Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Affairs of the Child

Children highly Endowed but Ignorant––This is how we find children––with intelligence more acute, logic more keen, observing powers more alert, moral sensibilities more quick, love and faith and hope more abounding; in fact, in all points like as we are, only much more so; but absolutely ignorant of the world and its belongings, of us and our ways, and, above all, of how to control and direct and manifest the infinite possibilities with which they are born.

Reading this in Amy's CM-blog A Full Life: the Works of Charlotte Mason today reminded me of something I read yesterday in East of Eden by John Steinbeck. Obviously there is a difference in mood --tone-- perspective -- in the two passages, but the perception is quite similar.

The first speaker is Adam Trask, talking about something to do with his two boys, and the second speaker is Lee, his Chinese de jure servant who is a bit of a de facto mentor for him and for the book as a whole.

"Seems to me you put too much stock in the affairs of children. It probably didn't mean anything."

"Yes, it meant something." Then he said, "Mr. Trask, do you think the thoughts of people suddenly become important at a given age? Do you have sharper feelings or clearer thoughts now than when you were ten? Do you see as well, hear as well, taste as vitally?"

"Maybe you're right," said Adam.

"It's one of the great fallacies, it seems to me," said Lee, "that time gives much of anything but years and sadness to a man."

"And memory."

"Yes, memory. Without that, time would be unarmed against us."
Because I can't leave two good quotes alone, I have to add something that surprised me very much when I first realized it. When today's educational "traditionalists" are talking about "going back to the basics" with education, they are very often talking about going back to Locke and his concept of the child as tabula rasa or blank slate. That is, that you can drill and review and train and turn out an educated, virtuous citizen, without reference to anything beyond the mechanics of the interaction. Today's "progressives" often think they are being more humane and respectful when they propose an education based on utility or centered around the child's own self-perception, that is "meaningful" to the child.

But in fact, the "tabula rasa" idea was a fairly new one in Western history, and the utilitarian-education progressive one, rather than being a controversion, seems to be the enabling partner in an odd way I haven't quite figured out yet. I wish I could figure it out completely. I sit and think about it from time to time and sometimes I try to write something out, like this, which is not quite pulled-together, thus accurately reflecting the incompleteness of my understanding in this area.

Jesus said, "you must become as a little child," and "do not despise, hinder or offend these little ones, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these." Charlotte Mason quotes these passages often. If you take Lee in East of Eden as representing Asian wisdom (as opposed to representing John Steinbeck's sage-outsider voice within the frame of the book, which seems more likely to me), then apparently Eastern philosophy has something to say in this respect too (and this gives me a reason to link to Leonie's Unschooling Mindfully post and her link to Sandra Dodd's Mindfulness page)

Notice that this thread of "paideia" through history does not fall into the opposite camp, which seems to propose that children are best off left to their own devices and that they are somehow superior to adults, or that they should not be burdened with learning that isn't strictly necessary to everyday life. Adults have a key role to play but a very big part of it is the understanding that the child's affairs are of import, that his or her personality ought to be respected, and that truthfulness and integrity are of the essence in an adult's dealings with children. In fact, this seems to be one of the strong threads running through East of Eden (which I haven't finished yet and which I have mixed feelings about -- I hope to write out some thoughts about the book itself another time)


Stephanie said...

It's also interesting to note that either "children are best off left to their own devices and that they are somehow superior to adults, or that they should not be burdened with learning that isn't strictly necessary to everyday life" assumes an adversarial role between adult and child?

That's where I always trip. If someone's basic method or philosophy or practice assume that the adults and the kids are intrinsically at odds with each other, I chuck the guru out. And I always feel protective of the kids in that scenario.

Willa said...

I like the way you put that, Stephanie -- it clarified some things

Willa said...

Oops, didn't finish. I meant it clarified some things I had been thinking about but hadn't been quite able to put into words.