The Ethics of EducationRichard Ostrofsky (January, 1998)One night, when I was about 9 years old, my father got an outraged phone call from a neighbor, demanding that I be punished with a good strapping for enlightening her 7-year old daughter about the facts of life. What had happened was this: In the playground, earlier that afternoon, her little girl had picked me up (I must have looked kindly and knowledgeable even then), and started asking me questions about making babies. As it happened,
The Ethics of Education
Richard Ostrofsky (January, 1998)
One night, when I was about 9 years old, my father got an outraged phone call from a neighbor, demanding that I be punished with a good strapping for enlightening her 7-year old daughter about the facts of life. What had happened was this: In the playground, earlier that afternoon, her little girl had picked me up (I must have looked kindly and knowledgeable even then), and started asking me questions about making babies. As it happened, I knew all the answers. My parents, good liberals that they were, had given me a very comprehensive children’s book on the subject a few years earlier, when I had started to ask questions. With this result: At nine I knew enough to deliver a very adequate lecture, complete with improvised diagrams, and dispel the clouds of ignorance from this awakening mind. The girl took my revelations calmly, but expressed some puzzlement that her parents had made such a mystery over a fairly simple procedure. I, for my part, had no sense at all of having done anything wrong. I was aware of the taboos around sex – but in my house these were directed only at some things that I shouldn't do, not what at I could read or talk about. When my father got off the phone with that girl’s mother he was amused rather than angry with me. He gave me a talk about being careful of the sensitivities of other families and their cultures; and he suggested that the girl’s parents could reasonably feel I had infringed on their right to educate their daughter in their own way. A pretty cool response, to give my old man credit. But all these years later, the episode still interests me as a case study in the ethics of education. To the extent that thought is destiny, parents, teachers, close friends, writers and artists, ad men and propagandists all exert fateful influence over the minds of others. The question is, when is such influence ethically justifiable, and when is it not? With children, of course, the problem is especially sharp on two counts: partly because the impulse to protect our young is very strong, and partly because the quest for cultural continuation in our offspring is a prime motive for most parents. And yet this parental solicitousness is not necessarily in the child’s best interests. For example, whether or not I truly
infringed some right of that girl’s parents, I don’t think I acted against her interests except as I unwittingly made trouble for her with her parents. Parents fight vehemently to “protect” their children from “undesirable influences”, which might turn a child’s values or loyalties from those in favour at home. Several years later, my father proved no less pathetic than that girl’s mother when, at the age of eighteen or so, I formed a friendship with another young man, a few years older than myself, that he disapproved of. He sensed, correctly, that I had latched onto that slightly older young man as a kind of mentor; and recognized that this friendship spelled the end of his intellectual authority. The possibility that the maturing nut might be blown any distance from its ancestral tree is always threatening to the tree in question. Conversely, the right to influence children toward the values and habits of a dominant culture is a jealously guarded privilege of government. This clash of interests is at the center of much contemporary policy debate regarding education, multi-culturalism, cultural protectionism and related areas. Meanwhile, both the programming and advertisements on TV and the other mass media propagate a self-fulfilling belief that the culture of the global marketplace and the multi-national corporations is the only significant culture there is. Not only is there no consensus in sight, there is scarcely the beginning of intelligent public discussion on the ethical limits of cultural penetration of one person or people by another. In no way do I wish to justify the crimes of cultural imperialism committed in the name of “the Holy Cross” or “Western civilization,” or “the American Way of Life,” or any abstraction whatever. At the same time, it seems obvious to me that the condemnation of hegemonic power and cultural influence as intrinsically evil lapses into irrelevant silliness. If these are always altogether wrong, then in good conscience there is no way to bring up a child. In fact, there is no human relationship without some degree of cultural inter-penetration, seldom on perfectly equal terms. If you have strong feelings about this problem, one way or the other, please drop by and persuade me. At this bookstore, intellectual imperialists are always welcome, but will meet fierce competition from yours truly.