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All Men are Good by Nature

by David Norris

Extract from the article No Middle Ground reproduced here with permission
The complete article is available in the periodical


We now turn to another line of thinking that has influenced modern education. Even at the time of the Enlightenment, not everyone cared anything for scientific thinking and so they strode off in a different direction. This is illustrative of the many contradictory strands within today’s progressive education. The Genevan thinker, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), believed man to be essentially good but that he is corrupted by external influences. Salvation lies in following his own nature, his own impulses and appetites, and in allowing his natural humanity to blossom and find completeness. By the 1770s what is known as the Romantic movement flourished all over Europe and in Germany it was the ideal of die schöne Seele – the beautiful soul – that became central. Rousseau’s ‘big idea’ was that everything was good as it came from the hand of God and Nature, but all things deteriorate in the hands of men. External laws and customs corrupted the natural man. Abolish marriage and there can be no unfaithfulness; abolish the monarchy and wars will cease. Evil is between men not within them and can be traced to the church, government, monogamy, schools, even eating meat. Yet surely, these evil institutions that have so ‘polluted’ us have been founded by other men who must then have evil within them? Romanticism here falls into contradiction.

Rousseau’s ideas have made as much impact as any on current progressive education. Because man is essentially good, let us follow nature! The conflict lies not within man but with that imposed upon him from without. There must be a rejection of all that impedes or is contrary to the goodness of our human nature. In 1762, Rousseau published Emile, a classic guide to education according to nature. Using the literary form of a fictional biography of an orphan boy, Rousseau explains that he wants to ‘form’ a man of nature. In this ‘forming’ all traces of civil society are to be eliminated from the boy’s experience. A tutor is appointed to see that nothing interferes with the spontaneous development of the faculties of the child. Let the boy be guided by nothing else but the impulse of his own intelligence. The boy is to find his own way, to use his own powers of observation and experience. There is to be no instruction. This nonsense still prevails in many classrooms today. Children must discover for themselves. Emile was not to see a book until he reached the age of 12. He must learn astronomy by looking at the stars. If he smashed a window, let him learn from experience that the rain gets in! This is probably one of the most nonsensical doctrines in the world of education and it has done more to deprive children of the good teaching they deserve than almost anything else. Such methodology works only in the pages of storybooks. The rule is that a child should be allowed to follow the impulses of nature. Surely this is asking for trouble should the teaching of Scripture turn out to be true and Rousseau’s notions misguided? King David’s confession is to be preferred to the ramblings of this Swiss cuckoo!

“Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Psalm  51:5)

Or what of the words of the apostle Paul?   

 “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing.” (Romans 7:18) 

“The Old Masters: how well they understood,” muses Auden in one of his poems. He was speaking here of suffering and tragedy and draws attention to the painter Brueghel’s Icarus. On the theme of innate wickedness the poet could have well drawn our attention to the cruelty inflicted by children on each other in the same artist’s picture Children Playing. Rotten on the inside means rotten deeds on the outside. The verification of this truth is met with on a daily basis by teachers in the classroom. In Scotland alone, according to figures gathered directly from local authorities independently by the country’s leading newspaper, there are 34 attacks on teachers every single day of the year. Because the figures are so bad, the Scottish executive no longer publishes them saying ‘the data is unreliable’! How long must the longsuffering people of Scotland put up with this nonsense? Bad behaviour is blamed on the teacher, the external influence, and not on the child. A ‘toolkit’ for teachers on teaching the very dubious concept of ‘emotional literacy’ and issued in 2005 explains that a teacher shouting at a misbehaving girl to ‘get into your group or you’ll be sorry’ is to blame for the pupil’s bad behaviour (Sunday Telegraph, 27 November 2005). Someone has been drinking too deeply at the wells dug by Rousseau.

If the natural inclination of the sodomite is towards other men, who then can accuse him of evil? He stands justified. But then, if the impulses of the child-abuser are towards little children is this not also good? Surely, all that is required is the consent of the child? Is there not an inconsistency here? Shall we not extend this principle to the robber to rob, the rapist to rape, the killer to kill, who then can accuse them of doing any wrong? This view of human nature expressed by these ‘radicals’ stands in complete opposition to the teaching of the Bible. It assumes the essential goodness of men and the perfectibility of human nature. The Bible teaches the depravity of human nature and the impossibility of any change without the saving grace of Christ. There is in the Christian Gospel the possibility of change, humanism condemns all men to remain always what they are. Paul answers his own question:

     “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 7:24-25)

According to Denis Diderot (1713-1784), another of this philosophical camp, only those commands should be issued that are going to be obeyed. The child will act according to nature and a command given against nature will not be obeyed. The chaos brought about by this poppycock can be witnessed in the schools of our land on a daily basis. This is precisely the problem, children continually act according to their nature, which the Bible tells us clearly is sinful. The doctrines of Rousseau and Diderot persist despite being evidently false. The liberal theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, said of the goodness of human nature,

“…no cumulation of contradictory evidence seems to disturb modern man’s good opinion of himself. He considers himself the victim of corrupting institutions which he is about to destroy or reconstruct, or of the confusions of ignorance which an adequate education is about to overcome. Yet he continues to regard himself as essentially harmless and virtuous.”

