Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Your example will educate him; your conversation with your friends; the business he sees you transact; the likings and dislikings you express; these will educate him

From On Education by Anna Barbauld, 1773. Proving that great antiquity does not preclude great insight. In fact, one could argue that Barbauld's insight, that education is the cumulative aggregation of all experiences seems to have disappeared from the minds of policy makers today. The time spent in school as Barbauld observes, is but a very small part of that education and yet all our efforts to equalize the benefits of opportunity between neo-natal citizens is largely constrained to formal education. It is the classic story of the drunk looking for his lost keys under the street lamp, not because that is where he thinks he lost them, but because that is where the light is best.

Paragraphing and emphasis added.
The other day I paid a visit to a gentleman with whom, though greatly my superior in fortune, I have long been in habits of an easy intimacy. He rose in the world by honourable industry; and married, rather late in life, a lady to whom he had been long attached, and in whom centered the wealth of several expiring families. Their earnest wish for children was not immediately gratified. At length they were made happy by a son, who, from the moment he was born, engrossed all their care and attention. -- My friend received me in his library, where I found him busied in turning over books of education, of which he had collected all that were worthy notice, from Xenophon to Locke, and from Locke to Catherine Macauley. As he knows I have been engaged in the business of instruction, he did me the honour to consult me on the subject of his researches, hoping, he said, that, out of all the systems before him, we should be able to form a plan equally complete and comprehensive; it being the determination of both himself and his lady to choose the best that could be had, and to spare neither pains nor expense in making their child all that was great and good. I gave him my thoughts with the utmost freedom, and after I returned home, threw upon paper the observations which had occurred to me.

The first thing to be considered, with respect to education, is the object of it. This appears to me to have been generally misunderstood. Education, in its largest sense, is a thing of great scope and extent. It includes the whole process by which a human being is formed to be what he is, in habits, principles, and cultivation of every kind. But of this, a very small part is in the power even of the parent himself; a smaller still can be directed by purchased tuition of any kind. You engage for your child masters and tutors at large salaries; and you do well, for they are competent to instruct him: they will give him the means, at least, of acquiring science and accomplishments; but in the business of education, properly so called, they can do little for you. Do you ask, then, what will educate your son? Your example will educate him; your conversation with your friends; the business he sees you transact; the likings and dislikings you express; these will educate him; -- the society you live in will educate him; your domestics will educate him; above all, your rank and situation in life, your house, your table, your pleasure-grounds, your hounds and your stables will educate him. It is not in your power to withdraw him from the continual influence of these things, except you were to withdraw yourself from them also.

You speak of beginning the education of your son. The moment he was able to form an idea his education was already begun; the education of circumstances -- insensible education -- which, like insensible perspiration, is of more constant and powerful effect, and of infinitely more consequence to the habit, than that which is direct and apparent. This education goes on at every instant of time; it goes on like time; you can neither stop it nor turn its course. What these have a tendency to make your child, that he will be. Maxims and documents are good precisely till they are tried, and no longer; they will teach him to talk, and nothing more. The circumstances in which your son is placed will be even more prevalent than your example; and you have no right to expect him to become what you yourself are, but by the same means. You, that have toiled during youth, to set your son upon higher ground, and to enable him to begin where you left off, do not expect that son to be what you were, -- diligent, modest, active, simple in his tastes, fertile in resources. You have put him under quite a different master. Poverty educated you; wealth will educate him. You cannot suppose the result will be the same. You must not even expect that he will be what you now are; for though relaxed perhaps from the severity of your frugal habits, you still derive advantage from having formed them; and, in your heart, you like plain dinners, and early hours, and old friends, whenever your fortune will permit you to enjoy them.

But it will not be so with your son: his tastes will be formed by your present situation, and in no degree by your former one. But I take great care, you will say, to counteract these tendencies, and to bring him up in hardy and simple manners; I know their value, and am resolved that he shall acquire no other. Yes, you make him hardy; that is to say, you take a country-house in a good air, and make him run, well clothed and carefully attended, for, it may be, an hour in a clear frosty winter's day upon your graveled terrace; or perhaps you take the puny shivering infant from his warm bed, and dip him in an icy cold bath, -- and you think you have done great matters. And so you have; you have done all you can. But you were suffered to run abroad half the day on a bleak heath, in weather fit and unfit, wading barefoot through dirty ponds, sometimes losing your way benighted, scrambling over hedges, climbing trees, in perils every hour both of life and limb. Your life was of very little consequence to any one; even your parents, encumbered with a numerous family, had little time to indulge the softnesses of affection, or the solicitude of anxiety; and to every one else it was of no consequence at all. It is not possible for you, it would not even be right for you, in your present situation, to pay no more attention to your child than was paid to you. In these mimic experiments of education, there is always something which distinguishes them from reality; some weak part left unfortified, for the arrows of misfortune to find their way into.
I think that issue highlighted by Barbauld, that the circumstances that shaped your own personal KESVB (Knowledge, Experience, Skills, Values, Behavior) and enabled your own personal achievement, cannot be replicated for your child. Your child is, paradoxically, precluded from the opportunity that fostered the success generating KESVB of the parent. With luck their own new KESVB is pertinent to the new circumstances of the child but it is the greatest challenge of every parent who has been productively successful, to create an environment where the origin KESVB can be replicated.

I suspect this is the origin to the dynamic reflected in the old adage (and universal, variants show up in many different cultures) "shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations." Old productive cultures and religions are probably the best supplements to personal experience - i.e. the child of privilege can't learn from experience, therefore there has to be some other motivating factor and passion which compensates for the indolence of privilege. Unfortunately, experience is that the novelty of ideologies too often takes the place of proven religion and culture. That explains why so many revolutionaries are from the privileged class rather than from the down trodden as logic would dictate.

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