Thursday, February 26, 2015

Herbartianism Made Fun and Easy, Part Four: If it's to be, it's up to...?

Part Three is here.
"On Froebelian principles it is certainly very irrational to hang a master because his pupil has committed a murder; but if Herbart is to be followed, the case for the master is not so clear....since the master can choose the ideas to be presented, and can modify and arrange them, there seems to be a prima facie case, for those who wish to hang the teachers of bad men." ~~ Sir John Adams, The Herbartian Psychology
A Froebelian teacher is "but a benevolent superintendent of the process of development which he allows to follow its own course." But if you want to be a Herbartian, you have to consider the idea that doing nothing for a child may be as harmful as doing something wrong. Adams goes on in this vein, saying that a teacher could be held directly responsible for the character of the adult she turns out, for either his success or failure. That's an awful burden to put on one human being.  But in fact, he says, it's virtually impossible for any adult, whether teacher or parent, to dominate a child's mind to that extent; really, you would have to be breathing down his neck 24/7, from birth to maturity.
It reminds me of a Ruth Rendell novel, The Crocodile Bird, which spends the first few chapters telling about a mother who, for reasons of her own, raises her daughter in isolation, away from all contemporary influences and media. The books they read together are all pre-twentieth-century. You might think that, farfetched as the story is, it does give an example of what Adams says is impossible: one person as "sole influence." You could quibble even with that and say that Shakespeare and the other classic authors were actually outside influences, but it doesn't matter much because even this mother's best-laid plans get thwarted. Her daughter accidentally turns on a television set in their employer's house, and it's all downhill from there., according to Adams, Herbartian educators may not shrink from their perceived responsibility for being The Ones to develop children's minds, but at least they don't want to turn out machines or monsters. Still, says, Adams, even if teachers do not play Dr. Frankenstein but just work very hard at supplying the proper ideas at the proper times, why doesn't our advanced education turn out adults who are all "honest, true, happy and clever?"

Oh. Well, says Adams, teachers don't always know the proper ideas or the proper times. We can believe in the theory without being, as he puts it, omniscient. Besides (and this takes up a good part of the chapter), what about the problem that some students are just smarter than others? Or is that just a fallacy? And are they born with intelligence, or is it environment? You've heard it all before, but the Adams/Herbart answer may surprise you.
"Tastes, dispositions, and will being eliminated, it is clear that what is left may be called, in a popular sense at least, pure intellect. That this intellect, considered apart from all the other elements of the soul, is equal among all men can hardly be denied, is hardly worth denying. When the process of elimination has been completed, we find that the intellect we have left does not amount to very much; to no more, indeed, than the simple undifferentiated being which represents the soul of the Herbartian Psychology."
And again:
"The conclusion of the whole matter is that we do not know whether all souls are equal at birth, and that after all it does not matter; for by the time the pupil makes his appearance in school, his soul is different from the other souls in his class. On the other hand, there is a sort of common lowest level of thinking. So far as we can reduce thinking to what is described in the old-fashioned Formal Logic Books, our minds may be regarded as equal." 
The first quote may leave us thinking that Herbart, via Adams, really doesn't think much of children's innate abilities (the Froebelian educator quoted in Part One said that too). You might even read it to say that we're all rather stupid until the teacher gets her hands on us. But the second quote says that, first, we do all have something unique that we're born with or that develops in the first few years of life; but that our learning processes, fast or slow, all follow the same patterns, and it really doesn't matter if you read early or late, or whether you take a long time to learn the times tables. This supports the idea of mastery learning: you get an "A" when you've completed the work or learned the skill, no matter how many times you have to try or how long it takes. But here is the point: that the same actual experience of learning will apply to everyone, whether we're slow in one area or quick in another. Though we may disagree about how much influence and indoctrination is acceptable, we can at least see how the principles of teaching and learning are true for each child; and that education means working with the way humans are made, not against it.

And on that point, Johann Friedrich Herbart and Charlotte Mason agree.

Part Five is here.

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