AutonomyOctober 17, 2011
The next category of academic aims for education are those which can be roughly gathered together under the term “autonomy”, but appear under a huge number of different titles. These are all qualities that are to be instilled in the child which make them independent of, or different to, others, particularly teachers and adults. There are several types of autonomy that are valued and I shall deal with each in turn.
Autonomy of Thought
This is the idea that the thoughts and opinions of children should in some way be free from the influence of adults. This is the concept underlying such phrases as “thinking for yourself” and also attacks on “indoctrination” or “being told what to think”. At first this seems fairly straightforward; we can all find something sinister in the idea of a child being raised with beliefs that we don’t happen to share. The problem occurs when we realise that we don’t see it as anywhere near as sinister if children are raised with values we consider important. So for instance, somebody who rants and raves about children being “indoctrinated” into religious fundamentalism will, nevertheless, often assume that boys should not be left to think it’s okay to be sexist. Very few people will want children to decide for themselves whether to run in front of traffic or whether to racially abuse their peers. The problem is not that no form of indoctrination is harmful, but that most of the time it is the beliefs themselves, not the processes involved in handing them on that are harmful. There is no coherent distinction to be made between indoctrinating and teaching. When children are raised to believe things which we believe in we tend to see it as teaching. When they are raised to believe things we don’t believe in we tend to see it as indoctrination. There is no “neutral” position that parents and teachers can all adopt, leaving children to form their own worldviews. Simply being with people of a particular opinion influences us to adopt the opinion. Even apathy, say towards religion or politics, is a position that will be passed on.
The problem is that there is no clear dividing line between “thinking for yourself” and any other form of thinking. Often what is meant by teaching a child to think for themselves is actually just teaching them to think, and is subject to all the usual problems inherent in trying to teach thinking skills. We can’t actually identify beliefs that are not acquired from our upbringing or experience, we just tend to think that those who agree with us have thought for themselves and those who disagree with us have been indoctrinated. All thinking, no matter how influenced by others, is “thinking for yourself” in the sense that it is very difficult to control what anyone thinks even in the most repressive environments. Attempts to describe an unindoctrinated individual – usually they are assumed to be very rationalist and tolerant – often sound more like a description of a western, liberal, individualist . To somebody from a different culture the supposedly unindoctrinated individual might seem heavily indoctrinated.
There is a sinister side to this as well. If, in the spirit of condemning indoctrination, teachers cannot pass on any beliefs explicitly, then, for education to actually take place, they will be expected to indirectly influence children to reach the required conclusions. Letting someone think that something is their own idea is usually a technique of manipulation, not a non-coercive means to help another reach the truth. As a result a teacher becomes a manipulator of minds, controlling not only what is to be believed but what is to be thought. As with efforts to “educate” the feelings of children, we have the situation where teachers are to police a child’s thoughts rather than just direct their learning. Additionally, if the education system seeks to distinguish between “indoctrination” and “education” by identifying acceptable and unacceptable beliefs to pass on then we have the state setting itself up as the ultimate arbiter of truth. The alternative to parents raising their children with their values and beliefs and choosing an education that reflects those values isn’t some neutral situation where children “make up their own minds” based on an objective study of the world, it is a situation where the state determines which beliefs are true enough to be taught as if undeniably true and which beliefs are to be either restricted or rejected. Inevitably, attempts to restrict indoctrination of the child would simply remove those influences on the child that aren’t under the control of the state. This would be totalitarian; the state seeks to determine not what it is valuable to know, but what it is acceptable to think.
Autonomy in Learning
This is the idea that children’s learning can be freed from the influence of teachers. The usual jargon here is “independent learning”, “learning to learn”, “metacognition” and talk of teachers being only the “guide from the side”. In the most extreme version, this is the radical individualist idea that there is something unhealthy or corrupting about expecting to gain knowledge from others, or being directed towards knowledge by others, and that children need to be freed from this dependence so as to acquire knowledge on their own and according to their personal whim. However, being “free” of the knowledge held by others is ignorance not independence. Knowledge is not subject to copyright. We can share it as a community. The knowledge of experts is valuable, even to the most ingenious. People who go through life distrusting experts on principle become cranks, not innovators; even Isaac Newton said he’d stood “on the shoulders of giants”.
