12 rules for schools: Rule 6 Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world

This is the sixth installment in a series of posts adapting Jordan Peterson’s book, 12 Rules of Life to the context of eduction. You can read the rest of posts in this series here

Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

Matthew 7:1-5 KJV

Peterson is of the opinion that nihilism is a short cut to evil. He’s also convinced that the normal condition of life is to suffer. These views may, on the face of it, appear incompatible: surely, if to live is to suffer then it’s entirely reasonably to conclude that life has no meaning? And from there, it’s but a hop, skip and jump to reason that if life is meaningless it’s not worth living. This may well be reasonable, but it’s deeply cynical.

I’ve long been a fan of John Fowles, and The Magus is, perhaps, my favourite of his novels. I first read it as a teenager and this line has always stuck with me:

All cynicism masks a failure to cope – an impotence, in short, and that to despise effort is the greatest effort of all.

Nihilism is just an extreme form of cynicism. When all our efforts at trying to wrestle the world into the shape we would wish it to be are exhausted, when our absolute inability to control anything outside ourselves is finally revealed, then sometimes our failure manifests as wanting to kill the world. Taken at its most literal, this results in the Columbine killers. At a lesser extreme, it results in criticising, complaining, whining, wails of injustice and the swivel-eyed belief that the world should just jolly well be as you want it to be.

It’s become common currency to claim that those who have experienced injustice and suffering are owed something by the rest of us, but, everyone has experienced injustice and suffering. So who is it that owes us? Of course, some people have experienced more injustice and suffering than others, so should we make it a competition? A scales to balance? Should those who been luckiest pay for their good fortune by making amends to the least fortunate? Is life such a zero-sum game that all suffering and all good fortune must be weighed, accounted for, and a debt tallied for someone somewhere to pay?

This might sound tempting. Maybe you do believe someone owes you for all the horrors that you’ve suffered through. After all, justice should be served. Peterson acknowledges this point:

Truly terrible things happen to people. It’s no wonder they’re out for revenge. Under such conditions, vengeance seems a moral necessity. How can it be distinguished from the demand for justice? After the experience of terrible atrocity, isn’t forgiveness just cowardice, or lack of willpower? (p. 152)

Is forgiveness cowardice? Jesus – he who is supposed to have suffered the most – thought not, and advised his followers to ‘turn the other cheek.’ But what does this really mean? Surely it has to be more than just sucking up all you’ve suffered and holding out your hands for more?

Peterson’s interpretation is that we should refuse to criticise reality. Life is what it is, and will not change however hard we wish. There will always be suffering. This does not mean that we should shrug our shoulders at all the injustices around us. It doesn’t mean we should accept be treated badly as our lot. It means that we should act on ourselves, to demonstrate to those around us how much better things might be. In the words of Gandhi, be the change you want to see in the world. Judging others is easy but empty, Building structures that make life a little bit fairer, and a little bit more bearable for everyone is hard, but eminently more desirable. Building rather than judging might feel too ambitious, so we should start small.

This takes us back to Rule 4: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today, and the advice that we should ask ourselves, “What could I do, that I would do, that would make my life a tiny bit better?” And if you can’t think where else to start, begin by stopping doing those things you know to be wrong. Don’t worry about how you know, or whether there’s a better place to start; that’s just procrastination. Start setting your house in order. And because that order will never be perfect, resist the temptation to find someone to blame:

Don’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your enemies. Don’t reorganise the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your own household, how dare you try to rule a city? (p.158)

Next time you’re tempted to take part in the social media shaming of some individual who’s fallen from the path of righteousness, take a moment to remember a few of your indiscretions and misdemeanours. They are legion. It’s a matter of grace that it’s not you being pilloried and mortified. Maybe next time it will be you, what then? Set your house in order, lest ye be judged.

All this goes double for those of us who’ve decided to accept the responsibility of educating the next generation. We dare to decide how best our students should act in the world even though our own lives may sometimes be in ruins. We dare because someone must, not because we are perfect. If students have to wait for perfect teachers they’ll die in ignorance. And so we must be more humble than most.

We must strive to acknowledge our own weaknesses and admit our mistakes. We will often be tired and hungry, frustrated and insecure, and still we must avoid modelling the all too human need to find someone to blame. Maybe the policies of government are ruinous, maybe the actions of your school’s leadership are ignorant or unethical. Maybe the children you teach are rude and ungrateful. Tough. This is the human condition. Complaining will only make you more bitter. It’s not reasonable to ask others to change if you’re not prepared to take audit and correct your own behaviour.

