Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Sound or Independent Judgment?

Sound judgment means sensible—i.e., rational or considered, not impulsive—decision making. Many parents and teachers value this process as a primary skill that children and students should possess upon reaching adulthood.

In contrast, independent judgment, which presupposes sensible decision making, is not often cited as a valued goal of either education or adulthood, yet this is the personality and character trait that should be exhibited by all citizens of a fully free society. Independent judgment, and its practical consequence, independent action, should be a fundamental aim of both parenting and education. What is independent judgment and why is it not encouraged by parents and teachers?

Independence is the more common term that parents and teachers use to describe what they think children should achieve as adults, but this usually means the ability to pay one’s own bills, by providing one’s own food, shelter, and clothing without parental help. The mental act of asserting something as fact and doing so entirely on one’s own is independent judgment. The willingness to act on what one has judged to be right, in the face of disapproval and opposition, is independent action. True independence is the ability and willingness to see and say that the emperor has no clothes.

In history, both Socrates and Galileo exhibited this true independence, both to their detriment. Socrates (1, 2) could have bowed to the will of the majority and stopped upsetting the Athenian elite, but he chose not to and was put to death for his independence. Galileo (1, 2) did capitulate to the Inquisition, but nonetheless was put under house arrest for the remainder of his life. In literature, Henrik Ibsen’s Dr. Stockmann in An Enemy of the People (1, 2) stood steadfastly to his judgment while one by one losing nearly all who were supposedly his friends. Independent judgment and action are not well tolerated by those who are not themselves independent.

Some advocates of sensible decision making may argue that Socrates, Galileo, and Stockmann, by stirring up the hornet’s nests in which they were trying to work, were not being reasonable. But there are two issues here: are the advocates of sensible decision making saying that these three men should have given up their judgments in order to conform to the majority? or are they saying that independent judgment does not require sacrifices when under duress? The principle of self-defense indeed does say that it is morally equivalent to fight or flee when threatened with force. Rejecting self-sacrifice as a noble ideal, as I do, Socrates probably should have escaped to live in exile. Ibsen’s Stockmann remained to fight partly because he assumed that many of his so-called friends were on his side but mainly because fighting was the right thing to do. Giving in as a pretense, which is what Galileo did, is a third option. Abject conformity or sacrificing one’s independent judgment was not considered by any of these men.

The problem with sound judgment as a goal of education is that it often becomes interpreted as conformity or conventionality. A free society requires rebels—people like Socrates, Galileo, and Stockmann whose independence leads them to see and say what the majority cannot. People with independent judgment are the innovators and entrepreneurs who move economies and societies forward. They rock boats, not necessarily on purpose, but because they see things others do not. The challenge is, can independent judgment be taught? and can every person possess such a trait? My answers are: indirectly and yes.

Independent judgment is first and foremost the correct perception of reality that is not influenced or contaminated by the perceptions of others. Misinformation is not a goal of education, so teaching facts is a start, but encouraging children and students to pursue their own goals and ideas without commands, criticism, and ridicule is better. This will enable them to develop the conviction that they can do anything they set their minds to—regardless of what others say or do. Freedom and nurture in the learning process, not coercion or neglect, are two requirements for instilling an independent and confident spirit in the child and student.

So can everyone in adulthood possess this childlike independent and confident spirit that says “the emperor has no clothes”? Why not? That many adults today do not possess such a spirit indicates only that something is terribly wrong with our educational system such that it kills the spirit.

By about the fifth grade, according to John Holt (p. 263).

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