In the book about the psychological roots of dogmatism that I am currently editing, the author brought in the concept of self-efficacy, which is described by Albert Bandura (who developed the concept) as “people’s beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events that affect their lives.”
I recall learning for the first time about Waldorf education, and being amazed that the children learn so many practical things–gardening and farming, knitting and sewing, woodworking, and so on. And then learning about the work of the Camphill movement, where children and adults with disabilities have dignified, productive roles in creating beautiful objects and nutritious food.
I read how Rudolf Steiner thought it was crucial for children to learn these practical skills:
It is actually the case today that most people, especially those who grow up in towns, have no idea how things, paper for instance, are made…. Think of how many people there are who drink beer and have no idea how the beer is made…. I would dearly like to have a shoemaker as a teacher in the Waldorf School, if this were possible … in order that the children might really learn to make shoes, and to know, not theoretically but through their own work, what this entails.
The Kingdom of Childhood, Lecture 7
Especially for the nine-year-old, this kind of practical work is very grounding, bringing a sense of security and personal ability. The idea is that if we have some knowledge of how to feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves, then we will feel safe and competent in the world. We will also recover a connection with the world that is partly lost when we achieve self-consciousness (both at around three years when we first say “I”, and at the nine-year change when we see that we are indeed separate, individual human beings).
I’ve often wondered about the anomie one sees in so many young people, the inability to create, to control one’s surroundings, to feel productive. How much of that comes from feeling separated from the world because of a lack of understanding of the basic materials and objects around us? I’ve experienced this myself as the mother of small children: How do you explain what email is? How a telephone works? What plastic is made of? How much of an understanding of the world around us have we surrendered?
One intriguing aspect of the book I’m editing is that there are two sides to dogmatism: those who are dogmatically aggressive toward others (the person who harangues people, the dictatorial leader, the fundamentalist) and those who submit to such aggression willingly (the cult member, the staunch party member, the meek spouse). Sometimes I feel like Western society is in the grips of a lack of will forces, a victim mentality, and the acquisition of power through violence because we don’t feel we have personal, self-sufficient power.
I think of the stereotypical media portrayal of the young, black American man: angry, cocky, seeking prestige and personal dignity through dominating others. How much of that image comes from the reality that these young men have few practical skills and therefore little sense of self-efficacy? If you don’t feel that you have much control over what happens to you (being poorly educated and economically disadvantaged), then it’s not surprising that you might turn to, at best, cultural symbols of domination, and at worst, violence.
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A wonderful example of an institution working to enhance a sense of self-efficacy in others is the Ruskin Mill Educational Trust in the UK. Young people with learning difficulties including autism spectrum and developmental delays are given practical, vocational training in arts and crafts. As the trust’s web site explains:
Many students arrive at college with low self esteem and very little expectation of leading a more fulfilling life. Students leave college with practical qualifications, a more positive self image, supported by invaluable skills for living and work. Around 30% progress to higher or continuing education and 30% find jobs or become volunteer workers immediately on leaving college. Whilst some return to their families, many are able to live independently.
Working within historically active craft centers such as the Royal Doulton glassworks in Stourbridge and the silversmithing industry in Sheffield, the trust’s three colleges give young people who would otherwise be marginalized and extremely dependent on others the ability to live independently, the skills to be creative, and the experience of personal competence that is lacking for many people today.
Periodically I check in on the RMET web site to peruse the latest Run of the Mill magazine (I can’t link directly to it, but you can Google that phrase to find it), which highlights student achievements and projects the school is working on. It’s so inspiring! There are always challenges, and some students are less successful than others. But there is also always a sense of achievement, of dignity, and of the real social benefits of this kind of initiative. What would our world look like if we all had the opportunity to learn honest, down-to-earth work?
Photos from Wikimedia Commons.