Less Play + Less Empathy + More Narcissism = Today’s Society

Teachers are not deliberately creating narcissists, overly competitive people, or emotionally stunted children, but the overall system in which teachers, students, and administrators work is creating such people. I think this has always been the case, but the number of people it affected was not as large as it is now because school was not as encompassing of people’s lives in the past. As technology and big data merge, school is becoming more efficient at processing students like products, which has strong effects on students beyond their grades.

The side effect of school processing is often called the “hidden curriculum.” These are the deep lessons one learns from what is not said and not allowed in school, what it feels like to fail or be publicly ranked against your classmates, to mouth things you don’t truly understand, to follow orders blindly, or to willingly accept punishment for questioning arbitrary authority. The Wikipedia article on this topic cites two recent definitions of the hidden curriculum that clarify this.

Michael Haralambos’ definition from his book, Sociology: Themes and Perspectives (HarperCollins, 1991): The hidden curriculum consists of those things pupils learn through the experience of attending school rather than the stated educational objectives of such institutions.

Roland Meighan’s definition from his book, A Sociology of Education (Continuum, 1981): The hidden curriculum is taught by the school, not by any teacher . . . something is coming across to the pupils which may never be spoken in the English lesson or prayed about in assembly. They are picking-up an approach to living and an attitude to learning.

Evidence-based, data-driven educators dismiss the hidden curriculum as being a squishy concept, since it can’t easily be measured or isolated. They desire to command and control learning at each stage of a person’s development, turning learning into a technical process best managed by properly trained educators. Ignoring the issue of the hidden curriculum when evaluating children’s conventional school performance is common, but it should not be. For instance, even in something as technical, rule-driven, and scientific as medical school suffers when the process becomes more important than human relationships. The New York Times reports: that 50 percent of doctors report symptoms of burn out—“emotional exhaustion, low sense of accomplishment, detachment.”

Nearly half of medical students become burned out during their training. Medical education has been characterized as an abusive and neglectful family system. It places unrealistic expectations on students, keeps them sleep-deprived, overstressed, and in a state of fear of making mistakes, and sends the message that doubts or grief should be kept to oneself. While the training formally espouses the ethics of empathy, compassion and altruism, doctors and researchers say that the socialization process — the “hidden curriculum” — teaches something very different: stay detached, objective, even a little cynical. Five out of six doctors say that medicine is in decline and close to 60 percent would not recommend it as a career for their children (pdf). As administrative and documentation burdens have exploded in the past three decades, doctors find themselves under pressures to work as quickly as possible. Many have found that what is sacrificed is the very thing that gives meaning to the whole undertaking: the patient–doctor relationship.

What is clearly taking place in medical schools is the same thing that is taking place in elementary schools: teacher–student and doctor–patient relationships are becoming just measured exchanges of information rather genuine human connections. The codified and monitored behavior of professionals required by their schools becomes a barrier to genuine communication between teachers and students and so diverse, genuine feedback is constricted, and likewise so are their solutions. Perhaps this is why most changes being proposed for school are more of the same: more testing, more rigorous curricula, longer teaching days—more school, overall.

However, there is plenty of evidence that we are learning all the time, from everything we do, feel, and think. It is only in school that we create dotted lines to separate philosophy from science, math from literature; in the world we easily blend and use this knowledge to communicate and understand. Until school teaches us otherwise, playtime is learning time for children. Once we internalize the need to be taught (there’s that hidden curriculum again—our years of compulsory schooling “teach” us the need to be taught), we soon forget how learning is a natural drive for humans and animals and we begin to think of learning as a difficult skill we can’t effectively master on our own.

But learning, playing, thinking, and social skills are totally entwined in our beings. Play and learning have a deep, interdisciplinary relationship that is severed by our focus on the regurgitation of facts as the sign of well-educated individual. One way we can reunite the two, and ameliorate the effects of the hidden curriculum, is to recognize the value and importance of children’s free play.

Dr. Peter Gray, in a new article for AEON magazine, cites the research and makes the case for doing so in a powerful essay. In particular, Dr. Gray writes how our fixation with “learning time” versus “play time” has created a false dichotomy and a debilitating hidden curriculum that results “in a decline in empathy and a rise in narcissism.” Dr. Gray writes:

The decline in opportunity to play has also been accompanied by a decline in empathy and a rise in narcissism, both of which have been assessed since the late 1970s with standard questionnaires given to normative samples of college students. Empathy refers to the ability and tendency to see from another person’s point of view and experience what that person experiences. Narcissism refers to inflated self-regard, coupled with a lack of concern for others and an inability to connect emotionally with others. A decline of empathy and a rise in narcissism are exactly what we would expect to see in children who have little opportunity to play socially. Children can’t learn these social skills and values in school, because school is an authoritarian, not a democratic setting. School fosters competition, not co-operation; and children there are not free to quit when others fail to respect their needs and wishes.

I hope you’ll read Dr. Gray’s complete article and share it with others. What do you think: Is free play one of the major casualties of school reform? Do kids need play to learn?