Saturday, April 23, 2011

Education and the Good Life, Chapter X

Chapter X (pages 178-186), “Importance of Other Children”

Peer groups and slightly older children do much to build character in the young. Contemporaries are better analogues for children than are adults, so they can more easily be emulated. Younger children like to play with older children, but this is true throughout the age spectrum. As a result, where there is free choice, the social groups become segregated by age. Age mixing occurs primarily within families, where only the eldest child lacks the advantage of having slightly older examples at hand. “Small families are in some ways a disadvantage to children, unless supplemented by nursery schools [p. 179].” Slightly older children naturally assume an authority when they play with younger kids, an authority to which the younger kids readily submit. Older children provide the templates and the prods for the reasonable ambitions of younger kids. Dealings with younger kids also provide opportunities for the moral education of the older children, who must learn to share and to accept the depredations that the clumsiness of the tots will generate.

Despite the utility of keeping company with children of different ages, it is contemporaries who are most important, at least for kids of age four or older. “Behaviour to equals is what most needs to be learnt [p. 183]” – because people of all situations are indeed your equals as adults. For this reason, schools, at least if they are good, provide a better environment for training children than within the family. Further, kids need a lot of play, and to meet this need, the company of their schoolfellows is desirable.

[Russell then notes that his godfather, John Stuart Mill, had little play in his childhood, though he did have an amazingly rigorous education starting at a very young age. (Mill detailed his unusual upbringing in his Autobiography.) “From the mere standpoint of acquiring knowledge, the results may be good, but taken all round I cannot admire them [p. 184].” Mill’s difficulty in accepting reasoning that led away from his father’s views constrained his creativity (Russell returns to this theme in Chapter XI, on page 191), and he had a hard time enjoying life. Russell then reveals that he himself had a sort of Mill-lite education, with the same result of adolescent thoughts of suicide. “When I began to associate with contemporaries, I found myself an angular prig. How far I have remained so, it is not for me to say [p. 185].”]

Not all children should be subjected to education with schoolfellows. People with exceptional capabilities but incurable social awkwardness can be bullied mercilessly, so they can be homeschooled – though proper upbringing during infancy would go a long way towards limiting excessive nervousness or social awkwardness.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Education and the Good Life, Chapter IX

Chapter IX (pages 166-177), “Punishment”

Tradition calls for chastisement of children, but the extremes of yesteryear have fallen out of favor, “even in Tennessee [p. 167].” Sharp reproof has a role to play in education, but severe punishment does not; severity should peak at the “natural spontaneous expression of indignation [p. 167].”

After the blandishments of reason have failed, Russell and his wife employ a sort of time out system; their son can rejoin them when he is good, and he understands that to return is to commit to proper behavior. “I believe that reasonable parents create reasonable children [168].” Let the small risks go, though the result will be occasional bruises and cuts – these harms will convince children of the necessity underlying parental prohibition of extremely risky behavior.

Children who persistently ruin the play of other children must be banished; do not try to induce guilt, but focus on missed pleasures. Russell quotes at length Madame Montessori, who relies on the behavior of the other children to provide a model for naughty children. The miscreants themselves, isolated but comfortable and able to see all the proceedings, are addressed almost as if they are ill, while the others are treated as quasi-adults. Peer opinion is against the badly behaving student. Don’t punish a child with schoolwork which is meant to be something he enjoys and profits from, for he will cease to see its value.

Praise and blame are part of the requisite incentive structure, but they have to be used sparingly – especially blame. Don’t compare one child with another in distributing praise and blame, and don’t offer praise for what should be quotidian accomplishments. “All through education, any unusually good piece of work should be praised [p. 173].”

Boys have a seemingly natural tendency towards treating animals with cruelty, but don’t wait until it happens, and then treat the boy with cruelty. Rather, promote a respect for life, and don’t even let a child see you kill a dangerous pest. Mild unkindness of an older towards a younger child should be met with an equivalent unkindness from the adult towards the older child – with an explanation that he should recognize that his hurt feelings are paralleled by those in the younger, mistreated child. General maxims have little impact on the young: “All moral instruction must be immediate and concrete… [p. 174].”

Serious cruelty by older children must be met with isolation, for the safety of others. The miscreant should be viewed Montessori-like, almost as if he were unwell – not as if he were evil. “He should be made to feel that a great misfortune had befallen him in the shape of an impulse to cruelty, and that his elders were endeavouring to shield him from a similar misfortune in the future [p. 175].”

Physical punishment can play no positive role, and inculcates the belief that authority is rightly maintained by force. It undermines open, pleasant relations between children and adults. “To win the genuine affection of children is a joy as great as any that life has to offer [p. 176].” Commands to love your parents as a duty, in an environment of physical punishment, are self-defeating. Fortunately, more enlightened views towards the relationships between parents and adults are taking hold, and it would be well if they could spread to other arenas of human interaction.