Dr. David Safir, a pediatrician, believes that spanking your children can be an effective tool for parents. In To spank or not to spank, where do you draw the line?, Sari Zeidler examines the benefits and drawbacks of physical punishment. Dr. Safir insists that children need to learn that society has rules of conduct and consequences for bad behavior. “Of all the crimes that children commit, contempt for authority is the biggest one. It leads to nothing but trouble in a child’s life,” he contends.
The Republican Party of Texas has a new political platform in which they reject the teaching of critical thinking in the schools. Such programs “have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.” According to Danny Weil, writing in Texas GOP Declares: “No More Teaching of ‘Critical Thinking Skills’ in Texas Public Schools”, there is a long tradition of opposing critical thinking in the schools going back to William Bagley and his book Classroom Management, published in 1907, where he defines the purpose of education as “slowly transforming the child from a little savage into a creature of law and order, fit for the life of civilized society.”
Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind, YourMorals.org) has a schema for classifying the traits which define conservatives and liberals. Conservatives favor loyalty, authority, and sanctity; liberals favor compassion and fairness. Liberals are more open to new ideas, while conservatives prefer the well-known, and like change to come only gradually. Conservatism or liberalism is part of our psychological makeup, part of our genetic heritage, part of what evolution made us.
For conservatives, education is more like training. We know what kind of individuals will do best in our society and which we want in our society, and the purpose of education is to form them into those individuals. Dr. Safir is a conservative. He has tremendous respect for society as it is constructed, and believes that we need to spank out the contempt for authority which children, at least these days, are want to hold. The Texas GOP is conservative; it believes the purpose of education is to reinforce the fixed beliefs we want as part of our social order, and to teach children to obey authority.
For liberals, education is more like cultivating, providing the ground in which children grow. In liberal education, we don’t know how the individuals will turn out; we expose them to new ideas and critical thinking, and let them flower in their own unique ways.
A more traditional conservatism believes there is a natural law which does and should guide us and our society, and that our faculties of reason are sufficient to approach an understanding of that natural law. A more traditional Christianity also believes that individuals can use reason to approach an understanding of God. Danny Weil sees in the view of education being espoused by the Texas GOP and their political platform, and the currents of which it is a part, as being insidious. In his view, this movement is not trying to train students to use reason to understand the natural law, a conservative project in itself; rather, it is trying to undermine reasoning so that the powerful can maintain control of society for their own means. If Weil is not overdoing it in his criticism, what he critiques is not conservatism, but something tending toward tyranny.
I was in high school in the years around 1970, the tail end of the radical hey day. I remember thinking it rather quaint when people talked of education as training citizens for participation in our democratic society. Now, like Jonathan Haidt’s move from unabashed liberalism to a more centrist position, I find myself seeking balance between what is current, and what is potential. We do need to train students to be good citizens, and be capable of participating in our society; we also need to provide critical thinking so students can fulfill their potential in ways we may not imagine, and be capable of managing the change which is inevitable.
William Saletan, commenting on Haidt’s The Righteous Mind in Why Won’t They Listen, watches Haidt try to navigate between his views that our politics and our morals are intuitive and unreflective, and his irresistible need to call on our capacity for reason to help us navigate the shoals of life. We are preformed, as the conservatives might argue; but we also have reason, which needs cultivating so that we can rise up to the challenges which face us in an ever-changing world.