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Education is child abuse

By Charles Foster

I took my son to school this morning. And I’m wondering if that was evil.

Proponents of human cognitive enhancement are fond of saying that there is nothing very novel about their suggestions. There is no difference in principle, they say, between improving someone’s neural processing power by (for example) manipulation of the genome, and improving that power by education. It is a potent argument. Brains are very plastic things. Education increases the number of neuronal connections. You can see the effect of education with an electron microscope. Education produces change every bit as physical as the bruises produced by a violently abusive parent.

Yet we all try to mould our children’s brains. We try to forge the neural connections that will make them adherents of our religious faith or our scepticism. We move house to get them into ‘better’ schools. We teach them the seven times table. We read them Beatrix Potter and deny them junk TV.

That being the case, say the enhancers, you’re hypocritical if you object to other forms of enhancement.

There are many possible responses to that argument. One of the best is the observation that while you can’t stop neural connections being forged by environmental exposure (every child has an environment, and there’s plainly no such thing as a value-free upbringing), you don’t have to twiddle with the genome, or give someone Ritalin. It’s a ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’ type riposte. But it only really works if you acknowledge that education is a wrong.

That possibility should be taken more seriously than it ever is. Of course the child, as long as it’s conscious, and possibly even if it isn’t, can’t help being educated to some degree. But if we think it’s offensive (and it is) to bruise its buttocks to urge it along the path we think it should be travelling, isn’t it even more unforgiveable to meddle directly and lastingly with its brain by teaching it in a classroom, or by suggesting that it adopts our own ethical, political or intellectual ways of looking at the world?

A few things need to be taught. But those are the things that will allow the child to survive biologically in order to be able to exercise its own autonomy – to stretch its own wings.

We don’t know what would happen to a child who was allowed to be as free as possible. Yes, complete freedom is impossible. If you’re free of people, you are oppressed by loneliness, and we know that humans aren’t meant to be alone. If you have people around you, you inevitably have brain-moulding influences, however non-directive your companions try to be. But is happy anarchy really so unthinkable? Are the dystopians right? Would your local  primary school become the set of Lord of the Flies if it said to the children: ‘Right, be yourselves’? I wonder. The thought of what humans might be if they were allowed to be themselves is an awesome one. It’s much more awesome than the most lurid transhumanist dream.

My own romantic dream of my children as even potentially noble savages is unlikely to survive the school pick-up. But still I know very well that they know a lot more than I do about how to live, and I’m going to do my best not to ablate that knowledge by weaving my own ignorance abusively into their neurones.

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23 Comment on this post

  1. Wow, I think that’s the most interesting, revolutionary and also personal post that I’ve seen since I started commenting on this blog. Actually it reminds me of a programme I saw at school back in the early 1980s, which was about a private school that had been set up very much along these principles. Learning at that school was entirely voluntary, and the children at the school were free (within the contraints of the school grounds) to do basically whatever they wanted. I remember the headmaster expressing regret at having felt obliged to refuse a request from two of the children to share a bed (he was afraid the school would be shut down…).

    I think there are parallels here with the “wikinomics” idea that economic activity is or should be progressively replaced by voluntarism. Essentially the idea is that you put your stuff out there (the creative commons), and eventually someone will want something from you that you’re willing to give them, and they’re willing to pay you for. No need to protect intellectual property, or at least not all of it. It makes me dream of a future world without money.

    Why do I see a parallel between these somewhat different ideas? Because both traditional forms of (respectively) education and economic activity seem to be based to a significant extent on the assumption that left to their own devices people will be bad or uncooperative, and they need to be therefore coerced, “educated” or (economically) incentivised to be good and co-operative. What really makes people good or bad is much more complex.

    Some caveats are called for, though. “I know very well that they know a lot more than I do about how to live”: well, no they don’t, not really, not how to live in the modern world that we’ve created. You’d still want to tell your kids to look right, left and right again before crossing the road, and various forms of education and initiation have been with us since the stone age. so ultimately I don’t buy the idea that education is evil. But I do agree that “the thought of what humans might be if they were allowed to be themselves is an awesome one”, and definitely one worth dreaming about.

  2. Peter,
    Many thanks for your comments.
    You say: ‘Some caveats are called for, though. “I know very well that they know a lot more than I do about how to live”: well, no they don’t, not really, not how to live in the modern world that we’ve created. You’d still want to tell your kids to look right, left and right again before crossing the road…’
    Safe crossing of the road isn’t about living: it’s about existing. Existence is a prerequisite of living, as I acknowledged in the post. But it’s not the same thing.

