When ruling classes lose the confidence in their own legitimacy, they start to believe in signs and wonders. Confronted with the collapse of their 500-year order of tsardom, the Romanovs put their trust in Rasputin, the first mad Monk. When the Iran-Contra scandal broke the Reagan presidency in 1986, Ronnie and Nancy became devoted to their astrologer to tell them how to deal with Gorbachev.

So in an era when the financial pillars of the Western world have been shaken, when the East is rising, when success and fame can be gained as much through putting the entire St Kilda football team through the plot of Moll Flanders, it is perhaps inevitable that class confidence would falter.

And no surprise then to read that the country’s principal elite breeding ground — Geelong Grammar — had become the first school in Australia, and one of the first in the world, to adopt “positive education” — a process whereby a whole series of psychological techniques are taught to students as a method by which they can optimise their own positivity, and resilience.

Geelong Grammar being a school that charges the price of a good car for a year’s tuition doesn’t do things by half-measures. It hired the renowned psychologist Martin Seligman to help them develop a program. He came up with a series of proposals that were incorporated into the senior school curriculum, Seligman himself — famous for developing the concept of depression as “learnt helplessness” — running several of the school’s teachers through an intensive training course.

The results have been particularly applied at “Timbertop”, the year 9 boarding school located in the bush. Last night Compass featured a documentary on the results of this conjunction, and it was a minor masterpiece.

Even though the doco — Accentuating The Positive — appeared, at times, to verge on being a free ad for Geelong Grammar, it was effectively a snapshot of the changing ideologies and assumptions about how one creates a ruling elite — from the original idea of a place such as Timbertop, that extreme experience would shape character, to the current idea that people must be trained to work on themselves in the abstract.

Thus we saw the year 9 students, male and female, in a bush setting doing the things for which Timbertop has been famous — students having to maintain a degree of self-sufficiency, chopping their own firewood, etc, etc, camping expeditions without teachers, undertaking a two-thirds marathon and the like.

But we also see them setting tests to determine their five “character strengths”, sitting through a long address by the head of school in which adolescence is portrayed as some sort of Passchaendale-style mission from which few return, working on their “resilience”, etc.

The experience is quite quite bizarre, though nothing suggests anyone in the school or the production finds it so. Essentially, “positive education” makes the student their own subject — but not by setting the challenges of adolescence in a context drawn from philosophy, history, literature.

Instead the student is handed a set of abstracted psychological techniques, with an unquestioned series of ends — “happiness”, “resilience” defined in reasonably specific ways — and then encouraged to treat themselves as a psychological process, to monitor, tinker, and reshape themselves in order to better adapt to a fixed and unquestioned social and cultural world.

Thus, having taken a test, the students are presented with their “five major character strengths” and told that they should apply these during the year. Surrounded by the natural world, and deprived of TV, the internet, etc, etc, they are encouraged to work over every experience in terms of its positivity, negativity, as a teacher — whose surname, funnily enough is Monk — writes it all down on a whiteboard.

The self-parodic piles up: a teacher saying “there’s a lot of negativity there” when confronted with a child loathing the whole experience, the announcement that “Parker has decided to use some of his character strengths to tackle bullying”, and the speech before the marathon in which students are told “they will need to draw on all the resilience they’ve learnt …” to complete the task. Had you switched it on at any of half a dozen points in the hour, you would have assumed that it was another Chris Lilley extravaganza.

Whether or not this stuff goes very deep with the students is a moot point — most of them looked like the prep-school boys in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, subject to a real-life s-x-ed class, bored beyond description. Much of it appears to be arbitrary junk, such as the idea that a multiple-choice test can tell you someone’s “character strengths”, still less that these are fixed and essential qualities at the age of 14, for god’s sake.

But what makes it objectionable is the thin and one-dimensional idea of human being it advances — that the true path for the one unique life you will live is defined not by vocation, duty, spontaneity, incommensurable experience, fidelity to desire, righteous anger or a dozen other things, but by continuous adjustment to one mode of life — happiness, conceived of as ongoing psychological contentment — and a crucial emphasis on changing yourself to fit the world, rather than vice versa.

