You before Me?
Every day more than 1 million selfies are taken around the world, or put another way about 3,000 during your reading of this short article.
The French psychoanalyst and philosopher Elsie Godart writes in her book “I Selfie Therefore I Am” that society is “stuck in a state of adolescent crisis”. Today Presidents, Prime Ministers and the Pope are not immune to the temptation of what psychiatrists see as actions that propagate insecurities and provoke the neurotic and self-questioning behaviour that characterises adolescence.
I raise this in an educational article because it is an important example of the wider phenomenon of narcissism - the placing of me before you and the self before the group. Of course, a holiday photo is harmless fun but the constant photographing, filtering, editing and promoting of the self seem a sign that we are becoming a more self-interested (and perhaps more narcissistic) society. I wonder if this also means we are becoming less altruistic. Individual conduct tends to reflect the wider environment and many of us are buried in our own worlds and interested only in our own issues. As adults we may be able to see and manage this but children may lack the necessary maturity to resist narcissism. In our schools, I believe we have a duty to counter this, to teach the value of service and the importance of giving back to society.
This is easily said but not easily done. The problem is explored by psychotherapist Dr. Sue Gerhardt in “The Selfish Society: How We All Forgot to Love One Another and Made Money Instead”. She observes that countries including the UK, USA and Australia and have taken a neo-conservative path with any policies in support for others given a lower priority and diminished status. Our news media is full of crime, abuse, neglect, corruption and the impact and (mis)handling of the coronavirus pandemic. We face a media diatribe where the wider world is dangerous. No wonder many young people are more interested in themselves than what is around them.
Selfishness in the teenage years is almost a cliché but schools can do so much to open the eyes of the next generation. If we are to build a more reflective and collaborative society we need to support the caring qualities and do so in the impressionable school years. We need to show children what is really out there and teach them how to get involved.
Wanting young people to care for others is nothing new but as society focuses more on the me and less on the us such a challenge becomes more necessary. Educator Kurt Hahn believed that schools should have a greater purpose than preparing young people for college and university. For students to prepare for life they should face it head-on, he said, and experience it in ways that demand courage, generosity, imagination, principle and resolution. As a result, young people become empowered and develop the skills and abilities to be both the leaders and the guardians of tomorrow's world.
Teaching about leadership should be about more than learning how to be in charge. It must have in its foundation in the belief that we lead through unselfish example. It means helping young people to live a life with a spirit of service so they, in turn, ensure their impact is positive and more caring.
With passion, planning and persistence we can teach children to be ultra-modern and yet hold traditional values. They can pose for selfies without making life all about the self and maybe we can teach them an alphabet where sometimes the U comes before the I.