Saturday, September 4, 2021

On the Wildness of Children

 From Carol Black:

At the turn of the twentieth century educational theorists were quite open about the fact that they were designing schools for the purpose of adapting children to the new industrial order.  Children must shed their “savage” wildness, these pedagogues maintained, and develop “civilized” habits like punctuality, obedience, orderliness, and efficiency.  As Ellwood P. Cubberley, Dean of the Stanford University School of Education, put it in 1898:

Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw materials – children – are to be shaped and fashioned into products… The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of 20th century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.

In the minds of these architects of modern schooling, “The Child” “The Savage,” and “Nature” were homologous concepts; all represented something intrinsically corrupt, bestial, unformed.  "Nature," said William Torrey Harris, U.S. Commissioner of Education from 1889 to 1906, is the “polar antithesis” of the “nature of man as spirit.”  He elaborates:

Out of the savage state man ascends by making himself new natures, one above the other; he realizes his ideas in institutions, and finds in these ideal worlds his real home and his true nature.

The purpose of school, in other words, was to "elevate" children out of their natural state (which was, in Mr. Harris' view, "totally depraved") and train them to take their place in man's grand project of "subordinating the material world to his use."  As Harris explains, "The nations and peoples of the world rank high or low... according to the degree in which they have realized this ideal of humanity."  Cultures that did not see things this way confronted a choice:  "absorb our culture and become intellectually productive or else––die out. This is the judgment pronounced by the Anglo Saxon upon the lower races."

We have forgotten that these were the original purposes of the factory-like institutions that most of us grew up in; we speak of our familiar school experience almost as though it were an integral part of nature itself, a natural and essential part of human childhood, rather than the vast and extremely recent experiment in social engineering that it actually is. But the past, as Faulkner famously remarked, is never dead; it’s not even past.  These original purposes were so effectively built into the structure of modern schooling –– with its underlying systems of confinement, control, standardization, measurement, and enforcement –– that today they are accomplished even without our conscious knowledge or assent.

They are not, of course, accomplished in the ways that the social engineers had in mind.  These visionary men assumed human nature to be infinitely malleable; children were to be molded and fashioned like any other industrial raw material into a predetermined finished product, and industrial utopia would be the result.  But they did not count on the power of children’s instinct for dissent.  The wild mind strives to protect itself the way a horse under saddle does, with a thousand strategies of resistance, withdrawal, inattention, forgetting; the children won’t do what the authorities say they should do, they won’t learn what the experts say they must learn, and for every diligent STEM-trained worker-bee we create there are ten bored, resistant, apathetic young people who are alienated from both nature and their own chained hearts.

The past isn't dead.  It isn't even past. (Read more.)


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