The more moderate version of this idea, simply claims that children can be taught to learn for themselves, and that this will enable them to learn more than if they were to learn from their teachers. There are several problems with the claim. As usual, we have reason to doubt the existence of a generic, teachable skill. Whether we learn quickly or slowly will depend on the area in question; a child who seems to learn maths with just a glance might well struggle with learning a language. Moreover, a good indicator of our ability to learn in a subject is how much we already know and how well we know it, therefore the activity of learning might be the best method of gaining skill at learning and is certainly a good method of developing the disposition to learn. There are some teachable study skills, like revision techniques and note-taking, which are effective but hardly replace the need to be knowledgeable about a subject and there is no identifiable “learning” skill. For this reason “learning to learn” courses tend to resemble a very slow course in study skills stretched out by using pseudo-science (learning styles, brain gym, left and right brain thinking, triune theory of the brain. etc.) as filler. There is considerable reason to think that people, and children in particular, are natural learners and that teaching somebody to learn is as absurd as teaching them to breathe or excrete.
While we can teach ourselves, for instance by reading books, people can usually expect to learn better from being taught. This is because a teacher, if competent, can assess the learner and consider how learning should progress. A book cannot assess its reader and we are very poor judges of our own ability. Even if it was the case that teaching was an inefficient method of bringing about learning, this would not be an argument for teaching children how to learn, it would be an argument for not teaching them at all. If we value learning at all then we find it hard to rule out the benefits of teaching. For if we doubt that there is much knowledge to be taught, we should also have grounds to doubt there is much knowledge to be learnt.
Autonomy of Expression
Our final form of autonomy is usually called “self-expression”. It is the idea that we should give a particular value to children being able to communicate their own thoughts, ideas and feelings. This is obviously not a bad thing in itself, but it is hardly clear why it should be more important than being able to communicate in general or communicate in an academic context. I suspect that it is simply a form of “therapeutic education” and that developing these skills is meant to improve the child’s emotional well-being rather than their intellect. We live in communities and the ideas, thoughts and feelings of others are often of great importance to us and there is no obvious reason to think that the communication skills involved in communicating about the minds of others are that different to those involved in expressing our own thoughts.
There are, however, good grounds for not requiring to children express themselves when they don’t want to. Children are entitled to privacy. The lack of privacy is already one of the most unpleasant aspects of childhood. Most of our education is in public; subject to the scrutiny of our peers, why intensify this by trying to make our interior world public, too? As Arendt (1961) put it:
Because the child must be protected against the world, his traditional place is in the family, whose adult members daily return back from the outside world and withdraw into the security of private life within four worlds. These four walls within which people’s private family life is shared constitute a shield against the world. They enclose a secure place without which no living thing can thrive. This holds good not only for human life but for human life in general. Wherever the latter is consistently exposed to the world without the protection of privacy and security its vital quality is destroyed…
Everything that lives, not vegetative life alone emerges from darkness and however strong its natural tendency to thrust itself into the light, it nevertheless needs the security of darkness to grow at all. This may indeed be the reason that the children of famous parents so often turn out badly. Fame penetrates the four walls, invades their private space, bringing with it, especially in present day conditions, the merciless glare of the public realm, which floods everything in the private lives of those concerned so that the children no longer have a place of security where they can grow.
When we expect children to express themselves as part of the education endeavour we are breaking down these protective walls of a private life and it is far from clear that there is any benefit to it.
Finally, there is the point that all these forms of autonomy involve prioritising the individual which is why so much of the jargon here has the prefix “self”. Advocates of autonomy treat the thoughts, feelings and opinions of children as the most important part of the educational enterprise. It stops education being about how the child relates to the world, and starts being about how the world should relate to the child. It is far from obvious that a child should be raised as if the world is there simply to suit them. Exclusive concern with one’s own feelings and opinions is traditionally known as “selfishness”. It was normally seen as morally wrong, not something to be indulged. The strongest case against autonomy is the moral case. There are values, of solidarity and community; of culture and family; of altruism and sacrifice, that matter more than self-gratification. The truly autonomous, unindoctrinated, self-expressing child would be an attention-seeking egotist, trained to disregard others, not a functioning member of society.
Arendt, Hannah, Between Past and Future, 1961