Saturday, May 14, 2011

Education and the Good Life, Chapter XII

Chapter XII (pages 209-223), “Sex Education”

Readers, sympathetic so far to the message of instilling a sense of freedom and courageousness in children, might be tempted to revert to “slavery and terror [p. 209]” in the sex realm. Russell says he will stay true to his principles, and treat the sex instinct like any other – though in its mature form, the sex drive is later developing than most other desires. Discussions with children still at the prepubescent stage will be the primary focus of this chapter. The Freudians are right in that bad handling of sexual issues at early ages can lead to harms later in life. Obscenity laws have contributed to poor sex education, as valuable ideas have to be couched in euphemism to escape the censors.

Apparently masturbation by two and three year old children is common – and it is commonly met with horror from adults. The threats of caregivers do not stop the practice, but they do instill apprehension which, though eventually repressed, expresses itself in nightmares or other psychic disorders. The practice of masturbation by young children in itself typically involves no physical or moral harm; it is the anti-masturbation policy that produces trouble. Subtle nudges away from masturbation, such as ensuring that children are quite tired when they go to bed, are unobjectionable, but any direct attention to the practice will likely prove counterproductive.

Children are curious, and that natural curiosity extends to gender differences. Their curiosity can be intensified, however, by the adult practice of shrouding sexual matters in mystery. Kids can see their family naked when such nakedness is, as it were, naturally occurring. The approach towards sex education should be the same as with other types of education: questions must be answered truthfully, and with the same fullness, interest, and matter-of-factness that questions about steam engines would be met with. Children will pick up on any subtle messages that sex is somehow dirty, to the detriment of their future happiness.

Learning about sex from the gossip of school children is likely to instill unhealthy attitudes. Most boys of Russell’s years who were exposed to sex education in that fashion “continued through life to think sex comic and nasty, with the result that they could not respect a woman with whom they had intercourse, even though she were the mother of their children [p. 215].” Nevertheless, many parents seek the cowardly approach of silence on sexual matters – which among other effects, ensures that children will think badly of their parents when the kids realize that their parents had sex. It is cruel to let a child reach puberty without preparation for what lies ahead. Girls and boys both need truthful information. “Sex must be treated from the first as natural, delightful and decent [p. 215].” (Much in this chapter, incidentally, is echoed by Russell later in Marriage and Morals and in The Conquest of Happiness.)

Parents of different religious or ethical persuasions will wish to give their children different guidance on sexual morality. All children, though, should be told about sexually-transmitted diseases, without exaggeration, and about prevention as well as treatment or cure. “It is a mistake to give only such instruction as is needed by the perfectly virtuous, and to regard the misfortunes which happen to others as a just punishment of sin [p. 218].” People should be warned about the seriousness of the decision to have children, and the necessity that babies only be conceived if they are likely to be sufficiently provided for. [Russell's godfather might even have been willing to forbid marriages if the couple could not demonstrate sufficient means to raise a child; see paragraph 15 of Chapter V of On Liberty.] The old, cruel notion that children within marriage are always a blessing is a view that “is now only maintained by heartless dogmatists, who think that everything disgraceful to humanity redounds to the glory of God [p. 219].”

Children must be instructed that they are likely to be future parents, and that they cannot remain ignorant about how to be good parents: their untutored instincts will not be enough to serve well the interests of their children. The idea that motherhood is fully instinctual is wrong and damaging, turning intelligent women away from having children.

“Jealousy must not be regarded as a justifiable insistence upon rights, but as a misfortune to the one who feels it and a wrong towards its object [p. 220].” (Again, Russell echoes (or rather, presages) Marriage and Morals.) Love without possessiveness is uplifting, fulfilling; love with possessiveness is diminishing, enervating. “Love cannot be a duty, because it is not subject to the will [p. 220].” Russell anticipates (or mimics?) that old “If you love something set it free…” line: “Those who shut [love] up in a cage destroy the beauty and joy which it can only display while it is free and spontaneous [p. 220].” The fear of loss creates the loss; be courageous.

