Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Volition vs. Education

In the Objectivist movement, there is some serious bias toward a coercive “core curriculum” concerning children and their “education.” What I mean by “coercive” is that children are forced to go to classes to be “educated” – because most Objectivists (educators and parents and others) believe that children must have a “core” knowledge to make it in this world and to be “life-loving.” Those core subjects are science, literature, history and various others. What these Objectivists don’t seem to realize is that there is very little children must learn to get by in the world and, more important, the nature of their being (volition) requires that they should have control over what they learn and when they learn it. What follows in this post is my letter to the editor to The Objective Standard (a high-quality Objectivist periodical) that was a response to an article in TOS written by a California Objectivist teacher and owner of a school known as the VanDamme Academy in which she properly blasts the bad core curricula of public and private schools but does not address the essential issue of whether a required “core” is even necessary or whether it violates the volitional nature of children. My letter and VanDamme’s response to my letter can be found at the following web address: http://www.theobjectivestandard.com/issues/2008-spring/letters-replies.asp. Since those letters are free to the public without subscription, I’ve copied them here for ease. To read all of VanDamme’s article you’ll need to become a subscriber to TOS, which I highly recommend. I’ve also included in this post my response to friends’ emails concerning my views and Vandamme’s response to my letter. My understanding of the so-called education of children revolves around the word “unschooling,” in which the child’s values determine his desire and direction and timing of learning at ALL times.

(My letter to TOS)

In “The False Promise of Classical Education” (TOS, Summer 2007), Lisa VanDamme criticizes current educational methods and correctly favors as an alternative a hierarchical approach to teaching. However, her educational method shares an error with nearly all of the other methods: curriculum-based teaching.

VanDamme’s mistaken assumption is that children need to be taught certain subjects in order to be “armed” for the world. She presumes that there are particular moments in a child’s life during which he should be taught certain information regardless of whether he is interested in that information. In other words, VanDamme joins other mistaken educators in the belief that a child’s knowledge pursuits should not be his to decide, that he should have no say concerning what information he will learn, when he will learn it, and from whom he will learn it. This belief springs from a misunderstanding of or disrespect for a child’s volition and his ability to be self-motivated from an early age to seek out the information that informs his burgeoning interests. This belief fails to recognize that a rationally raised child will pursue his values with vigor, that he will, on his own accord, seek information about his interests, whether those interests are books, bees, or bass fishing.

There is no universal curriculum that fits all personalities and that is appropriate to all children. Even if there were, it would not fit the educational timeline of every child. A given child may not show an interest in atoms or Jane Austen or grammar until he is fifteen—if ever. There is nothing wrong with a child lacking interest in these subjects if he plans to become a plumber or a saxophone player—or even a doctor. A “class” in which children are forced to absorb information plucked from the nearly infinite spectrum of reality—whether or not they wish to absorb it—is not a class at all. It is an indoctrination camp in which adults (“educators”) impose their values (“education”) upon children who might otherwise choose to seek information in subjects that better fit their interests and, later, careers.

There is obviously a place for classes and tutors that provide the specific information a child voluntarily seeks. But if a child cannot make his own choices regarding his education, all the coercive teaching in the most rational teaching environment will come to little. His preeminent lesson will be that his value pursuits and learning pace are of secondary importance to those of his educators.

David Elmore
Roswell, Georgia

(Lisa VanDamme replies in TOS)

Mr. Elmore gives a quick nod to the importance of a pedagogical hierarchy and then proceeds to criticize my “curriculum-based” approach to education; his criticism, however, contradicts both the concept of hierarchy and the true purpose of education.

Rather than subjecting the child to a curriculum designed by educators and imposed on him independent of his will, Mr. Elmore would have the child decide what, when, and from whom to learn. But the fundamental question of education, the answer to which defines the requirements of a proper education, is: What is the nature of the child, and what must he learn in order to become a successful, flourishing, life-loving adult? The answer to this question comes as a result of the combined achievements of generations of scientists, mathematicians, artists, writers, epistemologists, educational philosophers, and so on. How is the child to answer it? And if he could answer it, why would he need an education at all?

