Henry-RowntreeMy great-great-great grandfather, a York Quaker called Henry Isaac Rowntree (that’s him on the left), set up Rowntree’s chocolate company in York in 1862. He was an amiable young man, ‘perhaps the only Rowntree with a sense of humour’ according to one historian. He had a parrot who liked to shout obscenities from under the table, much to the consternation of the Quaker elders when they visited. Henry loved adult education and journalism, but family members feared he knew ‘next to nothing about business’.

This led to him not being invited to be a partner at the family grocery business, so instead he bought a cocoa company in York.  A few years later, the young cocoa company was in financial difficulties. Bankruptcy was the height of shame in the Quakers – indeed, you were ejected from the church for it – so Henry’s older brother, Joseph, came to help him run it. Joseph was much more sensible and meticulous, and public demand for cocoa powder and chocolate was beginning to take off.

By the 1940s, Rowntree’s had become one of the biggest confectioners in the world, making well-known brands like Aero, Rolos, Kit-Kat, Polo, Black Magic, and Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles. Alas it was sold to Nestle in 1988, and Joseph had already given away all the money he made to his charitable trusts, so distant descendants inherited not so much as a packet of Smarties.

Peter Cheese of the CIPD talking about Rowntree's

Peter Cheese of the CIPD talking about Rowntree’s

Nonetheless, Rowntree’s are still relevant to my interests because the company was a pioneer in adult education, and well-being-at-work. In fact, when I went to a conference on well-being-at-work, organised by Robertson Cooper last year, the first speaker began his keynote with a slide of the Rowntree’s factory. So what can the example of Rowntree’s tell us about well-being-at-work?

1) Rowntree’s made worker well-being a priority 

Rowntree’s, like its Quaker rival Cadbury’s, was run in a spirit of industrial paternalism. The workers were treated not as mere cogs in a machine, but as characters to be developed (and souls to be saved). Rowntree’s was one of the first companies to have dedicated ‘welfare officers’ – what today we’d call human resources managers – whose job was to look after the well-being and moral character of the young and typically-unmarried male and female workers. There was also a medical officer, regular medical and dental examinations, and company public health campaigns against the evils of tobacco and booze.

The women's canteen at Rowntree

The women’s canteen at Rowntree

As the company grew to a staff of 4,000 or so, Joseph Rowntree was keen to make sure it was still ‘united by a common purpose’. To that end he introduced one of the first in-house company magazines, as well as group-bonding concerts, theatricals, meals together and field trips. One trip involved sending the workers on a walk across the Yorkshire dales. Unfortunately it rained, the workers repaired to a nearby pub, and after an afternoon’s intensive drinking, the police had to be called to eject them.

Historical accounts, like this history of Rowntree female employees, suggest workers enjoyed working at the firm

The Rowntree’s also supported workers’ education through libraries, discussion groups, the Yorkshire philosophical society, and through a network of adult schools. Quakers played the leading role in the establishment of adult education at the end of the 19th century – by 1900 there were 350 adult schools around the UK, with 45,000 pupils, of which two-thirds were at schools run by Quakers. Many Rowntree family members were actively involved in setting up and teaching in adult schools.

Some of the Rowntree staff lived in a ‘model village’ launched by Joseph Rowntree, called New Earswick. It was inspired by the ‘garden city’ designs of Ebenezer Howard, with worker cottages, a village green, and a veritable Quaker porridge of village committees – a library committee, a women’s guild, an orchestral society, a village council, a men’s social club, a musical society etc etc etc. It’s still going.

Historical records suggest that, to a large extent, Rowntree employees enjoyed working there, forged good relationships, and were happy – indeed, Rowntree women were famous for singing at work, as this short film from 1932 shows.

2) This sort of Quaker industrial paternalism was potentially patronising and illiberal

However, the strong emphasis on worker welfare could potentially be creepy – the company poking its nose in your inner life. Fry’s Chocolates, for example (another Quaker company), held an annual workers prayer service, which Joseph Fry said  was ‘often a means of observing their conduct and checking any tendency to impropriety’. The Rowntree’s welfare officers, known as ‘overseers’, were also sometimes resented (‘she sits up there like the Queen of Sheba’, one worker complained).

