education philosopher

James Bach Responds

Posted in Uncategorized by KevinCK on July 24, 2009

Two days ago, I reviewed James Bach’s book, Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar. Yesterday, he wrote me a very thoughtful response. There was so much germ for discussion in his response to my review, that (I hope he doesn’t mind), I am deciding to use this post to discuss his response.

Bach and I take very different approaches toward schooling. He is a bit more libertarian than I in his belief that education should be self-directed. His book uses phrases like “follow your energy” to mean that students’ learning should be entirely motivated by what they want to learn when they want to learn it. While I am sympathetic to this approach, I also believe that children and young adults are…children and young adults, and that there is a difference sometimes between what students may want to learn and what they should know.

Bach touched on the heart of our disagreement when he wrote the following:

It seems to me that a lot of folks who fret about “success” have a definite idea about what that means for them, and then expect everyone else to have the same goals. But, who are you and I to say what some student “needs” for “success”? Each of us is the only possible arbiter of that for ourselves. (Yes, this goes even for children. My son hasn’t gone to school in years.)

Who are we to tell children what their needs are? We are parents, teachers, and mentors. It is quite an uncontroversial fact that more experienced folk have foresight  that young people do not necessarily have. I would not let my children choose all of the meals that they eat, because they do not know as much about nutrition as I do. I would not let my children drive a car without forcing them through some type of drivers training (even if they think the week they spent studying the booklet is enough). For similar reasons, I would not trust a five year old to judge what she will and will not study in order to prepare for a future that she is unaware the consistency of.

It is certainly true that children should be let free quite a bit of time to explore the things that interest them. It is quite true that parents and teachers should always be mindful of not imposing their values of what success is on their kids. But to say this is not to say that children should be let free all of the time to pursue only what they want, or to say that parents should never step in to help guide their children. (After all, parents often can foresee mistakes that kids lack the experience to foresee. That is why there is a legal requirement that children have parents.)

Bach goes on to illustrate what he means when he says that we should leave children free to decide how to pursuse their own success.

I don’t accept that reading, for instance, is a necessary skill. It’s a skill that is very important to me, in the way that I live, yes. But I can’t honestly say that a life without reading is a life wasted. There are many dimensions to life and many ways of valuing it. I don’t believe it’s right for an educational self-proclaimed elite to dictate that all other people must strive for the same kind of education they seek for themselves. That is not the way of a free society– that’s a colonial mentality. That’s 19th century imperialist thinking.

I believe that it is a wanton exaggeration to suggest that because I teach children to read (even when they don’t want to learn) is the equivalent of “19th century imperialism” and ” a colonial mentality.” If I had children, I would also set rules down that would attach punishment to the using of heroin and other hard drugs. I am hard pressed to see that this is a colonialistic mindset or an outdated and draconian stance.

It is simply the recognition that as an experienced adult, I can very likely foresee what type of preparation a child will need for her future better than she can. Are there exceptions? Yes. Either I might be mistaken in allowing a certain student not to be illiterate, or the student may really stumble onto a job that makes the ability to read written words irrelevant. But the chances are that my 32 years provide better foresight than her 13.

I believe  that in a lot of Bach’s response, he is inadvertently extremizing the issue: either let a child do exactly what she wants when she wants all the time or march with the “self-proclaimed elite” who pompously dictate their own view of success onto everyone. I believe that there is quite a bit of middle ground and that the biggest problem with his book is that he does not recognize that this is so. Oen can teach students things that they will quite probably need to know (even if they don’t realize it) to a minimal amount, while leaving them time and freedom to explore the things they want to learn about. (My idea is that by high school, we have 50% required courses and 50% electives..)

I’d love to see an educational system based on abundance and free access, not based on compulsion, fear, and artificial hoops set up by people who have been “educated” to see kids as weak, stupid, helpless, and dangerous.

On this, Mr. Bach and I are in some agreement. I am a political libertarian that would also like to see an end to “one size fits all” education borne out of stringent compulsion. But, again, Mr. Bach comes out more extreme than I in his insistence that the child, rather than the parent, may  be the one best situated to make these educational choices. (Even when sent to Montessori schools, it is the parent that enrolls the child!). Yes, there is danger that in some cases, compulsory education may produce children unequipped to deal with the world. But I fear that there would be more danger that leaving education solely up to the student poses a much higher risk of leading to unpreparedness. This, based on the conventional, and to me unassailable, thought that parents and teachers know more about the world than students.

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4 Responses

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  1. James Marcus Bach said, on July 26, 2009 at 12:44 am

    I do appreciate your publishing of my comments and your rebuttal. It’s helpful.

