Thursday, April 1, 2010

Human Curriculum

In the context of the recent suicide of a victim of bullying and subsequent criminal charges filed against her antagonists, Matt Steinglass has a great bit of commentary in the Economist. He writes refreshingly about his first reaction to the story, and then goes about unpacking it:

I have to confess that I've often taken a skeptical attitude towards the new prominence of anti-bullying campaigns. Kids have always bullied each other, and with little data to suggest the problem is any worse now than it has been in the past, other issues seemed more pressing.
But I'm pretty sure my instinctive hesitancy on this point is wrong...

It is always important to challenge common sense, especially our broad ideas about human nature and history.  I've been reading Orwell and am struck by this passage from Coming up for Air, in which he describes the magic of a childhood growing up in the early 20th century England:
We were cruel little beasts and sometimes we'd just knock the nest down and trample on the eggs or chicks.  There was another game we had when the toads were spawning.  We used to catch toads, ram the nozzle of a bike pump up their backsides and blow them up till they burst.  That's what boys are like, I don't know why.
The context is wonderfully Orwellian (in a truer, maybe ironic sense of the word): he embraces a sentimental view of childhood not as beautifully whitewashed, but beautifully real.

Yet I can't help but disagree with his view of adolescent morality.  I think it's fair to say that the behavior he describes would be foreign to modern children, yet he thinks it normative.  And likely it was 100 years ago.  Many other things were going on in society then that would appall us today.  I think it is fair to say that we, as relatively large, wealthy, democratized and industrialized societies, have made great progress towards broadening our view of human rights.  I can't help but think that this would have some effect on child-rearing. 

So, what I'm really saying is that as a whole we are more moral.  But specifically we are more empathetic.  Because what are human rights but a recognition of our own humanity in others?  When we are treating women, minorities and gays as equals, we are acknowledging their humanity. 

But although the result is human rights for all, the important lesson is the process that brought them.  We didn't arrive at the conclusion that women deserved to vote because some switch flipped.  It was a slow and arduous process of introspection and imagination which required us to step into the shoes of the "other" and rectify logical inconsistencies.  It is this process that then becomes a part of our cultural tradition.  For if we do this with one group, we begin to do this with all groups.  Once value structures that inhibited the deconstruction of gender bias were overturned, it became easier to deconstruct race and sexuality.

We could no longer take for granted traditional patterns of interaction.  Academic research in these areas exploded in the post-war period and data began to pour in uncovering just how beholden we are to cultural patterns.  We could no longer take tradition for granted, as if it expressed some sort of natural order.  Instead, theories were developed that tried to explain how and why cultural evolved.  Many were controversial or conflicting, but all agreed that culture didn't necessarily form around a moral trajectory, but instead according to a tangled web of multiple social, political and religious pressures.

While no consensus has emerged on any perfect, final cultural morality, there are some basic rights that we have agreed upon.  And more importantly, we have embraced the notion that humans are creations of the world in which they live.  A great deal of research has been done focusing specifically on early childhood and human development.  We now know just how impressionable children are.

Literally beginning in the womb before they are even born, developing embryos respond to the mother's stress levels.  After birth, children are immediately absorbing the surrounding environment.  Cognitive and language development can vary immensely depending on quantity and quality of exposure.  Children's television programming has taken this principle to heart and childhood development research is driving content.

Unfortunately, schools are considerably behind the curve in this area.  Just as wide academic disparities exist across socioeconomic levels, so too do variances in emotion and behavior.  While much work has been done in the area of academic preparedness testing, less work has been done in emotional development.  Content standards have been developed, but to my knowledge no schools district has adopted any, and curriculum is scatter-shot.

We know that children are not yet fully developed cognitively.  In this way they haven't changed.  They will continue to make errors of judgment, and their capacity for cruelty will always remain high due to a reduced capacity to empathize.  But this does not mean that there is some magic level of development at which they all must remain.  In general, students who possess higher degrees of emotional and behavioral maturity have learned it.  They have been exposed to quality parenting and peer relationships, have received emotional nourishment and the skills to process social discourse in a healthy way.

To the extent that schools can, they need to begin approaching social development with the seriousness that they do academics.  They may not be able to correct for a disadvantaged home life, but they can offer a great deal of support to children in need.  Simply expecting the students to behave in the classroom is not enough.  For many, this will amount to little more than a momentary and external repression of impulses that they they do not possess the skills to manage on their own.  As soon as the authorities are gone, the child is at the mercy of his own incompetent devices.

I think we've clearly made great progress in understanding human development, and its anachronistic precursor "human nature".   There is still of course a great deal to discover.  But there is also a great deal more we could be doing now to provide all children the skills they need to become the best they can be.

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