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April 11, 2011


Bar Humbug

I blame the parents. Seriously. Those annoying toddlers running around the resturant (or wherever) screaming their little heads off while their parents ignore/indulge; they are the ones who'll later not concentrate at school and beyond. Getting small children to at least sometimes sit still and not shut up exactly, but talk or play quietly - is not the easy option. But it's one that does the them, their parents and the rest of the world a big favour in the long run. Christ, I sound like my dad...


There was a saying when I was a boy (40 years ago) - 'Children should be seen and not heard'. It needs to be enforced rather more rigorously than it is nowadays.

Self discipline will not magically appear in a child or teenager if it is not imposed from outside at an early age. Ironically the current mania for indulging children by letting them 'do their own thing' is actually condemning them to failure and problems in later life. Far better to impose some order early on, at the risk of being seen to be a harsh parent, and set them up to be able to deal with life's vicissitudes later on.

Harmonious Jim

The Heckman re-analysis also found that low agreeableness correlated with high earnings. Do you want the state to promote low agreeableness?

In any case, the state should not try to improve people's character, because that is the job of civil society (via boy scouts groups, churches, Victorian public schools, etc). Chris, this is an elementary point from liberal philosophy, I am surprised you did not mention it.

The state has neither the knowledge nor the ability to do this (witness the lamentably poor quality of the average bureaucrat, in IQ and personality, compared to the high quality of the average Victorian schoolmaster.)

Harmonious Jim

Improving the character of the population is a good thing to do. We should start by having an immigration policy that keeps out people of low IQ and bad character (especially low conscientiouness and low agreeablness).


How far are the characteristics you discuss dependent on social class? If you and your children are in the right class you know that certain personal traits will be rewarded by society with money and power. But not if you do not occupy such a relation with the class system. So is this not a validation of the economic idea of incentives? via feed back mechanisms. It is easy to please others when you are going to get your share. Or more than your share. Victorian school masters were training the rulers of an empire on which the sun never set; and the reward for your efforts was lots of black/ brown servants to cater to your needs as a Sahib. Anyone for Polo and a G nad T?




There is nothing sinister and totalitarian about there is something sinisterly totalitarian about teaching people behaviours that improve their life chances. It is more sinister and totalitarian not to, and then try to control aberrant behaviour with the law (ASBOs for example).


Grrr.. Correct version.

There is nothing sinister and totalitarian about teaching people behaviours that improve their life chances. It is more sinister and totalitarian not to, and then try to control aberrant behaviour with the law (ASBOs for example).

CS Clark

I'm not an expert on reality TV, but I'm pretty sure that an hour of children sitting quietly and listening to David Starkey wouldn't exactly be gripping. Unless you're seeing the unedited footage, Jamie's Dream School is as much evidence for more conscientiousness (which isn't itself an objectionable statement) as Lord of the Rings is evidence for Will's decision to not wear a band.

Moreover, the exact worth of these positive qualities isn't fixed. How much are they valued because they are possessed by those with power already? How much of their worth is the equivalent of wearing a tie? How willing are employers to lose sitting still and shutting up qualities if, in some at least, they are balanced by standing up and asking questions?

Andrew Zalotocky

What teachers and parents can do is to explain to children why traits like conscientiousness matter. Teach them the Gods of the Copybook Headings and you give them some extremely useful heuristics for life, even if they don't fully understand them at first.

If we now see a decline in conscientiousness, self-discipline, etc. then it can be explained as a reaction to economic incentives. The traditional British working class was socially conservative because it lived on the edge. For example, a young woman who got pregnant before she was married lacked the means to support the child. They might both starve. A young man who got his lover pregnant and didn't do the decent thing might be condemning her to a life of penury and making himself an outcast in the process.

The rich didn't care about such things because they had the resources to cope with the consequences of any irresponsible behaviour. The middle class did care because they knew that their ability to cope was limited. The poor had no safety margin whatsoever, so they had to follow strict rules of conduct to have any chance of living long enough to raise a family.

But modern Britain is now one of the richest societies in the world and one of the richest societies that has ever existed. This makes it possible for us to have a huge welfare state that gives the working and middle classes the kind of safety margin that only the rich used to have. So naturally there is more irresponsible behaviour, because the consequences of it have been so greatly reduced for so many people.

But that is an example of how a system that was intended to combat "Giant Evils" in society has had giant unintended consequences. In which case, we have to be sceptical about whether government "policies to change personality" could ever be successful.


