What would your response be if I asked you whether humans are intrinsically bad or intrinsically good? Hold that thought.
Most of you probably know the story of Lord of the Flies – William Golding’s 1954 novel – featuring a group of British boys stranded on an uninhabited island and their disastrous attempt to govern themselves. Without giving away too many spoilers, things do not go well and anarchy and dysfunction soon prevail. But how true a depiction of human nature is this story? Left to our own devices, without rule and law, would it really be everyone for themselves?
That is one of the questions Rutger Bregman explores in his book Humankind: A Hopeful History. In this well-researched and fascinating volume, Bregman shares examples of human nature, including a real life Lord of the Flies scenario experienced by five Tongan boys. These boys had run away from their boarding school in a sailing boat in June 1965. Thrown off course by a violent storm, they eventually landed on a small, uninhabited island called Ata, where they were stranded for months. So what happened next? Did they descend to anarchy? Did they turn against each other in their lawless land, fending only for themselves? They did not. In fact, when they were rescued after 13 months, their rescuers discovered “a small commune with food garden, hollowed out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination”. The fire burnt steadily for over a year, tended day and night by the boys.
Bregman also examines the bombing campaigns of the Second World War. Both Britain and Germany bombed civilians in a relentless attempt to break the spirit of each other’s people. Germans dropped 80,000 bombs on Britain and, in just one night, the British killed more civilians in the bombing of Dresden than were killed during the war in the whole of London. Why were these catastrophic campaigns launched? The rationale lay in a book written by the influential French social psychologist Gustave le Bon. He had posited that humans descend several rungs on the ladder of civilisation in a crisis. The bombing of civilians was intended to break the spirit, weaken resistance, and bring out the worst of human nature among the victims to destabilise the enemy. Did it work? In short, although there was looting, grieving and fury, it did not. Instead, in all the research undertaken, morale and co-operation couldn’t have been higher. The German economy appeared strengthened after the bombing campaign and productivity went up in badly bombed British cities.
Admittedly, the act of war and the horror of bombing campaigns illustrate that humans certainly aren’t entirely good. But these stories help to support the idea that there is more intrinsic good, kindness and co-operation in people than is sometimes apparent. However, humans do tend to display their most co-operative characteristics to those individuals they feel an affinity with. When Londoners were being bombed, they were all in it together. Without the bombing, divisions might have existed between people courtesy of other differences.
This thought brings me to our school environment. I acknowledge that under our collective St John’s identity there are many smaller groups, from year groups and houses to friendship groups, sports teams, musical ensembles and the casts of productions. For our pupils, it might come more easily to co-operate within the groups with which they feel the highest affinity. What I ask them all to remember is that they are not absolved of their responsibility to recognise the overarching bond of being a St John’s pupil. That means showing the best of themselves – the good in them – to every member of our community, fostering bonds and showing care and concern to everyone.
Bregman describes an unattributed parable that sums this up perfectly:
An Old Man says to his grandson: “There’s a fight going on inside me. It’s a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil – angry, greedy, jealous, arrogant and cowardly. The other is good – peaceful, loving, modest, honest, generous and trustworthy. These wolves are also fighting within you and inside every other person too.”
After a moment, the boy asks: “Which wolf will win?”
The grandfather replies: “The one you feed.”