Is Taking Children Seriously revolutionary?

David Deutsch

From the archives: First published in Taking Children Seriously 26, 1998

Taking Children Seriously embraces fallibilism in a big way. Indeed, a radical fallibilism is essential to our reinterpretation of the centrepiece of education through the ages: the adult coercing the child for the child’s own good. That familiar tableau is conventionally understood as the action of one person, involving one theory, presumed true. But we re-interpret it as a difference of opinion between two people, involving two theories, of which either or both may be false. Once we have reinterpreted it thus, rejecting it is almost a formality if we are committed to reason (as opposed to force, faith or magic) as the most effective means of resolving differences of opinion. We know that any protocol for dealing with conflicting opinions that refers to the attributes of the source rather than the content of each opinion, is anti-rational. The conventional ‘mummy knows best’ rule is one such. So is any protocol that depends for its action on one party being physically stronger than the other. A rational decision-making procedure has the property that its outcomes are independent of the participants’ status and power; so a rational family is one whose behaviour would be essentially unchanged if the tables were miraculously turned and the children had all the legal rights, economic power and physical strength on their side.

Closely related to fallibilism is the rejection of any sort of utopianism or revolutionary strategy. Not only do we expect to be unable to design the perfect society or the perfect curriculum, we expect even our piecemeal attempts to improve society or to improve a particular child’s life and prospects, to be riddled with errors. We expect errors to be possible even, or perhaps especially, when we are most sure that we are right and that our critics (such as the child himself) are wrong. We understand, therefore, that our principal objective in setting up institutions must not be to identify the right policies and ensure that they will take precedence over all rival policies; it must be to ensure that bad policies, once implemented, can be abandoned as easily as possible. Choosing the right policies is a matter for persuasion and consent, under institutions that promote those things but do not pre-judge either what the answer is or whose idea it will be.

Those who rest their hopes for the future on specious assumptions about the ability of benevolent rulers to choose rightly, usually assume that abandoning one’s faith in authority entails losing hope that things can work out, or improve, at all. That is one reason why fallibilism often seems frightening and disorienting when one first takes it seriously. But in fact, fallibilism is not a pessimistic posture when it is combined with (critical) rationalism. On the contrary, it is entirely compatible with the belief that all errors are correctable. It is just that they are not correctable once and for all (for the corrections themselves will contain errors, or lead us into new errors), and not all at once, for the only way of making progress is piecemeal criticism: correcting one apparent error at a time with a tentative improvement, backtracking when it seems not to be an improvement after all.

A thoroughgoing rejection of authority often leads to a contempt for tradition, but that is not the case here. We reject utopia and revolution partly because we expect to make mistakes when we try to improve upon existing ways of thinking and doing things. Another way of putting that is that we accept that tradition generally contains knowledge that is not immediately apparent to us. So although we reject the authority of tradition (that is to say, we refuse to hold any idea or practice immune from criticism or change), we value the knowledge that is implicitly or explicitly contained in traditions, and we expect any improvement to come about only through the piecemeal modification of existing ideas.

This brings us to an apparent paradox. For the idea that an adult’s greater knowledge, greater responsibility and so forth, do not confer upon him even the slightest authority to enforce his judgement upon an unwilling child, is itself a massive and radical departure from traditional ideas in education and child rearing. Inevitably therefore, Taking Children Seriously rejects outright large portions of traditional child-rearing practice, and advocates a whole new style that conflicts sharply with tradition. Moreover, to make matters worse, non-coercive child rearing is by its nature difficult or impossible to implement piecemeal, for freedom is not conveniently divisible. Nor can it be implemented experimentally, for freedom granted conditionally is not freedom at all. People often remark, when they first take the plunge, that Taking Children Seriously seems to turn all their old ideas upside-down. As William Godwin said of his own educational theory (a precursor of Taking Children Seriously): “This plan is calculated entirely to change the face of education. The whole formidable apparatus which has hitherto attended it, is swept away”. That does not sound very piecemeal, does it? So, if we are advocating a revolutionary change, how can we possibly expect to succeed?

