Once upon a time there was a man who saw something that made him uncomfortable. To his mind, children are full of potential for good. Indeed, he thought, nurturing this promise is what can most effectively support the chance that in due time they will actually become good. The man decided that the task of caring for and educating children must be to encourage them to develop good dispositions. All around him, however, he saw something else happening.
Rather than being encouraged, children were eyed with suspicion. The adults around him had resigned parenting and education primarily to constraining a child’s wickedness. The man worried that these adults were instilling fear rather than love and violence rather than tenderness into the children’s hearts. Seeing that no good could come of such punitive pedagogy, he set forth to stop people from introducing fear and violence into children’s minds. The man argued: the child is to grow up a good person and never know herself otherwise.
In my last post, Kant provided an exemplary argument that teachers must not pedagogically force or trick students into knowledge – students must think for themselves. Indeed, the task of teaching – which is a moral task – is to enable thinking. This time, I ask in addition: is education better understood primarily as a process of positive encouragement or one of disciplinary action? In other words, which emphasis has pedagogical priority and which will play a supporting role?
The man represented in this story is Horace Bushnell, a 19th century American pastor and theologian. Although his arguments are deeply Christian, the question he raises is widely applicable. For instance, the choice to prioritize either encouragement or discipline manifests in debates such as whether test-centered or open-ended curricula are more pedagogically sound. As educators, these assumptions critically affect our philosophies of teaching. They need to be thoughtfully considered.
When Bushnell first published the Discourses on Christian Nurture in 1847, it caused a notable scandal. The revival preaching of the Second Great Awakening emphasized human beings’ innate depravity. People were viewed as fundamentally wicked unless – and until – they made a “decision for Christ” and were “given a new heart” by God. Until a child was old enough to make this decision, he could not be otherwise than depraved.
This same time period, however, also experienced the growth of the cult of domesticity, which brought with it an emphasis on the nurturing value of the family and the home. Proponents of domesticity held that in the midst of society’s tumults middle-class family life provided a refuge for virtue and for moral cultivation. Children should be organically nurtured so as to participate in the moral goodness of their parents.
Essentially, Bushnell’s pedagogical philosophy turns on the tension between these two worldviews. On the one hand, Bushnell allowed that all humans – children included – need God’s saving intervention to overcome depravity. On the other hand, he insisted that children are cultivated by and into the moral character of their parents. He brought these two together by suggesting that children’s organic connection to their parents effects an analogous connection to their parents’ holiness.
How then does Bushnell propose that parents nurture their children? First, by teaching the feeling of Christian goodness rather than the content of doctrine. Second, by enveloping children in the encouragement of their parents’ modeling of good Christian lives.
While many aspects of Bushnell’s arguments might seem dated or inappropriate to secular classrooms, his fundamental concern about whether education ought to function primarily through encouragement or correction continues to be relevant. Is a teacher’s role to spark intellectual curiosity or is it to correctively guide misapprehension toward understanding? What say you? Do you agree with Bushnell? Is it naïve to assume that students primarily need encouragement? Can we trust that our students’ misapprehensions will naturally work themselves out without concerted correction? How might this pedagogical approach apply to teaching undergraduates?
* Horace Bushnell. Discourses on Christian Nurture. Boston: Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, 1847. Widener C 1136.7.31