Reversible, Ratio-nal Balance In Thinking

The Child Is Father To The man

by John Colbeck

In the musical, My Fair Lady, based on Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, Higgins is a male chauvinist hog—a professor of linguistics. He teaches Eliza Doolittle, a London flower-girl, how to speak "proper", like him. As the climax of his effort, he successfully passes her off as a duchess at a society ball. Ignoring her part in the success, Higgins and his friend Colonel Pickering, sing, with elated self-congratulation "We did it!" In exasperation at being ignored, Eliza throws a tantrum. Reciprocally exasperated at her "irrational" behaviour, Higgins sings "Why can't a woman, be more like a man?" Shaw's irony implies (also) the reverse, "Why can't a man, be more like a woman?"

In many arguments or confrontations, we can see the same phenomenon. Each party is saying "Why can't this person think properly—more like me?" It is mono-directional, singular (perspective) thinking—narrow.

Oliver Cromwell is a famous example "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, bethink you that you may be mistaken." He did not reverse his thought and say "Why can't I think more like him, in his own "proper" way?" I call it "Cromwelling" each other. Perhaps we can't avoid it; we could be more openly and explicitly aware of it.

Shaw pillories, not only the attitude of a male chauvinist but also the attitude of teachers who say (only half-jokingly) "Our pupils succeed because of us; they fail in spite of us." That may be half true, but the reverse is also, about equally, half true. If pupils succeed, it is they, and not we, who pass our tests. If they fail, it is we who fail them, both transitively and intransitively. We organize everything for them. Why can't we, be more like them?

It is a sobering and (potentially) a radically self-critical thought that we cannot be aware of our own, proper mistakes at the time we are making them. If we were aware of a mistake, we would not be making it.

A mistake is an action, belief or value which has consequences we neither intend nor want. We can be aware of our mistakes only afterwards, or with other people's help. Other people have less difficulty than we do in seeing our mistakes.

We learn by mistakes; we need opponents, critics, even enemies, to do us some good in that way by contradicting us. Loving enemies are best.

When we do become aware of a mistake, it can help us to see what it was that we "really" wanted, as opposed to what we thought we wanted when we made the mistake. Theory, practice and mistakes evolve together. There is no "Which came first?" in evolution; it is continuous, in loops.

This suggests that we might do well to consider, when making a statement, whether it is possible that an opposite, contradictory statement might not also be true, with a small shift of perspective. My example in the title of this paper is "The child is father to the man." It takes only a moment to recover, as it were, from the apparent contradiction and to see an unexpected truth being conveyed—our childhood determines the kind of person we become. A good joke is (can often be seen as) an unexpected truth. "Is" always means "can be seen in part as". Nothing can be seen whole, in a single description or perspective.

Our ancestors went ahead of us and we follow after them, in time. And yet it is now we who are going on ahead of them, from where they left off. We ride on their shoulders and carry them forward on ours. They gave birth to us and we give them new birth by perpetuating their ideas. God created man in his own (male) image and man imagined, created, made God in his own male image. Our supreme values—our "gods"—motivate our actions and thus make us what we become. Our gods create us and we imagine and create them. Both evolve together.

Are We Mistaken In Educating?

Are we, in education, "doing a Professor Higgins" on children, or "Cromwelling" them, when we teach them to speak and think "proper" = like us? Are we "cloning" them, in our own image? If so, would it be a change for the better if we were more effective and "successful" in doing that? Do we want children to become like us? Might that be a mistake?

It is uncomfortable to realize that it must often seem to children that we are trying to clone them. From the moment when they first start to use words we insist, like Higgins, on them using words "properly", as we do.

They have to use our words, together with all the value assumptions which are built in, unawares, to our own uses of words like "good", "bad", "naughty", "beastly", "proper", to name only the most obvious ones.

My "proper" name is my own name. My "property" belongs to me. "Speak properly, like me." We do not usually teach the reverse idea that "Property is theft"; that would be a radical reversal of the "ordinary" use of words but it is possible to see property in that way, because some people have, and perhaps still do, see it that way. Among Maoris, for instance, there is no individual property. We might reflect that the idea can be seen as quite close in spirit to the thinking of Jesus, Osiris-Dionysus, the Cynics and Socrates. Do we not, in "civilised" countries, own far too much?

