People Are Pretty Decent

As Merlin Mann likes to say, Tuesday is the optimistic day. So here’s a dose of optimism for Tuesday 12th May, 2020.

The latest episode of Reasons to be Cheerful features an interview with historian Rutger Bregman about his upcoming book: Humankind.

In the clip below, Bregman argues that our default view of humanity is a pessimistic one. A view that he believes has been cultivated over the centuries to benefit those in power. He goes on to say that making more positive assumptions about humanity can therefore be considered both revolutionary and dangerous.

This is a thought provoking perspective that is definitely worth consideration. Our democracy is founded on deeply entrenched structures that have allowed the rich and powerful to maintain social inequality. Religious institutions, the monarchy, and the government have and do rely on our need to be governed. No revolution has ever resulted in the people choosing to go without some form of rule. One form of governance is simply replaced by another.

What if we tore up the rule book and decided to structure society in a completely different way? We don’t have to overthrow the government to do it. At least, not straight away! 😉

Since the onset of the global pandemic, we have witnessed the human capacity to do good in multitudes. In the UK, for example, private companies have used their capital, expertise and resources to help in the fight against Covid-19 by building ventilators. Schools and other business have donated personal protective equipment to help protect nurses and doctors working on the frontline. Local communities have come together in earnest to support each other, delivering food and medicines to those who are most vulnerable.

With the ‘milk of human kindness’ so readily on display, surely we can create a kinder, more humane society? A society that is less “chartered”. A society that is equitable and open, where the rules to which we adhere are based on the needs of the many not just the few.

Idealistic? Maybe. But Bregman’s views about humankind are not unfounded. To explore them further, begin with this adapted excerpt from his book about a real life Lord of the Flies. Spoiler Alert: The boys do not turn savage and murderous. Instead, their tale is one of “friendship and loyalty”. You can follow that with this essay on the decency of humanity, published in The Correspondent. We’re hardwired to help each other.

And, remember:

Purpos/ed Redux

It is make or break time for humanity and we have a responsibility to draw a line in the sand, admit our mistakes and create a system of education that can begin to undo the harm that we have done to the world. For all the talk over the last twenty years of the ‘global village’, it has not stopped us continuing to destroy our planet, to wage wars and to continue to ignore the inequalities in society. What is the purpose of education? Surely, it is to create unity by helping future generation to recognise the values that humanity share.

That was me in March 2011. Weirdly apposite right!?

Doug Belshaw included the quote[1] in a post about ‘education for a post-pandemic future‘ with a number of others that featured in an online campaign to capture ideas about the ‘purpose of education‘. A book was even published collecting all of the 500 word contributions. My copy is sitting in my office at work. 😋

Re-reading the varying ideas collected in Doug’s post, not least my own words from nine years ago, gave me chills. They also left me feeling deeply sad. I don’t believe that we have moved forward in that time. Inequality in society, and in education, has only widened. Will it be better post-pandemic? I want to believe that things will change. I want to believe that after the lockdown is lifted, and life returns to normal, people will reevaluate the contribution schools make, not only in providing education, but also as an important component of their local communities.

Education is both a gift and a right. It can be the silver bullet; a cornerstone on which an open-minded egalitarian society can be built. Schools should be utopian spaces where ideas can be explored and debated; where creativity is encouraged; where our similarities and differences are celebrated. But society has to change first. We have to throw off the “mind-forged manacles” of capitalism; eschew entrenched divisions; and agree that we are all better off when we work to support each other.

If that can happen then education can serve its great purpose: Helping future generations to develop the thinking and skills that will allow them to contribute to, and shape the world around them.


  1. You can read my full 500 word contribution to the Purpos/ed campaign here: Busting a hole in the wall (the purpose of education).  ↩