Tuesday, July 22, 2008


John Dewey famously argued that children learn what they live. For instance, teachers can talk at youngsters about the virtues of democracy, but if they live in a despotic school, they will learn to tolerate despotism.

This line of reasoning seems compelling, but in the real world things work more subtly. The person who taught me most about the value of freedom and democracy, for example, was my despotic forth grade teacher. Feared by all, she extorted compliance by very credible threats and actual violence.

She finally went too far, even for those antediluvian times, when she held a youngster against a very hot steam radiator until he demonstrated sufficient servility. His burns got her transferred to another school. But not before she taught me how dangerous unrestrained power really is and how precious is control over one’s own life.
A similar thing sometimes happened in the good old days of Catholic schooling when some nuns occasionally bullied, slapped or otherwise humiliated children. Presumably, what these nuns had in mind by not sparing the rod was making better Catholics. But the actual consequences were often to turn some kids off, not just with regards to Catholic schooling, but Catholicism altogether.

The point is that what we learn in school is often contrary to what the instructor or administrator intends. Imagine, for instance, a ‘free and democratic’ classroom where chaos makes learning difficult, and where vast amounts of faculty and student time are spent mediating petty disputes. Some students might come away from such an experience longing for a strong leader who would end the chaos and quickly settle petty disputes. In short, poorly managed democratic classrooms could make some kids eager for despotism.

So when it’s said that children learn what they live, keep in mind that this learning might be other than what is intended.

To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

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