In the great discussions between big thinkers, I often find that the themes hearken back to my own childhood foundation.
For example, there is an argument between the Canadian cognitive scientist Steven Pinker and the British geneticist Steve Jones over nature versus nurture.
Professor Pinker, author of a controversial book called The Blank State, affirms that the personality of human beings is determined by their genes. A child will turn out more or less as their genes determine, which dismays some parents and makes others relax.
The dismayed ones feel that all that careful investment into little Johnny’s, or Joanna’s, upbringing counts for naught if Johnny or Joanna was born to be Jack the Ripper, or Irma the Serial Poisoner, anyhow.
London University Steve has publicly clashed with Harvard Steve, saying that Pinker’s case was over-stated. The early influences on a child’s life can make a big difference to the genetic endowment.
I picked up much the same clash in my own formative years, and the discourse, although conducted by attitude rather than debate, could have been called “priest versus peasant”.
The traditional peasant, accustomed to breeding livestock over generations, was firmly of the Pinker school. The peasant observed animal husbandry and concluded that “’tis all in the breeding”.
This was often extrapolated into the human species. If there was madness in the family, it would recur (so avoid marriage into any family with that problem). If there was alcoholism, it would show up. If there was TB, that indicated a “weakness”, an imperfection of the species.
The peasant was opposed to infant adoption, and compared it to “interfering with the bloodstock record”. If an adopted child inherited, the peasant said that “a stranger is taking over the farm”.
The priest, by contrast, taught that all human beings were made in the image of God, and all had redeeming features, because all could be redeemed. Nobody was unimprovable. The Jesuit saying “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man” was coined to advance the enlightened aspect of a good formation. Flaws in the character could be corrected. Alcoholism, for example, could be changed by a spiritual movement of temperance. Mentally disturbed individuals were also made in God’s image.
Prof Jones might be taken aback to be ranged alongside faith teaching, but surely that is the more progressive, and more optimistic approach to how we are? Human beings always turn out to be more surprising than prize bulls, anyway.
Imet an old school friend recently who had emigrated to the United States in the 1970s as a nurse. She found herself in great demand because Irish nurses had the reputation of being “hands on” – taking a practical and at the same time kindly approach to the care of patients. Even then, she found, in the US nursing was becom ing more academic and bureaucratic – paperwork everywhere. But patients favoured Irish nurses because they approached the job with a degree of humanity rather than a degree written in PhDs.
And now we find that this description of nurses being over-academic in their training has surfaced on this side of the Atlantic. It’s been a particular issue following the recent report by the Care Quality Commission.
This shocking study revealed that more than half of the hospitals in England do not meet care and dignity standards for elderly people. One in five hospitals failed the basic tests of nursing care.
And some put the blame on the more academic approach required of nurses nowadays, in which there is much emphasis on management and analytical skills and less attention paid to clinical nursing.
Older nurses criticise the way in which some highly qualified nurses now think themselves too grand to attend to bedpans, or carry out the hygiene chores so emphasised by Florence Nightingale. I am sure there are good nurses today as there always have been: but it is often true that people who are gifted at practical skills are not always the best at paperwork, and viceversa. Those who are good at passing academic exams are sometimes distinctly unpractical by nature. Aptitudes differ.
Surprisingly, Dame Joan Bakewell suggested that the decline in kindness and sympathy was linked to the decline in religious observance. An interesting point, which could perhaps be subject to wider discussion.
In last Sunday’s Downton Abbey the Dowager Countess (the matchless Dame Maggie Smith) reminded the local vicar that he owed his living to the Earl, so he had better comply with the family’s demands in the matter of a marriage ceremony.
A triumphant moment for the Dowager, but surely this arrangement of the rector being beholden to the gentry was part of the problem in Henry VIII’s administrative legacy?