This is the gross violation of hierarchy implicit in Mr. Elmore’s criticism: He would have the child make decisions about matters that are properly determined by reference to the accumulated wisdom of countless experts. It is the responsibility of educational philosophers to determine what in principle is essential to the child’s intellectual development and therefore to a proper curriculum. It is the job of curriculum writers in each field (history, literature, science, etc.) to take the knowledge that has been amassed over centuries of human development, distill it to that which is most crucial to the child’s development, and order it in an incremental, hierarchical progression that allows the child to acquire the knowledge step by step. It is the job of educators to carefully present the knowledge and vigilantly monitor the child’s acquisition of it to ensure that he grasps the simpler material before moving on to the more complex. But Mr. Elmore would fire the educational philosophers, fire the curriculum writers, and demote educators to servants of the student’s immature, uninformed, necessarily childish desires.

Mr. Elmore defends his position as respectful of the child’s “will” and “values,” but the fact that the child is a being with free will, capable of making choices and having values, is what gives rise to the necessity of a curriculum designed to help him make mature, thoughtful, informed, rational choices.

To that end, it is necessary that all children be taught the core curriculum. The core curriculum is so defined because it comprises the material that is essential for the child to grasp in order to develop into an informed and rational adult who can succeed and flourish throughout his life.

The subject of history demonstrates on a grand scale the consequences of men’s ideas and actions; literature concretizes highly abstract values; science shows the power of man’s mind to understand and harness the natural world; math provides tools for grasping science and developing logical acumen; the language arts help children to develop the capacity to express themselves with clarity and eloquence.

Rather than having an expert history teacher tell a child of the most world-changing events and how and why they occurred—rather than having an expert literature teacher guide a child through classic works that will expose him to compelling and important world-views—rather than having an expert science teacher explain the most crucial discoveries in science and show a child how they unlock the world’s treasures—rather than having professional educators help a child to develop the ability to think and express himself clearly—Mr. Elmore advocates letting a naturally and helplessly ignorant child spend his time studying “bees and bass fishing” if that is what his juvenile desires dictate. Such an “education” would not “respect” the child; it would tragically neglect him.

Lisa VanDamme
VanDamme Academy
Laguna Hills, California

(My response to friends’ emails on this subject (March 7, 2008))

VanDamme’s response is the classic political case of avoidance of criticism by restating position.

She doesn’t discuss “whether” a core curriculum is necessary (one of my main points), but only “how” and “by whom” it should be developed. Note her phrasing of the fundamental question to ask is what a child must “learn” to be life-loving, as if efficacy and happiness come from “learning,” per se, instead of self-determined value pursuits. (This has been a common dichotomy thread among many prominent Objectivists, who advocate the pursuit of knowledge separated from a concrete value pursuit. Hence “core curricula” separated from real-world career and avocation pursuits). This leads her into the false belief that what the child needs to learn is somehow based upon “the combined achievements of generations of scientists …), as if knowledge of these past achievers somehow bears upon what a child MUST learn to have a fulfilled “life-loving” life, no matter his chosen profession. (more on that later)

