Toynbee: How History can enrich perception

Arnold Toynbee, in A Study of History, digresses to muse upon…

“the experience of a communion on the mundane plane with persons and events from which, in his usual state of consciousness, he is sundered by a great gulf of Time and Space that, in ordinary circumstances, is impassable for all his faculties except his intellect. A tenuous long-distance commerce exclusively on the intellectual plane is an historian’s normal relation to the objects of his study; yet there are moments in his mental life — moments as memorable as they are rare — in which temporal and spatial barriers fall and psychic distance is annihilated; and in such moments of inspiration the historian finds himself transformed in a flash from a remote spectator into an immediate participant, as the dry bones take flesh and quicken into life.

He then gives this example from his own life:

“The present writer, for example, still retained, some forty years after one experience of the kind, an abiding sense of personal participation in the war of 90-80 B.C. between Rome and her Italian allies as lasting consequence of the instantaneous effect on him of a passage in the table of contents (periocha) of the eighty-ninth book of Livy’s history upon which he had stumbled one day when, during his reading as an undergraduate for the school of Literae Humaniores at Oxford, he was unexpectantly ploughing his way through the surviving précis of the lost books of Livy’s work in the faint hope of gleaning some additional scraps of knowledge of the appalling history of the Hellenic World in the last two centuries B.C… As the student read this quickening passage of an arid epitome, he was transported, in a flash, across the gulf of Time and Space from Oxford in A.D. 1911 to Teanum in 80 B.C., to find himself in a back yard on a dark night witnessing a personal tragedy that was more bitter than the defeat of any public cause.”

(my emphasis)

Sehnsucht – C S Lewis

The German language has a word for the longing that C S Lewis evokes in much of his work: sehnsucht. The Wikipedia article describes it as a feeling of nostalgia for a time that we did not necessarily experience.

Here is C S Lewis giving voice to that “piercing joy” of sehnsucht.

“Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside is . . . the truest index of our real situation…”

“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

Primal Trust

I’ve just discovered, and am hugely enjoying, Gary Lachman’s work on esotericism. I’m feeling myself becoming ever more interested in Steiner’s spiritual education and its hopes of resisting the rising tide of materialism. I particularly liked this comment about cultivating a positive disposition towards life:

So it would not be an exaggeration, I think, to say that I have devoted my life to trying to get a decent grip on those fundamental existential questions: who am I, why am I here, and what am supposed to do now that I am? I do not consider myself a particularly “spiritual” person. I don’t like the term particularly, because it has acquired connotations that I find unhelpful. The historian Jacques Barzun—another mainstream thinker whose work has influenced me—once made a handy distinction between “spiritual” and “things of the spirit”. Barzun feels himself to be ”obedient to ‘spirit’, knowing that from it alone come the things that justify life —things, in Nietzsche’s words, ‘transfiguring, exquisite, mad, and divine’”. I know how Nietzsche and Barzun feel. Part of this “obedience” involves developing a trust in life, a bottom-line knowledge that, although it is a grim and difficult business, life ultimately means well by us. Gebser called this trust Urvertrauen, “primal trust”, as opposed to the angst we feel most of the time. You can say that I try to make this primal trust the default setting for my attitude toward life. This doesn’t let us off the hook. We still have to do the work. I’m not a believer in “letting go and letting God”. God has enough on his plate and passing the buck on to him only makes us lazy. Anything of value is achieved through our own efforts, including our own evolution. Having a primal trust in life helps us to make those efforts.

(from an interview with Aaoron Cheak here)

Children and the Use of Technology

(I published this piece on the Keystone blog a few months ago, and reprint it below.)

One topic often discussed in my conversations with parents is the impact of technology on family life.

Context – how common is technology in children’s lives?

The pervasiveness of technology in children’s lives is undisputed. The Connected Kids Report last year showed that children aged 5 – 16 spend an average of six and a half hours a day in front of a screen, compared with around three hours in 1995. (UK adults spend even more time). Smartphone and tablet ownership amongst children is at an all-time high; did you know that more than one in 10 children aged 3 – 4 now have their own tablet (11%, up from 3% in 2013)?

