Chris Shute – Respect is Due

We can always rely on Chris for clear thinking. Here he looks at the concept of respect in relation to children and young people.

Respect is Due

What do we mean when we speak, as we often do at Personalised Education Now, about respecting children? There are many ways of defining respect but most of them have in common the assumption that they only apply to adults. Even now, in this country at least, we still feel it is tolerable for parents to hit their children under the colour of ‘discipline’, whilst we no longer accept the flogging of even the most violent convicts. We accept the legal principle that a person cannot be punished without a trial and the hearing of both sides of the accusation against them, yet we allow parents and teachers to exact whatever punishment they wish to inflict on any child they think has done something wrong. The child does not need to have broken any specific law.  It is enough for an adult to be disturbed in some way by the child’s presence, or by something which he or she is doing, for that child to become ‘naughty’. We assume that almost any normal adult is capable of deciding what is the just treatment of a child, and any injustice which might result from that assumption tends to be filed under the general rubric of ‘Life is unfair and the sooner the child learns to accept it the better’.

On the other hand we adults expect children to treat us with almost exaggerated respect. We notice every inflection of the voice, every gesture and facial expression by which a child might convey either independence of mind or scepticism about what we are saying to them and we reproach them for it. I suppose we rationalise this with the thought that we adults have been alive longer than the children, and so we must know more about Life and How it Works than they do.  Therefore they must be taught that adults are always more likely to be right in their judgements than are the children, and even if they are not, certain standards of behaviour have to be maintained for their own sake.

When I take on a new pupil I always begin by saying: “The difference between us is not moral. I am not better than you. I just got here before you, so I’ve had time to learn things that you haven’t. If I say that something is dangerous to you I’d expect you not to do it, because I am supposed to protect you from things which might hurt your body, and I will. But I have no right to tell you what to think.’ I once had a pupil whose parents had withdrawn him from School because, having committed the grave social solecism of being born half-Chinese, he was being bullied mercilessly by the other students. I began our relationship by asking him what he was curious about in the world as he saw it. He replied simply and starkly, “Nothing. My religion answers all my questions.” He was a Jehovah’s Witness, and from that day forward he only asked me one question: it was ‘Can you explain Communism to me?’ Naturally I was taken aback by his absolute conviction that there was no need to seek answers outside the inevitably narrow scope of a literalistic reading of the Bible, to which the Witnesses commit their entire lives, but I could not, in good conscience, challenge his convictions. Respect for my pupils compelled me to accept that in spite of my disappointment at his narrow-mindedness, his religion was his own business, not mine. We agreed on a programme of English and Hebrew, which he was eager to learn in order to understand the Bible better.

We began, as I always do, with the first part of Genesis. He soon learned the alphabet and the basic concepts of the language. We soon came to a place where the text asserted: ‘And God said, “Let us make man in our image,’ His face went white and he said, falteringly, “But there’s only one God!” I could have sown a seed of doubt about his religion, which is Unitarian in questions of God’s personality, but I knew that this was ground on which I had no right to tread. I said gently, “Well, Jamie, you know that I’m a Trinitarian, but if I were trying to persuade you to turn to my religion, which I’m not, I wouldn’t appeal to that text.” I quoted Rashi, the medieval French commentator, who said that that God was using the ‘plural of majesty, like the Queen when she says “We, Elizabeth……”  

I could not be dishonest or manipulative in my work. As a tutor my responsibility was not to convince him of one or another ‘truth’, but rather to ensure that, as far as it was humanly possible, the material the students I work with study is authentic, without preimposed bias or doctrines which have been decided by people who regard themselves as somehow authorised to do other folks thinking for them. This would be far from the purpose of the committee in America which runs the religion to which he was devoted, but I knew that his choice of religion was more than a simple imitation of his parents. In fact, he had chosen the Witnesses because it was the religion of his grandparents, with whom he was living, and he was impressed by their kindliness, and the order in their lives which seemed to come directly from their religion. He had rejected his parents’ rather wild ways, and his religion was his anchor, which enabled him to be stable and to live the quiet life which he found so attractive.

The point of the anecdote is, of course, that the traditional function of the teacher in our culture is to be the ‘Sage on the Stage’, to cultivate in the learner the belief that children and young people cannot have ‘valid’ ideas of their own, if they happen to be different from those which have been established by whichever hierarchy runs their education. I set out to break with that convention and to respect Jamie’s choices until he, and he alone, was ready to change them. Of course, the difference between our ideas happened to be doctrinal rather than objective, but the principle was the same as if we had been studying any other item of learning: the learner has to know that in the end he or she has to choose to learn what is available to be learnt. No-one has the prescriptive right to say to a learner, “You have no choice but to learn this, because I think it is important.”

There are exceptions to this rule, of course. John Holt was a fierce defender of freedom for children and young people, but even he had nothing good to say about allowing children to do things which might endanger their life and limb. As I said earlier, my only responsibility towards my pupils is to protect them from anything which might do them physical harm. That is an absolute right and unchallengeable responsibility. I have sometimes been asked whether I would include in the category of ‘harmful’ extremes of literature and graphics, such things as pornography and violent images or stories. I have had to think hard and long about this question because, as a civilised and cultivated man I would be strongly inclined to keep such things from my learners. On the other hand, though I wouldn’t present such materials in the context of normal education, I wouldn’t try to ban them, or surround them with an aura of illicitness and the thrill of criminality. That would only confer on them an attractiveness which they would not merit. If on the other hand I came upon a learner reading or looking at some such thing, instead of being shocked I would ask the same questions as I would ask about any other item of literature or graphic art: why did you choose that? What do you think the author, or the artist, was trying to make you feel? Did he/she succeed? Do you feel inclined to read or look at more stuff by the same hand? A taste for pornography or violence doesn’t grow in families where children have free access to their parents, and no fear of being reproached for bringing up an over-delicate subject.

True respect for children can only come from a radical reconfiguration of childhood which accords it the same attention and flexibility as we give to adults without thinking. When children react in a hostile way to things which we try to do with them or make them do for we have to consider whether we should be imposing on them in the ways we are trying to do. It must no longer be enough to say in every situation that “We know better than the children what is good for them.” That might be true in the narrow compass of health and safety and the criminal law, but outside that sphere I would contend that there is simply no way to know for certain that any given activity or piece of learning is ‘necessary’ or ‘vital’ to any person of any age.


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