Our own practical philosophy or way of life, in Western Europe, in spite of a "Christian" tradition, could be described as based on the principles "Blessed are the top people." And "All things work together for the good (of the middle classes), because the middle classes organize everything." Might that be a mistake? If it is a mistake, the people least likely to be able to see it so are top people. Revolutions don't start at the top, nor at the bottom, but in the middle.

We might also note that all the greatest revolutions in science, from Galileo to Einstein, have required us to believe things which seemed "ridiculous", "flying in the face of commonsense and the evidence". It is therefore possible that we still have (almost) everything wrong—upside down, inside out, back to front or (I think) all three. A single mistake detected in one of our basic or "foundation" assumptions might require another Galilean revolution. That mistake, if it exists, is likely to be built in to our uses of words. We will not be, cannot be, aware of it, yet.

What we can do is to be aware ourselves, and honestly to let children know, that such a mistake—probably many mistakes—may be there. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that our mistakes are more visible to "innocent" children than they are to us. When a child says "That's not fair", for instance, she is drawing attention to a lack of ratio-nal "balance", equality (of valuing), reversibility, symmetry, in the way we are behaving.

She may often be right. Children have little or no "voice" in their own affairs. Why not? Adult answers may be too easy and comfortable.

We tend to use "rational" in our own, rather different way, as having to do with the giving and demanding of reasons. Since we are usually more experienced in that skill, our attitude often seems "unfair" to children. They always lose the "reasoning" argument. We make, break and quote the rules.

It is unfair; it is an intellectual power-game, backed by compulsion, in which we will always win against children. Dissidents and deviants will be troublesome and find themselves in trouble, possibly exiled to "Siberia", excluded from school, crucified or sent to an asylum. Animals are "culled".

Victor Quinn famously parodied these adult, Stalinist attitudes in his approach to moral education with children. "I'm bigger than you, and better at arguing, so I'll always win, won't I?" Victor said it with mock-beetling brows to provoke opposition and contradiction.

Is Cloning Unavoidable? Is It Harmful?

I think it is sensible to be aware that some "cloning" is unavoidable. If we are to teach children how to talk, we have to teach them our own, "proper", language. In this sense, what we call "civilisation" (making citizens) requires the handing down and passing on of "traditional" uses of words. That will include passing on "wisdoms", values and beliefs embedded in words. It will also unavoidably include passing on foolishnesses embedded in our uses of words. At any one time we are unlikely to "know" which is which. We should honestly warn children about this.

This is sometimes called the inescapable problem of self-reference, or the unavoidability of narcissism in judgments. To identify wisdom, we would need to be wise. To know what "good" is, we would need to be (have the practical experience of being) good. To make those judgments is narcissistic. It implies that we know. We often say "God only knows."

That is the kind of problem which led Socrates to say "I know only one thing; that is, that I know nothing." That is one of the most liberal and liberating thoughts in the history of ideas. We ignore and fear it at our peril. Awareness of ignorance is better than thinking we know.

If we study the working of evolution by natural selection—the process by which we have evolved or been created—we might expect that, in such a young child-species, we are likely to have far more mistakes in our thinking (destined to fail or "die") than we have wisdoms destined to last for a thousand years, let alone for ever. In nature, millions of seeds drop, fail, die and are recycled, for every one that "succeeds" in creating a new tree.

If we take a "comprehensive" look, comprehending many aspects of human behaviour in our global village community or family, we might identify many areas where our view has been, and still is, too narrow, narcissistic and short term (temporally narrow). We conceive our "family" too narrowly, excluding animals and trees. Narrowness is a mistake. Thinking we know narrows our perspective.

It is surely probable that, in the next hundred years or less, one or more new Galilean (widening) revolutions in our perspectives will be necessary?