Few areas of modern life are technology-free and teenagers in particular perceive themselves to be at a social disadvantage if they do not have a smartphone. Combine this peer pressure with an educational environment ever more in thrall to the use of technology in the classroom (the growth of BETT even during the years I have been running Keystone has been staggering) and the occasional concerned voice raised in opposition to this omnipresent technology is, if heard, rarely listened to.

What is wrong with technology?

Technological improvements have liberated and enriched whole areas of human activity in ways that the most visionary alchemist of yore could never have predicted. Few of its critics fail to recognise these contributions. Nonetheless, there are three particular concerns that parents have as they see the relationship their children have with technology.

  1. Social media – a shallow form of communication. Perhaps the most popular form of technology in children’s lives is social media, particularly Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. One of the most eloquent critics of the impact of social media on children’s social development is Sherry Turkle, whose books Reclaiming Conversation and Alone Together are well worth reading for parents who want to explore the issue further. She points to the fact that children have started to prefer digital communication over in-person / face-to-face communication, in part because it is easier to control. Children, especially in their teenage years when many are so nervous about how they are perceived, prefer to present more perfected selves via digital means rather than face the messiness, stumbles and mistakes of real-world, real-time communication. Of course, though, it is exactly this older form of face-to-face communication that is so important to the development of the self, and the development of such attributes as empathy. A 2011 University of Michigan scan of studies of American college students found a 40-per-cent decrease in empathy in the past four decades, with the steepest declines appearing in the past 10 years. These figures lead Professor McGilchrist to comment last year that smartphones were making children “borderline autistic” – though this was critiqued well in BigThink. But Turkle is surely persuasive when she says: “The predictability and ‘friction-free’ nature of virtual worlds is compelling to children, but it doesn’t teach them about relationships — conversations do.”
  2. Modern technology is distracting. A completely obvious point, you will say – butthis article by technology scholar Clay Shirky made me see just what a problem distraction has become, even for extremely able NYU undergraduates. In it Shirky reminds us how bad humans are at multi-tasking; draws our attention to the sinister pact made between smartphone Operating Systems and app companies to ensnare children’s attention neurochemically; and – perhaps most interestingly – shows that even students who do not bring smartphones to lessons can be distracted by the “secondary smoke” of a neighbour’s phone.  In my own experience of watching teenagers, I so often see evidence of that cruel tug placed on children by an unread message or status update, to the extent that some seem almost powerless to resist.
  3. Modern technology mediates and diminishes experience and perception. In a related concern, such technology has begun to invade experience to such an extent that children’s perception of their childhoods is in danger of being dulled, alienated and diminished. This is, of course, equally a problem for adults, and Turkle’s work is full of sad – but all-too-recognisable – stories of, for instance, the parent who reads his emails while giving his son a bath or who finishes a text as she greets her child at the school gates. Our relationships have started to slip into what researchers call an “absent presence.” We live in what Nicholas Carr calls The Shallows. In one telling statistic, although 82 per cent of adults acknowledge that using your phone during an in-person conversation hurts that interaction, 89 per cent keep doing it anyway. In my own experience, I fear that even technology use that is focused on the child (e.g. using your smartphone to record your child’s sports match or play) acts as a barrier between parent and experience – thereby draining it of some of its meaning.

What can parents do?

If the above three concerns strike you as plausible (and I’d love to hear from you whether they do or don’t), here are a few suggestions from the literature on what could be done in response – some easier to implement than others…

