True Education Is Self-Education
It has been well said that a truth cannot be learned: It can only be recognized.
As I stated earlier, it isn’t realistic to ask a child to determine what he shall learn. Mature decisions cannot be made in ignorance of the facts. But this much having been said, it remains equally true that unless the child also wants to learn, no amount of teaching will ensure that he absorbs anything. Effective teaching requires the student’s willing cooperation. This willingness must be enlisted; it cannot be commandeered.
Thus, whatever system of education one follows, it must be flexible enough to provide for the shifting needs of a large variety of students. It must be child-oriented. A teacher may have specific information that he wants to impart, but if his students are not ready to receive it, his immediate job must be either to help them to receive it, or else to teach them what he thinks they can receive.
One of the mistakes often made by teachers, and by lecturers in all fields, is a tendency to be satisfied if they can convince themselves rather than their audiences. A good talk, however, whether a class or a lecture, is always in a sense a dialogue, even if one person does all the speaking. The competent speaker will “listen,” as it were, to his audience — to their thoughts, their unspoken questions — and will respond accordingly. The more intuitive he is, the greater his ability will be to sense their needs, both as a group and as individuals.
Groups often experience a shared awareness, to which the sensitive lecturer can respond by tuning in to it. Often, the larger the group, the stronger this shared awareness. In a lecture to 2,000 people there may be a greater sense of dialogue in this sense than in a lecture to only six persons.
This group awareness may be more difficult to achieve where little children are concerned, particularly if the discussion centers in abstract principles. Dialogue, in this case, must be more literally what the word itself implies. Indeed, during the early years of education, close attention should be paid to every child. Classes should, if possible, be kept small. Take care to observe individual reactions, and to note any method that works for engaging the child’s attention and interest.
People, including children, fall generally into basic types according to their temperaments and inclinations. These types divide themselves into a primary focus on body-awareness, on the feelings and emotions, on the will, and on the intellect. Children who are focused on body-consciousness need a different emphasis from those who by nature are more thoughtful. Some children respond to appeals to their finer feelings, while others respond best when their will is challenged. Some children must have the logic of a request explained to them, while others respond only to firm orders. No single rule holds true for every child.
I remember my father once giving my brother and me a spanking for something we’d done wrong. Well, wrong in his adult eyes, but not in ours. As we boys saw it, we’d only been helping to beautify the bathroom with large stars that we’d scratched with a screwdriver into the newly painted walls.
My brother Bob, whose temperament was more naturally body-oriented than mine, took his spanking matter-of-factly, then ran off and forgot the whole episode.
My own nature, however, was more thoughtful; I liked to probe into the “whys” of things. To me, our action had been well intentioned and deserved to be considered as such. To be spanked for it seemed to me an outrage against all that was just.
Weeks later, I looked at my father accusingly. “Why did you spank me?” I demanded. To Dad’s credit, he recognized immediately that he had been mistaken. He never spanked me again.
It would be helpful for the teacher or the school staff to prepare a file on every child, listing his salient traits, his reactions to discipline and instruction, and suggesting directions that might be taken in future for his personalized “Education for Life.”
It is probable that the child will fall naturally into one or another of the four types suggested above: physical, emotional, will-oriented, or thoughtful, though no one is ever purely one or the other. Indeed, the complete human being is balanced in all four of these aspects, which comprise, as we shall see later, the basic “tools” we all have to work with as human beings: body, feelings, will power, and intellect.
Certain contrasts might be considered also. Is the child’s nature expansive or contractive? outgoing or withdrawn? positive or negative? constructive or destructive? imaginative or literal-minded? creative or imitative? aggressive or passive? assertive or submissive?
People generally assume that it is better for a child in each of the above cases to possess the first quality, rather than the second. An extroverted child, for example, is considered better adjusted than one who is introverted. This assumption is too simplistic. Do they mean adjusted merely because the child is not sufficiently introspective to be conscious of his own shortcomings? But it is often to the introvert that people turn for meaningful communication. Creative geniuses, too, are often introverted.