So how is it that a school set up to impart notions of authority and confidence through connection to historical tradition came up with a curriculum with positive education at its core — where fragility, negativity and crisis is emphasised as the background against which an education is constructed? Here’s the school’s statement from the documentary’s website:

“Geelong Grammar is committed to equipping it’s students with the tools to withstand the current crisis facing young people in affluent countries. With an epidemic of depression and anxiety, hospitalisation for anorexia and self-harm, and the consequences of too much junk food, TV, computer games, drugs and alcohol, the School’s Staff and Board believe that Seligman’s philosophy offers future generations the chance to grow up to become happier, more resilient and compassionate human beings.” [I have no idea whether the elementary it’s/its error is the school’s or the documentary makers].

It should be obvious that when an education is designed with this apocalyptic view of the world and adolescence in mind, then it is no longer education at all — it has become therapy by other means. Timbertop, instead of being the “Athenian” setting its originators intended, has become Goethe’s “one huge hospital”. What would be the response from “positive education” if a student were to say that they didn’t particularly want to examine themselves in these terms, or in that way — that they merely wanted to live, to have experiences, to read, to think? To decline a test to check for character strengths? To quite clearly it would be a problem. The techniques of “positive education” are those applied when something is going wrong. Putting it at the centre of education elevates the exception, not the rule and makes the normal inherently pathological.

Such an approach is usually blamed on the Left, part of the dumbing down of education, postmodernism, etc, etc. Here it is coming from the heart of the establishment. Why would this be? The short answer is that talk by the Right of defending Western culture has always been little more than lip service, at a time when the market has been celebrated, and the core of Western culture — the university humanities — have been relentlessly attacked.

It’s been a while since the elite private schools took seriously the notion that they were part of the Christian civilisation they were drawing from. But that aspect has long since become a part of a service that they provide to parents eager to launch their children on professional careers — religion as a sort of character-building technology, shorn of any ethical or moral demands, or reflection. “Positive education” is the next stage of that, a more precise mode of managing oneself to conform to an unquestioned social reality.

Interestingly, Accentuating The Positive allowed us an insight into that, by following the only Aboriginal student to attend the program, a scholarship student from the remote north, who was miserable throughout, though whether merely because of homesickness, or active and passive racism we never found out. Leaving halfway through the year, she was asked, on her final morning, to sit in a circle with other girls in her dorm, “try and look at them if you can”, and try to “explain to the girls why you’re heading off”. She remained silent, though the doco may have cut out early from the scene.

What was remarkable was not that the encounter was harsh or punitive, but the absence of such — the teacher’s slightly sing-song demeanour and the whole set-up had the feeling of a dippy cult, unconnected to anything except its own wacky process. Cathy-Anne, the girl leaving, later gave one of the few real remarks about the incident: “I’m Aboriginal, they’re white, we have nothing in common.” Had they heard it, the positivity police would doubtless have descended in zero time flat.

Why does what happens in one year in one school matters? Partly because it’s a measure of how utterly a put-upon West has become caught up in the therapeutic. After all, the Timbertop idea has its virtues, ones that you’d want to extend to every school, private and state — that kids should do more stuff than sit in a classroom, should build things, be self-sufficient, etc, etc. But this idea, when pioneered, was based on the idea that the experience itself was meaningful, an extension of human possibility.

The “positive education” approach neatly and exactly undermines that, turning the process into a field exercise for psychological working up. Rather than emphasising the wider world, it draws the focus back on the narcissistic self, which is at the root of the wildly exaggerated list of problems that the school summons up in its unrelievedly negative view of adolescence.

More importantly, the school obviously has political and social power, both through sheer profile and by schooling the next generation of corporate managers — who will no doubt be imposing Mr G-style exercises on their hapless employees in a decade’s time.

Thus it was New Labour in the UK that pioneered “happiness classes”, the therapeutisation of education, and, via Blair, the rendering of everything in terms of the personal, and the “journey”. The Cameron government, promising a bold move away from this approach, instead pinned its hopes on “nudge” theory, in which small environmental moves shift people’s behaviour. In Australia, the champion of such an approach was Lindsay Tanner, and the government’s highly dubious plain packaging cigarette campaign is an expression of that.

Thus both Left and Right dissolve their political will into a common project: post-political, post-social, obsessively re-engineering subjects to fit an objective reality whose assumptions can no longer be questioned. Still, at least it softens up the moneyed elite. “Whatever happens,” the leader of the project said at the end of the doco, “it can’t do any harm.” Well, maybe. Or maybe they are raising a generation trained for relentless self-monitoring before there is anything to monitor, life as rehearsal and training exercise, original Californication, signs and wonders, and salvation in the stars.

Peter Fray

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