  1. Be strong. One of the most interesting comments I read in Turkle’s work is that children both longed for more conversations with their parents and peers (saying they turned to their own devices because others were similarly plugged in) and appreciated the liberation from them when firm rules were put in place. Even Steve Jobs, amongst other technology entrepreneurs, was firm in the limits he placed on his children’s technology use. As in many areas of bringing up children, parents should help children delay gratification and resist temptation in the secure knowledge that “they know better.”
  2. Model a healthy relationship with technology. As Turkle has pointed out, if a child sees their parent obsessed with a “shiny object” from the moment they’re born, they will want one for themselves as soon as they have the words to ask for it. “In parental slang, it has become known as the ‘passback,’ passing back the iPhone to quiet your toddler in the rear seat of the car.” Turkle recommends cultivating “sacred spaces” in family life, such as the kitchen, the dinner table and – a surprise for me – the car, in which no technology is allowed and conversation (even messy grunts and half-articulations) is fostered. If you need a hand, a friend from New Zealand points out that there are now apps to stop you overusing apps! The novelist Zadie Smith used a site called Freedom to help her avoid distraction and finish her novel.
  3. Encourage the experience of solitude and hands-on activity. Turkle convincingly points to studies showing that it is “only when we are alone with our thoughts — not reacting to external stimuli — that we engage that part of the brain’s basic infrastructure devoted to building up a sense of our stable autobiographical past.” Some schools have built in wilderness / craft experience, such as Australia’s Timbertop programme or the UK’s Forest Schools, into adolescent education. However, most parents will find that simply encouraging their children to get out into the natural world or pursue quiet individual activities like modeling clay and sketching will help to achieve the same goals: slow children down and counteract the distractibility of technology. Turkle again: “When you watch children play with them, you see how the physicality of the materials offer a resistance that gives children time to think, to use their imaginations, to make up their own worlds. ”
  4. Interrogate the school’s policy on technology use. If you have found any of the above convincing, send some of the articles and books mentioned to your school. What is their policy on smartphone and tablet use? If they agree with the three problems mentioned above, how do they help their pupils overcome them?

Kidzania and the growth of a child’s imagination

My office happens to be near Kidzania, the “Educational Entertainment Experience” that has recently opened in Westfield, so it has been the subject of some speculation amongst the Keystone team. I have spent the past few days reading more about it, and confess to some unease about its educational vision.

Kidzania is built over a whopping 75,000 square feet and is conceived as a “child-size city where kids are in charge.” Rather than the sorts of games and rides found in most theme parks, this child’s city offers a range of 60 jobs and activities that mimic the adult world: there’s a newspaper office, a hospital, a bank, a supermarket and even a nightclub. Children are paid for their jobs in kidZos, the local currency, and can spend their hard-earned salary on the activities. They are paid Z8 for being a policeman, Z9 for being a model in the fashion studio, Z12 for being a surgeon in the hospital etc (full list here). The facsimile of adult life is not confined to the city’s market economy. As you can see from some of the family videos that have been shot there, the city has all the meretricious features of modern mall life that will be familiar to anyone who has been to Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai etc. – from the low-lit boulevards lined by fake trees and sculptures to the ceaseless soundtrack of half-familiar Club Classics.

The educational philosophy underpinning Kidzania is self-explanatory. It is role-play, “a universal form of play enjoyed by children all over the world. Role-play is fun and has very positive educational, psychological and motivational benefits.” Kidzania’s form of role-play “is an exceptional education and entertainment city which stimulates creative thinking and boosts levels of self-esteem and confidence.” Educators and “play experts” have ensured that children learn “creativity, critical thinking, communication, confidence, and collaboration.” Of course, schools are being offered large discounts to entice them to Kidzania for next year’s school trips.

Children have always loved to pretend to be adults, and role-play is surely one of the most time-honoured of children’s amusements.

So what are my misgivings about Kidzania?

They are two:

  • Its environment leaves little room for the imagination. As anyone who has ever held a stick aloft and declared en garde to a friend or sibling knows, children do not actually need realistic toys or environments to lend verisimilitude to their play. In fact, I wonder whether there might almost be some sort of law of diminishing returns – whereby the more realism that is supplied by a toy or environment, the less a child actually derives in imaginative output. When a child is transplanting very life-like organs, like she might in Kidzania, or flying in a real cockpit, what exactly is the imaginative or creative merit? Where is the potential for imaginative growth? This equation can’t be exact of course; a completely desolate environment would not provide much imaginative fodder either. But I have a hunch that the various “Adventure Play” initiatives like The Land are striking a more humane balance. By supplying just enough material (hideouts, small hills, swings, discarded toys etc.) to get children started, such initiatives exhibit so much more faith in the generative power of children’s imaginations. My own tastes would run to something more like Maggie and Rose’s Village Nursery, whose imaginative landscape (a traditional English village green) is thoughtful, harmonious, natural but – crucially – limited. It is not a detailed, realistic picture of an English village, but rather one that leaves plenty of room for the development of a fertile imagination. Rudolf Steiner no doubt goes too far in the quotation below, but I think his insight is so much richer than that offered by Kidzania:

You can make a doll for a child by folding up an old napkin, making two corners into legs, the other two corners into arms, a knot for the head, and painting eyes, nose, and mouth with blots of ink. Or you can buy the child what is called a “pretty” doll, with real hair and painted cheeks. We need not dwell on the fact that the “pretty” doll is of course hideous and apt to spoil the healthy aesthetic sense for a lifetime; for education, the main question is different. If the children have the folded napkin before them, they have to fill in from their own imagination what is necessary to make it real and human. This work of the imagination shapes and builds the forms of the brain. The brain unfolds as the muscles of the hand unfold when they do the work they are suited for. By giving the child the so-called “pretty” doll, the brain has nothing more to do. Instead of unfolding, it becomes stunted and dried up.