    Now…

    First, I’m not against guidance! I have not told people not to talk to people and offer each other support and advice.

    Second, I’m extreme in my book, but not extreme against schooling. My book is about extremely taking responsibility for one’s own education. My fight against public school merely sets up the motivation for developing my own system.

    My book is actually not about school, and I specifically declined in the book to specify any reforms of school. I simply say there is an alternative to schooling, and I describe such an alternative that is not speculative, but rather one that I personally exemplify. So, while I’m happy to argue with you about this issue of what-about-the-children, it’s tangential to the topic of my book, which was aimed at adult knowledge workers.

    That said, I do fight against compulsion in the development of minds (not in my book, directly, but in general). It’s not that compulsion doesn’t work in a first order sense. You can force people to sit in classrooms, more or less. It’s that compulsion has grizzly intellectual and emotional side effects. Anyway, arguments against compulsion were developed extensively in the 17th and 18th centuries and I am a child of that Enlightenment. I’m inspired by Voltaire, Spinoza, Rousseau, and Hume. Or go to the 19th century and see John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.

    Our view of children’s capabilities has evolved much in the last 500 years. I hope I can help it evolve some more.

    “Who are we to tell children what their needs are? We are parents, teachers, and mentors.”

    Yes, I am a parent too. But I do not parent by compulsion, except in matters of basic health and safety. Different parents obviously have different thresholds of concern about those things (for instance, some parents vaccinate, I don’t), nevertheless it is fundamental to my strategy for raising a powerful and healthy child that I avoid force or threats of force in raising him, for exactly the same reason I don’t use force or the threat of force in working with colleagues. It doesn’t work. It creates terrible new problems.

    Any experienced manager of intellectual workers– who takes that seriously and wants to be good at it– quickly discovers that threats are a poor way to get good work from your people. The same goes with children, I find.

    I guess you believe you know what is best for the inside of someone else’s mind. But I, who have also read quite a bit of research into cognitive and emotional development, will not claim to know that. My book is about an alternative way of thinking about learning. So, when you cite what children “need” as if it’s obvious to all of us exactly what children need, I am confused. It’s not obvious, though kids give us plenty of clues and we can respectfull pay attention to those clues.

    Here are the things that do seem clear to me: by the time my son is twenty, I want him not to have his own child, not to have lost any limbs or contracted any chronic disease, not to have committed a felony, and not to have a drug addiction. Pretty much anything else is a recoverable problem– including not being able to read. I don’t see parenting as a game where adults put kids into competition with each other for “success” as part of a vicarious satisfaction of their own frustrated ambitions.

    I’ve noticed that very few troubles a child gets himself into are actually fatal or have long-lasting negative effects. So I give wide berth to my son’s inclinations. It is also clear to me that given a reasonably loving and abundant environment, my son will spontaneously involve himself in learning activities that engage his mind.

    Children are not marionettes who only move when a parent tugs the string.

    “But to say this is not to say that children should be let free all of the time to pursue only what they want, or to say that parents should never step in to help guide their children.”

    What is this “should?” Where is it coming from? All “shoulds” are relative to some human value system and some control model held by some human. There seems to be some shadowy authority you are appealing to. Perhaps this “should” emerges from your community. I’m letting you know there are people in the world who are in a different sort of community, following different values and who hold to a different theory of social control. Where I live, children may be let free, and parents may avoid compelling them.

    Where we might find common ground is in the word “guide.” There can be plenty of guidance without compulsion. In fact, the way kids learn words works that way.

    “I am hard pressed to see that this is a colonialistic mindset or an outdated and draconian stance.”

    It was also difficult for Britain to see that when they were unwilling to let India be it’s own chaotic India. There’s lots to be said for imperialism and colonialism. I’m prepared to argue in favor of it, if you like. The structure of my argument will be exactly the structure you are using to justify parental imperialism. There is no difference in the logic itself, that I see. The practical difference is that indigenous communities found a way to fight back– just as I did when I was in school.

    The important point is that I, and other unschooling parents, do IN FACT see the compulsory schooling attitude as one of incursion of a colonizing power into an indigenous system. You may think that’s ludicrous. Of course. And the British Empire could point to all the ways their compulsion brought the “good life” to the Chinese, or the Indians, or the Aborigines of Australia. It was completely obvious! Roads are good! Running water is good! Damming rivers is good! Clearcutting forests for resources is good! Oil production is good! And thus the indigenous patterns of life were invisible, ignored, trampled.