It might therefore be a mistake to make our education more and more effective, in the cloning (narrowing) sense of making our children more and more "knowing", like us. In-breeding is not favoured by natural selection. The state of our adult-dominated world scarcely encourages the idea that more "effectiveness" is desirable. We might thank "God", or a kindly providence, for our own ineffectiveness, or for children's instinctive wisdom in resisting our efforts to "adulterate" or "clone" them, intellectually and emotionally. We need both integration and rainbow differentiation.

Genetic engineering, and social engineering via education, are alike: both presuppose that we know what a "good" human being would be like. We don't know; we believe and value, with varying degrees of confidence. Science is a belief system in which we have confidence. It is based on assumptions—conclusions of earlier thinking. It, too, is subject to the inexorable logic of natural selection. "Change or die?" Both and more.

What Is To Be Done?

Part of my suggested solution is implied in my title "Reversible Thinking: the child is father to the man". Our species' childhood steps towards democracy have included abolishing slavery, universal suffrage (in England this "progress" stopped short of women in the 19th Century) and then "votes for women". We now seem to have stopped there. Why?

I see each of those steps as moves towards wider, more equal valuing of and respect for individuals and, consequent on that change in patterns of respect, towards more social justice. I see moves towards social justice as motivated by seeing and valuing other people as (equally with) ourselves and vice versa, valuing our selves equally, as others.

Until they had the vote, women's values and interests, and their education, could be, and largely were, neglected by politicians. Politicians were all males, elected by males. The results were not socially just, balanced or ratio-nal. We are far from balanced, fair, ratio-nal, even now.

Male narcissism rampant is still emblazoned on all our flags and "proper" standards of excellence. Narcissus was mistaken in admiring himself.

In our "progress" towards democracy, we have still stopped short of "votes for children", although the voting age has slowly come down. Children have little or no "voice" in their own affairs, let alone in ours. Adults" voices are overwhelmingly dominant in theirs. We take it for granted that we are wiser than children. Their lack of "voice" also means, as it did for women until the 20th Century, that children's values and interests are still largely ignored; they are "interpreted" by adults. Adults are not (much) like children. We do not equal or understand them, nor they us, much. It is we who decide that we are wiser—self-reference.

It is unfair and almost certainly unwise. We rarely see women (pace Mrs Thatcher) and children initiating wars. They suffer in them.

In some ways we are likely to be wiser than children; we are older and more exerienced. In other ways, we may have learned many wrong things from our age and experience (Narcissism, for instance!). We have become less inquisitive, opening-minded and flexible than children; thinking we know has closed our minds.

That may be a mistake. We are cluttered with too much "baggage" in our loft-y minds. Why not continue our "progress" towards equal valuing?

Adults and authorities tend to say "There is no freedom without responsibility." The reverse is also true "There can be no responsibilty without freedom." I cannot be responsible for decisions in which I had no part or voice. We bewail lack of a sense of "citizenship" in children, while withholding from them the learning experience necessary to act as citizens.

We do not see, love, value, conceive or treat children as citizens. They have neither vote nor voice in political decisions affecting their lives.

It is not a simple matter of suddenly giving children a vote in school councils, etc. That leads to a predictable comment "They suggested stupid, trivial and impractical things". Of course! They had no opportunity to learn from their mistakes by making any! It often leads to abandonment of the school council project by authorities. That outcome cosily satisfies authorities that they are the right people to decide. Their action is ill-conceived, but self-confirming. We blunder on. "Adults know best, dear." How convenient! Authority corrupts thinking.

Making democracy work is much harder work than that: it requires a radical programme of training in a skill largely unfamiliar to teachers, less familiar still to lecturers and researchers—the skill of listening to children, and to the instinctive wisdoms (which we have forgotten) embedded in their uses of words. Their uses are often opposed to ours.

In other walks of life, it is called the skill, or art, of consultation. Even in the Army, this skill is taught, for the sake of improved cooperation.

How much research, for instance, is done into what children can value? How carefully do we listen to (or even ask them) what they do value and believe? Do we do any research into how their valuing changes as a result of a lesson, a course or a programme of education? Is that not important? If we found that they valued less at the end of a programme of education than they valued when they started, was the programme a success?

