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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Unknown said…
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Sport and Children
Iftikhar Ahmad said…
Muslim children not only need halal meat or Eid Holidays but they need state funded Muslim schools with Muslim teachers as role models during their development period also. There is no place for a non-Muslim child or a teacher in a Muslim school.

It is absurd to believe that Muslim schools, Imams and Masajid teach Muslim children anti-Semitic, homophobic and anti-western views. It is dangerously deceptive and misleading to address text books and discuss them out of their historical, cultural and linguistic context. It is not wrong to teach children that Jews are committing the same cruelty in Palestine what German did to them before or during Second World War. It is not wrong to teach children that anti-social behaviour, drinking, drugs, homosexuality, sex before marriage, teenage pregnancies and abortions are western values and Islam is against all such sins. This does not mean that Muslim schools teach children to hate westerners, Jews and homosexuals.

You better teach your children in your own schools and let migrant communities teach their children according to their needs and demands. British Establishment and society should concentrate on the evils of their own society and stop trying to change the way of life of Muslims. Muslim community does not want to integrate with the British society, indulging in incivility, anti-social behaviour, drug and knife culture, binge drinking, teenage pregnancies and abortion. Prince Charles, while visiting the first grant maintained Muslim school in north London, said that the pupils would be the future ambassadors of Islam. But what about thousands of others, who attend state schools deemed to be "sink schools"? In education, there should be a choice and at present it is denied to the Muslim community. In the late 80s and early 90s, when I floated the idea of Muslim community schools, I was declared a "school hijacker" by an editorial in the Newham Recorder newspaper in east London. This clearly shows that the British media does not believe in choice and diversity in the field of education and has no respect for those who are different. Muslim schools, in spite of meager resources, have excelled to a further extent this year, with couple of schools achieving 100% A-C grades for five or more GCSEs. They beat well resourced state and independent schools in Birmingham and Hackney. Muslim schools are doing better because a majority of the teachers are Muslim. The pupils are not exposed to the pressures of racism, multiculturalism and bullying.

There are hundreds of state primary and secondary schools where Muslim pupils are in majority. In my opinion all such schools may be opted out to become Muslim Academies. This mean the Muslim children will get a decent education. Muslim schools turned out balanced citizens, more tolerant of others and less likely to succumb to criminality or extremism. Muslim schools give young people confidence in who they are and an understanding of Islam’s teaching of tolerance and respect which prepares them for a positive and fulfilling role in society. Muslim schools are attractive to Muslim parents because they have better discipline and teaching Islamic values. Children like discipline, structure and boundaries. Bilingual Muslim children need Bilingual Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods, who understand their
needs and demands.
London School of Islamics Trust
Iftikhar Ahmad said…
This is hypocrisy at its highest. Was it OK when the West was invading lands left and right, converting and massacring its way through other ancient societies? Was it OK to supplant local languages and beliefs with English and the like? Was it OK to name cities as Abbott Abad and Jacobabad without bothering about local beliefs and customs? Islam is here to stay and the sooner the British public accepts that and reverts to the only true faith, the better it will be for them in the long run.

Brainwash why ? Maybe this Islam , if you don't like it don't condemn the messenger. We all know western culture and way of life is not only un-Islamic, it is anti Islam. Muslim Immigrant have to deal this system more aggressively by emphasizing more Muslim value in there life. Which of course unacceptable in western secular society. We as Muslims must take pride in the Islamic teachings. The present system of enlightened moderation has put us Muslims on a gradual decline of morality. If you are against the Islamic teachings like ladies using Hijabs and men keeping beard, my brother you are mentally following the incorrect lines. The real brainwashing that goes on is the social peer pressure telling Muslim kids that it is OK to drink alcohol, take drugs, and engage in premarital relationship. The brainwashed kids believe that they have to somehow find their own partners and reject their parent's choice. This means that they have to follow the same path of hookups and breakups, and the resulting agony and suffering, that non-Muslim kids have to go through.
Regarding Britain as a liberal and tolerant nation, let me remind him of 1857,when they butchered the Indians in their own country and practically slaughtered the whole Mughal family. Has he forgotten Jalianwalla Bagh massacre or appointment of Mountbatten as the viceroy who created a situation at the time of partition which resulted in death of thousand of Indians on both sides. How about Balfour declaration and creation of Zionist Israel, which is the main cause of blood bath in ME and creation of these artificial countries. The Suez crisis of 1956. To top all these the rise of Enoch Powell and Paki bashing in 60's. Even now the wounded tiger shows his dirty claws and causes mischief every now and then.

No one has any problem when: Jews keep beards and wear their traditional caps Christian priests and nuns wear their religious outfits Buddhist monks wear orange robes Sikhs keep beards and wear turbans Indian aunties wear Sarees (cross streets and hang out in Wal-Mart) Yeah but if any Muslim male keeps beard or if any Muslim girl wears hijab then everyone has problem. It's Freedom when you go naked but it's extremism when you wear hijab - just plain hypocrisy! Looking at the case of France,a major secular nation, I believe it is also not allowing women freedom by not letting her to wear her choice of clothing as it supposedly "clashes with French secular values".
Tony Kan said…
Sacks' authoritianism stems directly from the Torah. Deuteronomy 4:5-10.

Not all that is right and true is universal in that all of humanity would have come up with the same ideas of morality on their own without contact with any external society, culture or power.

The ability of human societies to conceive great evils and call it good cannot be underestimated.

Some societies believe that deception and telling lies is the noblest thing.

Other societies thought that instead of dying gloriously on the battlefield, and to allow oneself to be captured by one's enemies was ultimately an act of cowardice and therefore this was sufficient license to abuse, torture and summarily execute POWs in WW2.

Other corrupt societies believe that everyone to rip each other off as much as possible and in the long run it will even itself out so justice is achieved.

Some societies believe that children are merely objects for their own sexual gratification. Arthur C Clarke being a prominent member of this school of thought.

To this end, G-d has revealed His ideas of how to live and organise a society through the Torah and we are to teach it to our children, and they in turn teach it to their children.

Not to teach and train children on what God has revealed about how to live, is to leave them vulnerable to evil.