Workers might well feel that what they did in their own time was their own business, and that the imposition of Quaker ethics on them was an infringement of their own religious liberties. So what if they drank in their own time? Should that be a cause for sacking, as it was at Fry’s? When did religious non-conformism become so conformist?

The Quaker emphasis on character and do-gooding could be annoying and patronising, as one poem showed:

Take a dozen Quakers, be sure they’re sweet and pink
Add one discussion programme, to make the people think
…Garnish with compassion – just a touch will do
Serve with deep humility your philanthropic stew

A modern equivalent of Rowntree’s focus on worker-welfare might be something like the American shoe company Zappo’s, which also is something of a personality cult of its CEO, Tony Hsieh, and also has a strong emphasis on employee well-being. Reading Hsieh’s smug and self-congratulatory comic book, Delivering Happiness, makes me feel queasy – Zappo’s sounds like a bit of a happiness police state.

It’s important, then, for companies to think about how to balance a strong collective ethos with autonomy, how to create a culture that encourages people to be individuals rather than clones, how to create room for dissent and satire, and how to make sure their well-being programme doesn’t feel forced, patronising, conformist. or a form of illiberal surveillance.

Saracens rugby club is an interesting example here – its ethos was also inspired by a strong Christian emphasis on the well-being and personal development of its staff and players, but manages to find a way to promote this without being too patronising, and with room for dissent. Staff and players are co-creators of the culture, rather than merely automatons to be programmed.

3) Ethical capitalism always has its internal tensions

The Quakers helped to set up some of the best British companies – Rowntree’s, Cadbury’s, Barclays, Lloyds, Clarks, Friends Provident – most of which strived to be not just profitable but ethical. They were family-owned, meaning they could pursue their own values rather than trying to please distant shareholders. They were often run as quasi-mutuals, ‘as a kind of partnership between masters and men, uniting their labour for a common end’, as Joseph Rowntree put it.

In all of this, perhaps there are lessons for our own time, when corporations have come to be seen as psychopathic, and when Barclays and Lloyds have become by-words for dodgy dealing (indeed, Barclays’ CEO, Anthony Jenkins, recently suggested the firm needed to remember its Quaker history).

However, Quaker capitalism always had its internal contradictions and tensions.

Quakers blossomed in business partly because their religious non-conformism meant that historically they were unable to go into other careers like politics, partly because they had amazing networks of trust between themselves, and partly because their austere Puritanism made them very good at meticulous book-keeping and rational management. But, as Max Weber explored in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, there was a paradox in directing this Puritan zeal towards the accumulation of capital.

An advert for Aero’s Bubbles. Not entirely Quaker.

Quaker businessmen had a constant struggle to try and balance their service both to God and to mammon. For example, Rowntree’s initially rejected advertising as insincere and duplicitous, but quickly realised they had to embrace it to compete. Both Rowntree’s and Cadbury’s used their ethical principles as a form of advertising, which works from a marketing point of view but is not really in accord with the Gospels. They also spied on each other to try and get each other’s recipes – this was the inspiration for Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. They colluded and set prices when it suited them. Both families made their fortunes by profiting on our growing addiction to sugar – which was originally intended to wean the nation off alcohol but has become its own public health menace.

And the family-ownership model depended on having family members with the genius for business. The Rowntree heirs became increasingly interested in different things, so the company appointed its first non-Rowntree chairman in the 1930s – George Harris, my great-grandfather, who married into the family. He wasn’t a Quaker and had little time for their Puritan do-goodiness. He was more inspired by the American Forrest Mars, who once told his employees: ‘I am a religious man…I pray for Milky Way, I pray for Snickers…Profit is our sole objective.’ Harris used marketing research to launch the very un-Quaker ‘Black Magic’, advertised as a tool for seduction!

Black Magic, a tool for seduction

Black Magic, a tool for seduction

4) So what we can take from Quakernomics today? 

- Try to run companies as mutual enterprises, by facilitating discussions, suggestions and group activities with all levels of the company. Strive for fair pay for all levels of the company, and make sure your suppliers’ values are aligned with your own.

- Provide opportunities for employees to broaden their minds, like Rowntree’s adult schools, the Google Campus, or the Saracens personal development programme.

- Support employees’ well-being through online and one-to-one advice, which should be entirely confidential rather than a means to spy on staff. Connect well-being services both to broader adult education (like Google’s Search Inside Yourself course) and to wider philanthropy and CSR.

