Monday, September 17, 2012

Jonathan Sacks on raising children to think and question

Continuing with the Jonathan Sacks (the Chief Rabbi) vs Richard Dawkins theme, I have just been listening to Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, talking to Richard Dawkins on a TV programme (currently available here). Sacks says he thinks children should be raised to think and question. Sacks adds that in "Jewish tradition, the first duty of a Jewish parent to a Jewish child is to teach them to ask questions" (from about 16 mins 50secs). Re Abraham and Isaac, Sacks says, "God gave Abraham a seminar: Teach your child to argue. Teach your child to challenge" (from about 17 mins). Not surpisingly, Dawkins agrees. Smiles all round. 

Actually, Sacks's enthusiasm for raising children to think and question is rather more qualified than you might have guessed from the above exchange. I discussed Sacks's view on the importance of raising children to be critical thinkers, as set out his book The Politics of Hope, in my own book The War For Children's Minds. Here's a brief excerpt....

Sacks on tradition
Of course, not every defender of Authority-based moral education wants to turn us into unthinking automata blindly treading whatever path tradition lays down. This is certainly true of Jonathan Sacks and Melanie Phillips, for example. It would be unfair to caricature them as wanting to transform us into lobotomized slaves of tradition.
         Still, while hardly anyone is recommending complete, blind, unswerving loyalty to whatever tradition dictates, it is clear that Sacks, Phillips and many others believe the young should, in the first instance, adopt an attitude of deference to what they both call “external authority” on moral questions. Independent critical thought is only to be allowed when individuals have been fully and properly immersed within the tradition.
Sacks, for example, says that before we can properly criticise a practice, we need to set foot within it, “finding our way round it from the inside”. This, says Sacks,

presupposes distinctive attitudes: authority, obedience, discipline, persistence and self-control. …There is a stage at which we put these rules to the test. We assert our independence, we challenge, ask for explanations, occasionally rebel and try other ways of doing things. Eventually we reach an equilibrium… For the most part…we stay within the world as we have inherited it….capable now of self-critical reflection on its strengths and weaknesses, perhaps working to change it from within, but recognizing that its rules are not a constraint but the very possibility of shared experiences and relationship and communication… autonomy takes place within a tradition.[i]

So Sacks acknowledges the importance, in a mature citizen, of a critical, reflective stance towards his or her own tradition. But he emphasizes that we must first be fully immersed in that tradition. And he stresses the importance of deference to Authority in the earlier stages of assimilation. He believes that

autonomy – the capacity to act and choose in the consciousness of alternatives – is a late stage in moral development… It is not where it begins.[ii]

What Sacks means by “a late stage” is unclear. At what point Sacks is willing to let individuals adopt a more reflective, critical stance towards their own tradition? At eleven? At fifteen? At twenty five? It’s hard to say. In fact it’s not at all obvious whether reflective, critical examination of the tradition in which you are brought up is something Sacks would at any stage be willing to encourage. It’s merely something he thinks will spontaneously happen at some “late stage”.
So while Sacks is prepared to tolerate some freedom of thought and expression at some unspecified point in the individual’s development, it’s clear Sacks wants moral education to be much more Authority-based than it currently is (or at least as it is outside the more conservative religious schools). He believes more emphasis should be placed on more-or-less uncritical deference to Authority than it should on independent critical thought ( at least until some “late stage”). So, as we have defined Authoritarian with a capital “A”, Sacks is an Authoritarian (though it’s possible to be far more Authoritarian than Sacks – Sacks may be on the Authoritarian side of the Liberal/Authoritarian scale, but he’s not at that extreme end of the scale). Sacks would oppose the highly Liberal approach to moral and religious education advocated in chapter three. He wants schools more like Authoritia High, less like Liberalia High.
The question is: why is more-or-less blind, uncritical acceptance of the pronouncements of Authority required at any stage? Why does raising individuals “within a tradition” require that we begin by actively stifling their freedom to think and question?
Sacks cites MacIntyre in support of his Authoritarian stance on moral and religious education. But MacIntyre’s plausible point that reason is inevitably rooted in tradition – that it cannot be applied independently of any tradition – does not require that individuals should be discouraged from applying their own powers of reason once they are able. And it is clear from the kind of studies looked at in chapter three that children are remarkably adept at applying their critical faculties to moral questions from very early on. Some immersion in a tradition may indeed be required before their critical faculties can be properly engaged. But once they are engaged, once the child is striving to engage them, once they are beginning actively to question and explore (which does come very naturally to them), what then is the case for actively suppressing their application to moral and religious belief? Particularly until, as Sacks puts it, some “late stage”? For if Sacks wants to restrict the child’s ability to think and question until some “late stage”, he is going to have to actively suppress this natural tendency. In fact it’s hard to see how Sacks is going to avoid having to relying pretty heavily on the kinds of psychological manipulation outlined back in chapter three.
What Sacks tries to extract from MacIntyre’s point about tradition looks suspiciously like an open-ended invitation for him to shut down the critical faculties of young people long enough to get them heavily religiously indoctrinated. Sacks leaves the door open for years and years of religious programming at the hands of some moral Authority, sending new citizens out into the moral world intellectually armed with little more than a tokenistic, last-minute bit of critical reflection grudgingly tolerated at some “late stage”.
If this is what Sacks is after – and I haven’t yet found anything in his writings to suggest that it isn’t – then he’s going to need a much better argument to justify it. Certainly, MacIntyre’s plausible point about the impossibility of applying reason independently of any tradition fails to support it.



Anonymous said...

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