The possibility of human agency

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One of the defining features of humanity is our agency; we can decide to do things. Clearly, there are limits within which we operate. For instance, I cannot choose the impossible. And if I decide to harm somebody then others may try to stop me. If they don’t know what I intend, or I succeed regardless, then I will face consequences. But these consequences are all based upon the assumption that I had a choice. If I genuinely had little or no choice – if I am being coerced – then this would be considered mitigating.

And exercising choice may be hard. I may decide that I want to lead a healthier life by eating better and starting to go for runs, but this is a difficult choice to go through with. To succeed, I may need the help of others such as a personal trainer or a nutritionist. Nevertheless, I have to believe in the possibility of personal change or I will not bother.

At this level, human agency seems obvious; perhaps trivial. Yet we are in a time of creeping determinism. Uber-rationalists deny the existence of free will, even if they accept that it is worth living as if it exists, while those concerned with social justice invoke a determinism based upon inequality, exposure to trauma and other environmental factors. Of course these factors play a part and can weigh heavy on us. But so can factors that prevent us getting fit or eating better. Whatever the odds, we must never forget the possibility of making a change.

This is why I see student behaviour primarily in terms of choices. Yes, circumstances may make it harder for some students to make the right choices and some students will require help – in certain cases, intensive help – in order to make better choices, but they are choices nonetheless.

No doubt some of you may quibble with the value-judgement inherent in my use of ‘right’ and ‘better’ so let me be clear about how I determine what is right and better by being clear about what is wrong. The wrong choices are those choices that would lead to punishment in wider society. This may be legal and criminal, but it may include other, more subtle, punishments such as social exclusion or career failure. To use a pejorative term common in education, humanity is rigorously ‘punitive’ at every level. It also offers rewards for certain behaviours. Because we are complex, these extrinsic motivators are sometimes contradictory, but they exist in order to reconcile two competing facets of human nature; individual agency and collective society.

I am a teacher because I am concerned about the prospects of young people. And I mean this in an expansive way. I’m not just referring to their employment prospects but to their prospects for forming rewarding relationships and living a fulfilling life full of colour and interest. And it is because I am concerned about the prospects of young people that I instinctively recoil from the idea of labelling some of them with a disorder, suggesting that this disorder determines their behaviour and then making accommodations for this behaviour by removing any negative consequences.

I am not, as some critics claim, having a go at kids who are diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and other conditions, I am questioning whether such a diagnosis is always the best way to help them. We may respond by removing consequences at school, but we cannot remove consequences from society, from the criminal law, from relationships, from career prospects. It may be the case, and I cannot know this for sure, that some students would best be helped by stronger and clearer boundaries, rewards and consequences that come into effect earlier and that are supported by intensive intervention. There may be some students for whom there is no possibility of change, but what if there are students, currently labelled as having a disorder, who are capable of transformational change that will improve their prospects? What if the label means that they and we fail to recognise this?

And I am concerned about the prospects of all students. Is it fair to be that kid who goes to the local state school, never does anything wrong, wants to be a scientist but has all her science and maths lessons ruined by disruptive peers who profess to hate these subjects? Is that OK? Are we right with that? I’m not.

So what is the solution? Societies such as Australia use rewards and punishments to regulate behaviour. If you question the value of this – the effect that the criminal justice and legal systems have on society – then it’s worth remembering what happens when the police go on strike (here and here) and it’s worth examining the climate in failed states. When the state lacks authority, someone else, a warlord or godfather, takes it, and they are usually far less benign. We see the same happen in schools, if the teachers lose control then a school doesn’t become a democratic utopia; the bullies take over.

Law and order in Australia is nowhere near perfect, there are abuses and I’m sure we could institute many positive reforms. Nevertheless, we have the rule of law, businesses can operate without constantly paying bribes, people can walk freely through the centres of our cities and organised crime is contained. All of this happens because of the consequences we have created for making the right choices and the wrong choices. If you want to run a school where you apply a different system for dealing with human behaviour then the burden of proof lies with you to show that it works.

