Providing a good education for our children is the lifeblood of a strong society. Education, however, is not neutral. Deep at the roots of the philosophy of education is the debate as to whether children are basically good or bad.
In the 18th century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote Emile about how to educate children according to a naturalistic understanding of the world. His philosophy was founded on the notion that human beings are good by nature. According to Rousseau, we all naturally have what he calls an “amour de soi”, which is selfish selfishness. He also said that we have “amour-propre”, which is socially pragmatic selfishness. These two levels of natural selfishness are still repeated today in works such as Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene”. For the naturalist, education is only moral in the sense that it teaches people to get along together.
The other traditional view is that children are prone to mischief. Education should teach right and wrong, discipline, punishment, correction, apology, and forgiveness. President Madison said that education without moral direction creates people who are a menace to our society. The 120 million McGuffey’s Readers sold between 1836 and 1960 taught the young people of our nation morality and Bible as the core reading material. Corporal punishment was accepted as necessary. Mr. Lana, my Jr. High gym teacher, would regularly line up offenders and lift them off the ground with his huge wooden paddle. We accepted it because we knew that we had something bad in us that needed to be controlled before it got out of hand.
Two basic views. Two directions. What direction were Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold following when they killed 13 people in the Columbine massacre? They were certainly educated. Klebold attended CHIPS, the Challenging High Intellectual Potential Students program. They were nerds who helped take care of the school servers. When arrested for breaking into a van and stealing computer equipment, they knew how to be well-behaved, do community service, and write a letter of apology. The anger and revenge that grew from being bullied was addressed by their probation officer through an anger management class, where Harris made a good impression. Parents and teachers didn’t come down hard on bad behavior because their hands are tied more and more. Harris wrote in his diary like he was a victim who had the American right to steal something that had stupidly been left in plain sight, and he justified it with the notation, “Natural selection”.
There are about 2.3 million home-educated students and 2.5 million students in charter schools in the United States. That’s a huge downturn in the movement for compulsory universal public education that began in 1852. Alternative education is growing at 2% to 8% per year, which shows the approval rating for public schools is falling. I actually like public education, because I had a good high school experience. My point is very simple. Education is closely tied to our beliefs about right and wrong. We can’t discuss education without debating human nature.