In this piece Neil Mackenzie, Head of Advice & Representation at Sheffield Students’ Union, argues that the automatic acceptance of ‘resilience’ as an agenda may work against students’ interests in the long term.
Over the past few years we’ve all heard an emergent narrative about ‘Snowflakes’. The argument goes this generation- especially students, are so cosseted from not having fought any world wars or having lived under the constant existential threat of nuclear annihilation that they lack the resilience to succeed in the ‘real world’. In many senses this has manifested in intergenerational misunderstanding narratives, with ‘millennials’ either regarded as hopelessly entitled or, conversely, the first generation in history that will do worse than the last.
But there is another aspect to the narrative. Some of this thinking has started to creep into the design and delivery of student services – with the adoption of the concept of ‘resilience’ at its nexus. Developing ‘resilience’ and supporting ‘character education’ and ‘grit’ are ideas that have been repeatedly popping up in both education and public services. Always under the banner of ‘doing what is best’ for students in the long run and occasionally in an attempt to provide all students (rather than just those from public schools) with vital skills for the future, the message seems to be – you too can develop the traits that will enable you to become hugely successful (i.e. wealthy).
Doubtless many that have adopted some of the guff around ‘resilience’ have done so with the intention of genuinely helping students to be prepared for the ‘real world’. And working in this way also has the benefit to university administrators of being more efficient, placing as it does such clear boundaries on where support should or (more likely) should not be offered and presenting a lack of support as a positive, ‘character building’ feature of services, thus contributing to a ‘real world’ education.
The problem is that when subjected to proper scrutiny, the underpinning theory is deeply troubling – and part of the ongoing intergenerational, cultural and ideological conflicts playing out across late capitalist countries. Challenging ‘resilience’ in the context of student services requires an engagement with these underlying assumptions and theories. In the course of considering this I have developed the following propositions:
- The term ‘resilience’ has come to be used in a way that suggests it is apolitical and not contested – neither is true
I am indebted to the work of Jacqueline Stephenson of Sheffield Hallam for highlighting this to me so clearly. So often this is presented as a universally positive theory under which to organise services. It is not, and in fact the academic literature appears to me to be weighed against ‘resilience’, with a significant evidence base being developed against it.
- The trait of ‘resilience’ is seen as universally positive – this is not always true
Being a ‘resilient’ person can be a good thing, but this ignores that ‘resilience’ can be at times absorbative, leading to individuals soaking up challenges and problems, which is not sustainable and likely to have negative implications. Teaching people just to ‘suck it up’ is not a long term strategy for wellbeing.
- ‘Resilience’ at best overlooks social class and wealth in our society, and at worst is a tool deployed to blind individuals and organisations to structural inequality.
‘Resilience’ individualises problems, it does not seek to address societal inequality; the problems need to be resolved at the individual level and the rest will sort itself out. It is a deeply pragmatic philosophy, but, at its most pernicious, can be used to deliberately ignore inequality, seeing this not as a major barrier but as an excuse.
In a society so deeply unequal as ours that is a problem. The David Cameron speech on Life Chances in January 2016 is a key touchstone here – “children thrive on high expectations: it is how they grow in school and beyond. Now for too long this has been the preserve of the most elite schools. I want to spread this to everyone.” It is the high expectations and resilience that is embedded into young people at Eton College and the like that leads to their ‘success’ later in life, with no consideration of wealth or class- the message is “just work hard and you will achieve what you want”.
The problem is that not everyone can be at the ‘top’ – and if you’re not there already, it’s almost impossible to get there. Findings in the Sutton Trust’s report ‘Leading People’ from 2016 demonstrates just how ‘sticky’ social class is in Britain today (https://www.suttontrust.com/research-paper/leading-people-2016/). Only 7% of the population attended a private school, yet this tiny elite continue to dominate the top professions to a shocking extent – 74% of the judiciary, 52% of journalists, 48% of senior civil servants and 67% of our Oscar winners.
Recent research around entrepreneurs https://qz.com/455109/entrepreneurs-dont-have-a-special-gene-for-risk-they-come-from-families-with-money/ also challenges the idea that these individuals are in some way different or have some special ability that fuels their success. The main ingredient is wealth.
This generation of students and young people face a uniquely complicated and uncertain time to come of age. Telling them that they have it easy is neither true or helpful, and it certainly isn’t worth £9,250 a year. The facts also show that, in general, no matter how resilient you are, you won’t beat inequality created by vast inherited wealth.
‘Resilience’ as our services have come to use it, is part of the social reproduction of a deeply unfair and dehumanising system (neoliberalism). In challenging its adoption on our campuses, we will not only support our students to have a better university experience, but also potentially show that the world doesn’t have to be so competitive, cruel and brutally individual.