Why don’t we value initiative?

Society is full of reminders that we don’t value the precious attribute of initiative. My theory is that this is because we are too willing to use easy explanations for complex realities.

Schools and initiative

I’ve seen it in particular as a teacher, and I wrote about the impact our exam results culture has on it (all links open in new window). Treating kids in schools like customers in shops sends them the message that someone will always be there to bail them out, when they need to realise the value of taking responsibility for themselves.

Initiative in wider society

We have a problem with initiative more widely. Some examples are merely irritating. Get on the tube in London and you will be bombarded with announcements telling you exactly how to behave. Pick up a cup of coffee and you will be told “CAUTION: CONTENTS MAY BE HOT”. But elsewhere this matters a lot more – for example, instead of looking after our health (look at our rates of obesity), we sue doctors who are just trying their best.


We don’t value initiative because we’re far too willing to accept easy answers to questions.

In school, I always felt that the failings of wider society were blamed on teachers. If a kid was struggling to get a good grade, you were made to feel that it must be something that the teacher was doing wrong – as if the grade were somehow a product, being made in a factory, rather than a reflection of a complex interaction between that child’s natural cognitive abilities, their upbringing, their social climate, their effort levels, their enthusiasm for that subject and the teaching that they were given. We should be trying to change wider social factors and finding ways of allowing children to succeed in their own way; instead we undergo a pitiful charade of recycled short-term measures designed to make test outcomes go up by a small amount each year.

Beyond school, we’re so short-termist in our outlook that we can’t see past the ends of our noses. Better, we think, to make yet another announcement on the tube, or to make clear that the cup of coffee might be hot, than risk being blamed for something. In its individual context, that may be the case; but the damage that such an attitude does to our society is more important when taken as a whole.

And everything is someone else’s fault. The kid who is not getting the grade they want must be being taught badly (and we give them this message, which is so damaging). The person who hurts themselves doing something stupid can’t possibly need to take a look at themselves.

We want to be able to blame someone else, but it’s not always good for us. And unfortunately, in our marketised society, we only give people what they want, and too often forget what they need.

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