We have begun addressing the problems of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, but there is very little consideration given to intellectual abuse. A critical insight is that our educational traditions begin in the medieval, when almost all aspects of child treatment were abusive.
The Childish Question
A child is riding in the car with her mother. “Mommy,” she asks, “what holds clouds together?”
The mother replies, “Shut up and don’t ask stupid questions.” That is intellectual abuse. A child asks a valid question and is verbally humiliated.
Or perhaps the mom snaps dismissively, “I don’t know.” That is intellectual neglect. A child is using her mind, and is not getting the support she needs to continue her personal growth.
It is interesting that that same answer, with a questioning tone added, might be supportive of the child’s curiosity: “I don’t know…”
Intellectual abuse has been the overriding paradigm for parenting and education throughout history (and for government and religion). Consider the illustration to the right, read the caption, and notice the switch in the school master’s hand. How old is that child, 5 or 6? For much of human history, punishing and humiliating children was considered good for their intellectual development. Those traditions can still be found in many places today, even in ‘advanced’ countries.
I’ve come to wonder if intellectual abuse might be worse than emotional, physical, or sexual abuse; or at least worse than physical abuse which doesn’t cripple the victim. My reasoning is, if your brain works reasonably well but you suffer though other abuse, then at least you still have the intellectual tools to begin to heal, to grow, to build a life, and maybe do a better job of raising your own kids. But if you suffer intellectual abuse, you lack the tools to solve any of your problems, personal, professional, emotional.
When we look at many of our political and social fights today, it certainly appears that our brains don’t work very well, and that intellectual abuse cripples us all.
Questioning & Doubting
Returning to the opening examples, I suspect that the last response, “I don’t know… ” is actually much better than a sound, scientific explanation would be. By leaving the question open it says, a) your question is valid, b) curiosity is a good thing, and perhaps most importantly, c) it is perfectly OK for authority figures, parents included, to be ignorant. A scholarly, authoritative reply would completely miss the opportunity to encourage curiosity, and to admit ignorance.
Which is a major problem with authority.
If you will note in my posts about experiences with my dad concerning agnosticism and evolution, they were both critical in my intellectual development. I have come to realize that in both cases the topics of discussion were secondary to the strongly implied messages: doubt is OK; it is acceptable to question authority; and each person is entitled to his own thoughts and questions.
My wife and I are spiritual but hardly religious. Nevertheless, when our relatives want to take our kids to church with them, we let the kids decide, and sometimes they go. When our children ask me about the truth or value of a book, a movie, or some opinion, I try to remember to ask them, “What do you think?” When we talk to them about religion or politics, we tell them what we believe, but we try to include explanations of what other people believe. And most importantly, we tell them to be tolerant and respectful of how others see things. If you think about it, in treating our kids respectfully we are teaching that last point by example.
If my kids grow up to be the equivalent of Michael J. Fox’s character in the TV sitcom Family Ties, someone who largely rejects his parents’ values and priorities, I’m fine with that. Other than basic human decency, how my children choose to live their lives is none of my damned business.
Returning to the topic at hand, intellectual abuse creates double-edged problems. Children (and many adults) are neurotic, and so they crumble before an authoritarian opinion, and conform. Children tend to yield their intellectual freedom to others, and can end up logically handicapped.
The other side of the problem appears as we get older, because we then reject new ideas and opinions. We often religiously adhere to our first authorities and become dogmatic. And so intellectual abuse produces adults who won’t listen to other ideas, and who don’t have the intellectual tools to compare and analyze, even if they did listen.
They lack the ability to heal themselves.
Freedom of Thought
So the first problem is that intellectual abuse interferes with critical thinking, which interferes with progress and prosperity. The second problem is that intellectual abuse creates a siege mentality. In both situations, we lose critical thinking, and succumb to uncritical deference to authority.
God and the US Constitution guarantee us freedom of thought. But legislatures, churches and school boards have better ideas.
And as we will see, intellectuals do too.
The best teachers know that thinking is more important than knowing, that analysis is more important than memorization. But our traditions nevertheless hobble teachers with educational paradigms that are, in many ways, firmly rooted in the medieval origins of modern education, and which still bear much of the rigidity and intolerance of those Dark Ages. If we are to fulfill the potential and promises of democracy, if each generation is to leave a better life for its children, then we need to rethink our fundamental goals and approaches for education, and for life.
The School Master, Barclay’s Dictionary, 1813, courtesy AntiqueMapsAndGlobes.com.