Perhaps I am a dinosaur. Perhaps I have grown too old for the world as it is developing. I am, after all, a baby boomer – sliding down the final (fatal) dip-slope of life’s roller coaster ride.
But I cannot escape the feeling that, back in the days before the advent of invasive political, psychological and sociological theorising into every aspect of our lives, we actually didn’t do too badly.
The vast majority of mankind’s achievements occurred in the times before the long-haired men and short-haired women were, inexplicably, given licence to usurp our common, hard-won knowledge and experience with apparently attractive yet unproven theories of human behaviour and motivation.
Plato. Aristotle. Einstein. Galileo. The builders of the pyramids. James Cook. Brunel. The Roman road and bridge/aqueduct designers and builders.
Just a handful of names that indicate unparalleled achievement despite the lack of all our modern aids to comfortable and easy living.
Maybe some of the above individuals and groups grew up in privileged and indulgent (for their times) circumstances. Maybe they didn’t. I don’t know. But I do know that, compared with the facilities we have available to us today, the accomplishments of those people and groups were wrested from the world in spite of their lack of our modern amenities – and of which they were, of course, quite unaware. They may, too, have been simply trying, to get as far from Nature as possible in their own ways.
It is self-evident that everything we have enjoyed and continue to enjoy in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries could have been made possible only on the back of the work of previous centuries. We owe an immeasurable debt to our forebears and their achievements in the face of a hostile world.
So why, then, have we been so eager in the last fifty years or so to ignore, even repudiate, the lessons of at least a couple of millenia? Why do we reject the experience of our species and suddenly veer off in totally new, unexplored and unproven directions where the education and socialisation of our children are concerned?
Where did we get these modern theories and methods of education? What possessed us to embrace concepts of human behaviour quite at variance with what we have proved throughout our history to work and yield the best results?
History has shown us that the three R’s (Reading, wRiting and ‘Rithmetic) have formed the basis from which almost all great human achievements have sprung.
I am not saying that the old methods of education were always particularly fun or, even, inspiring. As a product of the “old school” (forgive the pun) of education, I can personally vouch for the despair, the mind-numbing boredom and apparent lack of relevance that some school subjects – and some of their teachers – generated in their pupils. Yet I can multiply and divide in my head, construct reasonably coherent sentences in my mother tongue, spell without too many atrocities being committed and, generally speaking, get by in the world without necessary recourse to calculators, computers, spell-check programmes or video/computer games.
Also, I am able – within limits – to ponder and discuss matters as diverse as theology, astrophysics, philosophy, American history, politics, computers, motor mechanics, the history of spaceflight, business management, current affairs around the world, amongst others. Some of this ability stems, of course, from the passage of time and the accumulation of a wealth of experiences, but the seeds of the inclination to learn were sown during my time as a schoolchild undergoing a fairly normal primary and secondary education.
I mention this not because I wish anyone to think of me as a genius – I promise you I am very far from being that. It’s just that, in my youth I was inculcated with a desire and respect for knowledge of all kinds and I was schooled by ordinary yet great teachers who understood human nature sufficiently to know how and when to apply the carrot and the stick (in the case of the stick, sometimes literally) to engage my interest, to push my nose to the grindstone and to correct my inbuilt indolence and overall boyish wickedness.
Additionally, I was taught – both at home and at (a non-private) school – to be polite, respectful to my elders and betters (that is, pretty much the whole world) and presentable in my appearance. Shortcomings in these non-curricula matters and failure to achieve what was seen to be my potential in classroom business resulted in various possible sanctions; such sanctions ranged from additional homework, detentions or, worst of all (short of expulsion), corporal punishment in the form of the old-fashioned cane wielded by the Headmaster – a six-foot ex-Oxford rugby and rowing blue with the right arm swing and impact of Mohammed Ali (Cassius Clay in my earlier school days) and a distressingly consistent sense of public and private right and wrong. One learned quickly not to indulge in activities likely to engage the Head’s interest or subsequent annoyance and if one actually experienced any of the school’s sanctions – but most especially stimulation of the gluteus maximus – one was taught shame, just as an added bonus.
Therein lay the secret – one learned. And the lessons were lifelong because failure was linked, directly and immediately, with pain of one sort or another.
I use and enjoy calculators, computers and other similar facilities, of course, because they are useful tools and enhance my life and what I do in many ways. However, I can not only survive but also prosper without them because, as a child, I was given the basic, primary tools of human intercourse – the three R’s. Today’s youth, by and large, do not have these facilities; instead they have only second or third generation tools which are derivatives and quite dependent upon other esoteric disciplines and technologies, rendering them vulnerable to failure when the power fails or the password is forgotten.
