OK friends, now we are really getting somewhere. I have a much better understanding of what is not yet convincing to me in this discussion.
Some concepts that I think are causing trouble:
Because these concepts are so general, using them in simple declarative formulations is useful only if these declarations are followed by examples and statements about concrete intentions. Otherwise there’s the danger that the declaration produces agreement (or disagreement) in principle without cooperation or explicit refusal to cooperate in practice.
For example, the United States Declaration of Independence is famous for its highly general declarative statements, such as “all men are created equal.” Of course, if we confined ourselves to this statement without considering the context and examples in the rest of the Declaration, we’d go around in circles forever. Is it really true that all human beings are created equal? They are not equally tall, doesn’t that disprove the declaration? The are also different in many other consequential ways that are connected with the manifest inequality in the real world. And they are not equal in the affection and loyalty we feel we owe them; for instance, we’re typically more attached to our families than to strangers. Glaringly, authors of the declaration convinced themselves that it was coherent with the existence of slavery. And yet this is not the beginning of a document universally recognized as absurd; rather of a text that has inspired countless people to advance the cause of freedom. The reason is that the declarative portion is followed by a long list of specific instances exemplifying the violations of the type of freedom declared as self-evident in the first paragraph, anchoring that claim in political reality, and justifying an explicit course of action described at the end.
I suggest we learn from this well known example, and not be satisfied with general statements about freedom and coercion, but state explicitly what we are for and against in education. From the hints you’ve dropped in our conversation so far (and I cheat a bit in Woz’s case since I know a few things about how you think ) I suspect we will struggle over this list.
I’ll start with a concrete case that also answers your question about Vicky Hearne. In my family we like reading and admire writers. This goes back several generations. My parents expressed a lot of interest in what I was reading, and although they were busy and not always available for conversation I knew that I normally get their attention with talk about books. I was by no means “starved for attention” but children, like adults, get pleasure from being able to influence their environment and direct attention. I learned that reading was powerful. This was not coercion, but rather the influence of my family, which we pass on to our own daughter. Later, in college, I was assigned books that found boring. However, they were sometimes assigned in classes taught by professors I admired, on subjects that seemed to be considered important for general academic literacy. So I developed a method of coping with these long, boring books that allowed me to learn from them without being discouraged. There was some degree of coercion and frustration in this process – it wasn’t miserable but it was a bit of a grind. I’m mostly glad I read these books, and I’m very glad to have maintained the good opinion of my professors and to have won for myself a sense of belonging. Now, as an adult, even though I’m not an academic, I feel like I have a “right” to read academic material and form my own judgments. If I don’t understand it right away, or if I can only grasp part of it (perhaps the abstract), I don’t mind too much. I think I built this confidence undertaking tasks that were assigned to me by my (good) teachers. Reflecting on this experience, I’ve asked myself whether I was just submitting to authority. I wonder: would Piotr think that I had some learning drive suppressed and don’t even know it?
In answering this question for myself, I call on Vicky Hearne, who disagrees with you that training animals involves conditioning only. Hearne, as an animal trainer, learned that, in case of horses and dogs at least, conditioning only takes training so far; some trainers and their animals can carry out collaborative actions that generalize the trained actions into very high level concepts. The most experienced trainers use words like “heart” and “courage” to describe these actions. Hearne says that these concepts are produced by the relation of the animal and trainer, a relation that is grounded in the nature of the animals.
For instance, some animals deliberately compete; self-sacrifice in competition has resonance with human self-sacrifice in competition, and when humans and animals compete as a team, they can show “heart” – but this is a special kind of human-horse or horse-human heart that can only be deeply understood through experience. (It’s been a long time since I read Hearne, so this is my lesson from it, hopefully not too garbled.)
The relevance to our discussion is this: We agree that conditioning by rewards and punishments is bad pedagogy. You argue for total freedom. But I think my own experience is not about total freedom, but about being molded in my family and culture to have commitments to what you might call “values.”
I don’t want to mince words about whether commitment to values is freely chosen, but rather to ask about the practical examples and illustrations entailed by our different perspectives. In my framework, it is good to say things to kids like: No, you can’t ignore mathematics because you think you find it boring; let’s find some ways to get you into it more because as part of this family and a citizen of this world you are destined to be mathematically literate.
Do you find this horrid?