Education, Affluenza and Human Values

I contend that most emotional distress is best understood as a rational response to sick societies.” – Oliver James

“They are also ruled by superficial values – how attractive they look, how famous they are, how much they are able to show off. As the sociologist Erich Fromm would have put it, we have moved from a state of “being” to a state of “having”. Now we are obsessed with what other people think of us, and we’ve lost touch with our own feelings. James sees modern education as little better than a systematic method for spreading the virus.” – William Leith, Guardian review

Some may disagree that the values of our education system have enabled the ‘affluenza virus’ to spread. Some may deny that the values of “Selfish Capitalism” has spead like a virus since the rise of neo-liberalism and a “greed is good” ideology.

For those who have spent time questioning the aims and purposes of education and the values that shape our schools, Mr James’ book is a stimulating read. Does anyone seriously question the notion that schools and teachers have a key role to play in shaping values, attitudes and aspirations? Do our students simply need “discipline” instilled into them or should they be able to study philosophy and develop a fundamental understanding of virtues and values? Should they have opportunities to consider the characteristics that Maslow observed in the most capable members of the human race?

psychologyThe following paragraphs are taken from Oliver James’ Affluenza.

Chapter 8, Educate Your Children (Don’t Brainwash Them), begins with this paragraph:

“In most of the developed world today, you learn in order to earn. Especially in English-speaking nations, education has been hijacked by business. The goal is to create good little producers and consumers, whereas it should be an enquiring mind, capable of both scholarship and a playful, self-determined and emotionally productive life. The result is Virus distress.”

Does this sound like an exaggeration? In fact we’ve heard several headteachers of Primary schools declaring in meetings that the fundamental purpose of education is to prepare young people for the world of work. Primary schools!

“Wherever you look in the English-speaking world, a new obsession with exam performance is to be seen. Compared with previous generations, schoolchildren are menaced from ever-younger ages by assessment.”

“The yoking of the wagon of education to business and to money-making, once limited to America, is now found throughout the English-speaking world. . . . The legislation for the new city academies, personally promoted by Tony Blair, effectively permits wealthy individuals to run state schools, often with strongly Selfish Capitalist values and sometimes tied to strong religious convictions. The curriculum of the State system is being increasingly divested of subjects which will not contribute to the economy . . .”

“The key message is that the purpose of education is not to find out what has intrinsic interest for you, but to work hard at school for long-term financial reward. . . . [This] is a prescription for the absence of flow during work, for low self-esteem and a host of other problems. Ironically, on top of that it is death to the capacity to think imaginatively – the foundation of our economic future if the ‘skills economy’ is as important as politicians are always telling us it is.”

By contrast Danish children are “by far the most positive about going to school, and the least likely to be in a hurry to leave”.

And the reason? They don’t regard school as something that gets in the way of their “real” lives, and they don’t have teachers who pressurise them to “work hard”.

“The official rhetoric [of Denmark] is that education is for creating good citizens rather than economic performance, very different to that of other countries.”

It’s certainly very different to England, where measurable test performance is increasingly the be-all and end-all, where it often seems as though too few of us care very much whether children become “good citizens”, or whether they have high degrees of social intelligence and emotional literacy, whether they espouse decent values that enhance everyone’s wellbeing including their own, and whether they have any real spiritual development. The existence of  teenage gangs and knife crime is an indicator of how much further we have to go to develop citizenship and social/emotional intelligence.

“This rhetoric is reflected in the [Danish] pupils’ emphasis on learning to function well as part of a group. The curriculum is crafted to encourage them to find subjects that interest them and to be pursued in ways that also achieve this. In terms of fostering intrinsic rather than Virus motivation, this ought to result in confident, creative and autonomous children.”

Shouldn’t we ask why the education of children throughout the world isn’t being driven by a similar set of values and assumptions?

“The Danish system’s strength is in its emphasis on emotional literacy. Social skills are very valued, recognizing emotions as important.”

“The Danish approach offers an important vaccine which also serves them well economically. In this respect, like the other Scandinavian countries, they are imaginative and innovative. The grinding obsession of parents and government in [most other] developed nations with children’s exam performances is unjustified on economic grounds, and absolutely indefensible in terms of emotional wellbeing.”

“Modern education has been sold under a false prospectus containing three untruths. The first is that it will bring meritocracy, which it has not; and the pretence of it, requiring absurdly long hours devoted to passing mind-sapping, pathology-inducing exams, is hugely harmful to our children’s well-being. The second is that by enabling people to rise up the system, it will confer wellbeing, which it does not. The third is that exam results are crucial for our individual and national prosperity, and that is simply not true.”

“The truth is that in all the countries I visited, except Denmark, education is used mercilessly to put the needs of employers and economic growth ahead of those of children and emotional well-being.”

“The education systems of the English-speaking countries, which purport to be giving children opportunities to become richer than their parents, are actively hostile to the flourishing of creativity and emotional development.”

“Blair presented education as increasing ‘opportunity’ and encouraging ‘aspiration’. What is really meant by these words is ‘to make money, become as rich and famous as the folk on TV’, not to have the intrinsic satisfaction of identifying and pursuing one’s authentic interests, which is the goal of Danish education.”

As Will Self said in his review, “Oliver James is our foremost chronicler of what ails us. Affluenza should be mandatory reading for everyone, but especially those in politics, business and the media who are intent on upping our society’s dosage of toxic affluence”.

It should also be mandatory reading for everyone involved in education and in the wellbeing of children and young people.

Oliver James

Oliver James


About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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