Not for today’s youngsters the repetitive chanting of the multiplication tables that forever embedded that knowledge in the heads of their parents. None of the writing and re-writing of words to fix in reluctant memories that “after ‘c’ the ‘e’ precedes the ‘i’. Oh! No! That is far too old-fashioned and cruel to inflict upon the poor little things. Result: almost an entire generation functionally unable to spell or perform mental arithmetic.
Surely it is crazy that a significant proportion of tertiary education entrants must be first made literate and numerate before being able to learn anything of their chosen speciality? “Tertiary” education, by definition, implicitly means that a certain level of mastery of precursor “Primary” and “Secondary” subjects has been attained. How can it be possible, for example, that a first year university student not only cannot spell and perform the most basic of arithmetical activities but also has to undergo special tuition in how to use a simple calculator?
It is not because kids are any less intelligent than previous generations. It is simply that we, as parents and teachers (I shall eschew the more modern politically correct terminology) have failed our children.
We have failed because we have abdicated our rights and duties to our children. We no longer carry the full moral and legal obligations of, once having brought kids into the world, teaching them the disciplines and morals of our society. We have allowed a self-proclaimed bunch of so-called “experts” to usurp our rights and duties of raising, encouraging and chastising our offspring in the ways that we, as the legal guardians of our own children, see best and according to our abilities. We have permitted ourselves, for reasons of convenience and fear of failure – induced by the experts – to surrender the moral and educational development of our children to complete strangers claiming esoteric knowledge beyond the ken of mere mortals such as you and me.
And now we are reaping the harvest of our negligence and cowardice.
Our kids are very poorly educated – not just in the basics of the three R’s but also the subject matter that is dependent upon the acquisition of those basics. The comment about being poorly educated does not necessarily refer to the depth of their knowledge in specific subjects and topics in which they are interested, rather it refers to the breadth of their knowledge and comprehension of matters beyond the immediate scope of those interests. In other words, the extent of general knowledge in school children and undergraduates leaves much to be desired.
Also our kids are ill-disciplined to the point of insolence and bored in the absence of constant external (usually, these days, electronic) stimuli. They are given no self respect as individuals; rather they are encouraged to always think of themselves as “team members”, sometimes to the extent where they are expected to learn and explore only as members of a group – group discussions, group role-play, group studying and so on. Individual intellectual activities are not encouraged; even in sport the emphasis tends to be on team activities, with, for example, gymnastics and athletics being relatively poorly encouraged. Individualism and individual effort is viewed and treated with frank suspicion.
Those who indulge in those cosy theories which demand that the education and socialisation of our young should be only according to neat little formulae which rely upon delivery in “fun” and “positive” packaging but do not extend to ensuring actual comprehension and application of what is being taught to real life have missed the point in a big way.
Consider a child at the time of birth.
There is nothing, but nothing, more selfish and self-centred than a new-born baby in the entire Universe. Only its needs and demands are of any importance to itself; beyond itself there is naught of interest, value or importance. From the baby’s perspective the rest of the Universe is there only to serve him and his immediate needs. The parents amongst you will understand what I mean.
Society is, however, generally tolerant of such behaviour in the very young. Recognition is given to the fact that the infant is, in fact, helpless and makes allowance for the limited ways in which ones so young can communicate and interact with their environment. Sleepless nights, evilly malodorous nappies and decibel-damaged eardrums are accepted as temporary burdens to be borne on the path to raising a socially adapted – and acceptable – human being.
However, society does not expect or accept such behaviour beyond a very limited point. At some time or other a child has to learn to sit, stand, walk, eat on its own, bathe itself, tie its shoelaces, speak, learn to read and write and so on up to the point where that child is, eventually, independent of others and not only take care of itself but also start contributing to the society in which it was born and raised.
But the world into which the child is born is primarily a physical world wherein lie many physical and non-physical dangers which could harm, maim or even kill its inhabitants. In the initial stages of a child’s life the main threats to its well-being are almost all physical – lack of food being, perhaps, the foremost. The child soon learns, for example, that one type of physical discomfort can be readily eased by screaming its head off until its mother extracts a breast and transfers milk into its gullet.