We test and assess children only in the things we value—mainly intellectual and academic skills and knowledge. Our values, measured by the things we measure, are narrowly academic. Children's values would, I confidently predict, be very different, possibly wider, more liberal. We can find that out only by observing them and listening to them.

In an average lesson, and in just about every lecture, children or students spend far more time listening to us. Is that fair? In spite of that, we rarely spend time on teaching them, or ourselves, how to listen, let alone how to talk and move. We more often say "Sit down, keep quiet and get on with your work." "Work" is mainly two-dimensional reading, writing, arithmetic. Teachers are professional speakers and listeners. They rarely train in themselves in either skill, nor do they train children in either. Yet outside school most of us spend far more time talking (and often not listening) than we do reading or writing.

Comprendre, c'est egaler (To understand is to equal.) (Balzac). If we do not equal children, we will not understand them, nor they us. Until we listen to them "properly", with "total" attention to what is going on between us, we have little hope of understanding each other. This skill has to be studied and learned. Until we understand children, we will not understand our selves. They are both our parents (our past) and our future.

That idea is simple, fair, ratio-nal, balanced, reversible, symmetrical?

How To Go On?

If we can see, value and re-conceive ourselves, reversibly, as others and vice versa, see and value others, including children, as ourselves then we, and they, might improve in evolving together. We, and children together, might reciprocally widen and deepen the range of our valuing. That, i think, would be "successful", effective educating of our selves, seen together not as "you" and "they" but "us".

It is a very old idea, but still revolutionary. "Imagine that my heart was yours." (Confucius). And vice versa—exchange hearts and minds—comm-unicate. Sides (outsiders) with middles and tops (authorities) with bottoms!

* * *


I am grateful for critical comments and discussion with Ruth Irwin, who suggested the reference to the Maoris, Madeleine Baird (The Marshmallow Project: Foundation of Effective Listening) and Dianne Gereluk. I have also been inspired at many points by email discussions with Marjorie Mayers about her (2001) book Street Kids and Streetscapes and with Vilia Velikova about her (2000) paper outlining three stages of "innocence"—before, during and after awareness of good and evil. Beyond that, it is a consequence of the fact that ideas are not created suddenly but evolve slowly and continuously, that I cannot acknowledge the sources of my ideas adequately, let alone completely. There are too many and many are unknown to me. This note gives me the opportunity to mention a few principal names and references.

For example, the idea of seeing my self as a child came, most recently, from Karin Murris (1997), who ended her acknowledgements with "The strongest voices throughout have been those of children, of the child I was, and the child I still am." Karin's influence is strong at many other points in the paper. But that emphasis, for me, goes back also to the authors of The New Testament "Except ye be converted and become as little children..." (Matthew 18, 3, Mark 10, 17, Luke 18, 17). And the authors of the New Testament (unknown, but including St Paul), owe much to the Cynics (Mack (1993), Crossan, (1995) Downing (1998)), to Socrates, Buddhism and to the Pagan wisdoms of Osiris-Dionysus (Freke and Gandy, 1999). Shakespeare, author of many sayings in our language, borrowed the plots for his plays, and no doubt many of his ideas, from earlier writers. A search for "original" authors leads into the sands of inadequate records and oral traditions. Our ancestors and their ideas are the "children" from which we and our ideas evolved or "grew up", in small steps and loops, continuously. They (animals and trees) are also our parents. We share much of our DNA with them.

My simplest thanks might therefore be "To the unknown author—lifekind."
I owe my life to lifekind.


CROSSAN, John Dominic (1995) Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography

DOWNING, F. Gerald (1998) Cynics, Paul and the Pauline Churches Routledge

FREKE, Anthony and GANDY, Peter (1999) The Jesus Mysteries Thorsons

MACK, Burton (1993) The Lost Gospel: Q and Christian Origins Element Books

MAYERS, Marjorie (2001) Street Kids and Streetscapes New York, Counterpoints

MURRIS, Karin (1997) Metaphors of the Child's Mind PhD Thesis, University of Hull

VELIKOVA, Vilia (2000) The Power of Image in Cyberspace and Innocence: (axiological gropings) Paper read at INPE Conference in Sydney

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