Saturday, December 1, 2012

Duty, Delight, Interest

One of the questions that divide more traditional homeschoolers from unschoolers and "delight directed learners" is the question of whether duty or interest should play a bigger part in motivation. The idea of interest-based learning is often thought of as a modern aberration. It seems to have come from Dewey, who was a pragmatist in education. Some people think the idea of taking heed of a child's interest presumes falsely that a child must have been "born good" or that it puts the child in the front seat and the teacher in a basically inferior role. Yet the idea of doing things out of "duty" as we have received it nowadays is only a very little older in lineage than the ideas of Dewey. I think it comes from Kant but took a while to get into the circulation of thought. Virtue becomes a matter of using the will to suborn the inclination, and the sooner children learn to do this, the better it is. I am hitting the extremes, of course! Probably most homeschoolers hit somewhere in the middle ground in practice.

Anyway, I happened to be browsing through an old periodical, Catholic Education Review, on my reader while Paddy was having his piano lesson, and I found this interesting gem from 1918, the very time when the conflict between pragmatic and "essentialist" ideas of education were first coming into the forefront.   The battle is still with us now, and so the writer could have been writing for our own time.

Though I rarely see a modern " opinion writer" try to reconcile opposing positions and find what is true in both of them!  When did dialogue become so polarized!

(you can press on the words to go to the starting page in Google Books)

The author lays out the different positions of the different educational theorists, and then tries to show that some of the differences are semantic and that the positions are not as incompatible as one would think at first.

How he does this is to show that Dewey (one of the main proponents of interest-based education) divides interest into two -- there is immediate and mediate interest.  Immediate interest is the kind we all think of when we think of interest.... that feeling or impulse towards the object of our interest, a kind of inclination pulling us towards it.   Mediate interest is the kind of interest where you need to do something to get to a goal.   For instance, I used to use the example of my daughter studying high school math in an unschooling environment.   She didn't really like math.  But she knew it was worthwhile in a liberal sense,  that the study would make her a better person, and would also help her to meet her goal to go to college.  So she did math voluntarily, though not because she got up every morning thinking, "I can't wait to sees what happens in the next chapter of Jacob's Algebra!"

The author goes on to talk about duty.   Duty sounds like code for "compulsion to do what one dislikes."  But this is merely a modern (and somewhat pragmatic, in my opinion) truncation of an older concept.   Words like duty, obligation, diligence are all etymologically connected to delight and to relationship.   In the Bible you read "the law of the Lord is my delight" and "Hear, O Israel.... you must love God with all your heart, mind, strength...."    We are dutiful out of a kind of love, and since love is our vocation, this does not deny our own best interests, but aids us in reaching them.

Thus, the article points out that duty rightly understood by causes rather than simple effects is a kind of mediate or remote interest.   The only reason it is a child's "duty" to do something is that it is in his longterm interests, or because he is a child of his parents and of God, which amounts to the same thing, because God only requires things from people that are in their own interests, and the commandment to "honor your parents" comes from God, so obeying them bears fruit and is thus again in the child's interests (and not just in order to avoid punishment -- that is a servile and insufficient reason for obedience).

The article doesn't really show that the pragmatists and the essentialists have nothing to argue about, and that is most likely not the author's intention.  Rather, it shows how the strengths of their positions aren't "either/or" -- how they can be reconciled enough to both be helpful (and truthful) concepts in teaching. 

It made good reading for me, because it rehabilitated the idea of "duty" to me  (it usually sounds to me like, "I don't know why I'm telling you to do this, but do it anyway").   Duty then is more like loyalty and getting help foregoing immediate gratification for longer-term good.   And it was helpful to think about the two kinds of interest, because immediate interest can be ephemereal and immature (obviously) and humans are more than that (and often children KNOW they are more than that).  I often notice that my children not only wanted to follow their own interests, they also want to be guided by me, which seems to me partly relational and partly an instinct or natural desire for improvement, not just gratification.

Anyway, the article turned out to be unexpectedly rewarding, and gave me some things to think about.  It seems so providential that the books coming into public domain are the very ones from that interesting time period when education was making a major shift.   It led to many unfortunate consequences, since the pragmatics carried the day pretty much entirely, to the great detriment of liberal education, but a lot of really good stuff was thought and written as educationalists tried to come to grips with the past problems and the promised solutions, tried to steer the course between knee-jerk reaction against and incautious acceptance of the new ideas.  

1 comment:

  1. as usual, my always gives us food for thought....


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