  3. I like the post, but I’m very confused. You seem to be inferring that any human-induced change in the brain—behavioural (qua “traditional” education) or surgical/pharmaceutical (qua novel enhancement technologies) is abuse? Am I reading you correctly there?

    Or are you making a connection between either of these (with particular reference to “traditional” education) methods and a decrease in happiness in individuals? Something seems to happen between the penultimate and final sentences of your first paragraph that I’m missing.

  4. Quite so, and it’s true that we lose something of our ability to fully live as we are “educated” to observe various rituals and obligations, for fear of some kind of punishment. What about information, though? Do we somehow corrupt our children by teaching them geography or physics? Am I in some sense poorer for knowing these things? I definitely think that information can be a form of pollution, but just how far should we take this idea? Is the real problem, perhaps, that we are communicating too much, or is it that we are communicating the wrong things? My guess is that it’s a bit of both, but if so, what would be the *right* things to tell our kids? Is language itself a form of corruption?

  5. Hi Peter! I read this blog often, and see your name in the comments so frequently that I feel like we are already friends 🙂

  6. Charles, I sometimes share this romantic view, but then two things get in the way :
    1. Generations are creative but do not reinvent everything. Could Mahler have existed without Bach, could current medical progress in fighting AIDS exist without Jenner ….. ? If we accept this, don’t we accept a duty of transmission? And isn’t this to a very large extent what education is about ? (I don’t argue that this is ALL that education is about, though.)
    Of course, not everything that is transmitted is true or useful, and certain transmissions can be positively harmful (we can produce a list of our own as examples, no doubt). But I think that the balance is overwhelmingly in favour of transmission.

    2. There is much empirical evidence to show that children from families that are themselves well-educated are more successful themselves (see this week’s PISA report for a detailed cross-cultural example). It seems to me possible that these children would thrive in a libertarian school environment; I am much less confident that other children would. Wouldn’t we merely widen the already large socially-determined dispersion of capabilities ? (For this I know of no empirical evidence – does any reader know of any ?)

  7. Nick,
    Many thanks for your comments.
    The reading set out in your first paragraph is correct. I’m convinced by the argument of the enhancers that there is no difference in principle between (a) messing with someone’s brain by pharmacologically altering their brain chemistry or by twiddling with their genome, and (b) messing with someone’s brain by teaching them something. If I think (a) is wrong (and I do), then I must think that (b) is wrong (and I do). Normally, of course, the enhancers expect us to agree that (b), up to a point at least, is fine. When we do agree, they go: ‘Aha: then you must agree with (a).’
    I’m not sure how you measure happiness in individuals. Certainly not by asking them. I once met someone who was a salesman for anti-personnel mines. He said that he was happy and fulfilled.Yet all right-thinking people would agree that whatever humans have been called out of the void to do, it’s not to make money out of blowing children’s feet off. Presumably happiness consists in, or is somehow associated with, being and doing what we are designed for. People are most obviously unhappy (whatever that means), when they are forced to live in the conditions that everyone describes, with unconscious accuracy and profundity, as ‘inhuman’. Those conditions include will include an enforced lack of relationship (eg solitary confinement) and an enforced lack of significance (eg doing a meaningless, degrading job). These conditions are unhappy-making because humans are naturally relational and have a sense of their own significance. And we’ve certainly not evolved to put on a suit and try to sell mines. I’m sure that even in his own terms the smiling salesman would be happier working in an orphanage. So it simply doesn’t help to say: ‘That child’s education worked, because he’s got a life which he regards as happy.’ The question is, as I put it in the original post: What might that child be if it were left to become itself?
    All best.

  8. Anthony,
    Many thanks for your comments.
    As to (1),I suspect that we’re suppressing loads of Bachs, Mozarts,Einsteins and Jenners by suggesting to them at an early age that we know better than they do. I suspect that the deepest truths can only be grasped by children, and that ‘education’ is mainly a process of obfuscation. I reckon a completely uncontaminated 4 year old could intuit effortlessly the General Theory of Relativity. That he might have difficulty explaining it to you isn’t the point.
    As to (2),see my comments in response to Nick.
    All best wishes from a hopelessly romantic pre-lapsarian, who can only write such things with confidence because he’s sitting in the Bodleian rather than at home with the fallen little monsters surging all around him.

  9. Charles, re the landmine salesman, I always get a bit suspicious when people say someone’s unhappy because we think they ought to be. Perhaps the salesman really is happy. I know of no scientific evidence that suggests this is impossible. Of course that doesn’t mean we have to approve of what he does. I’m also not sure what evidence you have for saying that an uncontaminated 4 year old could intuit effortlessly the General Theory of Relativity. What does that even mean?