  • The content of its role-play is banal. Given that Kidzania has chosen to fill its child’s city with content (and not let children invent much for themselves), I wonder whether they could have chosen jobs and activities with a bit more of the marrow of life in them? There is something curiously anodyne about offering children the chance to be a banker, dentist or air conditioning technician; something more shallow than their grandiose educational promises would suggest about offering children the chance to be a model, beautician or flight attendant – especially in the synthetic way they are presented at Kidzania, with limited opportunities for children to manipulate the experience. It used to be that children would imagine themselves as a knight, a pirate, a Robin Hood. Can’t the burdens of finding a career with a good wage be postponed, at least until after the age of 14? The ages 4 – 14 are a never-to-be-repeated opportunity for children to fill their heads with stories, images and genuinely fertile experiences. Couldn’t a Kidzania be devised, such as this one in the US, that fed such activities rather than taking time away from them?

The question of how far the adult world should be allowed to impinge on childhood receives frequent attention. As I have argued elsewhere, now that primary children are being introduced to financial literacy and a whole host of other adult concerns, it seems that precious little time is being left for genuinely exploratory and imaginative pursuits that were once the joys of growing up.

 

Some (no doubt rosy-eyed) pictures showing the inventiveness of Victorian children’s typical games..

 

Eton – after a socialist revolution

I’ve quite enjoyed racing through News from Nowhere, William Morris’ account of England a generation after a socialist revolution.

I’m sure everyone was worrying… “but what would happen to Eton?”

“Up yonder are some beautiful old buildings, which were built for a great college or teaching-place by one of the mediaeval kings – Edward the Sixth, I think” (I rather smiled to myself at his rather natural blunder). “He meant poor people’s sons to be taught there what knowledge was going in his days; but it was a matter of course that in the times of which you seem to know so much they spoilt whatever good there was in the founder’s intentions. My old kinsman says that they treated them in a very simple way, and instead of teaching poor men’s sons to know something, they taught rich men’s sons to know nothing. It seems from what he says that it was a place for the ‘aristocracy ‘(if you know what that means; I have been told its meaning) to get rid of their male children for a great part of the year. I daresay old Hammond would give you plenty of information in detail about it.”

“What is it used for now?” said I.

“Well,” said he, “the buildings were a good deal spoilt by the last few generations of aristocrats, who seem to have had a great hatred against beautiful old buildings, and indeed all records of past history; but it is still a delightful place. Of course we cannot use it quite as the founder intended, since our ideas about teaching young people are so changed from the ideas of his time; so it is used now as a dwelling for people engaged in learning; and folk from round about come and get taught things that they want to learn; and there is a great library there of the best books. So that I don’t think that the old dead king would be much hurt if he were to come to life and see what we are doing there.

“Well,” said Clara, laughing, “I think he would miss the boys.”

“Not always, my dear,” said Dick, “for there are often plenty of boys there, who come to get taught; and also,” said he, smiling, “to learn boating and swimming. I wish we could stop there: but perhaps we had better do that coming down the water.”

The moral training of young children

I recently read a piece in The Guardian about the introduction of financial education in our schools from next September, intended to teach children to “solve money related maths problems and learn about public finances, pensions and how to budget”. Worthwhile behaviour this of course is, and the priority given to such lessons is a growing trend in today’s schools. I think it reflects the role that the curriculum plays in the mind of today’s activist. Faced with the crisis of obesity, or waste, or the role of women, the activist suggests that we teach children how to eat their greens, use fewer plastic bags, dismantle the patriarchy and so on.

Such suggestions are benignly given, seem sensible and few would question the problems they seek to solve. But do such lessons achieved the desired effect? I think they are often have three unintended consequences.