“ The way of a fool is right in his own eyes” (Proverbs 12:15). The soul has gone, sin has gone, and with them all need of a Saviour.

“There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.” (Proverbs 14:12)

Writing in 1930, John Dewey named the American educator, Colonel Francis Wayland Parker (1837-1902), as the ‘father of the progressive educational movement’. Parker came from a religious family line, five members of whom had been ministers. His educational theories, as we might expect, are therefore often expressed using religious terminology. This is a common trait in Romanticism, compare Blake’s poetry, and unless we realise at the outset Parker is talking about something remote from biblical truth, we can be easily deceived. Strip away this religious wrapping and we find his gospel of freedom and group activity has survived to this day. He threw out all rote learning whether of spelling or arithmetic. Spontaneity and self-activity were to be central. The individual development of each child was a copy of the evolution of the human race itself: “the way we teach our children will determine the fate of mankind.” There are some differences, but also many echoes of Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’.

“The child is born a savage, but he rapidly ascends step by step, by love and works of love, up through all the rays of blessed sunshine! Up and up, to eternal light, and the everlasting truth, and the eternal God. …Every child is a born worker… There never was a lazy child born in God’s busy world… The child is a lover of humanity… There never was such a thing as a selfish child born – they grow selfish later. …Feed the lambs of God, and the gates of glory shall be lifted up, and the King of Glory shall enter in.” (in National Educational Association Journal of 1889)

The whole motive of education is “the motive presented in the life and words of Christ; the motive of making one’s own life and character of the greatest possible benefit to mankind.” This motive has nothing to do with Christ, and is founded on a reversal of what the Bible says about human nature.

Parker laid stress on the centrality and ‘divinity’ of the child.

“God made the child His highest creation, He put into that child His divinity, and that this divinity manifests itself in the seeking for truth through the visible and tangible.”    (Talks of Pedagogics, p.7)

This natural divinity is to find unfettered expression in free activity. “The spontaneous tendencies of the child are the records of inborn divinity” (Talks of Pedagogics, p.18). Again, remove the religious covering and we are left with 20th century existentialism, truth expressed as anarchic freedom. ‘God’ may have been dispensed with since Parker, but not the ideas. This realisation of the divine nature can only be restricted by the bumbling ineptitude and ignorant intervention of adults in the form of the teacher. ‘Discipline’, ‘reward and punishment’ are all dirty words. They constitute external inducement and coercion and are the death of spontaneity. Punishment is bad enough but rewards encourage selfishness. Selfishness is brought about, according to Colonel Parker, by imposing authority on the child, whereas unfettered egoism brings out the divine in the child! Freedom is education and education is freedom.

G. Stanley Hall (1844-1924) was born in Ashfield, Massachusetts. Raised on a farm, his parents were Congregationalists. Encouraged into the ministry by his mother – he was a preacher for a short while – he used the occasion of his studies to get away from the farm and continue with his education. He turned to philosophy then to psychology. Hall gained the first Ph.D. in psychology at an American University under William James in 1878 at Harvard. He then went to Leipzig to study with Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) (a man we meet again in our second article). Returning to the USA, Hall taught for a short while at Harvard, but moved to Johns Hopkins in 1881. He moved to Clark University when it opened and stayed there until his death. One of his students was John Dewey.

Hall is known as the father of the child study movement. He linked child development with evolutionary theory, in particular he was influenced by Haeckle’s idea that ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’. Hall thought that the recapitulation of evolution by the embryo was also true from birth to maturity. The child repeats the evolution of the human race in its various stages of development.

No intellectual demands should be made on a child until eight years old. Before the onset of youth when rationality emerges, learning is by play. The child compares to ‘primitive man’ in evolutionary theory with low intellectual ability. The line between man and animals must be eradicated; they are even our elder brothers. A child is thus, because of the evolutionary process, closer to its animal past than its human present. It is this animal past that all men share. In a child instinct is more reliable than reason. Children must not be forced to learn, but their interest aroused and gently led. Hall was a true Romantic believing the

“love of nature and of children is the glory of manhood and womanhood, and the best of all civilisation.” (in National Educational Association Journal of 1896)

There was no such thing as original sin in this world of his. Sin was not inherited, could not be, so all wrong was due to environment, which includes other people. This has given rise to the oft-quoted dictum: there are no bad children, only bad parents. So it is that each generation in this evolutionary process is better than the previous one. Rousseau: “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains” (The Social Contract, I, 1). These shackles must be thrown off, youth is destined to rebel. Yet the progress is backward not forward, back to the primitive roots of mankind.