- Provide opportunities for employees to pursue philanthropic activities and to feel they are working for a company with a moral mission.

- Provide opportunities for dissent, for disagreement, for satire and internal criticism – to make sure a strong collective ethos doesn’t turn into a cult!

- Explore new models of ownership which don’t make the company a slave to short-term shareholders.

-  Combine moral mission with empirical rigour – what works, both for the company and for employee well-being? What sort of philanthropy or social reforms genuinely work, rather than simply making the giver feel good? Joseph and Seebohm Rowntree were both more than mere do-gooders. They were scientific in their do-gooding.

- Finally, a commitment to employee well-being is entirely in line with a commitment to business excellence, although companies can expect some dilemmas and tough decisions along the way. The moral mission needs to be led  by CEOs at the top, rather than Corporate Social Responsibility reps in the middle.

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783472895I went to the book-launch of a new book on well-being policy yesterday, which brought together some leading figures in this nascent movement – including David Halpern of the government’s ‘nudge unit’, Canadian economist John Helliwell, psychologist Maurren O’Hara, and Juliet Michaelson of the new economics foundation. The book – Well-being and Beyond – is edited by Michaelson and Timo Hamalainen, and has some great essays in it, including a particularly interesting one by Mihayli Csikszentmihalyi on ‘the politics of consciousness’.

With the news that the government is set to establish a What Works research centre for evidence-based well-being policy, and that David Cameron may be resuscitating his well-being agenda, it seems like a good time to take a panoramic view of the politics of well-being in the UK, some of the areas into which it’s developing, and some of the areas where more research is needed. It will obviously be a partial and incomplete view, but here goes:

Schools

The ministry of education under Michael Gove pulled back on some of New Labour’s well-being initiatives, such as Every Child Matters and the promotion of Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL). However, there seems renewed political interest in the idea of teaching character skills like resilience, with all three parties recently offering broad support for such a move. The work of James Heckman, focused on early interventions, is particularly popular with policy-makers at the moment.

The area is likely to progress through local and regional evidence-based initiatives, rather than top-down national initiatives like SEAL. Key players include the Jubilee Centre for Character and Values, Jen Lexmond’s work at Character Counts and elsewhere, James O’Shaughnessy’s Positive Education network, the Education Endowment Fund’s research, and the National Citizen Service, which apparently is building up a great evidence base for its intervention. The challenge is how to teach not just skills but also values within a pluralistic and multicultural society – more on this below.

Work

There’s growing interest in the importance of well-being at work, partly driven by the high economic cost of sick days due to stress and mental illness. Some of the more enlightened companies have bespoke well-being courses for their staff – like Google, Zappos, M&S, British Telecom or Saracens rugby club – in a manner reminiscent of 19th century Quaker companies like Rowntree’s. A key player in this area is the firm Robertson Cooper, which established the Good Day at Work network.

Nils Mordt of Saracens brushing up on some philosophy

As in schools, the new focus on work well-being ties in – or should tie in – with an ethical focus on values, character strengths and social responsibility. Saracens’ personal development course is a good example of how to teach well-being + values but in a flexible and peer-led way, compared to Zappo’s which, from the outside, seems quite inflexible and even authoritarian in its collective happiness ethos. Well-being at work ties in to another policy area, adult education (of which more below) – see, for example, Google’s emphasis on adult education for its workers, again reminiscent of Quaker companies like Rowntree’s. I also love the Escape the City network (by the by!).

Health

One of the main recommendations in Sir Gus O’Donnell’s Legatum Institute report on well-being, released last month, was that the NHS should focus more on prevention of ill-health, and also treat mental illness as equally important as physical illness.

That means greater support for the burgeoning Improving Access for Psychological Therapies programme across the UK, particularly in Wales, where there are high levels of depression and long waiting lists for talking therapy. It also means public health organizations like Public Health England taking more of a lead in promoting mental well-being. It means more support for peer-led well-being networks (one of the themes of Michaelson’s chapter in her book), which can draw inspiration from historical models like 19th century Friendly Societies. And it also means trying to work out a better way to treat psychosis, as the government is now trying to do.

Well-being health policy ties into well-being policy in other areas, particularly schools, work, and adult / online education. Empowering people to take care of their own physical and mental health means treating them as reasoning agents rather than as malfunctioning machines.