Firstly, such lessons take time away from a school’s core purpose, which is the transmission of knowledge. You’ll notice that most of these lessons are aimed at primary school children who have not yet mastered the foundations of arithmetic, reading, writing, grammar, history, geography, science etc. Lessons instructing children in particular attitudes or behaviours were traditionally a responsibility of the home because it was felt that schools did not have enough time to combine ethical lessons with traditional subject lessons. Here is an example of a lesson on water health and wellbeing as part of the Guardian’s ‘Live Better Challenge’:

“[F]ive nine- and 10-year-old boys fan out next to each other in the grass under a big, leafy tree. Another boy tries to lie beside them. “Get up, we can’t have six fingers. Go and be soap!” bawls part of the “hand”. The unwanted finger reluctantly hauls himself to his feet and joins the larger group of pupils standing over the outspread hand. Grinning at the sheer daftness of it, they all start to bob up and down in unison, making splurting noises as the “fingers” wriggle energetically on the ground. “Miss, look, we’re a soap dispenser!” the pupils call out, verging on hysterics as they try to co-ordinate their “squirting” action.”

Every hour that a child spends in lessons like these is an hour he is not spending learning the essential prior subject knowledge needed to understand the world in any depth.

The second effect is an effect of the first. Without foundational subject knowledge, is it not probable that children will learn the behavioural commandment without understanding the knowledge underpinning it? The best time to consider conservation, nutrition, feminism and other prominent contemporary issues is once a child has a good working knowledge of natural biology, human biology, history, politics etc. Without knowledge, the commandment becomes something of an empty cartridge, unconnected to the wider fabric of human knowledge, less likely, perhaps, to lodge in the daily consciousness of the child.

Lastly, I have long been unconvinced that lessons in behaviour, which might otherwise be called lessons in character, are best taught explicitly in the classroom. The independent sector has always understood this truth, preferring to inculcate virtues through the careful cultivation of a child’s experiences outside the classroom, such as on the sports field or in the dining hall. If we are to teach character in the classroom, do the above examples – and many like it – really hold up to scrutiny as virtues? Are they not rather applications of older virtues, such as temperance (‘temperantia‘) or charity (‘caritas‘)? To misrepresent the application of a virtue for a virtue itself is to conspire in a moral muddying of the waters, particularly when we are talking about the character formation of young children.

To take one example, a recent government report found that the UK had slipped from sixth to ninth place in the Global Entrepreneurship and Development Index, that “a relative lack of ambition and positive attitudes may hold the UK back from realising its full entrepreneurial potential”, and that therefore the following lessons in primary schools were to be encouraged:

“Schoolchildren as young as five as will be taught how to set up their own businesses and make profits under plans to be unveiled this week…Those changes would mean that even the youngest children will be taught about the role and importance of business and the need to make a profit.”

The instruction “to make a profit” is not a morally defensible virtue in itself, but is rather an instance of the older virtue of diligence (‘industria’); just as the instruction to eat healthily is an example of temperance (‘temperantia’). Profit is a benign outcome only when tempered by other virtues and limited by other vices – above all greed. To set up profit itself as the virtue is, in C. S. Lewis words, a “rebellion of the branches against the tree.”

For more than a century, the multitude of different Purposes for education has disturbed and confused the means. “We [profess] to make ideal citizens, super tolerant neighbors, agents of world peace, and happy family folk, at once sexually adept and flawless drivers of cars,” Jacques Barzun wrote – in 1945. There is of course a place for character education, and the UK independent sector has been responsible for some of the best examples of it, but it would be wiser if it was both confined to a later stage in a child’s schooling and limited in scope to virtues and vices that have stood the test of time.

Towards Understanding

The crest and motto of Shaw House School.
The crest and motto of Shaw House School, courtesy of its Facebook page

How far a motto describes the ethos of a school is a matter of some debate, but I rather liked the crest I saw on a recent visit to Shaw House School: “Towards Understanding.” Humble, unambiguous, purposeful, it perished with the school in 1985 when the buildings were discovered to be unsound.

The land was passed to Newbury County Council, which opened a state secondary on the same site in 1999. A new school, with a new motto:

Personal excellence and collective responsibility

I don’t want to labour the point, but I wonder if the waters have not been muddied when the schoolchild who went to school knowing that he was expected “to understand” now goes “to be personally excellent and collectively responsible”?