The child as an empty vessel: a defence of emptiness in education

Looking at education-related tweets it would seem that the most vilified idea in education at the moment is the idea that the child is an empty vessel. If people who pride themselves on their progressive approach to education can agree on one thing, it is that the child is not an empty vessel. There is no place for such ideas of emptiness in 21st century pedagogy.

One tweet-length piece of evidence:

Education-as-usual assumes that kids are empty vessels who need to be sat down in a room and filled with curricular content. Dr. Mitra’s experiments prove that wrong.

Tweets leave no room for footnotes, and hardly anyone feels obliged to go back and look at who proposed the idea of the empty vessel and why on earth they might have thought that it made sense. Instead, the idea is ripped out of context, passed on in a game of digital Chinese whispers, and vilified in a manner that speaks not of radicalism but of thoughtlessness.

Child as a blank slate

What we want to do here is not just set the record straight about the child as an empty vessel, but we also want to suggest that the time has come to take the truly radical step – the truly progressive step – the truly thoughtful step of embracing the idea of emptiness.

First the record. The idea of the human mind as originally an empty vessel or a blank slate has a long history dating back at least to Aristotle (see De Anima, bk. 3, chap. 4), who argued that the human intellect must be something like a blank writing tablet able to receive the imprint of the ideas that come to be written on it. The idea then disappeared for almost two millennia before surfacing again in the early modern period in the context of a debate about innate ideas. As Henry More in An Antidote Against Atheism put it in 1655, the question was “whether the soul of man is a tabula rasa – a book in which nothing is writ – or whether she have some innate notions and ideas.” The notion that the human mind is empty, i.e. has no innate ideas, was then defended at greatest length by John Locke in his Essay on Human Understanding.

Locke was an ardent anti-dogmatist, and the view that there were innate ideas was, as he saw it, pure dogmatism. No, the human mind is not something upon which indubitable ideas are writ by the Divine Hand. The human mind in its original condition is a tabula rasa or a blank sheet of paper – the blank tablet described by Aristotle. And the tabula rasa and the blank sheet of paper are the empty vessel (a term which neither Aristotle nor John Locke actually used).

Now, despite the online vilification of Locke’s idea the vast majority of teachers are, in their teaching practice at least, faithful acolytes of Locke. All teachers who employ textbooks (either paper or digital) in the classroom assume in practice that the students pouring into the classroom have a certain intellectual emptiness which needs to be filled in one way or another.

The alternative would be a Platonic classroom, devoid of textbooks, relying entirely on a discussion in which the children clarify the ideas that they find within themselves, with the teacher playing the role of the good Platonic midwife assisting in the process of cognitive birthing.

But perhaps the thing that provokes so much opposition is not the idea of emptiness itself but the passivity of the learner that is supposed to follow from it. But this is just sloppy thinking. Locke, without any contradiction, believed firmly both in the original emptiness of the child’s mind and in the value of active learning. His Thoughts Concerning Education stress again and again the importance of both parents and tutors cultivating the child’s curiosity and encouraging children in asking questions so that they gradually become the masters of their own learning and achieve the overriding goal of becoming adults who can think for themselves and take an active part in the political life of the new republic.

Locke was an Enlightenment champion of individual liberty, not a theorist of standardised mass schooling. Indeed he argued that the only acceptable class-size was one, and he was such a critic of contemporary schooling that he argued it would be better for the child to be educated at home. Crucial for him was the liberty of the child (speaking out against a myriad forms of unfreedom, including tight clothing for girls, for instance) and the great empiricist had an acute sense of the individuality of the child, insisting that the parents and the tutor of a child pay close attention to the inclinations and talents of the individual, matching the course of education carefully to them.

Clearly, the tweets that are supposed to be light years away from the terrible pedagogy of the 17th century are often little more than footnotes to Locke.

Child as a blank slate

Having set the record straight, let’s get back to the issue of emptiness. Locke was right about that original emptiness. But we can’t entirely agree with Locke because there is something amiss in his treatment of emptiness. The problem here has nothing to do with the reasons for his online vilification. The argument that needs to be made concerns freedom, and it has more to do with our understanding of social life and less to do with the mind of the individual child. It is a difficult argument to make because our thinking about freedom has progresssed so little since the seventeenth century. To make the argument we need to think about human freedom and its connection with emptiness, the point being to argue that if we are friends of freedom, we must also be friends of emptiness, in a sense.

Locke did a lot to establish the idea that education (understood in the broadest sense to include all aspects of child-rearing) ought to be an education for freedom. The child is to be brought up to be a member of a society that would be the realisation of freedom. Although Locke preferred the word liberty, arguably the Greek word autonomy is better since it highlights the way in which a free society gives the law (the nomos) to itself.

