Children of the Sea, Jozef Israëls; 1872
In “The Baby Philosopher,” you wrote:
“The baby is not capable of conceptual thinking. But still he acquires an important philosophical premise early on through all this investigation. He is mostly a scientist, but he starts to become a philosopher too….”
Entirely correct. Few people understand that what is often dismissed as “just playing” is not always play and is never “just” anything, but rather the most earnest endeavor by an infant to make sense of what he sees, hears, and feels. No endeavor in life could be more earnest or less corrupt.
But your essay also struck a chord in my memory because of that phrase about “the baby is mostly a scientist…” In a letter printed by a St. Louis newspaper in 1971, I wrote:
The claim that very few children would acquire any more than a very superficial grasp of science if artificial motivations were not used is a ludicrous conjecture. Actually, all evidence indicates the opposite. Indeed, every baby is a scientist and remains such until the schools have mutilated his natural love of learning by turning it from an active into a passive process.
The occasion for my remarks was a clash of opinions with a philosophy instructor about Charles Silberman’s book Crisis in the Classroom (1970). The instructor contended that Silberman’s critical assessment of mindlessness in American public schools was unfounded. He also made the common mistake of confusing schooling with learning.
I contended that Silberman’s assessment was valid and that schools are not about learning but about training for docility. I argued that the most important things children learn, they do not learn in school or because of school.
Silberman’s work was funded by a private company. The philosophy instructor was employed by a tax-supported “community college.” People who feed at the public trough are not likely to welcome suggestions that what they do can be done better and at less cost by private schools, companies, or families.
In 1971, I was quite young and my views on the matter of education vs. schooling were not fully formed. Nor was I exempt from being influenced by a few writers who leaned Leftward but also echoed my sentiments against compulsory school attendance laws. Some of what I wrote then was poorly expressed or just plain wrong. But I stand by the essence of the paragraph quoted above. Read More »