Prisons and probation services

At the book launch yesterday, John Helliwell mentioned a paper he’d written on well-being in prisons, championing the Singapore Prison Services’ reforms. Singapore pioneered a mutual model of well-being, in which staff, inmates, former inmates and the wider community worked together to help inmates flourish.

We’re a long way from that here, but there is some interest in the ‘desistance’ model of rehabilitation, whereby inmates make a reasoned choice to leave their former criminal life and to pursue a new narrative. This fits with the coherence model of well-being, in which well-being is connected to our ability to find meaning and value in ourselves and the world. Some charities and probation organizations are also looking to extend the desistance / mutuality model beyond the prison walls – I’m meeting with one such organization, Co:Here, next week.

In England, the probation system is on the verge of a massive privatization, which is likely to cause stress to the system and to the people in it. However, the chaos will also create opportunities for new and innovative approaches. I’m interested to learn more about the RSA’s research on prison learning.

The economy / housing / urban planning

The O’Donnell report suggests the best economic policies to promote well-being would be to reduce unemployment, which has a particularly negative impact on well-being. Fine – but which government says it’s in favour of high unemployment? Other well-being economists suggest there is a correlation between income equality and national happiness – but so far this has failed to lead to major tax distribution policies, and inequality continues to rise.

The UK housing bubble also continues to grow, with the average property price in London now approaching half a million pounds. This is likely to have a significant impact on people’s well-being, and their ability to feel in control of their destinies. As more and more humans live in ‘mega-cities’, will we know and trust our neighbours, will we have access to green spaces, will we have any real connection to nature?

More research needs to be done on the rise of solo living, which is particularly popular in Scandinavian countries (typically championed as happiness templates). What is the trade-off between autonomy and loneliness? Is solo living sustainable or equitable? Are new forms of conviviality emerging? The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has done good work in this area.

Adult education / online learning

So far there is little policy focus on the importance of adult education to well-being. Adult education is, in general, ‘off the radar for policy-makers’, as David Halpern put it. This makes no sense to me, considering all the research into the importance of coherence, meaning, reasoning and collective engagement to well-being – all of which points to adult education as a booster to well-being. There’s been some work showing that engaging in adult education predicts higher well-being, but that has not fed into policy discussions at all, sadly. The national budget for community education shrinks every year.

schooloflife-3However, informal learning continues to grow, with various organizations appearing dedicated to raising well-being, including Action for Happiness and the School of Life. There have also been some encouraging developments in online well-being courses. Stanford’s Greater Good centre is launching an online happiness course in September, Berkeley has also launched a Positive Psychology MOOC, Action for Happiness recently launched an online course, while TED’s Understanding Happiness course has been in the top ten of iTunesU for a few years. Online learning connects to health policy in well-being, particularly with the rise of health apps.

It’s also worth mentioning the boom in mindfulness courses – including for example the phenomenal success of the book / CD ‘Mindfulness’, by Mark Williams and Danny Penman, which has been in the top 30 of Amazon for two years. Mindfulness is a policy intervention that can be deployed in health, work, education and prisons – similar in that respect to ‘mental resilience’ interventions.

Academia

British higher education seems so beleaguered that the well-being of staff and pupils is off the official agenda for the time being. If change comes, it is likely to be driven by students and staff rather than top-down, though perhaps some enlightened VC or chancellor will take the lead (eg Floella Benjamin at Exeter!) But this is a sector which potentially could play a very important role in the development and implementation of well-being interventions.

For example, universities could – and should – offer free courses in well-being to undergraduates. Such courses should (in my opinion) teach some of the techniques of well-being, such as meditation, gratitude, self-determination, resilience, while also providing a space for philosophical discussions about what it means to flourish. If done pluralistically, such courses would be an important space for inter-faith discussions, preventing campuses from becoming divided on religious lines.

I also think universities should do more to support the well-being of their staff, particularly PhDs, where burn-out and drop-out rates are high. Some PhDs, such as the LSE’s Inez von Weitershausen, are beginning to work on this, and I think funders like Wellcome are keen to support more work in this area.

Academia could also play an important role in promoting adult education, as it used to do in the university extension movement. Unfortunately, humanities academics seem to have little time for adult education work and little faith in well-being politics – which is typically dismissed as ‘neoliberal’. A few humanities academics, however, understand that well-being policy is an important way to champion the impact of the arts and humanities in national policy. The work of the Reader Organisation, based at Liverpool Uni, is a good example of this more enlightened and engaged approach (they have their national conference in London next month, by the by).

