Back when I went to school in Edinburgh, sports, the arts and the humanities were part of the essential fabric of my education. Since those days public education has arguably suffered from false economies, from something of a corporate, business-oriented approach, and from too many 'flavour-of-the-month' theories. That is certainly the case in western Canada, and probably in Scotland as well. The things that were essentials in my schooling are considered differently today, too often as disposable luxuries. Some would argue that the changes from what and how we were taught in that gentler age have led directly to the addictive (or addicted) cultures that have evolved since – that is, in the last 40 to 50 years.
In 2016, illicit drug overdoses killed nearly 1,000 people in British Columbia, where I live. That's a 300% increase in two years. A hefty proportion of the deaths came from fentanyl overdoses. The ones who died were not all hardcore addicts. Far from it. Many of them were kids; teenagers experimenting as part of their rites of passage. Sometimes with something as apparently harmless as marijuana. It should surprise no one to learn that highly addictive substances are often found in so-called 'gateway' drugs like marijuana – and have been for years. That could be seen as part of that business plan any MBA student will tell you about. The additives start to create a need. It can be a slow process, imperceptible at first, but over time it creates a need that becomes very real.
Twenty years ago Icelandic teenagers were arguably the heaviest-drinking youths in Europe. Educational programmes about the dangers of drink and drugs were clearly not working, according to Inga Dóra, a research assistant in original surveys. 'We wanted to come up with a different approach'. The result is that statistic has been turned on its head. According to a recent article in the UK periodical Mosaic for Life, 'Iceland [now] tops the European table for the cleanest-living teens. The percentage of 15- and 16-year-olds who had been drunk in the previous month plummeted from 42% in 1998 to 5% in 2016. The percentage of those who have ever used cannabis is down from 17% to 7%. Those smoking cigarettes every day fell from 23% to just 3%'.
The secret to this remarkable turnaround was what we might call sound common sense, and perhaps even a recognition that the Greeks (and the Romans in the phrase mens sana in corpore sano
) had figured out something essential about education a long, long time ago. A modern 'marketing' twist was given to it by Professor Harvey Milkman – an American who teaches part of the year at Reykjavik University – through what he calls an orchestrated 'social movement around natural highs'. Thus, since the mid-1990s Iceland has seen a renewed emphasis on sport and physical activity, strong coaching/teaching programmes, greater opportunities in the arts, and the development of good sports facilities. The percentage of kids who take part in organised sports has virtually doubled in that time, as has the number of children who spend weekends with their parents.
There were more drastic aspects to the social and cultural remedial programmes in Iceland than our culture and societies are likely to endorse. These included curfew laws in some areas for youths under a certain age, and strong age prohibitions around the purchase of tobacco and alcohol. Parents were often drafted into these programmes as well; signing pledges to ensure the kids didn't have unsupervised parties, not to buy alcohol for minors and so on.
Such aspects would be less likely to find universal support in a country with a population the size of Britain's. But programme designs can be tailored to fit a particular social palette while keeping the fundamental elements in place. The fact that the most successful of these programmes seem to have been driven by municipal, rather than national, governments supports the idea of a design-to-fit approach.
Led by a small international outlier group called Youth in Europe they have now been tried out in something like 35 municipalities in 17 countries, ranging from Malta to South Korea, and Romania to Kenya. As Álfgeir Kristjánsson, who worked on the data in Iceland has noted, the trend is very clear. 'Protective factors have gone up, risk factors down, and substance use has gone down – and more consistently in Iceland than in any other European country'.
The issues are enormously complex, but the fundamental element is that education which involves enlightened principles of sport and the arts seems – as the Greeks long ago understood – to develop young people in better ways than directed systems that focus only on fitting children for a life in the world of business and commerce.