@Keith: My great Uncles and Aunts were not being trained to run any empires when their school teachers taught them prior to WW1, in classes of 30-40 pupils.

They were working class kids who did manual labour all their lives, and never left the UK, except for one great Uncle who was sent to the trenches in France (and made it home again luckily). Yet in their short educational careers they were taught a standard of education that would shame most 16 year olds today.

I remember watching my great aunt tot up her shopping bill in her head, and marvelling at her copperplate handwriting. One great Uncle was a local Methodist lay preacher when not farming, writing all his own sermons, in longhand. Another, a signwriter by trade, also did some journalism for the local paper in his spare time, and gave lectures on all sorts of subjects to local groups. None of these were formally educated beyond 13. Yet their education instilled enough discipline and thirst for knowledge that allowed them to transcend their workaday lives. Would that the current education system, with its vastly increased 'resources', could do the same.


Jim thanks to the calculator and the word processor/ printer; mental arithmetic and copperplate are obsolete. Progress does not consist in learning obiedient drugery
but replacing effort with machines and oil lamps with electric light. just as the pill increases enjoyment of sex. If the poor can enjoy the fleshy pleasures once monopolised by the rich, good. Lets have fun! Balls to the Conservative kill joys! Snooty people who look down on the lesser orders and have nostalgia for an age of backbreaking Labour and know your place sexual guilt. If you like I can get my Computer to print this in copper plate so you will all feel at home.


Anthony's right. If we take as a starting point the indisputable fact that children pick up at school behaviour, attitudes, and habits which will effect them for life, it is not totalitarian to try to ensure that those changes are beneficial rather than negative. It's just what education is.


How about "Jamie's Dream Hospital" where various unqualified celebrities perform Electroshock Therapy on troublesome youths?


There probably are some specific personality traits involved in serious underachieving. Shadd Maruna found that the career criminals he interviewed scored high on "resistance to authority" and "lack of foresight", which combine to form a trait known more colloquially as "tendency to tell the boss to shove his job on the first day".

But there's also a broader context, related to the myth of "social mobility". As a working strategy, taking whatever is doled out to you & shutting up makes sense if it's What Everyone Does, and if it will reliably get you to a position where you don't have to do it. If there aren't any career paths (except the ones that involve turning into a manager), doing what you're told ceases to be a rite of passage and becomes a career - and who wants that?


This isn't new evidence; previous studies have suggested that in the absence of taste discrimination, earnings are determined by 3 factors - qualifications, experience and a 'Y' factor for 'employability' which means not only turning up on time each day but in the correct dress / proper personal hygiene / with the right attitude.

In the 70s there was much criticism of the 'covert curriculum' in schools that taught obedience, punctuality and the ability to perform repetitive work tasks; however, as with qualifications, those amenable to these constraints earned more and were more frequently promoted.

Discriminating in favour of traits of economic benefit to the firm is neither unlawful nor 'taste' discrimination. It's meritocratic.


@Keith: what I'm saying is that the education system of 100 years ago took working class children, and gave them a good grounding in the basics, and taught them intellectual discipline that allowed them to improve themselves, and follow their own interests.

Do you really think 16 year olds are being given the same today?

And anyway - calculators and computers and printers are just tools. If you do not understand the concepts beneath you cannot use them effectively. A calculator will help you work out the interest rate on a loan, but only if you understand the concept of interest and percentages first. A computer will print out a perfectly legible essay, but unless you can marshal your thoughts into a coherent argument, the result will still be gibberish.


Jim I am pleased you don't have a unhealthy relish for copper plate. However children learn different things today and comparisons are difficult to make with ten decades ago. What children learn now is presumably as useful as what they learned in the past or why teach it?
I still have no answer to my question about the effect of class on conduct. Or if say problems like Dyslexia explain disruptive conduct in the class room. Unless you identify and correct hidden handicaps that cause negative conduct you are not going to have cooperative children to teach.


I think the relevant aspect of 'personality' related to earnings is a subject we've debated before on this blog: conformity. You can't train people to confirm, and non-conformity is not a guarantee of poverty (otherwise no artists or inventors would ever succeed financially). I would say that non-conformity isn't punished in the way that it once was (single mothers, women wanting to work, working class men wishing to get out of manual labour) and maybe that has had an affect on people's attitude to work and education generally. In an ideal world, our working arrangements will catch up with the people who are needed to do the work, become less hierarchial and clock-fixated etc. We've been waiting a long time.

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