Friday, February 4, 2011

Education and the Good Life, Chapter V

Chapter V (pages 123-135), “Play and Fancy”

Young animals, including humans, love play; human children especially love play of the make-believe variety. Play is necessary for a happy childhood, even if amusement has no (other) instrumental value. But play seems to possess non-hedonic utility, too, by providing rehearsal for activities that later will have to be undertaken in actuality. Play is one means for children – who are weak relative to adults – to fantasize about having greater powers. Joy in play is like the joy that adults take from drama. Children don’t really believe that their fantasizing is real – nor should we be assiduous in pointing out the unreality. “I cannot sympathize with the ascetics of truth, any more than with ascetics of other kinds [pp. 127-128].”

Excessive daydreaming in adults is a fault if it serves as a substitute for taking actions that can fulfill dreams. But in children, this substitutability is not yet manifest, so fantasies co-exist with incentives to eventually realize them. “To kill fancy in childhood is to make a slave to what exists, a creature tethered to earth and therefore unable to create heaven [p. 129].”

Don’t despair if your child uses his fancy to create sadistic giants or revengeful pirates. The instinct for power that these fancies represent should be nurtured, not suppressed. The development of useful skills like scientific or artistic dexterity will be one way to pursue power, and will serve humankind. “Thus the secret of instruction, in so far as it bears upon character, is to give a man such kinds of skill as shall lead to his employing his instincts usefully [p. 130].”

Very young children engage in solitary play – they may be too undeveloped even to play with their older siblings. But as they age, competition becomes a predominant element in play. There is merit to the team sports that occupy such a large role in British upper-class education – though such merit typically is exaggerated. Games should neither be suppressed nor made a central component of the educational program.

Games in which the opponent is uncaring nature – as opposed to other humans – have much to recommend them. Sailing, driving, flying, experimenting – all of these are skills that usefully can be taught to children. They instill courage without encouraging brutality. The promotion of athletics, in contrast, seems to come at the cost of underemphasizing academics. “Great Britain is losing her industrial position, and will perhaps lose her empire, through stupidity, and through the fact that the authorities do not value or promote intelligence [p. 134].”

The esprit de corps built by games is considered a feature, not a bug, by those who want to employ such spirit to promote actions that they desire. It has the unfortunate property, however, of crowding out other motives for behavior, so that there is little encouragement for actions which are not competitive. “Nothing is done to promote constructiveness for its own sake, or to make people take an interest in doing their job efficiently even if no one is to be injured thereby [p. 135].”

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