Sports / arts / the festive

Burning Man festival

Well-being research tells us how important sport and exercise is to our well-being. It’s also beginning to tell us about the importance of the arts to our flourishing, particularly arts that engage us collectively, such as singing in a choir or reading in a book club.

I’d like to see more research on the importance of ‘the festive’ to well-being – think of the work of Durkheim, Barbara Ehrenreich, Jonathan Haidt, Martha Nussbaum and Charles Taylor in this area – or Dan Ariely’s writing on Burning Man festival.

Why do the residents of the Orkneys have such high well-being? Ian Ritchie, former co-director of the St Magnus festival there, tells me that that one reason is the islands are so rich in festivals – a folk festival, a blues festival, a well-being festival. Parties, clearly, are good for us, particularly when we help to organize them. It would be good to study the well-being impact of starting a festival in a town. For example, Wigmore, a small town in Scotland with high unemployment, launched its own book festival two years ago and it seems to have revitalized that community.

More generally, well-being economists and psychologists need to connect with arts and humanities practitioners to explore the role of beauty, awe and wonder in well-being, and the higher states of consciousness which arts and ‘the festive’ can create. That means going beyond a aridly Benthamite notion of happiness towards a more Millsian appreciation of the transformative power of the arts.

The media

Alain de Botton has been generally mocked by humanities academics for his latest book, The News, but as is often the case there is wisdom beneath his gimmickry. Our well-being is deeply connected to our culture, and therefore to the media – in the broadest sense of TV, online media and advertizing. How, in a free market economy, can we try and make sure the messages we soak in are not entirely shallow?

This morning, it was announced that Richard Hoggart, the great public intellectual and critic of commercial television, has died. He thought commercial TV pushed viewers towards a way of life ‘whose texture is as little that of the good life as processed bread is like home-baked bread’. His involvement in the Pilkington Report led to the establishment of BBC 2. But the vision of Hoggart, Reith and others – that broadcasting could be a force for the raising of public consciousness – seems to be in abeyance.

Perhaps this area of policy links up with health and adult education – the BBC is looking to launch MOOCs on FutureLearn, and to develop its online learning platforms. I know people in BBC Arts have been interested in promoting things like meditation or ancient philosophy, but it hasn’t happened yet. Indeed, there is a weird absence of ethical / spiritual discussion on TV. Radio 2’s Sunday morning show, once a province of spiritual discussion, is now presented by a sports presenter, which sums up the BBC’s (understandable) unease with promoting any particular ethics in a multicultural society.

The environment

Clearly the big question for well-being policy is: is it at odds with the coming environmental catastrophe? Are we meditating while Rome burns?

In Well-Being and Beyond, Csikszentmihayli outlines three constituents needed for consciousness to flourish: first, the freedom to think what you want and decide what is true (rather than being coerced and lied to by our government); second, to find flow in meaningful and purposeful activity (he understands the importance of higher or altered states of consciousness like awe, wonder, transcendence and ecstasy). And finally, we need hope.

We need the hope, or faith, that tomorrow will be as good as if not better than today. That drives all of our activity, all our plans, our investment in our work and family. Without that, ‘consciousness becomes idle and atrophied’, or it shrivels up in despair or short-term hedonism.

What is weird and unnerving about this historical moment is the loss of hope. Living standards are declining, the young are poorer than the old, but above all, there is a collective sense that the future will be worse – perhaps much worse – than the present, that nature will be severely depleted, the world will be more crowded, politics will be more unstable, the weather will be more violent, and we may see mass migrations and perhaps mass extinctions of animals and humans. Indeed, the animal mass extinction has already begun.

Religion and Wisdom

This brings me to my final point, the final area of research which I think would be fruitful. I don’t think secular humanism is going to be sufficient to sustain us through the coming crisis, because its hope in progress and a better tomorrow will not last in the face of mass extinctions. You need something more transcendent to believe in and give you the strength to do the right thing and to take care of the weak, even in the face of mass extinction and social collapse. Techno-humanism – in which the rich get to detach or upgrade from the rest of humanity – seems to me a much, much worse option than a return to the wisdom of older religious traditions.

