The Innocent Child?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was an 18th-century philosopher who wrote the very influential work on education titled Emile, or On Education. The book poses that a person is born into innate human goodness and is then corrupted by the world. Rousseau seeks to explore how a child could be instructed in a manner that retains their innate goodness and avoids corruption by the world – an endeavour to create the perfect citizen. The book was not well received at the time of release. It was banned in France and was publicly burned for what were perceived to be anti-christian sentiments. Beyond rocky beginnings, the book has had a profound impact on how western society views childhood.

“Coming from the hand of the Author of all things, everything is good; in the hands of man, everything degenerates.” (p. 1) The idea that a person is born innately good and is henceforth corrupted was a new one. Up until then, childhood did not have a separate identity from adulthood; instead, children were simply considered miniature adults. The book, from its opening line, was the beginning of the romantic view of the child; the idea that a child is born a special being with unique and trustworthy impulses that should be allowed to run their course. This idea has left a lasting, profound impression on how we view children and how they should experience childhood (and, by extension, education).

The romantic view of the child is at the core of educational progressivism. This idea echoes in the arguments of educational progressives who advocate strongly for a play-based education (nature’s education) at the expense of an academic-based education – direct instruction in reading, writing and mathematics (man’s education). Why impose man’s education on a child so young? It will simply corrupt this time of innocence and benevolence that nature has bestowed upon them – it will simply corrupt the development of the ‘whole child’. It also echoes in the argument that educational endeavours must have a sense of discovery (guided discovery; discovery learning) about them. Why impose what we know upon them? That will only corrupt. The child should discover information naturally so as to avoid the corrupting knowledge of man.

Despite the tit-for-tat about methods, ultimately, progressivism is not so much about methods as it is a way of thinking – it is a philosophy deeply embedded in the romantic idea of the child. It is the idea that education should not be imposed on the child, but it should be part of its natural development. In my view, this has also had an impact on how teachers view the role of discipline in our schools. I, for one, was very much of the view that discipline was only necessary to maintain order and safety for everyone within the school. I thought discipline was restrictive. It would act to impose society’s self-constructed ideals and suppress the natural flourishing of the child, and should, therefore, be kept to a minimum (obviously this is not how I would have described my thoughts at the time). This, of course, reflects the thinking of Rousseau, who, as noted, claimed that nothing was so wonderful as a man in his pre-civilised state.

I don’t think I believe this anymore. This line of thinking hangs on the premise that children are indeed good and will stay good if they could simply avoid society’s corrupting power with all its prejudice and injustice. But are children innately good? Are they really born innocent? And is organised human society really a corrupting power?

Jordan Peterson is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. He argues that children are not innately good. They have the same capacity to do harm in the world as adults do, which is in large part motivated by their want to dominate; a biologically human characteristic. Five-year-olds often whack other children to get what they want, or even knock over their peer’s block tower to invoke tears when they don’t have it their way. They also manipulate their social environment to do mental harm to others. Their willingness to upset their parents is also apparent. Small children will push and push and push to get a reaction, and they know full well they are inflicting mental distress. Similar happens between teacher and student, too. Just like adults, children have the capacity to manipulate their environment to try and get their way, even if that means inflicting harm. There is nothing innately good about that.

If children are not innately good, because they demonstrate quite clearly that they are not, then the argument that society’s imposition on childhood leads to corruption seems pretty silly. Even more so when we consider the objective truth that as societies have become more civilised, they have become less corrupt. Death, abuse and tyranny were common elements of life not so long ago, and still are in many places in the world. The homicide rate in the UK is 1 per 100 000. It is 90 per 100 000 in Honduras. Circa 1840, the indigenous Kato of California had a murder rate of 1450 per 100 000. Beyond homicide, the rights and civil liberties of all peoples are far better than they have ever been, and this continues to grow as societies advance. Society works to put constraints on the destruction humans are capable of producing. Peterson believes that it is not society that is corrupt, but individual humans themselves. Society doesn’t make human beings worse, it actually helps to make us better.

What does this mean for schools? The arguments around methods needing a naturalistic element seem quite silly if we acknowledge that children do not need space away from societies impositions to flourish. The teaching of what society knows seems an obvious first choice if we know that it will empower and not corrupt. Passing on what we know is likely a better way to ensure flourishing, for it will allow young people to participate in and access what society has to offer. It also seems clear to me that discipline, contrary to being oppressive, is of utmost importance if we are to shape young people to grow into accepted, contributing and happy members of the society we have built. Rude, selfish and indifferent young people will surely grow into rude, selfish and indifferent adults if we do not train them well, and the world will treat them harshly for it. Surely that is not what we want for our young people. Instead of falling for the lie that insisting on good discipline will corrupt, we should work to ensure all students reach a certain standard of civility.

Jordan Peterson’s book

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s book 


3 thoughts on “The Innocent Child?”

  1. One of the most important books published in recent years is “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” by Steven Pinker. Pinker argues the same case — that society is immeasurably less violent now than it was in the past — and presents hundreds of pages of evidence to support it. Furthermore, he suggests a reason for the improvement (in brief, because the state and its institutions have replaced the honour system). This is important, because it suggests the type of reforms we should strive for in the future. By extension, it also suggests that schools should establish firm discipline so that students don’t have to take matters into their own hands.

    Liked by 1 person

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