Fighting the ‘me-first’ culture


Looking at social and mainstream media, it’s hard to believe that altruism still exists. Marion Gibbs argues that it is for schools to help redress the balance

Attending a rather grand dinner recently, I found myself arguing with the highly articulate and educated man who was sitting next to me as to whether altruism actually exists. He asserted that it did not. I explained that altruism has been and is a guiding principle of my life, as I am sure it is for the vast majority of teachers. 

Leading by example and encouraging young people to think of others rather than themselves seems to me to be a fundamental ingredient of a good teacher.

Am I alone among headteachers in rejecting job applications from applicants who use “I” over and over again in their personal statements and neglect to mention students other than as evidence of their own personal success and achievements?

Certainly, over the past few decades it has become more socially acceptable, perhaps even more desirable in some segments of society, to be a “me-first” person. Instagram, tumblr and such sites are filled with pictures posted by people of themselves, publicising even the most mundane aspects of their lives. 

The BBC and other news websites and broadcasts are now rife with requests for viewers and readers to send in their personal accounts so that they may become the news.

In the face of such pressures, it is vital that schools work hard to redress the balance. Schools are communities and microcosms of society, but they also provide a place for young people to develop and grow with clear boundaries as well as caring adults around them. 

Most students thrive on helping and supporting others and working as part of a team to achieve something far greater than they could alone. Throughout our schools young people are engaged not just in charity fundraising activities, but using the powers of the internet to communicate and build relationships with those, often less fortunate than themselves, in the developing world.

Many are also involved in hands-on community action, whether it be visiting the elderly, working with young children, maintaining the local park or other such activities. Within schools, older students act as mentors for younger ones, both socially and academically. All of this is developing the habit of altruism, of thinking about others, trying to put yourself in their shoes and doing things which they want and need rather than what you yourself would like.

According to my neighbour at dinner, all such activities are motivated by the thought of reward for oneself – kudos, a plus point on an UCAS application or a certificate of some kind. I beg to differ, but I do recognise that helping others does have a positive effect on people – it often makes them feel better and happier.

Being a member of a sports team, a choir or musical group or taking part in a play, front or back stage are not only opportunities for teamwork but also for thinking about others. Those who are generous of spirit and positive almost invariably find that others behave in the same fashion towards them. Those who are mean and grumpy often receive a similar response. I have spent the last 20 years regularly mentioning radiators and drains in my assemblies and encouraging all our students (and staff) to be radiators, giving out what they have to others. 

The world may be awash with “me-first” role-models in the media, but we are in a unique position in schools to try to influence future generations for the better. Indeed there are many fantastic role-models out there, living lives filled with care and compassion in the service of others, but they also have humility, and are rarely likely to be in the media spotlight in our crazy 21st century world. What can we do to redress that balance?

  • Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London



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