It is almost exactly ten years to the day that I completed the writing of The Child is the Father of the Man; How Humans Learn and Why. As a private publication – it came out under the imprint of Education 2000, the predecessor of The 21st Century Learning Initiative – it sold over 10,000 copies (I think we still have some 400-500 copies remaining). The title people readily recognise was lifted from William Wordsworth’s poem because the story I wished to tell was about the interconnectivity of all of life’s experiences – so the apparent absurdity of the child being father of the man was delivered as a wake-up call to society at large that it is the totality of life’s experiences which combine to create a balanced education.
I wrote (page 204) “The increasing marginalisation of parents in the family in the raising of children contradicts the lessons we are now learning from evolutionary sciences. Throughout human history family has been a foundation of group structure. Among hunter/gathers labour is divided between men, the hunters, and women, the gathers. The sexes thus form a cooperative unit. However, cohesion exists not only within the core family (husband, wife, children) but also among members of the extended family (grandparents, siblings, cousins, uncles, aunts). The extended family is important not just for mutual help but also for cultural cohesion and transmission to the next generation.”
It is within the context of a child’s earliest experiences that youngsters begin to understand how their life relates to the variety of other lives around them. Now, ten years on, the book, A good Childhood issued by The Children’s Society earlier this month, does not talk about community. It talks much about the importance of family values, about friends, about lifestyle, school, mental health and inequalities, but nothing about the rest of the people who live in your street, or who you rub shoulders with going to and from the workplace. It seems that when I talk about a balanced education as being like a three-legged stool – home, school and community as the locations for emotional development, intellectual growth and inspiration – the community leg has just disappeared. The walk to school in the morning or the bike ride with one’s friends, has been replaced by waiting for the school bus, and the injunction “don’t talk to strangers” introduced for all the right reasons means that a child’s world has been reduced to that which seems manageable and controllable by anxious adults. Hyper-individualism, The Children’s Society reports, has increased dramatically – from 56% saying that most people could be trusted in 1959, to only 29% in 1999, thus a reduction of almost a half. Then there is materialism; “other things being equal, the more a child is exposed to the media, the more materialistic she becomes; the worse she relates to her parents; and the worse her mental health”.
The more the role of the school increases the less time children have to enquire into, and experience, the life of other people around them. Communities, it seems, are withering before our very eyes. Ten years ago I wrote “For too long society has been content to assign to the schools more and more of what had earlier been seen as the direct personal responsibility of parents and the general nurturing to be found implicitly within strong communities. However good the schools might be, they could not, and should not, raise children on their own. Schools remain institutions, with institutional rules, procedures and norms. However flexible, they cannot respond adequately to each child’s need”. Then I went on optimistically, “Nor do they have to, if the community with its numerous niches of separate opportunities is aware of its critical role in helping young people shape their personal vision, and their own intrinsic goals. This is the critical issue – the creation of child-friendly communities”.
Ten years on we seem to have forgotten so much of that.