Education, Social and behavioural

We don’t exist without each other

Chris Bagley on the myth of individual freedom.

24 May 2022

We don’t exist without each other. Profound in its simplicity, this fundamental psychological truth is oft-ignored in western culture. Our sense of self quietly evolves in alignment with how others view us. As asserted by American sociologist Charles Cooley: ‘I am not who you think I am; I am not who I think I am; I am who I think you think I am’. 

It is not possible for a person to exist alone. We cannot become ‘a self’ in a social vacuum. We shape each other’s characters and expand or limit their opportunity for growth through social interaction in real time, all the time. Messages we receive from birth about who we are define what person we become. Neurons in our brains form intricate pathways as a consequence of our engagement with the social world and at a cellular level, our selves are shaped by the messages we receive about our place in the world.

Hence, there are no atomised individuals, only persons in relation. If denied social stimulation infants fail to develop physically and mentally, as demonstrated in the heart-breaking documentary, Bulgaria’s Abandoned Children. This is why children in care, or subject to an atmosphere devoid of love, find it hard to thrive in the world. If a young person’s social interactions instil a sense of being unwanted or unworthy of love it is not possible to conceive oneself as anything other than worthless. If we believe we have no inherent sense of self-worth we will behave in ways that sustain this belief. Behind every successful human being is at least one successful relationship; a touchstone around which a stable sense of self can develop.  

Our society embraces a contradictory maxim – ‘we exist alone, in competition with each other’. Accordingly, the less we rely upon each other, the more free we are. The more ‘independent’ we are, the more liberated we become. This is a myth so pervasively held that there’s little room to consider its absurdity. In my view, this conception promotes an idea that needing others is a pathology and not a fundamental human motivation as demonstrated in oodles of psychological research around belongingness. Satisfying our need to belong requires (a) frequent, positive interactions with the same individuals, and (b) engagement in these interactions within a framework of long-term, stable care and concern.

Further, research demonstrates that developing a sense of social identity is what makes us human. Meaningful group life is essential to our health; without it our humanity is diminished. See evidence from the social identity paradigm of Alex Haslam and colleagues. In the most basic sense, groups make life worth living, and they are what we live for. As observed by Neil Ansell in his book, Deep Country: ‘we gain our sense of self from our interaction with other people; from the reflection of ourselves we see in the eyes of another’.

Given the wealth of evidence capturing the need for belongingness and the development of social identity, how has it come to pass that ideologies of competition and individualism tend to dominate? 

The heroic individual

Contrary to popular contention, the individualism of today did not arise during the Enlightenment. The idea was embedded at the birth of modern civilisation. According to Horkeimer and Adorno, Homer’s epics, the Iliad and Odyssey, are the founding texts of western society. The cultures of Ancient Sparta and Athens were framed around the idea of the heroic individual, whose ‘great deeds’ are attained through valour, virtue and conquering one’s competitors. As proclaimed by Hektor in Homer’s Iliad: ‘Let me not then die ingloriously and without a struggle, but let me first do some great thing that shall be told among men hereafter.

Throughout history, the veneration of heroic individuals and their ‘great deeds’ has been an ever-present spectre and is observable in the espoused ideologies of 21st century leaders. According to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, society is underpinned by a process of ‘shaking the pack’ to ensure the best individuals rise to the top. Johnson believes that FTSE 100 CEOs were born with high intelligence and destined for greatness; by implication a person growing up in a neglectful home fails at school because they, as an individual, aren’t very bright. Our society festishises individual success and ignores the innumerable effects of social conditioning and the impact of relationships. 

Our institutional cultures are shaped by these conceptions. The way governments, businesses and schools are ‘managed’ provide stark evidence. In his book, The Power of Giving Away PowerMichael Barzun shows how a ‘Pyramid’ leadership mindset dominates our institutions and unconsciously shapes our thinking. This is characterised by dependence on a ‘great leader’ who sits at the top of a hierarchy and whose goal is ‘extracting power from individuals for the purposes of simplification and single-mindedness’ (p.135). 

What is the impact of the Pyramid mindset that shapes our institutions? In my estimation, those in power decide for themselves how to define great deeds and what determines how to measure them. This has horrific consequences as it sits beside another assumption; that the superior can conceive the inferior as tools instead of persons. It’s a story that began in pre-history and shaped the Hellenistic world, migrated across the Roman Empire, was re-hashed during the early Christian era, carried through the Reformation and the Enlightenment and into the industrial age. 

Hence, the narrative has deep historical roots. Aristotle believed in ‘natural slavery’ and thought it acceptable to treat social inferiors as ‘living tools’. St Augustine preached a doctrine of ‘passive obedience’ and the need for the superior to rule via God’s elected clergy. Kant pointed out the tendency for those wielding power to treat others as a ‘means’ to achieve their own ends. In the 20th century, Fascist and Communist dogmatists reduced human beings to functions; to automatons in service of the great deeds of statesman who knew what was best for all humanity. Today, far from laying aside these pernicious ideas, we have repackaged them. What has emerged is an individualism expressed in fashionable consumption and a willingness to perceive ourselves as commodities; as products in a marketplace. It’s a modern religion most have bought into. 

The school system

This is most observable in the English school system. Children are positioned not as persons but as objects to be moulded for the ego gratification of those desperate to make their mark on educational history. To do so, illegitimate forms of assessment are forcibly applied by a revolving door of Education Secretaries wishing to demonstrate their greatness. What is the impact of this posturing on actual children? 

At States of Mind we have spent four years working with The Institute of Education, University College London, to delve into the impact of education on hundreds of teenagers across a number of London schools. In our project. ‘Breaking the Silence’, we meet young people weekly and over the course of a school year with the aim of listening to their voices and co-creating different ways that education might be structured to better meet their needs.  

