The curse of romanticism

To hear some home educators talking, one would imagine that maintained schools in this country are like Mr M'Choakumchild's school in Hard Times. They evidently think that a government inspector in the mould of Thomas Gradgrind is overseeing all the schools, saying: 'Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else'. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. Schools in this country are, more's the pity, riddled with the romantic view of childhood which Rousseau did so much to spread in the late eighteenth century. Our schools are still full of primary teachers who view fooling around with a lump of plasticine as an adequate and acceptable substitute to learning to read and write and perform the four basic arithmetical operations.

Rousseau has much to answer for. Until the eighteenth century, schools were places where children went to learn. Culture and knowledge were transmitted vertically from one generation to the next in the most efficient way that could be devised. These were the halcyon days before the muddle-headed notion of child-centred education had been devised. In those days, books were seen as being the most valuable educational tool and it was from them that most knowledge was expected to be acquired. Reading and the study of books was thought to be virtually synonymous with the very word 'education'.

Rousseau expounded his educational philosophy in Emile. This set out a blueprint for what we would today call a child centred education based upon play and self discovery. Among the most important ideas was that knowledge was to be acquired by experience rather than teaching. Children were to learn without being taught. Books are to be avoided, they are 'the curse of childhood'. This gave birth to an educational movement which had a very ambivalent attitude to books and the facts learned from them; a suspicion and distrust which lives on to this day among those who believe in 'child-centred' education. They hoped that nature would herself be the teacher and that real life would be the classroom. As Shakespeare said, 'there are books in running brooks, sermons in stones'.

Two of Rousseau's most enthusiastic followers will be familiar to teachers; Pestalozzi and Froebel. Together, these two fleshed out the ideas sketched by Rousseau and crafted from them an educational philosophy which still has great influence today. An example of the sort of thing which these two pioneers tried to foist off on us is Pestalozzi's belief that children's personalities are sacred and are what give them their inner dignity. Of course the problem arises if a child has a personality which makes him into a little thief or liar. Or perhaps if she is vicious or idle. In that case, we might not treat the child's personality as being sacrosanct and try to change it. This is called education and although such a view is no longer fashionable, there are still many who feel that a large part of education consists of getting children to drop their natural impulses and conform to the mores of an ethical system. In the romantic view of childhood which people like Rousseau encouraged though and which many teachers and parents today embrace; children are basically innocent and good. This view of the inherent goodness of children and the holy worth of their personalities was a reaction to the Christian doctrine of original sin, which regarded all children as young limbs of Satan.

When the Romantic Movement took off in a literary and artistic way, the ideas of Rousseau about childhood and education were adopted and soon became entrenched. 'Nature' was seen as being sacred and the best education was thought to be one which was 'natural', gained through the real world and not in some musty schoolroom. It is to this strand of pedagogy which many modern home educators adhere. However, it is not only home educators who feel this way. As I said earlier, most teachers in this country have the same idea at the back of their minds, despite the countless government initiatives designed to force them to teach the children in their care more effectively.

It is a curious irony that while many home educators refuse to send their children to school because they are afraid that the little darlings will be pressured and taught too intensively, there are others like the present writer who eschew conventional education for precisely the opposite reason. I regard modern schools as hotbeds of the most virulent and damaging form of romanticism; others see them as Dickensian places where the spirits of the innocent are crushed beneath the weight of facts which they are forced to absorb.