Review: The Inner Level

Chris McNutt
March 23, 2019
The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity, and Improve Everyone’s Well-being by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson demonstrates a fundamental element to education: we can’t fix the system solely by making schools “better.”

The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity, and Improve Everyone’s Well-being by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson demonstrates a fundamental element to education: we can’t fix the system solely by making schools “better.” Whether it be quality of instruction, teacher pay, or changing pedagogy — the systemic inequalities that exist must be lessened for schools to make a substantial change in society at-large.

This work is important both as an analysis of why we need a more fair society, as well as showcasing various elements of critical pedagogy and progressive educating. Pickett and Wilkinson highlight how the sheer thought of changing our society seems out of reach:

“What stops us for realising these possibilities is that our societies have developed what psychologists call an ‘external locus of control.’ Instead of believing what happens to us is under our control — a matter of our own decisions and efforts (called an ‘internal locus of control’) — we see the future as if it were imposed on us by external forces beyond our control. It is as if the course of technological change and how it shapes the future is determined not by human beings, as we know it is, but by some unknown power of fate.”

Whether it be in school reform or solving wide-spanning cultural disparities, our neoliberal society has (intentionally) made many of us apathetic and disheartened. Both students and teachers alike are depressed, anxious, and lack purpose. Many have given up — or feel progressive education is “too big” of a change. It’s not “realistic.” Of course, this is exactly the point of a neoliberal society — make change seem so incredibly difficult that no one ever attempts it. (Although, many have demonstrated that it is possible to implement radical progressive policies one step at a time. Look at all the fantastic work being shared on social media by Pam Moran, for example.)

The struggle between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is the cornerstone of the book’s highlighted studies — demonstrating how all walks of life: both rich and poor — are negatively affected by the ever-widening gap. Throughout, it is impossible to not see the parallels at a micro-level in our education system. For example,

“…a substantial body of research showing how well-being and satisfaction with our own pay depends substantially on how it compares with other people’s pay, rather than whether it provides us with what we need. Our argument is not that there was a time when people did not make social comparisons, but that they have become more important to our sense of ourselves than they once were.”

Substitute “pay” with “grades” and we’ll be presented with a modern peril of schools. (As, sadly, our society has branded academic achievement with economic advancement — and therefore, our students see this connection.) Further:

“Today we live in societies in which worries about how we are seen and judged by others — what psychologists call ‘the social evaluative threat’ — are one of the most serious burdens on the quality and experience of life in rich developed countries. The costs are measured not only in terms of additional stress, anxiety and depression, but also in poorer physical health, in the frequent resort to drink and drugs we use to keep our anxieties at bay, and in the loss of friendly community life which leaves so many feeling isolated and alone.”

Depression and anxiety rates are at an all time high — especially among adolescents. It’s fearful to note that not only are students faced with a school system that often steals their passion for learning, but live within a society facing so many existential threats: coopted politics, growing income disparity, racism, sexism, classism, ableism, hypernormalization, climate change, and more.

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Pictured: A still from Hypernormalisation (2016) by filmmaker Adam Curtis shows how society has been fooled into a false reality of “2 sides” or “right vs wrong”— and that everything is actually run entirely by corporations and financiers.

The Inner Level demonstrates that unequal societies cause problems ranging from jealousy and greed to overvaluing hyper-masculinity (doing anything to get ahead). On the flip side,

“People in more equal societies are more likely to be involved in local groups, voluntary organizations, and civic associations. They are more likely to feel they can trust each other, are more willing to help one another, and rates of violence (as measured by homicide rates) are consistently lower. People get along with each other better in more equal societies.”

Education is a reflection of society at large, and much of this work parallels the same events educators see in their classrooms. Building a community is more important than drilling content, yet standardized testing hampers educators to truly build viable connections. And every example The Inner Level demonstrates for society is true for school:

“…insecure striving, a fear of rejection, of being overlooked and losing out, linked to a tendency to seek validation from others, feel inferior, shame, and submissive behavior — and increased stress, depression, anxiety, and self-harm.”

Our classrooms build on behaviors like these and play into them, and little is done to empower students to recognize these behaviors, take action, and see change in their world. By perpetuating this system (via neutral interactions, non-questioning of the curriculum, encouraging teacher-centric lessons, and emphasizing “classroom management”), we do close to nothing in educating students.