Young people consistently assert that school is a primary driver of psychological distress for many students. They contend that the overwhelming pressure of the exam system means that ‘school acts as a grade factory’, ‘limits creativity’, ‘creates an environment of competition’ and for many young people, precipitates high ‘stress levels, anxiety, depression, fear and isolation’. Perhaps more disturbingly, young participants said that school inhibits opportunities to grow their personal identities and views them not as individuals with rich experiences and aspirations, but as ‘students’ for whom expectations are identical. Participants in Breaking the Silence have written to Ofsted to critique the impact of accountability measures on the schooling they receive. They have spoken to the education select committee and shared their innovative ideas for change; yet despite requesting ongoing dialogue, have not been invited to form part of a solution. 

As a practitioner psychologist working in a young offender institution (child prison), Pupil Referral Unit and mental health unit I see children week in, week out who are traumatised as a consequence of their school experiences. This reality is, at best, little acknowledged, and at worst, deliberately ignored. Why are the perspectives of young people who report feeling objectified, stripped of their individuality not considered? Why has ‘education’ become so totally defined by schooling, regardless of its negative impact on thousands of our children? 

Reasons are complex but some trends are clear. Notably, since the inception of schooling as a concept, a handful of people have framed the intentions; they decide what success means across the system, for schools and for individual young people who are, in today’s parlance, reduced to data on a ‘league table’ or Progress 8 spreadsheet. 

Figures are fiddled endlessly, decade after decade, to demonstrate that the government are reducing the ‘disadvantage gap’ and ‘raising standards’ in a system specifically designed to create inequality and consign thousands to failure. Everyone is forced to become a heroic individual. However, the sole pathway to victory means playing a rigged game in which all are pawns, not participants. Schools compete with one another, as do individual children. Questioning the authority of the system constitutes treachery. Acknowledging the importance of relationships and the evolution of self in collaboration with others are viewed as unrigorous. Children are often coerced into disconnection from others and this climate reduces their capacity for growth.

Of course, the majority of teachers value time and space to build relationships with young people, but they are hamstrung by school systems that prohibit this essential facet of learning. Some schools subvert these narratives and promote belongingness and social identity as core element of education: more on this later. 

Policing the system

The only way to police such anti-human policies is through terror. Schools are marinated in fear due to the pressure of accountability. In a recent study, 86 per cent of secondary teachers agreed that: ‘Pupils are encouraged to take subjects that will count in the league tables irrespective of their own interests/aptitudes’.

Teachers join the profession to ‘make a difference’ in children’s lives. What is the psychological impact on educators who, subject to external compulsion and fearful of chastisement, must behave in ways contrary to their moral proclivities? How does it affect teachers who must force children to do things irrespective of their interests and aptitudes? As UCL report, ‘target accountability culture… the constant scrutiny, the need to perform and hyper-critical management’ are core reasons for teachers exiting the profession in high numbers. 

Many of those leaving describe themselves as ‘recovering teachers’. Like young people, they are underlings in a Pyramidal structure and are construed as objects whose function is designed by others. In turn, children are only valuable as long as they comply; otherwise they lose their value as tools and are often marginalised.  

The most consistent trend in English education is one of inevitable inequity, a growing epidemic of psychological distress and more and more families taking their children out of the school system altogether. The need for those in power to shape intentions and achieve their ‘great deeds’ results in the absolute disempowerment of young people and educators, who are utterly devoid of space to consent or dissent. 

Reasons to be hopeful

There is a growing understanding that schooling is not an appropriate conceptualisation of education for all. Numerous individuals, groups and organisations are working to re-shape our collective imaginations and re-conceptualise what education can be. They are placing belongingness and social identity at the centre of their thinking and shunning the scientifically illiterate worship of the heroic individual who rises alone. 

Many organisations are challenging the status quo by presenting evidence and possibilities for the evolution of schooling – for example, Big EducationStates of Mind and Rethinking Education. They share a common aim – to support the co-creation of systems that allow young people, educators and families to take control of the purpose and shape of their education. At a local level, a growing number of schools such as Arbourthorne Community Primary School are positioning themselves as hubs at the heart of their community, ‘fostering relationships and supporting community capacity-building’. Secondary schools like XP School are placing pastoral care, strong relationships, the individual needs of students and learning interdependently at the centre of their practice. 

In addition, an explosion in home education, alongside a growing international democratic education movement, increased interest in learning communities and other forms of education, show that increasing numbers of families are abandoning the school system in favour of approaches that support child development in environments with decreased coercion, increased autonomy and shared ownership. 

That shift is not without controversy: the government has raised concerns about the impact of home education and alternative forms of schooling, and this has led to calls for all home educating parents to register their child, alongside more focused monitoring of ‘unregistered schools’. In turn, home educators and learning community advocates are understandably worried that this is the first step in a move towards greater government control of what is deemed a ‘suitable’ education.

In answering that question, we must let go of the Pyramid mindset and support those involved in education to decide what it looks and feels like. Then we can fully embrace the reality that we don’t exist without each other, grow interdependently and free from the oppressive intentions of others. As John Donne said, ‘No man is an island entire of itself’. 

Dr Chris Bagley

Tutor, Lecturer, Research Supervisor at The Institute of Education, UCL

Director of Research at States of Mind

On 17th June UCL and States of Mind will bring together a unique and inspiring group of speakers with a schedule full of engaging talks delivered via Zoom.


"Evidence is clear: the English education system is underpinned by ideologies that promote coercion, standardisation and marginalisation. This conference will show how it is possible to do things differently. Talks will be led by a range of education innovators including young people, teachers, academics and other change makers. Some are innovating within the current school system, others are working outside the state sector. All are re-envisioning and enacting ways of educating that promote consent, democracy, self-determination and the celebration of diversity."


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