VanDamme also sets up a strawman on “hierarchy,” saying only that I give a nod to hierarchical learning, when in fact I’d said outright that it is a correct approach to integration of knowledge. This petty injustice by VanDamme is secondary to a more egregious statement that my allowing children to make their own decisions upon the values they wish to pursue is somehow a “gross violation of hierarchy,” when in fact nothing in the allowance of a daily pursuit of values would disallow a hierarchical understanding of reality. (if this were the case, of course, children could throw out all of their “learning” outside of a classroom, in VanDamme’s world) It’s been my experience that children remain captivated on a particular topic only so far as it fits well with previous learning, and they will bypass new information temporarily if they have not integrated enough previous information to integrate that new info properly. (A question by my child Livy, who is 4.5 years old, recently about where humans come from sparked a dialogue about evolution that lasted a half-hour. She, of course, took many snippets from that conversation and integrated what interested her at the moment into her worldview, including the fascinating fact that progressively lower organisms have progressively smaller brains and can’t think like we do. I can only imagine her asking such a question in a “curriculum” class and not being allowed to fully seek her values and the content that fits well into her context to her current hierarchy.) It is only when children (or adults) want to get a total perspective on a branch of education that it is possibly necessary to save time by having an expert “educator” give instruction. But even then, rational parents can help guide the child in the learning experience by helping find books and CDs that give overviews on such subjects as history, physics and literature. No classroom may be needed for the self-motivated. Objective parents can help children find objective writers who present their information hierarchically.

The main problem with VanDamme’s middling is her lack of justification for the coercion of children. It is upon VanDamme and her ilk to justify their position in such a case. That is, they have to state clearly why children must be forced to sit in a classroom and learn what it is that these elitists wish them to learn to be “life-loving.” But, in true rationalistic style, VanDamme’s best declaration is that the experts say it must be so. Why? Well, because great achievers have achieved some great things and kids should be forced to learn these great things “for the child’s development.” For the child’s development into being WHAT? A plumber? A musician? A computer programmer? An astronaut? A fisherman? A cabinet maker? A physicist?

VanDamme conveniently doesn’t mention exactly and specifically what her cherished “core” is for (outside “development”). (It smacks of the same indoctrination as so-called public schooling.) As is obvious from the above career descriptions, the “core” of history, literature, science, etc., would simply be a large waste of time (the most valuable commodity for humans) for all of them, unless they had some great interest in the core, and then of course they could simply pay for such tutoring, if they wished. In order for VanDamme to have any leg to stand on in this discussion, she would have to prove how ALL professional landscapes would be addressed by a “core” curricula, so that no child’s time is literally wasted. But, even with that, VanDamme would have no leg to stand on, as I state in my letter, because we have that niggling little thing called volition – and value pursuits. All children learn at different speeds and have desires for certain knowledge at different times and have different values to pursue at different times (talk about the “invisible hand”). To conscript all children into a core curricula at predetermined ages would not only be impractical, it would send the disastrous message that the child’s own volitional choices of value pursuits are secondary to another’s. There is no greater destroyer of self-esteem, in my opinion, at play in the world today. VanDamme and her irrational entourage are (to the great misfortune of children) advocating the very means that is the greatest evil at large today. I say “the greatest evil,” because I think that the undermining of value-oriented volition is even more destructive than bad ideas. It takes years or decades for teenagers or adults to “get their volition back” or to “get their direction back” into their lives after having been forced to follow the presumptuous tracks of parents and “educators” during the formative years of their lives.


Blake Boles said...

David: I'm a 26-year-old unschool researcher (though not an unschooler myself), as well as an Ayn Rand fan. I agree with many of your arguments in favor of unschooling and against the often narrow vision of "education" professed by the "official" Objectivists. I'm doing some writing on just this subject, and I wonder if you're aware of any other discussions/articles on just this topic? Please let me know! Thanks!

David Elmore said...

Hey Blake,
John Holt was the originator of the unschooling concept. His web site is http://www.holtgws.com/.
This (http://fivefreebirds.blogspot.com/2008/07/unschool-v-school.html) is a great unschool story.
You probably know about the Sudbury model, which is based on the unschooling concept in a "school" setting (http://www.sudval.org/)
Here's an article (http://solohq.solopassion.com/Articles/KReynolds/Why_We_Unschool.shtml) that my ex-wife Kelly Reynolds wrote on unschooling for an objectivist list we used to be on. To read the 177 replies to that article, click on "Discuss this article" at the bottom.
Hope all that helps, Blake. I'm glad to hear that you may agree with me on this. It's hard to find too many objectivist who do, so it's always nice. Please stay in touch. BTW, where do you live?