Try to make every interaction with the children you teach one they will perceive as fair and just, if not loving and kind. Know that you will get it wrong, make mistakes and feel like despairing and still get up and go in, even on the coldest and darkest of January mornings. Be the teacher you wished you had had. Be the teacher your younger self deserved. And teach all this to your students.

Show them why making excuses makes things worse, why avoiding responsibility means avoiding growth. Tell them to face up to their misdemeanours, and show them that courage and hard work can be the most satisfying of rewards. Teach them that you can only ever change yourself, but in changing yourself you can change everything. And, to do all of this while standing up straight with their shoulders back.

10 Responses to 12 rules for schools: Rule 6 Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world

  1. Stan says:

    Needs a quick edit in places – “it’s entirely reasonably to” there are a few like that.

  2. AB Kay says:

    I agree with the basic thrust of what you are saying, but where does activism to change things feature if we cannot at first criticise ‘what is’? I actually doubt you are suggesting things outside ourself can’t be changed, but rather the change starts with the individual. But at some point, we have to vocalise our discontent or we cannot gather others to our cause, no?

    • David Didau says:

      I take you back to this point: “Don’t reorganise the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your own household, how dare you try to rule a city?”

      Activism based on how others should change, is blinkered, vindictive and prone to hypocrisy. We can all find something to complain about, but so what? Do we agree with what changes should be enacted? Maybe what you want is in conflict with what I want? Activism based on “being the change you want to see in the world” is both more likely to result in change and more likely to do so compassionately. Activism worthy of the name should be rooted in ““What could I do, that I would do, that would make my life a tiny bit better?”

      • AB Kay says:

        What would have happened in Mandela had waited until his experience was ‘ordered’? He couldn’t afford to take ‘tiny’ steps.
        Of course there are times when other should change – some things are plain wrong and need to be spoken against.
        When you speak out against ineffective methods in schools, you are calling for reflection (and hopefully change) on a larger scale and that is valid regardless of what your particular school (or ‘house’) is doing.
        At Michaela school, they have indeed put their house in order before letting others know what should be done, so perhaps this is the kind of example you refer to? But does that mean that the rest of us stuck in schools with ineffective methods should keep quiet?
        “It’s not reasonable to ask others to change if you’re not prepared to take audit and correct your own behaviour.”
        What if we ARE willing but are shackled by the institutions around us?
        I’m genuinely just trying to work out what the instruction is here – no intention of antagonism. Your final two paragraphs I agree with wholeheartedly; I’m just trying to work out how the rest fits.

        • David Didau says:

          Mandela’s a great example. He didn’t wait and was then forced to spend a long time in prison thinking about his actions and their consequences. He put his house in order and became the figurehead and guiding inspiration for an international campaign for peaceful regime change in South Africa. He became someone who started to build a solution instead of merely criticising the injustices he saw around him. And he worked tirelessly for forgiveness, peace and reconciliation. All political prisoners suffer injustice, very few make much difference. Mandela was a great man; there are precious few of us who would measure up to his example.

          Of course it’s true that there are times we want others to change. And maybe they should. But this is not the way the world works. Apartheid was wrong from its inception but it took over 200 years for enough people to change enough to agree. Change in the world never precedes change in people. By all means rail against injustice but unless you offer a solution that appeals to enough people no one will listen and you will become bitter. The only reason why I have had some limited success in lobbying for change is because I spend disproportionately more time solving problems than complaining about them.

          The example of Michaela is unusual. The leaders of the that school took years to get their house in order before the school opened. They took an extreme route and maybe – maybe – it will have a huge influence. Who can say? Most of us work within the system to make small improvements where we can. These small improvements matter. This is the process of putting your house in order.

          If your department is a shambles, why would SLT listen to you? If your classroom is in chaos, why would your department care what you think? If you are a mess, why would your students want to take note of your injunctions on how they should act? Start at home and start small. The crucial difference is in deciding to act and wanting others to act for you.

          We are all “shackled by the institutions around us” but some of us are also shackled by our own poor habits and bad attitudes. My advice, for what it’s worth, is that you’ll enjoy a lot more success with the former if you begin by addressing the latter.

  3. goddinho says:

    Should teacher be activists? (in class I mean)

  4. Colin says:

    Love it! Inspirational…

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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