Moreover, this is not just a matter of a few pitfalls that we might fall foul of. The amount of knowledge (mostly inexplicit) that resides in the prevailing traditions of child rearing is colossal. We are so accustomed to the efficient transmission of basic cultural knowledge — such as language, morality, and patterns of interpersonal relationships (including the educational institutions themselves) — that it is too easy to take it for granted. Virtually all parents accomplish it without a moment’s thought; yet they have no idea how it is done. None of us do. We could not do it for an adult: the near-impossibility of training someone reliably to pass for a member of a different culture is the subject of many a spy movie — and that’s only a matter of external appearances. If our native languages and world views were transmitted as efficiently as the most efficient schools transmit (say) foreign languages or algebra to the general population, we’d be back in the Stone Age or worse within a couple of generations. That this is not happening is neither inevitable nor is it a miracle: it is due to the fact that our educational institutions (especially those that operate within the family) contain deep knowledge of how to transmit our culture.

In this respect, they know a lot more than we do. Or, to put that in a non-paradoxical way: most of us know, unconsciously, a lot more about how to transmit our culture to children than anyone does consciously. That being so, can Taking Children Seriously really be right to advocate a new style of child rearing that is strongly at odds with the inexplicit knowledge we have inherited, and violates many of the traditions which, since time immemorial, have been transmitting essential information more reliably than we know how to transmit anything? When we modify these traditions in order to achieve some new purpose of our own, what reason is there to believe that our modified educational practices will still even be functional, let alone do any good to the children we try them out on? After all, we know next to nothing of how they worked when they did work. We might as well expect an aeroplane still to be capable of flying if, knowing no aeronautical engineering, we blithely removed all the components we didn’t see the point of, and replaced them with ones we considered philosophically more acceptable.

Before I address this problem, let me point out that mainstream education faces it too, albeit in a milder form. Society is changing rapidly, and this creates pressure for education policy to change accordingly. There are changes in objectives, as society decides that it ‘needs’ more scientists and creative thinkers, and fewer racists and sexists; there are changes in values, as society decides that children have some human rights after all, and should not be beaten or humiliated; there are changes in intellectual fashion that place new constraints on curricula and styles of teaching and child rearing; and there are social changes such as women’s equality, the decline in religious belief, the decline of the traditional family and the greater diversity in the economy and in life-styles, which make the old methods of education increasingly impossible to enact. But as I have said, because of the pivotal role of inexplicit knowledge in education, an educational policy can in general only achieve what it sets out to achieve if it is based on an evolved tradition. And therefore there is no reason to believe that prevailing educational practice can be rapidly modified to meet any, let alone all, of the above challenges. Schools, for instance, can do what they evolved to do: coerce children into acquiring certain mechanical skills through mindless repetition. But anyone who believes that they can be re-adapted at the drop of a hat to meet unrelated objectives, such as making children more interested in science, or giving them the flexibility to change jobs several times during their lives, or even just persuading them that it is unwise to smoke cigarettes, has grossly underestimated the complexity of educational traditions in particular, and of the human condition in general.

There is, then, an inescapable dilemma facing conventional education: if you stick to the old methods, the educational system becomes ever more disconnected from the values and needs of the people it is supposed to be serving; reform those methods — even to the extent of removing gross irrationality and cruelty — and you risk throwing away the inexplicit knowledge that is needed for the system to work, in any  sense of the term.

Not only does the same dilemma — writ large — face Taking Children Seriously, it faces every field of knowledge from time to time. For although starting with a clean slate and designing a new system from scratch can never work, there does sometimes come a moment when a successful line of criticism, intended to address specific problems, nevertheless entails a solution that differs radically from what went before. There was once a moment, for instance, when we had to admit that the human race is descended from apes. The arguments and the evidence for this had been built up piecemeal; but there was no piecemeal way of making the  change from the old world-view to the new.