Religion seems to me the massive elephant in the room of well-being policy. Well-being policy practitioners sometimes seem to me like people who have had their cultural memories wiped, so that they need to re-discover the basics of human flourishing from scratch. ‘We’ve discovered volunteering is good for well-being! So is collective singing. So is a sense of meaning and purpose. So is gratitude. So are higher states of consciousness. So is neighbourliness, reciprocity and mutuality. So is self-control coupled with an acceptance of the limit of one’s control over the universe. So is faith in the future.’

Well…yeah. All of which we used to get from religion, before we trashed it and turned to psychologists for guidance.

How do we spread the wisdom of religious traditions in a multicultural and increasingly secular society? To me, the key word is wisdom. Wisdom gives us the ability to appreciate the insights and practices of multiple religious faiths, to have respect for those faiths and to learn from them, while also finding our home in a particular tradition.

We need to learn not just the techniques of ancient wisdom traditions (meditation, gratitude, self-control etc) but also to create the space to discuss the different moral ends or goals which those traditions promote – nirvana, union with God, happiness, inner peace, Aristotelian flourishing etc. These different ends should be discussed rather than forced upon people. Socratic discussion is a way to include these moral ends / values without imposing them on people.

At the heart of most of the ancient wisdom traditions is an optimism that humans can use our reason to take care of our souls and our societies, combined with an acceptance that our reason is bounded, and that flourishing emerges best through habits and shared practices. These wisdom traditions are therefore opposed to a more biomechanical model of humanity, which sees negative emotions as chemical imbalances to be corrected with medication.

We need universities to take wisdom seriously, but I actually think we need a new sort of research institute – closer to the Esalen model – which combines intellectual and experimental research with practice. Sort of a think-tank / monastery. As Alasdair MacIntyre says at the end of After Virtue: ‘We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”

Well, those are some areas of possible research. A lot to be getting on with! But this is an important movement, and the UK is blessed with some pioneering thinkers and practitioners in this field, not just in economics and psychology, but also in the arts, technology, philosophy and faith.

PS I forgot to mention mental health in the military services. But that’s obviously another potential area for interventions to promote resilience.

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Do you want to make a living practicing philosophy beyond academia, but not sure how? I’m organizing a seminar on practical philosophy on the evening of May 22 in London, bringing together people practicing philosophy in the community, in adult education, in companies, in prisons, in schools and in the NHS.

I’m making a handful of places available for people who want to work in this field. Email me if you want to be one of those people – spaces very limited so you need to convince me you’re serious and worth having there. It will be free.

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freiheit-3Yesterday I finished a pilot course in practical philosophy at Low Moss prison. It’s an eight-session course that introduces people to the ideas and life-philosophies of various ancient philosophers, including Socrates, the Stoics, Plato, Rumi, the Buddha, Jesus and Lao Tzu. I’ve been running it in partnership with New College Lanarkshire, which runs the learning courses in west Scottish prisons.

The emphasis is on how we might be able to use their ideas today. Participants are also encouraged to criticize the ideas, and choose which ones work for them. Pick n’ mix? Certainly, but that way they hopefully don’t feel they are being forced down one particular path. The pluralism of the approach, I believe, makes it more likely that a group of cynical and anti-authoritarian people still take onboard some good ideas.

We had zero drop-out in the course – nine started it, and eight finished (one prisoner was transferred to another prison) – which is not bad, considering this was 12 hours of quite intense learning and discussion. This may have been because Nikki Cameron, the formidable teacher who runs Low Moss’ philosophy club, made sure everyone attended!

I often felt quite naive, stumbling into elephant traps that an experienced prison-teacher would see coming a mile off. In a session on Aristotle and the art of citizenship, for example, I asked the group how they would improve the prison system. Bad idea! It fed immediately into prisoners’ deeply-held conviction that they are the pitiable victims of an incurably corrupt system. In fact, it was probably a bad idea to broach the whole topic of citizenship – the group were so utterly disenfranchized from politics (with the exception of one who had been an active member of the BNP).

In another session, we discussed forgiveness. It’s such an important topic – can we forgive people who have wronged us, do we deserve to be forgiven for our wrongs? But it rapidly veered into a discussion on the merits and methods of revenge. No one wanted to support an ethic of forgiveness – it might seem weak. A more experienced teacher would have been aware of that in advance, and more prepared to challenge the conventional revenge ethic.