How, though, is an otherwise completely ignorant child, unable to speak or understand speech, to learn, for example, that sharp things bite and hot things burn? One way is to allow the child to touch the hot stove or to play with that rotary saw – left carelessly plugged in and on the floor – and to learn that way, but the lesson could be extreme, even terminal. The first learning experience could well be the last. Not particularly efficient.
Now one characteristic of the human species is that of passing on the lessons learned by previous generations without necessarily requiring the new generation having to slavishly undergo the very same experiences. Knowledge about what has been found to be safe to approach, handle and eat has often been taught in the form of folklore, fables, traditions and certain religious taboos; the wolf, the snake and the preparation of certain foods are some of the many topics that have had warnings passed down from distant generations to the present.
Other, more immediate, dangers such as the hot stove, the empty electric socket in the wall and knowing how and when to safely cross the road require equally immediate action in order to teach the child that his behaviour is hazardous to himself and/or others. Initially, perhaps, the parent will scold the child – sometimes this is sufficient. However, to reinforce the warning, a scolding – together with a smack – gives the child the associative link that what he is doing is dangerous and could have painful repercussions. The physical aspect of the rebuke is important since the child immediately experiences an unwanted unpleasant physical sensation which, whilst not as painful or dangerous to his well-being as the actual hazard itself, gives him a clear indication that pain is associated with what he is doing, to say nothing of the parental disapproval of his actions – although, let’s be quite clear, spoken parental disapproval on its own is just not enough for most children.
A physical admonishment for a physical being in a physical world is the only sure way of ensuring the lesson is learned. The very design of our bodies confirms this: pain is the warning mechanism of our bodies that what we have just done was not, perhaps, the best thing to do if we wish to continue and enjoy our life.
And, because humans are also social animals, similar tactics are required for the correction of other types of mistake. Thus, although being cheeky or rude to a stranger might not, at first glance, appear to merit a smacked bottom, a physical rebuke is not necessarily out of place. One way or another, our social actions result, sooner or later, in physical consequences. Rudeness to a pretty girl is not likely to get you laid; dressing like a slob is not likely to advance your hopes of securing that cushy job you’ve had your eye on; and giving cheek to a stranger could result in a knuckle sandwich or, if you’re really unlucky, having a gun pulled on you.
These are the hard-won lessons garnered by our parents, grandparents and other ancestors way back to the dim past of our origins – and the way they were delivered to each new generation must have been effective since we have, generally speaking, been quite successful in adding to our numbers and improving our lot over the millenia.
So why do we now want to overturn all that accumulated experience of teaching our children? Why do we allow the psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, educational theorists and every other self-important bugger with a couple of letters after his name inflict their plausible and self-interested ideas upon those most vulnerable to the hazards of the world – our children – whilst we ignore the damage being done to our social morals, ethics and cohesion? Why do we permit total strangers outside of our families with who-knows-what agendas to dictate that we cannot physically chastise our children if we think it best? Have we, as a society, lost our minds? Do we understand what it means to deprive a child of unpleasant, even painful, educative experiences and the later effects of that deprivation on the adult?
Where once humans experienced war, natural disaster and individual tragedies and then just got on with life as best they could afterwards, now we require psychological counselling every time we don’t get what we want. Didn’t get that job? See your shrink to re-build your ego. Got shot at (a very real possibility in South Africa) in the street? Quick! Get some post-traumatic stress counselling! Your pet hamster died of old age? Start a grief counselling discussion group. Disturbed an armed robbery in Shoprite? Never ever shop there again. Better still, never step foot outside your front door again.
Sure, it’s great to see kids being childish and having fun. It’s one of the joys of being a parent. But another, even greater, parental joy is seeing your child advancing and maturing away from the innocence and dangers of childhood to responsible and socially acceptable adulthood. Part of that process is learning how to be a human being and, like it or not, learning is work – and often hard, painful work, at that – which must be undergone in order for that person to survive and prosper.
We, particularly in the West, (I count myself as being a Westerner despite being a South African), and those under the influence of the West, have, since the Second World War, begun a process of weakening and debilitating ourselves in mind and spirit; we are handicapping our children – and their children’s children – in their ability to face the world as it really is and we are fogging their perceptions of life into believing it to be all soft clouds and pink bunny rabbits.
Are you willing to bet that the Chinese, the Congolese, the Brazilians and a whole bunch of others – including a lot of multinational corporations – are busy burying their heads under their pillows as we are? Not a chance. They’re all just waiting until we’re good and lost in cloud-cuckoo land so that they can come in and take what they want from us.