Every society is autonomous in this sense, but very few are organised around an understanding of that autonomy. All too often societies fall back on the idea that something beyond them is dictating the law (their highest values) to them. Locke himself was guilty of this shrinking away from autonomy. Despite his lengthy arguments against innate ideas in his theory of knowledge, when he turns to politics he bases his argument on the supposedly innate idea of Natural Rights – as if rights were not a social construct but were something written in the book of Nature. Rousseau – the great critic of Locke’s theory of education – was guilty of the same. In his Emile, at the point where the young man being educated is first able to look in an intelligent way at the confusing array of cultures, he is told a didactic story that ends thus: “I therefore closed all the books [written by man]. There is one open to all eyes: it is the book of nature. It is from this great and sublime book that I learn to serve and worship its divine Author. No one can be excused for not reading it, because it speaks to all men a language that is intelligible to all minds.” (p306-7) Emile – held up as a paragon of autonomy – is supposed to immediately warm to the idea that our highest values are not ones that we imagine but ones supposedly revealed in a book written by some transcendent hand.

In the passage of time since the 1760s when Emile was published, it has become harder to believe that there could be a single universal language intelligible to all minds to provide a common ground for a global society of perpetual peace. Whatever nature says, its message needs to be interpreted, and that will inevitably occur within the frameworks of a very particular, historically specific language that will not be intelligible to all minds. There is no way for the book of nature to imprint itself directly on our intellects. The work of interpretation is unavoidable. Rather than basing our culture on the book of nature, we find ourselves having to write the book ourselves in our own, very particular language.

Here we are confronted with our freedom – a freedom best understood as the feature of a form of social life that lives in a web of meaning that society must spin for itself. It is a freedom that is difficult to confront – leaving us feeling perhaps that we are cast adrift like vessels in an abysmal sea of emptiness. And perhaps because of that difficulty so many clutch in desperation at anything that seems to stand as a rock that they can tie the vessel to, gaining reassurance, but denying their freedom.

Human freedom is a complex phenomenon, and there is nothing we can do here but provide a hopelessly sketchy indication that somewhere in the understanding of human freedom there is going to be a confrontation with a disturbing form of emptiness – the abyss that is the absence of a transcendent ground for our way of life. But with that sketch in mind we want to argue that if we agree with Locke that our thinking about education should be guided by the value of freedom, then we need to include the phenomenon of freedom and the emptiness beneath it in the curriculum.

This is something overlooked by the 21st century pedagogues who champion things like curiosity, childhood genius and self-organising learning environments. These models of education assume that for education to liberate it is enough if it allows the original fullness of the child to express itself. As long as there is an absence of obstacles in school to the enquiring mind, then freedom has been realised. But this is not the case. Freedom itself needs to be thematised. Students left to themselves may well devote all their time to the study of things and never reflect back upon the human condition (and this is the worst failing of education at the moment). If there is anything that deserves to be at the core of the curriculum in the later years of education, surely this is it. People like Sugata Mitra and Ken Robinson ostensibly develop liberation pedagogies (a bit like Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed, although the new title would have to be something like “Pedagogy of the liberated”), but they make the terrible omission of not requiring young people to reflect upon the phenomena of liberation, liberty and autonomy. What they forget is that our freedom and our understanding of ourselves as free go hand in hand, and we develop as free beings by developing our understanding of our freedom.

An educational system that really advances the cause of freedom must advance our understanding of this key feature of human social life. At the moment the system allows the prevailing thoughtless reduction of freedom to the freedom of choice to go unquestioned. It also leaves unquestioned the various ways we construe social life as a heteronomous phenomenon, depicting social life as something following a path dictated to it, instead of grasping how society in that abysmal emptiness forges its path for itself.

Surely a better education will be one that thematises our freedom and ensures that all students, when they are well on the path to maturity, are encouraged to question what our freedom consists in, and are pointed to the best works of thinkers and artists who have put human freedom at the centre of their concerns. They will be encouraged to begin a line of reflection that will arrive sooner or later at the question of the grounds for our way of life. At that point the abyss will make itself felt. The issue then will be how they react to it: whether they embrace the emptiness at the core of the human condition or whether they continue the fearful retreat from it.

Duane Hanson: Couple with shopping bag

P.s. For those not shrinking from the abyss: Arvo Part’s Tabula Rasa.

written by Torn Halves on January 9, 2014 in education and Sugata Mitra with 12 comments