Philosophy in prisons can touch raw nerves and open wounds – prisoners will bring up issues of race, religious sectarianism, or simply complain about the prison ad infinitum. It’s easy for an outsider like me to bounce in, bounce out and claim quick results – the truth is that people inside have deep levels of anger, hurt, despondency, self-denial and self-absorption. You only have to look at the rate of recidivism and the number of inmate suicides to see what teachers are up against.

It might be argued that the idea of raising consciousness through prison philosophy is a bad idea from the start, for both the prisoners and the prison. Instead, perhaps we should sedate rather than awaken prisoners’ minds, via large-scale meds programmes (prisons spend millions on meds like methadone each year).

But within the group there did appear to be cognitive shifts – probably not through my brief course, but mainly through the philosophy group that Nikki Cameron has been running twice a week for a year. One participant, a former BNP member, discovered a love of Rumi’s poetry, wants to find out more about Taoism, and told Nikki he wants to study social sciences when he leaves prison. This is a guy who refuses to take part in any ‘behaviour modification’ courses to reduce his sentence. Of course, that’s only anecdotal evidence, but Kirstine Szfiris is doing more qualitative analysis and has so far found positive results.

Nikki Cameron  (left) and Ruth Fracchini (right) of the Low Moss learning centre, with two visiting Holocaust survivors

Nikki Cameron (left) and Ruth Facchini (right) of the Low Moss learning centre, with two visiting Holocaust survivors who spoke at the prison this month

Philosophy and desistance theory

I asked the group what their ‘philosophy of life’ was at the beginning of the course, and then at the end, they wrote down their life-philosophy on a card, which they read out and could then put up on their wall. It’s the idea of having them publicly commit to their ethics, which perhaps makes them more likely to try and live by them – a ‘testimonial’ method which churches and 12-step programmes use to good effect.

Their espoused value systems were usually admirable – ‘using education to learn from past mistakes and move towards a better future’ was how one participant summed up his life-philosophy. The problem was sticking to them, or using bad ways to try and meet them. For example, many of their value systems involve loving and protecting their family, but the means they have used to reach that end have been highly counterproductive, ending with them separated from their family for years.

After they read out their ‘life-philosophies’, we presented them with a certificate of completion – I told them ‘you are now a philosopher’ and shook their hand, and the group applauded each other. Yeah, cheesy I know. But still, a good idea (of Nikki’s).

Desistance theory, a hot topic in Scottish prisons, thanks to the work of Fergus McNeill and others

It fits with a theory in criminology called ‘desistance theory’, which suggests that people stop re-offending partly through an internal choice. They choose not to. They choose to live differently, which partly means recovering a sense of personal autonomy and control, and rejecting the identity of being a criminal or bad person to choose a different identity or narrative.

Practical philosophy fits very well into desistance theory, as both Nikki Cameron and Kirstine Szfiris have been researching. It emphasizes the Stoic idea that while we don’t control many things in our environment, we do have some choice over own thoughts, beliefs and actions. We don’t control the past or the future, we can control the present. We don’t control what’s happened to us, we can control how we respond to it. It’s worth repeating, over and over, just as Epictetus repeated this idea to his students in lecture after lecture.

And it re-labels the participants from ‘offenders’ to ‘philosophers’. It recognizes their dignity as free-thinking agents. It also recognizes the dignity of their experience in negotiating adversity, and connects that to millennia-old wisdom traditions and their strategies for coping with adversity. It gives a positive value to their experience of adversity, rather than only seeing it as a negative. As one participant put it, ‘prison makes you become a Stoic, out of necessity’. Nikki said to them yesterday, ‘you’ve all had to practice more philosophy than most academic philosophers’, which is absolutely true in my opinion.

One of the questions in desistance theory is ‘why do people stop committing crimes?’ Age might be a part of it – their value system changes with their hormones (in that sense, it’s less of a choice than a chemical transformation). Time also plays a role – they just get sick of being in prison. Relationships play a key role – someone takes an interest in them, sees the good in them, and they want to live up to that. I see this clearly with Nikki’s relationship to the group. One inmate came up and apologized to her for expressing a vengeful opinion in the class. He said sorry to her ‘because you’re my pal’. The importance of personal relationship is worth bearing in mind in any attempt to ‘roll out’ some mass solution to the prison system. There is no such thing as ‘intimacy on a mass scale’ as one think-tank put it.

