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].”

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