September 15, 2018

Every so often progressive edutwitter goes insane about something. Usually it is something that is obviously true.

The last time it happened was over this post. In it, I argued that children should be held responsible for their behaviour and pointed out they were “not insane”. Progressives deduced that if I thought we should hold children responsible for their behaviour because they were not insane, then I must be saying that children who are not responsible for their behaviour are insane. For some progressives, this is almost all children, particularly if they have SEN or are badly behaved and edutwitter filled with two arguments:

  1. He calls children/children with SEN/badly behaved children “insane”. He is a monster.
  2. He used the word “insane”. This is offensive to people with mental health problems. Nobody should ever use the word.

As ever, the argument could only get as far as it did by being dishonest. Anyone going back to the source would discover that I had said children were not insane. Anyone claiming that the word “insane” was inherently offensive would invariably turn out to have used the word “insane”, or “mad” or “crazy” themselves at some point because that’s a normal part of how almost everybody talks about irrationality.

It all died down eventually, with most of the damage being self-inflicted. However, the key argument, that when we start saying kids (or particular types of kids) aren’t responsible for their actions, we are treating them as if they were insane was lost in the fuss, which is a shame.

This incident sprang to mind, yesterday when David Didau also got attacked for saying something obviously true. In defending the position that intelligence is not innate (i.e. the position that we do have to learn in order to become smart) he pointed out:

And again, faced with that second sentence, something that, without serious misinterpretation, was obviously true, progressive edutwitter went insane… I mean…. no, I do mean insane.

The argument went something like this:

  1. If we define “stupid” to refer to the inability to learn well, or to refer only to comparison between children of the same age, then this isn’t true.
  2. I don’t like the tone.

Obviously, a moment’s consideration reveals that in all the ways relevant to what David was saying, babies are actually stupid. To object is to declare that either you know what he meant better than he does, or that you have unilaterally decided “stupid” cannot refer to ignorance, lack of ability at intellectual feats or anything else where babies compare badly with adults. This argument is hard to sustain, so we soon had personal attacks, claims from authority – “I  know more about babies/child development/what David meant than David does” – and general attempts to declare the word “stupid” offensive to babies, or some other category of people, in the same way that “insane” was.

I don’t think progressives using bad arguments is really news. Nor is it news that they will use a mix of manufactured outrage, personal attacks, and twitter pile-ons to get at people. But what fascinates me most in these two arguments is the way in which the original point was obviously correct in both cases. Babies are stupid. People who are not responsible for their actions are usually considered insane. I’ve long observed that inconvenient facts cause more controversy than actual debatable opinions. And this is what I see as dangerous. Truth is something we should be committed to. Unless a truth is something obviously personal (e.g. your mum is fat) or private, we should always hesitate to criticise somebody for saying what is true. It reflects badly on progressive edutwitter that so many were so outraged at something so obviously true.

When people object to truths then you really see which assumptions underlie their ideology. One of the longest standing themes of progressive education is the idea that children do not need to learn from adults, that all their intellectual gifts are contained within and just have to be drawn out. G.K. Chesterton satirised this over 100 years ago:

I know that certain crazy pedants have attempted to counter this difficulty by maintaining that education is not instruction at all, does not teach by authority at all. They present the process as coming, not from the outside, from the teacher, but entirely from inside the boy. Education, they say, is the Latin for leading out or drawing out the dormant faculties of each person. Somewhere far down in the dim boyish soul is a primordial yearning to learn Greek accents or to wear clean collars; and the schoolmaster only gently and tenderly liberates this imprisoned purpose. Sealed up in the newborn babe are the intrinsic secrets of how to eat asparagus and what was the date of Bannockburn. The educator only draws out the child’s own unapparent love of long division; only leads out the child’s slightly veiled preference for milk pudding to tarts. I am not sure that I believe in the derivation; I have heard the disgraceful suggestion that “educator,” if applied to a Roman schoolmaster, did not mean leading our young functions into freedom; but only meant taking out little boys for a walk. But I am much more certain that I do not agree with the doctrine; I think it would be about as sane to say that the baby’s milk comes from the baby as to say that the baby’s educational merits do. There is, indeed, in each living creature a collection of forces and functions; but education means producing these in particular shapes and training them to particular purposes, or it means nothing at all. Speaking is the most practical instance of the whole situation. You may indeed “draw out” squeals and grunts from the child by simply poking him and pulling him about, a pleasant but cruel pastime to which many psychologists are addicted. But you will wait and watch very patiently indeed before you draw the English language out of him. That you have got to put into him; and there is an end of the matter.

