The Hidden Curriculum of the Big Society

January 5, 2012 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

I wish I had a trumpet. We just released a report Beyond the Big Society: Psychological Foundations of Active CitizenshipAllegra Stratton covered it in the Guardian, it was discussed on the Today programme, and hopefully there is plenty more coverage to come.

Like everybody else, we are not too sure where the inner circle of Downing Street stands on the Big Society. My impression is that David Cameron believes in the idea deeply and genuinely, but has been advised, rightly, that the term has become somewhat toxic, and they are regrouping to find a way to bring the idea back to life.

I have already used a Lord of the Rings reference on the Big Society, describing the emphasis on community at a time of austerity as an attempt to build the Shire in Mordor. At the moment it feels more like Downing Street are carefully planning a resurrection that has to be the same thing, but different. In this case the next iteration of the Big Society looks more like Gandalf the Grey reeling from his battle with the Balorog of Morgoth, when he “strayed out of thought and time”, “but it was not the end…” and Gandalf the White was “sent back, until my task is done”.

My impression is that David Cameron believes in the idea deeply and genuinely, but has been advised, rightly, that the term has become somewhat toxic, and they are regrouping to find a way to bring the idea back to life.

The uncertainty over the status of the Big Society is reflected in the title of the report. Throughout several months of drafting, it was called ‘The Hidden Curriculum of the Big Society’ but at the last minute we feared this may sound out-dated, and given the content of the report applies to participation more broadly, and ‘curriculum’ tends to activate conventional educational frames, we decided to hedge our bets, in case the Big Society really has died as a political idea.

Nonetheless, the report is about the Hidden Curriculum of the Big Society in the following sense(from the report):

Curriculum literally means to ‘run the course’, as in curriculum vitae, the course of my life. The ‘curriculum’ of the Big Society is viewed here as a long term process of cultural change, consisting of the myriad activities and behaviours that people are explicitly being asked to participate in and subscribe to. The hidden curriculum of this process of cultural change comprises the attitudes, values and competencies that are required for this process. The main purpose of this report is to highlight the nature of this hidden curriculum, and indicate how it might inform policy and practice, particularly in relation to releasing hidden social wealth and increasing social productivity.

The ‘curriculum’ of the Big Society is viewed here as a long term process of cultural change, consisting of the myriad activities and behaviours that people are explicitly being asked to participate in and subscribe to. The hidden curriculum of this process of cultural change comprises the attitudes, values and competencies that are required for this process.

As indicated in our web blurb, we believe the idea of the Big Society is at its weakest when it is presented as a partisan technical solution to acute socio-economic problems, and at its strongest when viewed as a non-partisan long term challenge to enrich our social and human capital. At the core of this challenge are the demands we place on people when we ask them to be, for instance, responsible, autonomous, or to show greater solidarity with their fellow citizens. Such demands are grounded in implicit assumptions about human nature and adult competencies that need to be made more explicit if the Big Society is going to survive as a viable idea.

We introduce a perspective on public participation that is rarely considered by policymakers, namely mental complexity in the adult population – our varied capacity to understand competing motivations and values in ourselves and others, to ‘get things in perspective’, and to act appropriately in uncertain or ambiguous situations. Rather than theories of ‘personality’ and ‘interpersonal skills’ that only pay lip service to the complexity of human capital, we believe this perspective helps us to deepen the discussion on public participation, with greater explanatory power and clearer practical implications.

This argument is informed by the work of Harvard Theoretical Psychologist and Educator Robert Kegan, whom I was lucky enough to be taught by a decade ago. I also make use of his ideas in our Transforming Behaviour Change report but in the more recent work I try to show the central relevance of his work to one of the biggest policy issues of our time.

The core argument is that what makes society ‘big’ in the sense of significant are big citizens, and what makes a citizen ‘big’ are their competencies. When you look closely at the things people are asked to do and master (participate, volunteer, take responsibility, cooperate etc) in the name of the Big Society, these tasks clearly entail certain competencies.

Why I think our report has value is that we look at these competencies in detail, and find, inspired by Kegan, that they implicitly ask for a certain level of mental complexity in the adult population. That is fine, good even. Our argument is that if the Big Society is ever going to be taken seriously this implicit challenge has to be recognised, and we need to be more explicit about what this means in terms of designing policies and practices that support people in meeting that challenge.

Confused but intrigued? Read the report.

I wrestled with the document for months, as Gandalf wrestled with the Balrog, so I am glad it is out, and want to thank those who helped, especially the background research and contributions of co-authors Matthew Mezey Kalman and Benedict Dellot.

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