    We do have a more nuanced and cautious view of these things today. I’m trying to be a voice for a more nuanced and cautious view of public education.

    “But the chances are that my 32 years provide better foresight than her 13.”

    My 43 years gives me better foresight too– for me and for what I need and want out of life. If I hope to help my son live his own life, instead of relive my life, then I must be careful about applying foresight of mine to his case. EVEN IF I’M TOTALLY RIGHT. As I speak in the book, my mother and step-father, based on their outdated understanding of how the world worked, never believed I could get work in the computer field without a technical degree of some kind. They turned out to be wrong about that. But more than that, their attitude created a deep resentment in me that made me want to prove them wrong.

    I don’t want to make my son my enemy. A lot of those parents you say are giving their children guidance are completely unaware of or powerless to keep their children safe from drugs and alcohol and risky behavior. Their children figure out how to subvert the system controlling them, and boy howdy do they want to.

    My father prevented me from doing drugs or alcohol using an interesting strategy: establishing respect then asking me nicely. He did not use compulsion.

    My strategy is to live such that my son doesn’t want to subvert his connection with me. I believe that will keep him safer, in all the big ways.

    “One can teach students things that they will quite probably need to know (even if they don’t realize it) to a minimal amount, while leaving them time and freedom to explore the things they want to learn about.”

    Of course you CAN create kid prisons. I’m just suggesting they fail to produce the society we publicly claim to aspire to. I think we can have non-compulsory education that is true to the ideals of a free society. The entire structure of a public school denies the basis of free speech and the pursuit of happiness. Is it any wonder so few adults seem to understand these things?

    I am happy to teach people things I think they ought to know– if they ask me to. I will not be a prison warden, however. I find it amazing how many people claim freedom for themselves without feeling that others are capable of handling it. How does one become capable of handling freedom? By practicing being free. Montessori classrooms do a pretty good job of this, by the way.

    “This, based on the conventional, and to me unassailable, thought that parents and teachers know more about the world than students.”

    It is certainly conventional. Totalitarianism has been conventional for thousands of years. And, yes, it’s very easy to say I’m being extreme because you want to use the logic and benefits of Hobbe’s Leviathan without having to deal with the terrible and sordid history which I insist on laying at your doorstep. But waving your hands impatiently at the annoying houseguest does not dismiss him.

    In the 1830’s, Captain Fitzroy, of the Beagle, kidnapped four members of a tribe from Tierra Del Fuego and took them to England. They were “educated” for a couple of years, then brought back to their tribe along with a missionary. That little expedition ended poorly (comically poorly… look it up). Yet, I can’t see the fundamental difference in Fitzroy’s situation and your philosophy. Isn’t a mind a terrible thing to waste? Weren’t those savages miserable and naked? Even the abolitionist Darwin said they were! Wasn’t Fitzroy working that middle ground between enslaving the whole population and enslaving just a few for just a little while? He thought he was doing the RIGHT thing by kidnapping them. Do you condone that?

    What if those tribespeople were 10 years old? Would that have made it right?

    CERTAINLY Captain Fitzroy knew a lot more about the world than those natives did. Just like parents do. But that fact is not necessarily relevant to the problem of educating others.

    You make an interesting point about compelling a child to go to Montessori school. I think I will answer that on my blog.

  2. KevinCK said, on July 26, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    Mr Bach,

    You keep forcing me into extremes. It is an interesting rhetorical trick, becuase any time I suggest that parents and teachers may know what could be in a child’s best future interest than the child, you can, and do, compare me to Britian’s domination of India, and imply that I would “CREATE kid prisoners” a totalitarian, and wanting any child I have to “relive my life.” You see no nuances and everything is black and white. Either you never lecture to a child and give her something she did not ask for, or you are a draconian parent who is the moral equivalent of Britian.

    I am trying not to be offended by this.

    But you do say something interesting that I would like to call you on: “But I do not parent by compulsion, except in matters of basic health and safety”

    Why the exception? Are you saying that you do recognize that in some cases, you know better than your child?

    I don’t want to let a good sliding in of an exception go to waste, so I want to pry on this a bit more. If you do recognize that there are some areas where you know what may be best for a child’s well being (cases involving safety), then just ponder the idea for a second that some bits of education could be like this as well. (Not all of it, as I don’t want you to accuse me again of advocating a”game where adults put kids into competition with each other for “success” as part of a vicarious satisfaction of their own frustrated ambitions.)

