Roger Scruton on why the progressive model of education is wrong

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to write more blogs in 2015. So I start with this short essay, drawn from a chapter of one of my Christmas presents: Roger Scruton’s The Uses of Pessimism (And the Danger of False Hope). I should say that Scruton acknowledges that he will not convince anyone and so do I. I write this in the hope that readers will either gain greater understanding of what they have known instinctively for some time, or will at least understand where those of us on the traditional side are coming from and view us as a little less evil than they did previously.

The progressive model of education is perhaps best defined by its rejection of obedience to authority. If we free children from the regimen and constraints of the traditional classroom, if they learn autonomously through discovery rather than being told what is important to know they will unleash their creativity. Children arrive at school as free, creative thinkers and should not be drilled into obedient drones, reciting the knowledge fed to them by their teachers.

Scruton rejects this idea of natural freedom, which he refers to as the ‘born-free fallacy’. He draws his thesis from Hegel: Imagine a state without laws, institutions or even behavioural norms. It is tempting to think of it as a state of perfect freedom but Hegel asks us to look closer. Human nature dictates that others in this state have similar desires to us and since only one of us can possess the finite resources we are left with two potential solutions to a conflict with another. One could kill the other, getting what he wants and waiting for the next confrontation: effectively nothing has changed (beyond there being one person less in the state). The other possibility is that one concedes the resource to the other: he chooses the standing of the slave, preferring life to freedom, and the other becomes the master. We see this acted out when two young children want to play with the same toy: they will both scream for it but without the intervention of an adult one will force the other to submit.

Hegel’s position is that both master and slave have lost their freedom, which without the security of its human attributes – mutual recognition – is an illusion. The ‘master’ has desires but has no concept of their value: “True freedom involves not just doing what you want but valuing what you get”. Human activity such as planning, developing and achieving intentions and reasons for action are social features of the will: they depend upon others and the rules, customs and therefore the constraints of the community. Hegel’s illustration is as follows: how does a master (one who can fulfil his every desire without expending energy) gain concept and value of his desires? Only if he has a sense of his own value through the recognition and respect from his slave. Obedience can be commanded but true respect cannot be given because the slave is not free to give it. The slave, however, has a route to respect and recognition through his labour, acquiring a sense of self-worth through activity. Through this enhanced consciousness of the worth of his work he shows an inner freedom of creativity behind a mask of slavery. In the course of their relationship the slave asserts this self-knowledge and the master is reduced to a pampered servitude – their status is now reversed and both are denied freedom. Scruton illustrates this through reference to Strindberg, Maugham and Pinter. Personally, I like to think of characters from The Simpsons, Mr Burns and Smithers.

Rather than the struggle for resources in our state of ‘perfect freedom’, what if our conflict is resolved in mutual recognition? Benefits are requested not demanded, on condition of mutual advantage. Each respects the will and autonomy of the other – people are ends in themselves and are not just means to an end: “The price of freedom is the price of reciprocity”. I must acknowledge others’ rights and freedoms if I am to have them and I am accountable to others as they are to me. Laws, customs and conventional constraints are therefore an essential part of freedom. Our mutual relationships are governed not by a shared purpose or imposed agenda but by our mutual restraints. This ‘invisible hand’ gives us true equality, not of property or of influence but of recognition. This freedom is genuine only when bound by those laws and institutions that make us accountable to one another, based on a core of universal morality or natural law, which is informed by our history and evolves over time.

We are, therefore, not born free; freedom is acquired. A child must learn to respect, to defer, to internalise rules, customs and laws. Those children who do not learn these things exist in the public world but have no real sense of it. They are not ‘free’ but live in a world of obstacles to their immediate desires, obstacles which are a source of anger and isolation.

The teacher, rather than an adult whose role is to instruct the child, to inculcate a sense of discipline and deference, is a guide by the side of the child who is an autonomous learner. If (as it so often seems to) something goes wrong with the child’s learning, the child is not to blame (how could they be?). Since the teacher is no longer the instigator of learning they are not to blame either. So the blame is shifted to ‘society’, to hegemony, hierarchy and deprivation. The only cure is massive state intervention.

I leave the last word to Scruton:

“Even if we are to ignore the arguments of Aristotle concerning the role of imitation, discipline and habit in the acquisition of character; even if we disregard the mediaeval philosophers (whose recommendations provided the indispensable foundations for the modern educational system); even if we ignore all that was said by Grotius, Calvin and Kant concerning the internal relation between freedom and law; even if we dismiss as antiquated every theory that does not place the idea of freedom at the centre of its vision – even if we do all that, a dose of pessimism would still persuade us that freedom, however valuable in itself, is not a gift of nature but the outcome of an educational process, something that we must work to acquire through discipline and sacrifice.”

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