When your professional life takes as its raw material human beings themselves, it is difficult not to become curious about what makes them tick: why some people take one course while others take a different one, why some people respond well to a particular stimulus while others do the opposite. Then there is the whole issue of what constitutes ‘success’ in life – something the education world is almost obsessed with.
I don’t intend to delve into nature versus nurture here, but the choices individuals make do seem to be governed in part by the prevalent cultures within which they live. When I ran a partnership with a school in Switzerland, the differences were pronounced: before pairing students up, I used to ask for a written self-portrait from each participant. Year upon year, it was remarkable how the Swiss came back with long lists of favourite authors, musical instruments played, sports and hobbies pursued, languages spoken and more – while many of my own British students struggled to write much at all, even when prompted. Shopping and ‘socialising’ were the main two; there were exceptions on both sides, of course – but the pattern was too marked over too many years to be mere chance.
Long acquaintance with both countries does suggest that this reflects a wider pattern: it’s hard to substantiate such things, but my lasting impression is that the Swiss lead active lives, wherein they themselves are the main instigator of their chosen path, whereas the typical Briton is more passive and herd-like, perhaps feeling less able to assert their own direction and individuality, and more content for (and dependent on) third parties to provide the stuff of life.
The reasons for this are too complex to explore in depth here, but I suspect that they go well beyond the respective wealth (and therefore means) of the countries concerned; perhaps British passivity is rooted in history, in a strongly hierarchical society where people knew their often-suppressed place, and have never really shaken it off. The Swiss, by contrast, have a strongly egalitarian streak, and despite the immense wealth of some people in that country, it rarely seems to express itself in the kind of (anti)social snobberies that are rife in Britain.
This concerns me especially at the moment, given the current flux in relations between Britain and the continent. My own hopes of European union were always primarily cultural – but it seems that, as a nation, we really haven’t learned very much from our close relations with our neighbours – and now it appears we are about to pull up the drawbridge again.
What has always inspired me most about the continent might be summed up in its relative resistance to the ultra-liberalism of the Anglo-Saxon economic model, where just about everything in life is becomes a commercial opportunity to be exploited – and much thereby loses its authenticity. Ironically, this comes out strongly in the respective ways of life: unlike the British, there does not seem to be the same chasing of material status Switzerland, though that is absolutely not to suggest they don’t appreciate substance; things are appreciated for their quality and style, not their trendiness, branding or opportunity to flash ostentatious wealth. People seem to be less taken in by commercial manipulation, in the way one sees plenty of people in the U.K. spending their cash on armfuls of ephemeral trendiness irrespective of the fact that the quality may be poor.
It seems to me that in their rush to prove (mostly to themselves) that they are not the poor relations, many Britons fail to appreciate the things – material and otherwise – that really add up to a good life. I will develop this idea in another post in due course – but as a culture we often scoff at the things that really can improve one’s quality of life while expending huge effort on doomed attempts to be cool or trendy. The main reason is this: we don’t seem to realise that a well-lived life comes from self-respect and self-knowledge, not from the contents of your shopping bags.