Neill’s marvelous system at Summerhill has no need of gods or moralities to control behaviour: children take direct responsibility for their actions as they see them mirrored back to themselves in a community of equals. The school is godless. Once we can chisel away the moralistic concrete that smothers our education systems, I think that Summerhill will provide the model for a better way of organising schools.
People have a deep attachment to their cultural roots, however, and there are some aspects of religious thinking that even- or perhaps especially- libertarians are prone to. The most obvious case is that of free will, that feeling we all have that we are making choices and defining our life paths. Physics, brain science and philosophy dismiss this feeling as an illusion that evolution dropped in our path: we are no different to any other material body in having to obey chains of causation that are outside our awareness. It is conceptually difficult to grasp this but it is worth the effort.
Do Bad Stuff and You Are… Bad
Religious people howl their protests because they have built a big temple out of free will.
Religious thinking goes a bit like this. There is good stuff and there is bad stuff and you can choose whether to go one way or the other. If you do more good stuff you are more good. If you do more bad stuff you are more bad. God is, by definition, completely good. The Devil is completely bad. The good are going to be reunited with God and the bad are going to burn in hell with the Devil. God gave us free will so that, at the end of time, he could call us all together and tell us whether we have made enough good choices, but the choices, the moral reponsibility, are ours.
The church edges in on this deal by telling us that we are so tainted by the first bad decision ever made- Adam’s choice to take a bite out of the apple- that we cannot ever be good enough for God. We need a saviour, God himself in man form, who can bring us back into union with all that is good. And we need priests to continually administer the sacrifice of atonement for our sins so that we can make it into heaven.
It all comes down to that wagging finger: “You could have chosen to do good, so why did you go and do bad? You naughty, naughty boy.”
Burn a Witch?
What would it be like if we tossed all of this out? Most people would be happy to see a world without priests, and you would have to be a die-hard reactionary to believe in Adam and Eve. Heaven and hell gave us some great medieval art, but people are as likely to believe they exist these days as they are to burn a witch. And God? The muscly, grey-bearded fellow Michelangelo shows us is not even how religious people imagine him now, although he is still a “he”.
We can also chuck out free will. It is just not necessary. But when we get to Free Will we touch a soft spot for Libertarians who want to see the right moral choices made to make the world a better place. They revolt against the notion of a deterministic universe because they want the good to triumph like, hmmm, like religious people. Libertarians in the Free Will debate seem to be a kind of moral Puritan for the twenty-first century telling us what will be “good for us”. Are you secretly religious?
I am neither a scientist nor a philosopher, but my gut-feeling tends to have me side with the Determinists- those who say we have nothing like the kind of Free Will we thought we had. I have included some video links below so that you can listen to Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris. Sam Harris’s simple description of what is happening in our experience of making decisions is convincing.
And what is the point of this in a blog about education?
Well, at the end of the Jerry Coyne video he convincingly demonstrates that removing the word moral from the phrase “moral responsibility” can only be a benefit to society. He strikes out retributive justice as being non-sensical once you have recognised decisions are not what the religious always used to dress up as “moral choices”. What a breath of fresh air this would be in education!
It seems to me that, if we let go of this pernicious idea that we have to fill children’s heads with moral nonsense, if we finally agreed that we would invent an education system that really allowed children to grow up respecting all their genetic, familial and societal features without judgement, we would end up with schools like Summerhill. And paradoxical as it might seem, the twilight of Free Will could see a dawning of free schools for children.
Sam Harris Free Will:
Jerry Coyne, You Don’t Have Free Will: