continually press them to do better. Teachers – poor quality work should never be acceptable; students should be made to do it again, to invest more time and effort in producing their homework to come up with something that they can be proud of.
We must encourage our young people to take up pursuits that encourage rather than hinder thought. Throw away the Playstations, switch off the television sets, and start encouraging a love of literature, (perhaps if we could encourage people to read, the libraries would not now be under threat), of art, of music, of theatre. Yes, Shakespeare or Mozart might be difficult to understand, they might require some thought, but does that mean we shouldn’t bother with them? Let’s get our children involved in Scouts, or Guides. Let’s invest the money we would have spent on computer games in piano lessons, or ballet classes. Let’s encourage our children to join the orchestra at school, or the debating society, or the French cultural society.
Above all, let’s challenge our children. Let’s encourage them to think, to take an interest in life and the world around them. Let’s show them that thinking is not difficult, and is never too difficult. And let’s drum this “can’t be arsed” attitude of them right now, for the good of our society.