    When I try to teach children to read, it is because I and others recognize that the majoirity of jobs that they would be presented with in the world require the abillity to read. And when I teach kids to read, they often don’t want to learn. But I know that, like forcing my cats to undergo nail trimming or stop overeating, it is something that they will likely need and generally don’t want to do not because they don’t want to read, but because it is hard. And, yes, I have had quite a few students come back on their own time and thank me for the compulsion later. Some actually do realize that sometimes, being made to do a certain thing that they may not want to do is actually a good thing because they learned something they later recognize is valuable.

    I know that any talk of teaching kids something other than what they want to learn at the time is to you equivalent of “a”game where adults put kids into competition with each other for “success” as part of a vicarious satisfaction of their own frustrated ambitions.” I am at a loss, however, to see how teaching a student how to read is in any way imparting my “frustrated ambition” onto a kid, thrusting her into competition, or telling the child in any way what values they shall have in life.

    In fact, what it has to do with is a recognition that just as we have to stop young children from crossing the street without looking (because they don’t know not to), and just as we have to teach kids about nutrition (because they don’t know what is good for them yet), there are times when we have to realize that teachers often realize that x, y, and z are tasks that a child will likely need in the future, where the child doesn’t realize that.

    The fact is that the entire world is structured in part by this belief. Children have parenst by law – “guardiand” who guard them because it is recognized that children often need guarding. There are laws suggesting that five year olds cannot engage in sexual activity with an adult because we recognize that children are less mature in their thought processes than adults.

    I understand, certainly as well as you, that some children do better when free to follow their passions in a noncoerced way. As I say in my review: I was one. But I have also taught kids who we fought to keep in school against their will because their plan was to drop out and hang with a gang. (What would you have said to this child? Would you have encouraged him to be free to gangbang if that was his passion?)

    Yes, we share common ground in the word “guidance.” But did you really look at the word? It’s route is “guide.” “Guide” is an active word and is not a passive one. A guide is someone who steers, not the passenger. And sometimes – not always! – in order to guide, you need to take someone through things they did not necessarily want to go thorugh. In order to guide a student to play guitar, I may have to force him to practice scales where he might want to play a song (which, he does not know, require those scales).

    Schooling is often the same way. We teach kids to read because they simply are unaware that many of the things they will do in the world involve reading. We teach kids government because the students do not know yet that if they do not understand the rules of governance, then they are quite the slaves to politicians.

    >>>Yet, I can’t see the fundamental difference in Fitzroy’s situation and your
    philosophy.

    Since this is insulting, I will follow with an equally insulting statement: I cannot see the difference between your philosophy and that which says that a 10 year old should be free to have sex with an 80 year old man if she so chooses.

    Just like you probably would not advocate a girl being free to hvae sex with an adult, I would not advocate stealing people from their native land and forcing a way of life on them. The difference is not in the principal, but the extremity of the case. You seem to be trying to thrust me into a situation where if I say “coercion” once, then I must be for coercion in every case. That would be a naive view, just as holding to the extremen non-coercion principal would be, for you, a naive position to take.

    >>>[Your view] is certainly conventional. Totalitarianism has been conventional for thousands of years

    Quite honestly, I am trying not to take offense at your gauche rhetoricizing and extremizing. It is not working.

    So, I will simply say this. Parents generally know more than kids by virtue of them having had more experience. This is why guitar teachers force learners to learn scales. It is why parents often have to force their kids to eat vegetables. It is why teachers force kids to become literate and study things that may be outsiide the scope of immediate interest. It is why society disallows 10 year olds to shack up with 50 year olds. It is why parents have legal responsibility for their kids.

    If you see alll of this as wrong, then which one is more likely: you are not seeing something that the rest of use see as quite obvious, or everyone but James Bach is wrong?

  3. James Marcus Bach said, on July 26, 2009 at 11:38 pm

    “You keep forcing me into extremes. It is an interesting rhetorical trick…”

    No, it’s not a trick. (Calling it a trick is a rhetorical tactic, as you well know…) It’s a tactic I use to raise your awareness to the nature of your own argument. I want you to be uncomfortable with the implications of your beliefs (just like we thoughtful people are ought to be). I’m a little surprised you would complain about it, since you are trying to use exactly the same tactic toward me. My use of it is for the purposes of nullifying your use of it.

    I am not wrong about my analogy to imperialism, or if I am, you have not identified a flaw in either my premises or logic. So far, you’ve used an appeal to conventional belief to defend yourself. This doesn’t work, of course, because conventional belief is what I’m putting on trial to begin with. If you want to have a discussion where conventional belief is considered sacrosanct, then all you have to say is that my ideas defy conventional belief. For the win!