Reforming probation services

One of the key issues with desistance, of course, is what happens when the person is discharged? What happens when they leave the prison with £46, no house, no job, and often very little probation follow-up? The Ministry of Justice spends around £40K a year on each prisoner inside, but much less on follow-up. The re-offending rate is very high, particularly for short-term inmates (as much as 70%).

The Justice Ministry is, in fact, about to embark on a huge privatization of the National Probation Service, transferring about 75% of its tasks to private-sector companies. Forget the ban on buying books for inmates – the reform of the probation service is a far, far bigger story.

The historical roots of the probation service go back to missionaries like these chaps from 1906

Minister Chris Grayling says he wants to see more voluntary organizations involved, as part of a ‘compassionate Conservative’ approach. He seems keen to take probation back to its historical roots in charitable Christian volunteers. But the 21 ‘community probation companies’ who have been contracted to start work are mainly the usual suspects of multinational contractors – Sodexo, Capita, G4S, A4E. There is a risk that compassionate Conservatives seek Big Society but end up with Big Business.

Will these private contractors ‘join up’ with voluntary organizations so that people coming out of prison find jobs and supportive communities? Maybe, but there is not a clear alignment of interests or scale. Charities tend to be small, local and value-driven, while the community probation companies tend to be large bureaucracies and profit-driven.

Joining up with probation companies

Well, I’m so new to this area I really shouldn’t pretend to understand these issues! I’ll just highlight them, and end on this point – how do we join up desistance approaches inside prisons with desistance approaches outside? How do you help a person to extend the new story they have embraced into the wider world?

Christian or Muslim groups can do that – my friend Tom Seidler, an ex-offender, runs a charity called Transformed, which meets people at the gates and tries to embed them in churches. A Muslim group called Mosaic also works to try and help the 12% of the population in prisons that are Muslim (some London prisons are over 30% Muslim now, which is shocking considering only 4% of the British population are Muslim).

What about for the non-religious? Can you provide a strong community for prison graduates, other than the BNP?

As the arts and philosophy in prisons approach evolves, it would be great to build links with both voluntary organisations and community probation companies, particularly ones such as Co:here, a new probation company set up as a mutual, which is committed to the desistance / self-help model of rehabilitation.  Could ex-offenders become co-partners in these organizations, or is that meaningless jargon??

In the mental health recovery movement, for example, one of the steps to recovery is coming to see oneself not just as a victim of mental illness, but as an expert on recovery. I wonder if that’s possible in prisons too, where people could come to see themselves as experts on rehabilitation and resilience, with stories to tell that can help others?

And could the staff at prisons and in probation companies also be given time to go on courses in practical philosophy, so that some of these ideas filter out and become a shared culture? Could inmates and staff become co-philosophers?

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In related news:

Here is an article on desistance and prison arts courses, looking at the experience in west Scottish prisons like Low Moss.

Here is a piece I wrote comparing the ‘wisdom’ approach to the ‘critical thinking’ approach in practical philosophy, and here’s an initial article I did on doing a philosophy talk in HMP Dumfries.

Here is a useful PowerPoint from the philosopher Gregory Sadler, drawing on his experience teaching philosophy in prisons, and connecting it to a Kohlbergian model of wisdom development.

Here is an article on well-being in prisons, looking at the reform of the Singapore Prison Service.

Andrew Chignell, a Cornell philosopher, taught a course on the philosophy of hope in a New York prison, as he describes here.

Here’s the Prison University Project website, which provides philosophy courses in San Quentin prison.

Here is a blog by Alan Smith, who taught philosophy in prisons for 14 years.

Here is an article by Eric Anthametten, who teaches an introduction to philosophy course in Texas prisons.

This is an organization called Inside-Out, which links up academia to prisons.

Aislinn O’Donnell teaches philosophy in an Irish prison. She was part of an EU-funded project to explore how to build self-esteem among inmates using the arts.

Here is a short film about meditation in prisons. A documentary has been made about philosophy in prisons in Germany, called Inner Freedom, but it’s not online alas.

Finally, this is a website about a project at Roehampton Uni promoting Prison Reading Groups, which you can donate to if you want.

See you next week,

Jules

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