Determinism is not our friend because it denies possibility and hope. If children are the helpless victims of inequality or trauma then who caused these things and what is their responsibility? Are these causers also hapless victims of fate? Is this just a macabre dance to the grave, long choreographed, with all that remains being the jerks and throes?

No, we should embrace our ability to create and recreate the world anew and we should embrace the hope that we can make it better. We should embrace human agency; human choice. And we should embrace the fact that choice has consequences.


7 thoughts on “The possibility of human agency

  1. A few comments:

    1. I don’t agree that we’re ‘in a time of creeping determinism’. The tension between determinism and free will has always been with us – or at least since people have been recording their ideas. Some sectors of society currently have a highly deterministic world view. Others view everything as a choice.

    2. Behaviour is not a question of either being primarily determined or primarily a matter of choice. Choice is important, but school students are in a highly constrained environment and their choices very limited in some respects. I think it’s important to teach kids how to evaluate the constraints and affordances of their environment – that would enable them to make choices that were both realistic and effective.

    3. I think you’ve made an important point about ‘disorders’. All behavioural disorders began life as labels for sets of behavioural characteristics. They can only be labels until we know what’s causing the behaviours. The labels have reified into ‘disorders’ because in some cases, there’s pretty obviously a biological factor involved, hence the ‘diagnosis’ – but it’s not a diagnosis in the sense of identifying a medical condition that’s causing the symptoms. I’ve worked through this conundrum step-by-step in my old autism blog starting here

    4. I completely agree with you Greg, about clear boundaries and awareness of consequences, but that’s where the primarily-determined and primarily-choice world views collide. Society does indeed operate by the use of rewards and punishments, and kids need to be aware of them, but the rewards and punishments aren’t always fair, and are often determined (ironically) by the choices of people with the power, not those without it. Students need to know how to critique the status quo, how to identify its flaws and how to identify workable alternatives. Challenging if you’re a teenager, but important to know how to go about the task.

    1. Today’s school students are among the least constrained individuals ever to walk the face of the earth, and I seriously doubt that it’s possible to teach them “how to evaluate the constraints and affordances of their environment” effectively. The best we can do is provide them with an orderly environment conducive to the development of the attributes we value. In terms of behaviour and values, we learn far more from example than precept. This is why it all breaks down in schools where teachers are uncomfortable with the concept of authority. As Greg states, the bullies take over.

      Simon Marcus, an ex-boxer who founded the London Boxing Academy, recognises that excluded pupils simply aren’t mature enough to make sensible choices: “We know what works. Kids need discipline, they need boundaries, they need love, they need stability. They don’t need a bunch of crazy liberal experiments where they are told, ‘Do what you want, make your own decisions; male role models aren’t that important; there is no such thing as right and wrong; it’s everybody else’s fault.’ . . .You are dealing with people – the equality brigade – for whom politics has become a religion.”

      1. I don’t know what evidence you’re using for your claim about school students being least restrained, Tom.

        I wouldn’t knock teaching kids how to evaluate constraints and affordances until you’ve tried it. It doesn’t mean abandoning the concept of authority.

        And I have no idea why someone running a Boxing Academy would be an authority on excluded pupils. Does he work with a PRU? Or meet excluded pupils who don’t want to box?

  2. I offer again this book for parents and teachers. The subtitle should highlight the relevant idea: How to parent in the age of entitlement. The key point is children are not mini-adults and that there are good strategies to help them be the children they are and develop into the adults they can be. (And no surprise it takes about 20 years but towards the end we want it to be nearly done.)

  3. Is there a distinction to be made between primary and secondary schools here? Like your analogy with law we do have mitigation for minors. I’m of the view that minors don’t have a mature enough of a mind to say they have what we call free will.

    Also we don’t know how many people with an actual undiagnosed illness/disorder are getting worked up at themselves as they don’t know why they’re not keeping up with their peers.

    Not that either of these cases give reasons not to have clear boundaries.

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