In many of the paired qualities mentioned above, the second is not a defect, nor should it necessarily be transformed at all costs into its opposite quality. It may even prove a virtue, once it has been refined and its potentials fully explored.
Submissiveness, for example, more easily than aggressiveness, may be developed into willing cooperation. A literal mind may never create works of imagination, but it may easily be interested in the pragmatic sciences. Thus, a tendency toward literal-mindedness, which in some contexts is a defect, might in others be a virtue.
In all cases, it is important to work with the child’s strengths, rather than concentrating on his weaknesses. Usually, he will respond far better to this positive approach.
In certain cases, the choice is obvious enough. Negativity and destructiveness, for example, are universally undesirable traits; no effort should be spared to redirect them more positively. In many other cases, however, the choice is less obvious, and sensitive insight is needed to deal with them wisely.
An obstacle to the very exercise of such discernment is one of the fundamental tenets of modern education.
Tenet? Call it a dogma, rather. There is today the peculiar conviction — which one challenges at one’s peril — that human beings are born equal in every respect, including in their native abilities. Surely, the well-known dictum, “All men are created equal,” cannot have been intended so literally. For it flies in the face of all experience.
It is one thing to say that all men are created equal before God; or that all, in their shared humanity, have an equal right to rise to their own levels of competence, to develop their own talents, and to fulfill their reasonable desires according to their own intrinsic abilities. It may even be justifiable, philosophically speaking, to say that all men have the potential to attain to equal heights.
It is quite another thing, however, to say that all men are, at all times, equally competent, talented, and capable of achieving success. Anyone can see that this is not the case. How intelligent people can so blind themselves to a reality so self-evident is a commentary on the intellect’s capacity for self-deception. Only a person thoroughly convinced that there are no sow’s ears, only silk purses, could even contemplate such an absurdity.
Worse than the error itself — after all, we all do make mistakes — is the widespread envy that this error has produced. Can you even count the number of times you’ve heard the claim: “I’m just as good as anyone else”?
Good at what? Or do the people who make this claim mean, simply, good? That is, do they consider themselves as virtuous as any saint, and possessed of no trait which, with some effort on their part, might be improved? Is the only reason other people have achieved greater success in life than they, or greater popularity, or more widespread influence in the world, simply that those others have had all the luck? Have Certain Persons in High Places — envious of the sterling worth of these grumblers — withheld from them their deserved opportunities?
Yet, the numbers of people who subscribe to this foolishness are legion. And they are responsible for much of the anger and hostility in our times.
In the classrooms, the tendency to equate equality with uniformity has led to the penalizing of brilliance, and to the careful nurturing of mediocrity.
Modern teaching is supposedly geared to the average student. (In this sense a sop is thrown, though hardly as a gesture of respect, to the principle of “listening” to the students.) But it is a surrender to perceived necessity. No one ever thinks in terms of raising the quality of teaching to an average level. The very emphasis on bringing everything to an average level suggests a downward direction. Once this downward direction is established, the tendency is to continue it further, toward the less-than-average students.
Many well-meaning teachers end up devoting a disproportionate amount of their attention to the dullest pupils, giving more or less perfunctory attention, in the process, to children even of average intelligence, and virtually none to the brilliant students. The brilliant ones, consequently, are deprived of challenges, and become bored. Often it is these last who become the “problem” children in the schools.
What is the result, finally? Modern education prepares people well enough for reading the headlines, but it leaves them more or less at a loss when confronted with a book. Instead, television gives them their intellectual fare.
Intelligence is only one standard of a student’s all-round qualifications, of course. But it is obvious that all students are not equally intelligent. Neither are they all equally sensitive, creative, receptive, energetic, willing, or, in fact, equally anything. In a world where no two thumbprints are alike, the variety of human capabilities may be described as infinite.
Can we point, then, to progressive levels of development in these capabilities? In the case of intelligence, such a progression is more or less discernible. But what is needed also is a general criterion that will be helpful in developing all aspects of a child’s nature.