But the important point here is only that you cannot anyhow get rid of authority in education; it is not so much (as poor Conservatives say) that parental authority ought to be preserved, as that it cannot be destroyed. Mr. Bernard Shaw once said that he hated the idea of forming a child’s mind. In that case Mr. Bernard Shaw had better hang himself; for he hates something inseparable from human life. I only mentioned educere and the drawing out of the faculties in order to point out that even this mental trick does not avoid the inevitable idea of parental or scholastic authority. The educator drawing out is just as arbitrary and coercive as the instructor pouring in; for he draws out what he chooses. He decides what in the child shall be developed and what shall not be developed. He does not (I suppose) draw out the neglected faculty of forgery. He does not (so far at least) lead out, with timid steps, a shy talent for torture. The only result of all this pompous and precise distinction between the educator and the instructor is that the instructor pokes where he likes and the educator pulls where he likes. Exactly the same intellectual violence is done to the creature who is poked and pulled. Now we must all accept the responsibility of this intellectual violence. Education is violent; because it is creative. It is creative because it is human. It is as reckless as playing on the fiddle; as dogmatic as drawing a picture; as brutal as building a house. In short, it is what all human action is; it is an interference with life and growth. After that it is a trifling and even a jocular question whether we say of this tremendous tormentor, the artist Man, that he puts things into us like an apothecary, or draws things out of us, like a dentist.

I think most progressives would have said this addresses a straw man and was not their true position at all. But now we know that for many progressives, or at least for many of those who would deny that we are born stupid, it is not just their belief but an assumption that is so firmly ingrained they actually get angry when they hear it denied.


  1. Crassness of the highest order in DD’s original tweet Andrew. If we define the word “stupid’ properly then there is no real reason to have used it in the context DD did. This isn’t a trad/prog argument either, no matter how hard you try to make it that way, it’s simply a question of common decency.

  2. How incredibly arrogant of you.

    • Still proving my point.

      • Because I dare to disagree with you? Maybe we just see the world in different ways. Doesn’t make you right or me wrong.

        • Because you seem unwilling to engage with substance. So far we have offence taking, arguing over the words used to make the point rather than the point, and a personal attack on me.

          All of this can only prove the point that you don’t have any argument against the substance of what was said.

  3. Oh my. Let me get something straight before I reply properly. Do you think babies are stupid? This would see, to be a strange position to take given what we scientifically know about child development. As I’ve previously stated Andrew, this isn’t a prog/trad thing, it’s a human decency thing.

    But I’m guessing that you see your role in all of this differently. Maybe if you lift the blinkers slightly we could agree to disagree in a civil manner.

    • Obviously babies are stupid. There’s no human decency in pretending otherwise, just ideological nonsense.

  4. […] recent post on Andrew Old’s blog reminded me of an etymological matter which I have been planning to deal […]

  5. I’m with you on David’s position. I think he was pretty clear what he meant, and he was perfectly correct within the bounds of what he was talking about.

    What I think is your Achilles Heel is your original point about responsibility. When my oldest son was a few months old, he sprayed me and his bedroom wall with liquid poo as I changed his nappy. He was definitely responsible – nobody else pulled the trigger, or provided the ammo (unless we were to blame for feeding him, or for aiming his butt in a particular direction).

    Anyway, although he was clearly responsible, we certainly couldn’t hold him ‘accountable’. So I guess, when does it become appropriate/fair to hold someone accountable for what they are responsible for…? Shouldn’t there be a sliding scale from “not at all accountable” to “fully accountable”, and where does this fit into your personal scheme…?

    • I don’t think a baby is responsible in the situation you describe.

      • Ok – thank you – that’s helpful. So we really are talking about responsibility which is the fruit of deliberation and choice, and which hence demands accountability.

        • I’m not sure I can put it in other words as responsibility is such a basic concept. We are (generally) responsible for our voluntary actions but not involuntary ones.

  6. It is not unreasonable to make the inference to ‘Babies suffer a medically abnormal cognitive defect’ from ‘Babies are stupid’, though it is clear from context that Mr Didau did not intend this meaning.

    As with any person, babies can be differentiated by their mental or intellectual capacity, such as that baby has defective motor skills, that baby is autistic, that baby is inflicted by cerebral palsy, and so on. Hence, it is perfectly understandable that a rational adult will infer cognitive defect from stupidity, in babies or adults. To do so in this case is to ignore the context of the argument.

    I think each side has a valid point. On the one hand, Mr Didau’d choice of words left him open to attack, on the other, his detractors have to take the statement out of context to validate their inference.

    I will add that the tactic of stripping an argument down to one decontextualised or irrelevant part is typical of many debates, and not that is characteristic of nor unique to progressivism.

    • To say David left himself open to attack is to suggest that it is reasonable behaviour to attack somebody for telling the truth about babies. Yes, he could have phrased it to give less excuse for the outrage, but he shouldn’t have to.

      • I think ‘babies are less intelligent than everyone else’ and ‘babies are cognitively defective’ are both valid inferences of ‘Babies are stupid’. In the scenario in question, a simple consideration of context should have confirmed what was actually meant.

        But some people ignore context, so a statement that can be inferred one way or another is going to provide ammo for one’s detractors whatever the facts and whatever the soundness of one’s argument.

  7. How many times do we blunder and then admit “That was stupid of me”? It may have escaped your critic’s notice, but all measures of intelligence are age-normed: with any kind of luck, we get smarter as we grow up. I don’t think many psychologists would disagree with Didau’s definition of intelligence, and in that respect babies are unquestionably stupid. One has to be incredibly thin-skinned to take offense–even if one is a doctrinnaire progressive.
    Great Chesterton quote.

  8. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  9. […] #babygate […]

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