Childish ThingsFebruary 9, 2010
“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” 1 Corinthians 13:11
What are they like?
I’m not asking what the children I teach are like. I’m not asking what the worst of the children I teach are like. I’m not asking about what our battleground schools make kids into, although I will talk about that later. I’m asking about the qualities we can expect in children in general, the qualities we’d have to fight hard to suppress, the qualities which just seem to appear naturally.
We can begin with the fact that children are, for want of a politer word, ignorant. They don’t know as much as they will when they are older. This is convenient for those of us in the teaching profession because we can do something about this. We can tell them the things they don’t yet know, the thoughts that they haven’t yet had. As long as there are adults who know significantly more than children there will always be a point to the existence of teachers. It is a tragedy when students are subjected to teachers who don’t know more than they do. To quote Oakeshott (1972) : “an ignorant teacher is a contradiction”.
This means children are constantly discovering new things. Curiosity is a way of life. Children will touch a hot plate just to check that it really is hot. They are living a life that nobody has lived before which is not predestined to go in one way or another. They are not trapped in the same narrow paths of most adults. They have a freedom to change their minds and change their lives that adults don’t have. They can remake themselves in the image of the best of what they see around them. They constantly encounter, or come up with, new ideas, or at least ideas which are new to them. Children are effortlessly creative when they want to be, although they often don’t want to be. They are also constantly changing. You never really know what they are going to be like in three year’s time. Children try on opinions like some people try on shoes. They will constantly express an opinion just to see what happens, how it goes down, how it makes them feel. There is no point telling a child not to rush to judgement, but you can rest assured that their opinions will change in a second and, as children are no more saintly than other human beings, this will often simply mean adopting and expressing selfish positions that an adult would be less ready to express in public.
Finally, children are social creatures. If you put them with their peers (and that is the basis of our education system) then they will do what their peers do. They look at each other constantly for approval. They are obsessed with finding their own position in the hierarchy and joining the appropriate gang. They cooperate instantly, often on the basis of the smallest of signals, from the dominant personalities in their social circle. If children have known each other for more than a few weeks then they will know who is king, who is a potential usurper, who is a kingmaker and who is a serf. When classrooms are strict enough to disrupt the organisation of the students and replace it with the organisation of the teacher it is a genuine liberation for many of the students.
Now I mention these things for a reason. I mention them because it makes it clearer when educational ideas are based on child worship. If children are to be worshipped as gods then you will inevitably try and make children more like children rather than more like adults. So to begin with, ignorance will not be challenged. Content will be removed from the curriculum. Experts will lose their authority and children will practise their “skills” rather than acquire knowledge. Any actual content that children are to learn will be left for them to “discover”. This might not be an efficient way to gain information, or a way to ensure that what they learn is reliable, but it is certainly the most childlike way. Additionally, attempts will be made to encourage those qualities that children already have in abundance like curiosity and creativity. Those activities that come most naturally to children, like working in groups, using new technology or expressing opinions will become part of the curriculum. Children will be left to act in line with their own nature, as if human nature was something that can be trusted as a guide. Even the most selfish desires will become respected as genuine wants or needs to be met, and children will be left to think that their own conclusions on any moral question, no matter how obviously self-centred, are to be respected. The child worshipper will demand that children be taught to “think for themselves” as if that wasn’t the default position of any child. The adult world will withdraw from the world of the child and “normal relations between children and adults, arising from the fact that people of all ages are always simultaneously together in the world, are … broken off” (Arendt, 1961).
In other words this is where we are: the insanity of progressive education. We are trapped with a failed experiment, which is never abandoned only reinvented, in which we attempt to remake the future in an image of the imaginary, innocent perfect child and instead recoil to discover we have only created adults who retain all the vices of childhood. That is what our system does best: it stunts development. Young adults, who in other cultures would have jobs and a responsible position within their family, act like children. Sometimes, as a teacher you have a sudden moment of realisation when you realise that the child in front of you having a tantrum because they aren’t getting their way is sixteen not six. We have left the formation of new adults to a system in the hands of people who don’t believe in adulthood and we are paying the price.
Arendt, Hannah, Between Past and Future, 1961
Oakeshott, Michael, Education: The Engagement and its Frustration, 1972