Education is child abuse

by Charles on December 12, 2009

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.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Oliver Milne February 9, 2012 at 4:09 am

Your faith in human nature is touching but dangerous. If history is any guide, human nature involves superstition, love of sugary foodstuffs, fear of the unknown, and plenty of stabbing. Qualities like intellectual integrity are hard to acquire, and have to be inculcated deeply into people for them to take effect, in that particular case because it involves making them challenge their most deeply-held beliefs. That’s not something your kids are going to discover without some sort of serious education.

I wonder what it says, psychologically, about people these days, that so many of us are unwilling to leave our mark on people or things. Environmentalism, for example, is all about ‘treading lightly’, at least amongst its grassroots. Isn’t it fitting and admirable for a person to influence others and shape the world around them? Why should meekness be a virtue?

Heather Owen May 29, 2012 at 4:09 pm

Is physical punishment abuse because it alters the physical state, because it is non voluntary or because it causes pain? Is education abusive because it alters the physical state of the brain, when it is non voluntary or only when it causes pain or discomfort? We alter our physical state when we eat or sleep–are we self abusing? Should only those children in the world who long to go to school be allowed to go? Should we prohibit all children who don’t like school from attending (I know a few teachers who might cheer for this)? Should our education cease when it causes us discomfort? Should our thinking? You always make me think, Charles, and sometimes cause me discomfort, but I’m not going to stop reading you.

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