What Sosis Can Teach About School Ethos

I am currently re-reading Jonathan Haidt’s A Righteous Mind. The book considers why people on opposing sides of the political spectrum fail to see one another’s point, and also why they tend to interpret evidence favourably toward their own views.

An example given on p.293, however, caught my eye with regard to its importance for schools. My particular research interest is new schools – how they are planned, created, sustained, until they become old ones. I was therefore intrigued by this paragraph outlining a thought experiment by Richard Sosis who studied the success, or failure, of nineteenth century communes:

“Let’s assume that every commune was started by a group of twenty-five adults who knew, liked, and trusted one another. In other words, let’s assume that every commune started with a high and equal quantity of social capital on day one. What factors enabled some communes to maintain their social capital and generate high levels of prosocial behavior for decades while others degenerated into discord and distrust within the first year?

“Let’s assume that  each commune started off with a clear list of values and virtues that it printed on posters and displayed throughout the commune. A commune that valued self-expression over conformity and that prized the virtue of tolerance over the virtue of loyalty might be more attractive to outsiders, and this could indeed be an advantage to recruiting new members, but it would have lower moral capital than a commune that valued conformity and loyalty. The stricter commune would be better able to suppress or regulate selfishness, and would therefore be more likely to endure.”

Haidt points out that the Left often dislike the idea that moral capital matters – but it does. Keeping out free riders is important for sustaining a commune, in the same vein keeping a certain behaviour check on staff and students is important for sustaining a school. BUT as Haidt also points out:

While moral capital helps a community function efficiently, the community can use that efficiency to inflict harm on other communities. High moral capital can be obtained within a cult or fascist nation, as long as most people truly accept the prevailing moral matrix.

Hence, schools that keep strong moral order have a good chance of survival. But does that make them morally or psychologically healthy schools? Not necessarily.