    Look, I’m just standing up for respecting the integrity of a child’s mind– of everyone’s minds– and you say I’m an extremist. If that’s the ground you want to fight on, then I will reveal the extremism that your position rests upon, too.

    OR, we can drop this and have a more interesting conversation about judgment, heuristics, dynamics, and how they are developed and used.

    “Since this is insulting, I will follow with an equally insulting statement: I cannot see the difference between your philosophy and that which says that a 10 year old should be free to have sex with an 80 year old man if she so chooses.”

    What I said was not intended to be insulting. It was intended to give you the opportunity to tell me what the qualitative difference is between you and Fitzroy. I assume you believe there is one.

    Your reply I don’t find insulting. It’s a good example and I’m happy to answer you. (I’m trying to give you an example of how I’d like you to respond to my challenges, so here it goes…)

    You’ve chosen something that is taboo in our culture and you want to point out that my philosophy requires that I respect the wishes of the child to violate that taboo. This is how I would deal with it.

    First, there’s a vanishingly small chance that this will come up, given the normal nature of a 10 year-old girl and 80 year-old man. So, this is a pretty theoretical issue. By contrast educational struggles between teachers and students are quite common.

    If the situation were to arise in normal American life, four things would occur to me right away: Is she REALLY interested in the man or is he intimidating her? If she IS interested could that be due to an illness she has (consider that a 10-year old girl is barely pubescent)? Is she aware of the TABOO against this kind of union and yet she still wants this? Am *I*, or the man involved, going to be ARRESTED because of this?

    Her and the man going through with this could create serious legal and social problems for them in our culture, not to mention the potentially permanent psychological trauma, based on my incomplete best guess on how female psychology works.

    If I had a standing in this, I would be having an earnest talk with the girl to get to the bottom of this. It’s hard to imagine a situation where I could allow it to go forward (due to my health and safety clause). But if we change the culture, the century, and the circumstances surrounding the union, it gets easier. Example: The girl is a young duchess, and the 80 year-old man is the Emperor of a Asia. Now it’s in a different light.

    Philosophers aren’t insulted by challenges to their ideas. Just respond normally, dude.

    — James

  4. KevinCK said, on July 27, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    Mr. Bach,

    I apologize that I was insulted when no insult was meant. When reading your reply, it is quite difficult to see how someone would think that comparing one’s interlocutor’s ideas with those that it is desirable to kidnap indians or advocating totalitarian style governments would not be taken as offensive. But I will leave that be and accept your suggestion that calling me a totalitairan and indian kidnapper was meant nonoffensively.

    Your reply as to how to deal with the 10 year old girl contemplating the affair with the 50 year old is wholly unsatisfying. You suggest that perhaps she is simply unaware of the consequeences, mentally unstable, etc. and that you will talk to her and straighten her out. You suggest that you “could [not] allow it to go forward (due to my health and safety clause). ”

    But what you have fought me against coercing children with the foolish idea that we adults may know how to gague long-term decisions better than students, you know seem to be arguing based on exactly this idea! You know things the girl does not, and you will talk to her (probably against her will!). If she does not see that you are right and she is wrong, you will not allow her to continue the affiar (probably doing so against her will!!). The non-coercion principal is good to defend in cases of education, but is certainly not appropriate in cases where, unlike educaiton apparently, the wrong choice could lead to harm.

    So I wonder why you make the distinction between “standing up for respecting the integrity of a child’s mind” in educatory matters and stepping in with matters of “health and safety.” What is the overriding principle that determines your belief in x in the one case and -x in the other?

    If it is the amount of damage caused in cases of health and safety but not education, then I would want you to think about the very real damages of bringing a child up without understanding of basic math or reading skills. If the former is not learned, the threat of them being in financial ill-health when older is very real (inability to manage money is a lack of math). If the latter is not taught, then anything requiring the written word (jobs, instructions, etc) are closed off to them.

    It is disturbing to me that you would recognize the 10 year olds lack of ability of good forethought in the case we are discussing, but not recognize the equally real possibility that that 10 year old may exercise equally poor forethought in assessing the skills she needs to learn in order to get on in later life. (Probably, her forethought on the latter will be worse than the former as the decision is longer term. Sex is immediate; arming onesself for future ability to survive is not.)

    I would like, if you don’t mind, to deal wlith the question of what differentiates my view from that that it is acceptable to kidnap indians and commit Hitlerian tactics in a full-lenth post becuase, while l like to think the difference is quite obvious in degree, scope, brevity, and intent, it often takes more time to explain the obvios than the controversial.


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