(4) nature and nurture

My goal is to figure out the best way to educate my son, Walker, who for most of his life now has been stuck at home with me and his mother because of the pandemic. Approaching two years old, Walker is beginning his education at a time when conventional schooling has been turned on its head. God willing, COVID-19 will be long gone by the time he’s school age. But I wonder what lies ahead for him. Will education return to normal after this? Should it?

By accident Walker’s life is a kind of experiment in child development. He spends zero time with other kids because of the pandemic; as a result, Becky and I can see with unusual clarity what it is he learns from us versus what he brings into the world completely of his own accord. 

We have taught him, for example, that the five-pointed thing that appears in so many places—in his books, on blocks and floor mats, printed on his shirt—is called a “star.” We’ve wrapped him up in a blanket and taken him outside on clear nights to see the stars in the sky. And he now seems to grasp that the five-pointed things that he sees inside the house are renderings of the twinkling lights that exist outside in the night sky. 

We taught him that. 

But we did not teach him to walk around the house with Mama’s boots on his hands. We didn’t teach him to obsess over things that spin. We didn’t teach him to fetch a stool so that he can reach the switch that turns on the ceiling fan, then stand transfixed while the blades twirl overhead. He’s not learning these things from other kids, and he’s not learning them from his parents. He’s just doing them.

He has personality, individuality, sui generis.

I consider these twin dimensions of Walker—the natural part and the socially constructed part—as I think about how best to approach educating him.

There’s something in him that probably thrives best without interference from us: his intense concentration; his sweet affection; his energized, project-oriented busyness; his tendency to pile up the names of things and make surprising connections between them—“cough” and “coffee,” for instance. 

On the other hand, some of that natural-born personality needs guidance, pruning, correction. He can be stubborn and throw a fit when he doesn’t get his way. He sometimes insists on commanding our attention without respecting the fact that we have other things we need to focus on. He puts us through periodic bouts of headstrong non-cooperation. And he’s full of misunderstandings and faulty assumptions. 

When should we step back and let him be? When should we step in and give him direction? That’s a parenting challenge, but also the crux of the question underlying education. 

As a nation we’ve never settled on the best way to teach reading, for example, though the arguments and experiments have been unrelenting since the 19th century. Should we turn kids loose in a language-rich garden and let them bloom? Or should we sit them down and train them through direct, systematic instruction? The warring philosophies tend to fall into two camps: the organic and the structured. Both rest on their own model of human nature. 

The organic side—associated with “progressive” education, with “developmental” and “constructivist” theories of how people learn—sees children as endowed with natural qualities that, if given a good environment, will develop on their own in the best possible way. Let a kid explore in a safe space with minimal guidance and his natural curiosity and intelligence will blossom. He’ll learn to read and do arithmetic at his own pace, because they are useful to him, even fun. Let him choose his own books, his own projects, and he will fall in love with stories and knowledge and discovery as a matter of course—because that’s how humans are made, how we evolved, how we function naturally. This picture of humans is usually tied back to Rousseau and the Romantics of the 19th century. 

The structured approach believes that people learn best under more organized conditions. Reading, for example, is not at all natural but is a cultural invention that requires learning rules and processes acquired through memorization and repetition. Kids need to be guided deliberately to master knowledge and skills that have been hard-won over centuries thanks to concerted human effort, not natural processes. We don’t do children any favors by turning them loose in the world with their own undisciplined impulses as their only guides.

The whole language approach to reading instruction belongs to the organic camp; phonics to the structured camp. Balanced literacy was intended to combine the two but actually is more organic than structured. The focus by Natalie Wexler, E. D. Hirsch, Jr., and others on foundational knowledge (see my previous post) is more structured, less organic. 

These two opposing philosophies of education embody the two opposing views of human nature held traditionally by liberals and conservatives. That’s part of why debates about curriculum and instruction can so quickly turn political. 

Liberals tend to believe that human nature is fundamentally good and can be trusted over time to lead toward fairness, equity, and greater overall happiness. Don’t impose your artificial system on the little ones; you’ll only dampen their spirit, blunt their curiosity, turn them into automatons. And for God’s sake don’t imprison them in a curriculum that reinforces the structures of power that keep people down.

Conservatives tend to be distrustful of human nature. For them, it is time-honored institutions, the law, the church, the guardrails imposed by tradition that keep people safe and peaceable and ethical. How is a little kid supposed to know what’s best, what’s important, what’s right? Left to her own, she’ll flounder, or else be led astray. Rather, she needs the structured guidance of trustworthy adults and institutions capable of handing down the fruits of civilization. 

So which one is Walker? An organic critter who should be allowed to grow according to his God-given nature? Or a lump of clay that, if not molded with intention and artistry, will never take the shape it should?

My tendency is to say “both”—though I worry that the two can’t really be reconciled. All I know is, there are parts of him that I should allow to flourish on their own, and there are parts that I have a responsibility to steer.

I hope I can do that more or less effectively while he’s at home. But what happens when (if?) I send him off to school? When a child enters school, he leaves some of his individuality behind. He becomes generic is some sense, one of many. How do the people in charge of him know when to step in and when to step back? How well will their generic student model—their theory of human nature—align with the half-wild, half-cultivated individuality Walker will bring with him to their school? 

The degree of alignment or misalignment—between the individual one is and the generic student one is presumed to be—probably accounts for a lot of what grown people can say about the quality of their education and their love of learning.