Some open-minded adults nevertheless teach their children the traditional morality, with the belief that later, when the children are mature, they can shrug it off. Russell believes this is an error, because our inherited traditions involve directly harmful elements – including the notion that jealousy is justifiable, or that lifelong sexual fidelity to a spouse is the sine qua non of marital bliss. The teaching of sex should be undertaken with a scientific, not a dogmatic, approach, and without any special reverence.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Education and the Good Life, Chapter XI

Chapter XI (pages 187-208), “Affection and Sympathy”

Affection is central to good character, but the development of proper affection arises naturally from appropriate training. “Throughout youth, there is less occasion for sympathy than in adult life, both because there is less power of giving effective expression to it, and because a young person has to think of his or her own training for life, largely to the exclusion of other people’s interests [pp. 187-8].” Love of family cannot be imposed as a duty – it must be inculcated through loving behavior. Parental love should not seek reciprocation.

Parents and teachers have to guard against being too intellectually or emotionally influential. Significant influence is unavoidable – look at how religious beliefs are transmitted from generation to generation. There is a danger that the dependence of a child is a source of pleasure, so that parental self-interest could lead to a prolongation of dependence. (For girls, this was often seen as a benefit, as the goal was to keep them dependent, transferring that dependence from their parents to their husbands at marriage.) Emotionally starved parents (like many women in monogamous relationships) might seek unfitting emotional satisfaction from their children. The children have a right to warm affection, but it should not be contingent upon reciprocation. “Psychologically, parents should be a background, and the child should not be made to act with a view to giving his parents pleasure [p. 195].” It is the child’s flourishing that should provide the parental satisfaction.

Women who are not sexually satisfied are not the best teachers, as they will have a tendency to seek emotional connections with their students. (These include the “unhappy spinsters” that Russell warned us about in Marriage and Morals.) Sexually starved men have the same problem, except that there are fewer of them, and their parental inclinations are more muted. Children will respond to the right kind of parental love optimally, with an implicit confidence that they are protected, with a willingness to turn to their parents for guidance, and with affection – but not the same type of affection that children have for their friends. “The parent must act with reference to the child, but the child must act with reference to himself and the outer world [p. 197].” Different relationships imply that appropriate types of affection differ, too, though the Freudian reading wrongly implies that any affection between a child and a parent is suspect. [Russell tells (pages 198-199) a heartwarming tale of some of his then-recent affectionate relations with his own son when the child was less than four years old. He follows up (pages 199-200) with more affecting stories of the instinctual sympathy of children when their relations are in distress; I am reminded of the opening to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. But children, Russell notes, can learn to mimic the cruelty of adults.]

“It is a difficult question how and when to make a child aware of the evil in the world [p. 200].” Nevertheless, the temptation to keep them pure by keeping them ignorant – a variant on an outdated approach to promoting female chastity – must be resisted. “A truly robust morality can only be strengthened by the fullest knowledge of what really happens in the world [p. 201].” The facts of cruelty must be made known, lest there be no inoculation for its allure. But the defenselessness of children makes them psychologically vulnerable to too earlier exposure to brutality. The dreadful activity in some fairy tales is not risky, however, as it is so assuredly part of a fantasy world. When children are first exposed to the actual existence of cruelty, it should be so in a way that directs their sympathies towards the victims, not the perpetrators. The usual gloss on the Abraham/Isaac story, that Abraham somehow was a holy and honorable man, is horrifying to children, as a child is the victim and his own father is the evildoer; this story should be told as a fictionalized example of man’s barbaric past. Wars should be presented as what they are, the harmful progeny of quarrels among silly men. Cruel people should be viewed as suffering from ignorance and a lack of self-control. A full accounting of the facts of war and cruelty should point a child in the proper moral direction without any explicit moralizing.

Affection between children cannot be produced by fiat, but it can be nurtured through providing a safe, kind, and happy setting. Children will then be spontaneously friendly, and they will draw friendly feeling from others. “A trustful affectionate disposition justifies itself, because it gives irresistible charm, and creates the response which it expects [pages 207-208].”