education philosopher

The Child and the Subject: a dichotomy based on a linguistic slip

Posted in Uncategorized by KevinCK on December 15, 2009

Teach the child rather than a subject.

This and similar utterances are often uttered to suggest that teachers should be responsive to children rather than teaching a subject without regard to children. John Dewey even wrote a book about this dichotomy called The Child and the Curriculum, where he purports to do away with the dichotomy.

Unfortunately, Dewey did not do away with the dichotomy, as evidenced by the persistence of the phrase: teach the child rather than a subject. After Dewey, the debate over whether we should teach to the child’s interest or to the subject’s requirements rages on.

It occurs to me, though, that perhaps this saying – and the idea of a dichotomy between teaching children and teaching curricula – is based on a linguistic and conceptual error. To put it bluntly, instead of saying that we should teach the child rather than the subject, why wouldn’t we teach the child the subject? Answer: because for some reason we are (wrongly) using “child” and “subjeject” as subjects, rather than a subject and an object.

If I offered the sentence “Give that person than book,” the subject of the sentence is “person” and the object is “book.” The same goes for the sentence “teach that child that subject.” The subject of the sentence is “child” and the object is “subject.” We could, of course, say “teach the child rather than the subject,” but that would be as linguistic an error as saying “Give the person, not the book.”

Okay, so there is a linguistic slip in the sentence. So what? We all recognize the sentiment as valid: teach the child rather than the subject means to remember that teaching must be responsive and sensitive to the child. Of course, as any linguist will remind us, errors in language often arise from errors in thought. So, what is the thought error from which our linguistic error arises?

I believe that, first, we need to recognize that just as “subject” and “child” function as two different parts of the sentence (subject and object), there simply is no dichotomy between teaching a child and teaching a subject. One simply does not negate the one by doing the other. Further, as every sentence needs a subject and an object (even if the subject is sometimes impied in commands like “Go to school!”) teaching the child and teaching the subject are absolutely indespensable to eachother. One cannot teach a child without teaching about something and one cannot teach about something unless one has someone to teach.

It is a shame that Dewey did not look at the linguistic queerness of the supposed dichotomy between “child” and “curriculum” because, had he done so, he might have spotted that there is no dichotomy between these two things. We need to teach curricula to students but that doesn’t mean there is a dichotomy any more than giving a book to a person means there is a dichotomy between books and people.

Knowing this allows us to focus on HOW we will teach the curricula to students rather than whether we should teach students or curricula. What will the curricula look like that we should teach? How much do we give students a say in what they learn? How much do we differentiate to meet individual students’ needs and how much should we expect students to rise to the curricula? There are the questions: not whether there is a dichotomy between a word that is an object and a word that is a subject.

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