Tuesday, August 09, 2016

The Path Of A Moral Education

My father-in-law, now deceased, was a brilliant, thoughtful man, a well-read university professor who liked to challenge himself and others with the ideas he found in books. He was the one who introduced me to the two great English philosophers of the 18th century, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, thinkers who bookended the 1700's with their opposing concepts of the nature of man. First there was Hobbes who started from the proposition that man is essentially evil and that without the strong controlling hand of institutions like governments, church, and schools, life would be "nasty, brutish, and short." Decades later Locke entered the fray with the idea that man is essentially good and that the purpose of institutions was not to control, but rather help us achieve our highest potential.

The founders of American democracy, the first modern democratic nation, were heavily influenced by Locke, and those of us who work as play-based educators are part of that same tradition. We are here not to control our charges, but rather to support them as they strive to make sense of the world. That said, it's impossible to not see the influence of Hobbes everywhere we turn, from the behavior of governments to the scourge of spanking and the oxymoronic concept of "tough love."

Most modern psychologists have settled on the idea that humans are born neither "evil" or "good," but rather blank slates and that their behaviors and beliefs, wether "evil" or "good," are a result of their environments. In other words, their morality is learned behavior.

A 2007 study by Yale University's Paul Bloom . . . and Karen Wynn, as well as J. Kiley Hamlin from the University of British Columbia, shows that six- and ten-month old babies can assess individuals based on their behaviour towards others. The trio presented babies with scenes involving shapes that represent both "helper" and "hinderer" characters. When asked to point at or touch the character they liked best, in an overwhelming number of scenarios, the babies almost always chose the "good guy." . . . In 2010, Bloom's research also proved that babies as young as three months old can make moral judgements about right and wrong.

This rings true for me, as I'm sure it will for anyone who plays with children for a living. This isn't to say that there isn't a lot of learning (both pro-social and anti-social) that ultimately goes into moral development, but it does strongly support the bedrock principles of our Locke-ian educational and democratic pursuits.

I would say that most of the children I teach don't come from strongly religious families, yet I've found in all of them, nevertheless, a strong sense of morality. Time and again, when not subjected to the distorting pressures of artificial competition, punishment/rewards, or the expectation of obedience, children almost always err on the side of fairness, compassion, and empathy. Oh sure, they squabble over toys and whatnot, and sometimes resort to force, even physical violence, to get their way in the heat of the moment, but with calmer heads (either once the emotions have died down, or those of outside observers) these "good" traits are always win out. The children can all always eventually demonstrate that they, without lectures from me, understand the difference between right and wrong.

The children in our school make their own rules, agreements about how we want to treat one another. Year after year we find what is often called the Golden Rule, like a biological imperative, woven through them. As the King James version of the Bible puts it, "All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them," an idea that underpins all the major religions. But the children sometimes go even farther than that, removing themselves from this tit-for-tat equation, often agreeing to simply do no harm to others, without any consideration for themselves.

This is pure good and these fundamental moral concepts form the core of how our species has not just survived, but thrived. The degree to which humans grow to be "evil," therefore, is the degree to which we've taught evil, either overtly as in the case of teaching racism, or through our own behaviors as in the case of day-to-day selfishness. From where I sit, the greatest teachers of evil are the notions of competition and the idea that those with greater power can command obedience through punishments and rewards. It is from this soil that evil grows.

The path of a moral education is not a straight or smooth one, of course. Even as we're born with essential "goodness," there are conflicts and challenges and as natural scientists children must explore the full range of human potential though their play, some of which, if engaged in by adults, we might place into the category of "evil." But with children we must view that behavior as experiment, as part of the process of learning to follow their own inner light which, if we don't pervert it, will naturally shine on what is best about humanity: compassion and fairness.

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1 comment:

Enna said...

"It's not fair!" - a universal cry from all children clearly demonstrates an understanding of morality. Children will grudgingly accept criticism or punishment (and please note! I'm not advocating these things) IF they believe they have been "fairly earned". But nothing causes greater distress and angst than being unfairly accused or punished.