    What I liked about your post was the way it made me dream of a world without oppression, and without the deadening effect of (the wrong type of) information. Perhaps the real challenge is to give our children the “education” they need, while protecting them as far as possible from these evils.

    PS Greetings to my friend Nick 🙂

  10. Peter,
    I’m sure that the landmine salesman is not as unhappy as he might be. I’m also sure that he’s not as happy as he might be. Those observations are enough for my very limited purposes.
    I have no evidence whatever for my fanciful comment about the General Theory of Relativity. I suppose one might build a hypothesis on the observation that mathematicians, by and large, have their great breakthroughs when they’re young. But it is difficult to deflect the riposte ‘That’s because neuronal death starts early, and raw processing power is what enables mathematical innovation’.
    All best.

  11. Charles, I’m not sure exactly what your “very limited purposes” are; what I am sure about is what I liked about your original post, and what dissatisfies me about the way the debate has continued since then. The first point I’ve covered in my previous comment; what’s bothering me is that we seem to have lost the focus on the potential drawbacks of education, and how to avoid them, in favour of increasingly dubious claims about what actually *would* happen if children were essentially left to their own devices.

    You suggest that happiness “consists in, or is somehow associated with, being and doing what we are designed for”. This, of course, presupposes that we are “designed” for something, which I take to be a somewhat minority view on this particular blog! If we take a strictly Darwinian approach, then the closest thing to a natural purpose for human beings would be, like all other life-forms, to pass on our genes to the next generation. I guess selling landmines may well be one way to do this.

    My own view on happiness is that it is best thought of as an emotion which plays a role in natural selection by reinforcing behaviours that have tended to help our ancestors pass on their genes. Generally speaking we are happy when things go well, and this gives us more energy to carry on what we are doing; it also has the effect of creating positive memories which encourage us to repeat such behaviour in the future. The problem with focusing on happiness as a life goal is that in practice this is often self-defeating: we are generally happier when we are pursuing *other* goals. But that doesn’t mean we are wrong to want to be happy (in fact one could argue that the *definition* of wanting something is that it would make us happy if we got it, in which case wanting to be happy is actually a tautology). What it does mean is that we need to be clever about how we pursue happiness, which is why I’m such a strong advocate of positive psychology.

    So how does all this relate to whether and how to educate children? I’d be interested in other views, but an obvious conclusion would be: teach them positive psychology. Beyond that, don’t burden them with a lot of facts and figures that they really don’t need, and give them as much freedom we reasonably can to find their own approach to the pursuit of happiness. I think these are the messages I really want to take away from your post.

  12. Peter,
    Many thanks again.
    You’re right, the discussion has moved signficantly and unhelpfully away from its original focus. I don’t disagree fundamentally with what you say. And don’t worry: I’m the most ardent anti-Creationist you’re likely to meet. My talk of ‘design’ was in the same spirit as we say that humans are ‘designed’ as savannah creatures, and therefore don’t do physiologically so well on ice floes.
    All best.

  13. Something I often remark in my talks where I make this education-as-enhancement argument for cognitive enhancement is that it is not implausible that education does have bad side-effects. It is just that as far as I know, people have not been studying the question.

    One example why this is worth investigating is how learning to read and write changes the perception of language. Illiterate people hearing a nonsense word experiences it differently from literate people, who can pick it apart into phonemes (and this can be detected in brainscans). Literacy also changes visuomotor task performance, image recognition in color and 2D/3D object naming skills (see the papers by Karl-Magnus Petersson for details). The effects go across many domains. While none seem that bad, the cross-domain interaction should make us a bit cautious. And of course, once you have learned to read you cannot avoid doing so.

    I think cognitive enhancement can be a good thing. But we need to learn more about potential drawbacks or just neutral changes caused by the enhancement. Whether it is schools, pills or computer games. But right now people focus only on some methods, quite likely for social and practical reasons unrelated to what methods could or do have a big impact on our lives.

  14. Anders. Thank you very much for a very helpful contribution. Yes, there are some urgent, important and widely repercussive questions about the effect of education which never seem to be asked.

  15. A caveat though. Traditional education, for all its drawbacks, is at least a tried and tested formula, with consequently (relatively) predictable effects. Opposition to cognitive enhancement is, I suspect, driven partly by fear of the unknown, and this is not entirely unreasonable.

  16. I really like the topic! Education is child abuse? For me it could be yes, it could be no! Actually, Education enhance the kids mind. For me, it’s so true that the children know a lot more than a parent about how to live. In a sense that children are more capable with technology than adults. Such as internet access, it is the education why kids know how to surf internet and other technology.

