Saturday, February 7, 2015

"Children are not born either good or bad..." - How Far Does Heredity Count? - Part 1

We had a small group, but a HUGE discussion last night at our CM Book Club, where we studied Charlotte Mason's second principle:

Children are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and evil.  

I believe this is one of Charlotte's most misunderstood principles.  About half way through this month's assigned reading, it occurred to me, contrary to my initial belief, Principle 2 is not theological!  Charlotte wasn't referring to whether or not a child is bound for heaven or doomed to hell.  Rather, she is addressing the issue of "genetic determinism".   

In order to understand this principle, we must first consider her time.  Charlotte Mason lived during the Victorian Era, at a time when science was growing at a rapid pace into the discipline it is today.   Aside from university science, Victorian gentlemen devoted their time to the study of natural history, which was advanced by Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution.  In 1959, Darwin published his book On the Origin of Species.

In the 1890's, Austrian theorist, August Weismann, modified Darwin's theory of natural selection, which was intended to apply to whole organisms.  Weismann proposed that the key factors in the struggle for survival are not organisms, but their genes, which he called "determinants".  Weismann believed these determinants shaped the mind and body. 

According to Karen Glass in her article, Why Did She Have to Say That?, these theories of evolution and genetic determinism, "took root in the realm of psychology and philosophy, and produced a breed of “evolutionary psychologists” who suggested that within the span of their lifetime, human beings played out in miniature the process of evolution.  A child begins life as a single-celled organism and grows and develops into the form of a baby.  According to the evolutionary psychologists, babies’ minds are inferior and incomplete.  They do not possess the “faculties” of rational beings, but during childhood continue the process of their personal evolution, until they finally reach the stage of full-fledged humanity in adulthood."

Regarding these theories of evolution, Charlotte Mason says this:
Other thoughts are in the air.  A baby is a huge oyster (says one eminent psychologist) whose business is to feed, and to sleep, and to grow.  Even Professor Sully, in his most delightful book [Studies of Children], is torn in two.  The children have conquered him, have convinced him beyond doubt that they are as ourselves, only more so.  But then he is an evolutionist, and feels himself pledged to accommodate the child to the principles of evolution.  Therefore the little person is supposed to go through a thousand stages of moral and intellectual development, leading him from the condition of the savage or ape to that of the intelligent and cultivated human being.  If children will not accommodate themselves pleasantly to this theory, why, that is their fault, and Professor Sully is too true a child-lover not to give us the children as they are, with little interludes of the theory upon which they ought to evolve.  Now I have absolutely no theory to advance, and am, on scientific grounds, disposed to accept the theories of the evolutionary psychologists.  But facts are too strong for me.   (Parents and Children, p. 251-252) 
Even though scientists were suggesting these evolutionary and genetic determinism theories in her time, Charlotte did not accept them.  I believe this rejection of evolution is the basis of Charlotte's second principle.  Further, if in fact children are born persons with "possibilities for good and evil", we must nurture those possibilities for good and diminish those for evil.  
The fact seems to be that children are like ourselves, not because they have become so, but because they are born so; that is, with tendencies, dispositions, towards good and towards evil, and also with a curious intuitive knowledge as to which is good and which is evil. Here we have the work of education indicated. There are good and evil tendencies in body and mind, heart, and soul; and the hope set before us that we can foster the good so as to attenuate the evil; that is, on condition that we put Education in her true place as the handmaid of Religion. (A Philosophy of Education, p. 46)

To be continued... Part 2

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