If Humans are good; That means young people are too

This is the second of my blogs based upon Rutger Bregmans book Humankind: A hopeful History (2020) a book that is about to be 2nd top selling in the charts this week, in its release. My previous one is here   and its on the unsurprising reality of Human kindness during crisis.

As a signpost, Ill look at leadership, power and character in the next piece, but, I sincerely do recommend you have a read, because Rutger frames the events of the last 2 months in the UK and US government amazingly accurately. Even to the point as to why Cummings had no friends. But that’s for another day.

As I was preparing for evening prayer this evening I came across this from Paulo Coelho:

Real love…accepts everything and rejoicing to see that things are better than they said they were (Paulo Coelho, The Supreme Gift, 2013)

It was the concept that to ‘see things better than they said they were’ that prompted me. If you read my previous piece, i suggest that we are kind and good people despite the news narrative – plainly it isnt newsworthy to be good.  And from a societal perspective we spend a long time as youth workers criticising the media, or trying to challenge the media narratives about young people.

loving young people means to see them as better than people said about them

But, its not continually newsworthy to have stories about young people that are positive in them. As Rutger Bregman writes, To stand up for human goodness is to stand up against the powers, policies that exist to control and  manage, it implies we’re not selfish beasts. (Bregman 2020, p19)

I wonder, what this means further for young people.

Does everyone have a favourite teacher? Mine was Mrs Prowse, I was about 8 or 9 I think. I was a fairly messy, perceptive child who liked maths and was good at it. In my primary school I was pretty much in the middle to bottom of most of the classes, because I was messy, couldn’t write – but I had a brain, and a brain for maths. Mrs Prowse was the teacher who saw this, and gave me the encouragement and feedback , and also a few skips through the maths activities of the time, because I knew and could do it. It was positive feedback, and focus on my strengths that  propelled me at that time.

Why am I telling you this story?

I was at the Federation of Detached youthwork conference back in 2016/7 and Graeme Tiffany was leading a seminar on the aspects of educational intervention that have the most positive effect on young people. At a youthworker conference he almost dared to suggest that youthwork only made a scant difference, but that’s virtually what he said. Mentoring was one aspect that could be said to, a bit.  (and not everything needs to be evaluated against educational achievement change, but that’s what schools tend to want too) The two things that rapidly help with student and pupil development, according to research is smaller class sizes, and positive pupil feedback. Just like my of Mrs Prowse above.  Its almost obvious isnt it..but why? … and this is where I delve into Rutger Bregman…

The premise of Rutgers book is that Humans are good, they have been historically good, and that things started to turn bad when property, settlements and power became more evident in the society. He brings to the fore a number of sources that point to history, and then psychological experiments that show that there are strong inclinations of humans to be good, but these are easily corrupted (often by power, territory and possessions), and that, like the research showed above, we are motivated to do good, by feedback that affirms and praises us to be good, and better. In short, we are motivated by love. (unsurprisingly, negative feedback does exactly the opposite)

But its more subtle than just feedback.  In the research that he refers to Bregman highlights the findings from Rosenthal in 1963, who in using lab rats discovered that not only did rats perform better in tests when they were treated and cuddled more – but that when given higher expectations humans would treat the rats better.  It became known as the Pygmalion effect.

The thing for me is that humans who were given the information that a rat was cleverer than another handled the rat better, this spurred it on. On one hand its about positive feedback, the other is about the environment for that learning, its about the teachers, parents, youthworker who care.

In her research my friend Alison Urie discovered that young people are acutely aware of their environment, and that the setting of social interaction is integral to the interaction, I might intersect here something about what sociologist Irving Goffman regards as the front stage of the theatrical methaphor of human interaction. The environment is crucial, its about safety, respect and warmth, for Alison she discovered that young peoples learning occurred when they were in a place they could feel at home. Young people aren’t rats… but they like to be cuddled with coffee, warmth and stuff that makes them feel safe, and people.

Its no revolution for youth workers to talk up young people. We dont always believe in our actions. Not everyone who participated in Alisons research even asked the young people for their names or shook them by the hand. Just telling young people they’re doing well isnt enough, if its an institution that feels like something draconian.  And honestly, im so not knocking schools at the moment. Im so on their side for not opening right now. But what might cause a reflection in a new way of educating young people, and- what if young people are believed to be better and not just predicted to achieve based only on data.

Bregman refers to Edward Deci, who, in motivation writes that

the question should no longer be how to motivate others, but how we shape a society so that people motivate themselves

Positive feedback and the environment are crucial.  If power has corrupted, and that’s for the next blog, then systems and organisations are less likely to consider love, care and respect as motivators, but go on data, and what people say about young people already.  And im not letting churches off the hook here, when young people are described as feral or immoral……

Asset based community development is one meta narrative that helps to shift thinking into the gifts, positive and resources in a community, the people within it, what Bregman has in his sights is that goodness is in more of everyones core being than we think. And that includes young people. Especially.

We have to believe a better story about humanity than the press and the headlines. We have to believe in a way of educating and supporting young people that encourages their innate goodness. Its an ideal world. But then again, why not, why not develop a society that dreams that young people are good, are better and are motivated to do good and in a society which enables it.  To see young people better than other people said they were.



Bregman, Rutger, Humankind, Bloomsbury, 2020 

Coelho, Paulo,  The supreme gift, 2013

Deci and Ryans work on motivation is also to be found in Being Human, 2016 by Jocelyn Bryan, i explore it further here

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