That’s not to say students aren’t “learning” — many focus on college readiness — demonstrating their 100% college acceptance rate, or career preparedness — showing all of their career certification programs and fancy coding computer lab. Yet through this process there’s little in the way of student empowerment. Yes, students are taking away skills that will help them achieve in the system — but without understanding the system itself, the points made in The Inner Level on being a cog in the machine, will our students be content? And despite of “mindfulness” and “social and emotional learning” being increasingly buzz-worded into schools — are they actually empowering students or just helping them cope with a perceived as powerless situation?

By student empowerment, I’m referring to actually letting students choose what they want to learn, giving true freedom in curriculum development, and reframing the role of a teacher from authoritarian to guide. There’s still a place for an educator, but that role is shifted from “master of content” to “friend, coach, and navigator.” Otherwise, we end up in this scenario:

“And when feel looked down on by others, and we start to feel worthless, incompetent and rejected, drugs, alcohol, immersion in fantasy worlds of video games and television, comfort food, retail therapy or the possibility of a big win become more alluring and draw so many of us in. We are endlessly tempted with products which promise to create for us the identities we desire, with activities and purchases that provide short-term fixes for our chronic stress and anxieties but nothing more.”

Critical pedagogy demands that students have this voice and educators empower (and deprogram) children to recognizing their inherent potential. This includes gradeless classrooms, experiential learning, student voice, emphasis of learning over college/career readiness, and human-centered practices such as restorative justice. We must be careful in believing that one pedagogical shift (e.g. not giving grades) will innately solve the array of problems that arise from such an inherently repressive model.

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Pictured: An empty lecture hall.

Further, we must also recognize that educators can’t solve all these problems through school reform. Often, the problems even the most sensible educators endure are beyond the scope of the classroom. As Pickett and Wilkinson state,

“Vast numbers of studies have now demonstrated the cognitive damage that living in poverty does to children. They also provide strong evidence that lower levels of ability among children in poorer families reflect the less stimulating and more stressful family circumstances that poverty produces. The cognitive deficits found in studies of children from poorer families show clearly that they are created, rather than being innate and unalterable givens...

Bigger income differences in a society not only make inequalities in educational performance larger, they also lower the average levels of educational attainment for children across the whole society…Income inequality affects the educational standards of whole societies because bigger income differences depress performance at each step down the social ladder.”

Educators have an obligation to become politically involved in supporting candidates and movements that reduce inequalities — especially for those most discriminated against. It is obvious that the common anecdote — test scores are indicative of zip code not academic achievement — is not something that is solvable in the classroom alone. We must look to educators rallying together to both save education as well as promote humanizing policies in our neighborhoods (e.g. equitable government spending, progressive taxation, neighborhood revitalization projects not centered on gentrification, local community organizations, universal healthcare, college tuition coverage, multiple pathways to high school graduation, etc.) As stated in The Inner Level,

“Researchers have shown that if children are already behind in terms of school readiness and cognitive development when they started school, then unfavourable educational outcomes are much more likely, in spite of good schooling. And the challenge for individual life trajectories and well-being is compounded by the fact that when children are not ready for school, this puts the school and all its pupils, as well as each deprived child, at a disadvantage.”

Finally, educators must recognize the perception that inequitable societies have engrained to its inhabitants:

“They [researchers at the University of Bristol] found that children from poor neighborhoods were consistently given worse grades by their teachers, compared to children from affluent neighbourhoods. Black children were also systemically marked down by their teachers, while children of Indian and Chinese origin tended to be marked upwards. The researchers interpreted these findings as an indication of unconscious stereotyping by ethnicity and class, and found that discriminatory marking was most pronounced in the areas with fewer black or poor children.”

Tolerance and anti-bias education is paramount to schools in every region of the country, as even well-meaning educators are subject to inherent biases. Schools must support their teachers through autonomous policies in the classroom, while constantly reinforcing a human-centered pedagogy that employs equitable actions and human-centered practices.

We recommend that educators read The Inner Level to arm themselves with a plethora of research (~700 sources!) demonstrating why inequitable societies exist, how it affects us as people, and what we can do to change it. It’s not only schools that need solved — society needs equitable reorganization to realize that outcome.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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