  17. This post sounds like its in the direction of the Sudbury valley school. Read a couple of books by a guy called Dan Greenberg (I think) some years ago (he founded it). This is from memory, but I seem to recall that they
    a) aim for a school where kids choose freely (one of the teachers said that the hardest thing was to avoid encouraging or trying to manipulate kids into doing the “sensible” things that you thought they should)
    b) only a small share of the kids spend any sizeable amount of their school time in educational classes
    c) kids come from a variety of backgrounds (many are also problem kids who were kicked out of ordinary school) and do well – but if they’ve attended school there might be a long period of “resetting” where they test the limits of their freedom by not doing anything. They also claimed that the “successful” kids from ordinary schools (who had good grades) struggled more, as they were more used to being told what to do and drew their self-worth from successfully fulfilling the expectations of adults around them

    the school has been running from the sixties and the alumni are apparently happy as well with their experiences (the school has done a series of interviews – probably not academically stringent, but still). Also, the sudbury school has become a “model” and there are “sudbury schools” all over the place. Whether the others are as successful – and whether the original is as successful as its founder claimed in the books – is something I cannot comment on.

  18. Maximilian Clipfell

    I don’t see a problem with instilling a religion into a child. First of all, if he converts to a different religion, his ability to make that transition would be better with a religious background than without. I think that along with religion the child should be taught how to think and behave with integrity. This would not oppress him, but give him greater independence later in life. For example, if I have children and raise each of them Catholic, but teach them that faith and its practices along with a knowledge of how to think and act with integrity (which is part of that faith), they will leave the household with more independence than a child who was not grounded in anything. So my potential child who was raised a Catholic and is independent intellectually will have the competence to make a well-grounded decision later as to whether to remain Catholic, convert to a different religion, or to cease practicing his faith altogether, and will not be swept away by simply a convincing argument or charism. I think the modern parent that instills a faith system into their child should put a little more thought into it though, and that such a thing should not be done lightly.

  19. Charles’ original post was not specifically about religion, but I very much like this comment since it illustrates quite well the issues at stake. In my first reply on this topic I pointed out that certain forms of education, such as telling a child how to cross the road, are necessary for survival in the modern world. More generally, I see teaching children of the importance of faith and how to think independently as examples of what I somewhat crudely lumped together under the label “positive psychology”.

    But faith in what? One of the problems I have with adherents to organized religions such as Roman Catholicism is that they tend to use the word “faith” as if it can only mean faith in God or, worse, in their particular set of beliefs about God. The truth is that you don’t have to be religious in order to have faith. What you need is a set of beliefs that help to make your life feel meaningful, and the courage to put them into practice. We don’t need God to tell us what to do, any more than we need to believe that morality is a matter of truth. We just need to know what we want, make some assumptions about how to get it, and be prepared to adapt those assumptions in the light of evidence. This is how we can create a better world.

  20. Maximilian Clipfell

    To be honest, I can see teaching a child how to survive spiritually and morally as even more important than how to survive physically (please don’t take this wrong, I’m not saying the latter should be ditched in favor of the former two, so keep reading). I see that many people point to religions as saying, “you must do this, you must do that etc…” as if that were the only focus. I find, however, that there is much more of one’s life that religion does not control, and that oftentimes it is morality that frees man. Its like getting up early in the morning. That discipline may feel restricting, but it is much more liberating in the sense that I have more day to work with, and I do not feel as tired nearly as much as a summer day when I’d wake up far later. Christianity, especially Catholicism is all about teaching somebody to love. Now, in order to have the affirmation of one thing there must be the negation of something else. Morality focuses on accomplishing love of neighbor and the love of God. God does not tell us what to do, but rather teaches us what how a life full of loved is lived, and that He loves us. We may accept this or deny this. A Catholic is then one who accepts this (in theory).

    Now as to instilling a particular set of beliefs about God in a child. I believe that it is impossible to not teach anything about God, whether it is intended or not. So if I don’t teach my child anything about God, his assumption would be probably that either God does not exist or that He plays a passive role. If I teach it purely as a science, but do not instill morality into the child, then they come away believing that there is a higher power, but that again He is passive. If I teach my child that only that it is up to him to decide what which faith is true and what set of beliefs and practices he is to adhere to without teaching him anything else, then he will walk away thinking that Who God is and how He has revealed Himself is dependent upon what he believes about God, and that it could be anything he would like it to be. I also teach my child by the way I live, and this is self-explanatory.

    To teach that you only need a set of beliefs that merely make life meaningful would be to teach that in all reality, God doesn’t really exist, or none of this is real, or if it is, you cannot really know that. Raising someone with faith in a particular set of beliefs in God does not limit them or restrict there freedom once they grow older and are out on their own.

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