The Blameless. Part 3: The AfflictedOctober 25, 2008
Here I will address the claim that children are not responsible for their actions because they have a medical or psychological condition.
There are two versions of this argument. The first version suggests that if a child is behaving badly in a lesson they must secretly be unable to do the work, and that the most likely reason a child might be unable to keep up with their peers is some form of disability or illness. There are two main flaws in this argument, both incredibly obvious. Firstly, there is no clear reason why a child unable to do their school work would misbehave rather than simply say they couldn’t do it. At the very least it assumes that the penalty for admitting to personal academic failure is greater than that for disrupting the learning of others, which would itself be a disordered situation, where personal responsibility needs increasing, not denying. The second flaw is that it assumes that assessing a child’s inability to complete work is a difficult task, probably requiring expertise beyond that of the classroom teacher. In actual fact, this form of assessment is an integral part of teaching and while doctors and psychologists might be required to find a root cause of an inability to complete work, nobody is likely to be more effective than a teacher at identifying a failure to be able to do work. These two flaws mean that the argument is dependent on the circumstances of both the child being unreasonable and the teacher being incompetent, which, while this may sometimes be the case, is a ludicrous assumption to make when dealing with poor behaviour in general.
The second version of this argument claims that medical or psychological conditions directly cause involuntary incidents of poor behaviour. Obviously children shouldn’t be punished for actions influenced by Tourette’s or having a coughing fit. However, such situations are incredibly rare. In order to allow for more wide use of this excuse medical and psychological “conditions” have multiplied to cover virtually every human inclination. Such conditions are usually impossible to explain, let alone identify, without using a comparison with some view of what is normal for a child (often this is tied in to the concept of “developmental levels”). If a child is more energetic or inattentive than normal they have ADHD. If they won’t follow instructions as much as expected then they have Oppositional Defiant Disorder. If they are anti-social or even annoyingly pedantic then some form of autism will be suggested. (The latest condition I have encountered, admittedly online rather than in real life, is a parent who claims her children have “impaired proprioception” a physiological condition, symptoms of which include such supposed anomalies as “crashing into things, throwing themselves onto the floor, swinging as high as they possibly can”). In the event that no specific behaviour disorder can be identified then, conveniently, almost every failing can be covered by “low self-esteem”.
Now identifying what is abnormal is probably a very useful principle in medicine. It is deeply flawed as a way of considering the causes of human behaviour. Our behaviour, including our bad behaviour, is based on our desires. Different people have different desires. The worst behaved kids will, of course, have a desire to misbehave that is either stronger, or less well resisted, than that of the better behaved kids including the average (or “normal”) child. If this is grounds for seeing the behaviour as abnormal and in turn diagnosing a “condition” then the obvious result of this is that what are clearly just character traits, that should be as susceptible to human judgement as any other, will become seen as uncontrollable quirks of fate. Worse, the more extreme a moral failing, the more it is claimed to be beyond conscious control. In the case of those who argue that children are naturally good we gain a particularly spectacular piece of circular reasoning: All bad behaviour (unless covered by the previous explanations) must be abnormal; therefore it has a psychological or medical cause; therefore it is not under the child’s conscious control; therefore the child is naturally good; therefore the child’s bad behaviour is abnormal.
The confusion over what counts as a disability, and what is simply a matter of character or ability, has created the Special Needs racket, a system where help intended for students with genuine disabilities is lost in a swamp of claimants and the disgraceful efforts to “include” badly behaved students at the expense of those who do behave. Baroness Warnock, who was responsible for the creation of so much of the Special Needs system, is reported to now be in the position of disowning it:
“Mary Warnock, architect of England’s special needs education system, is to publish a damning report on how it has turned out in practice. Baroness Warnock says pressure to include pupils with problems in mainstream schools causes “confusion of which children are the casualties”. She also says the way the most severe needs are assessed is “wasteful and bureaucratic” and “must be abolished”. .. Lady Warnock says that it was expected that 2% of pupils with special needs would receive statements. That statements were actually given to 20%, she says, reflects the lack of clarity over their application.”
A final note: once again the word “need” has appeared when discussing a way of absolving children of moral responsibility. In the next few days I will look at this more closely.