Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Primacy of Psychology

In a previous post, I argued that method is primary in education, not content. By method I meant teaching students how to think conceptually. In the process of learning how to think, content would follow. In the current post, I would like to broaden this theme to the primacy of psychology, to teaching the effective use one’s mind in controlling and guiding behavior.

The primacy of psychology means cultivating the development of the child’s independent, uniquely individual self, that is, cultivating the growth of a strong conviction of worthiness and efficacy sufficient to guide the child to acquire the knowledge, values, and skills necessary to live a happy life without making compromises to please others. As I often find myself telling my students, “That last sentence was a mouthful. Let’s break it down into a few digestible chunks.”

First, “worthiness and efficacy” refer to the child’s self-esteem. Not the watered-down superficial stuff that the government schools promote, such as awarding bumper stickers to children for being first in their class for attendance or getting all A’s. This is a comparative award that makes children feel superior to all the others, not loveable or competent. Feeling worthy means “I am loveable, capable of being loved.” It is a deep conviction that begins in the relationship with the children’s parents (and relatives) and continues to develop (or become thwarted) in their relationships with teachers. Positive experiences from such friendships promote worthiness, negative experiences degrade it.

The same is true for the development of efficacy, which is a sense of competence, of being able to do things in the world. Children need frequent senses of accomplishment, whether it be learning the multiplication tables or whittling the image of a dog on a piece of pine. What children accomplish does not matter as long as they keep feeling that sense of accomplishment. Worthiness and efficacy influence and reinforce each other. The feeling “I can’t do it” often leads to the feeling “I’m no good” and the “I’m no good” feeling often leads to and encourages the “I can’t do it.” Self-esteem is prerequisite for and concomitant to the acquisition of an education.

“Knowledge, values, and skills” are the content of education. Because life is action, all education in essence is the acquisition of skill. And skill is the application of knowledge and values whether it be the technique and importance of performing a good car wash, a good weld, a good sale, a good lecture, a good design, or a good moral decision. Everything we do in life is a behavior, driven by what we know and value in the performance of the task. The aim of education, then, is to ensure that we possess sufficient self-esteem to acquire the knowledge and values necessary to pursue our chosen tasks in life. Those tasks may not be reading English literature or solving quadratic equations. They are what the child wants to pursue, not what the teacher wants to teach. Demanding that children study certain subjects in order to be “well-rounded” or exhorting them to acquire “knowledge for its own sake” is a prescription for many to drop out. Control and choice in their own education is what children require for both their self-esteem and their future.*

Finally, “without making compromises to please others” refers to independence (1, 2). Because government-run schools demand the opposite, as do many parents and other adults, independence is the least understood and least taught of psychological skills. Some few children are naturals at standing up for themselves. Most need guidance in understanding that they do not have to go along with their peers or significant adults if they do not agree with what is being asked of them. High self-esteem and a strong sense of personal identity are required to be able to say that the emperor has no clothes. Independence—independent judgment and independent action—can be taught, but educators today have a long way to go before they begin to understand what is required to achieve this feat.


*As I discuss in Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism (pp. 56, 144-46), “well-roundedness” is probably a slap at egoism, because it is “selfish” to concentrate in only one area of interest, and acquiring “knowledge for its own sake” is a hobby of privileged elites.

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