What does one do, in such cases, about the risk of losing vital knowledge as one abandons a failed set of ideas? One thing that one does  not do is hesitate to argue against those ideas and in favour of ideas that seem better. Darwin hesitated for twenty years before publishing The Origin of Species, partly out of fear that it would undermine the fabric of society. His fear may have been justified, but his hesitation was not. The reason is the very consideration that I am discussing in this article. Yes, Darwin’s theory contributed to the decline of religion and perhaps, thereby, created a vacuum that has been filled by such things as totalitarian ideologies. But on the other hand, it also contributed enormously to scientific and philosophical progress, which has saved countless lives and enriched many more. For Darwin to know which of these effects would be stronger — to know whether postponing publication of his theory of evolution would do net good or harm — would require a supernatural knowledge of all the ideas, explicit and inexplicit, that existed in other minds, followed by a superhuman analysis of the myriad interactions between them that publication would initiate. To imagine that he could make a meaningful judgement in this matter, and that it was his place to second-guess the intellectual development of the entire world on the basis of such a judgement, was not just silly, it was crass utopianism.

On the other hand, Darwin was in a position to judge that he was in possession of arguments and knowledge that might well settle an important scientific and philosophical issue (the origin of species). As a rational being, his duty was to say so.

He also, of course, had a duty to warn of the dangers that he saw. Indeed, merely warning is in general not enough. Although rationality may sometimes forbid us to hold back criticisms that could destroy the old order, that does not alter the fact that the old order may contain important knowledge that is not easily replaceable. Although we must face the fact that we may be heading for disaster as a consequence of apparent progress, and although we must nonetheless strive for that progress, there is no excuse for being fatalistic about the outcome. What can we do about it? There are, I suggest, two important things we can do.

First, we should always strive to use or adapt existing traditions, preferably ones that have evolved to meet independent criteria, rather than try to design something wholly new. In my opinion, Taking Children Seriously already does this very well. The sorts of behaviour that Taking Children Seriously advocates in place of conventional adult-child coercion are deeply rooted in other stalwart traditions of our culture, such as Enlightenment rationality, the autonomy of the individual, human rights, and (most important) many of the existing traditions of the family and of friendship between equals.

My second suggestion is much harder to apply. It is that we should remain open to further change, and that we should not expect the new theory, in itself, to provide new, workable traditions. Those must evolve in the light of the theory — indeed they should co-evolve with the theory — and one of the main purposes of Taking Children Seriously is to promote their continuing evolution.

Finally, even if we get all these things right, parents should not expect adopting the Taking Children Seriously style to guarantee either their children’s perpetual happiness or their own. This is partly a transitional problem (as in newly democratised countries whose rulers find it hard to let go, and whose people find it hard to believe that their freedom is genuine and lasting), and a matter of needing new institutions that have the properties Taking Children Seriously requires. But it is also just the crude fact that the new theory is bound to be flawed in some new and unforeseen ways. In breaking new ground, we are necessarily going to encounter new kinds of problem, and in all probability, new kinds of disaster too.

To sum up these ideas in terms of the aeroplane analogy: we are  not simply replacing parts because we do not know what they do. We are abandoning an old design because, although we do not understand everything about what makes it fly, we do understand why it is so prone to crash. To remedy that flaw, we find that we have no option but to abandon the old design. Yet we are not designing a new aeroplane from scratch. We are simply modifying an existing design that is widely acknowledged to be far safer and more powerful than our old one; the only proviso is that it has hitherto been used only for cargo, while we propose to use it to carry passengers!

This task will not be easily or quickly accomplished, and there can be no guarantee of success, even in the long run, let alone for a particular family or a particular child. Undertaking it is risky. Not undertaking it may be even more so.

David Deutsch, 1998, ‘Is Taking Children Seriously revolutionary?’, Taking Children Seriously 26, ISSN 1351-5381, pp. 12-15, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/is-taking-children-seriously-revolutionary/