Changing How the World Thinks

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What Shall We Tell the Children?

In a world rife with dogma, scientific education has become an urgent moral obligation.
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He was using his power to get sex. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me," the proverb goes. Like most proverbs, this one captures at least part of the truth, but is also in part obviously false. The fact is that words can hurt. For a start, they can hurt people indirectly by inciting others to hurt them: a crusade preached by a pope, racist propaganda from the Nazis, malevolent gossip from a rival... They can hurt people, not so indirectly, by inciting them to take actions that harm themselves: the lies of a false prophet, the blackmail of a bully, the flattery of a seducer... And words can hurt directly, too: the lash of a malicious tongue, the dreaded message carried by a telegram, the spiteful onslaught that makes the hearer beg his tormentor say no more.

Sometimes indeed mere words can kill outright. There is a story by Christopher Cherniak about a deadly "word-virus" that appeared one night on a computer screen. It took the form of a brain-teaser, a riddle, so paradoxical that it fatally twisted the mind of anyone who heard or read it, making him fall into an irreversible coma. A fiction? Yes, of course. But a fiction with some horrible parallels in the real world. There have been all too many examples historically of how words can take possession of a person's mind, destroying his will to live. Think, for example, of so-called voodoo death. The witch-doctor has merely to cast his spell of death upon a man and within hours the victim will collapse and die. Or, on a larger and more dreadful scale, think of the mass suicide at Jonestown in Guyana in 1972. The cult leader Jim Jones had only to plant certain crazed ideas in the heads of his disciples, and at his signal nine hundred of them willingly drank cyanide.

"Words will never hurt me"? The truth may rather be that words have a unique power to hurt. And if we were to make an inventory of the man-made causes of human misery, it would be words, not sticks and stones, that head the list. Even guns and high explosives might be considered playthings by comparison. Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote in his poem "I": "On the pavement / of my trampled soul / the soles of madmen / stamp the print of rude, crude, words."

Should we then be fighting battles on this front too? Even though I believe that freedom of speech is too precious a freedom to be meddled with, I am still to argue, in short, in favour of censorship, against freedom of expression, and to do so moreover in an area of life that has traditionally been regarded as sacrosanct: moral and religious education. And especially the education a child receives at home, where parents are allowed – even expected – to determine for their children what counts as truth and falsehood, right and wrong.

Children have a human right not to have their minds crippled by exposure to other people's bad ideas – no matter who these other people are. Parents, correspondingly, have no god-given licence to enculturate their children in whatever ways they personally choose: no right to limit the horizons of their children's knowledge, to bring them up in an atmosphere of dogma and superstition, or to insist they follow the straight and narrow paths of their own faith.

In short, children have a right not to have their minds addled by nonsense. And we as a society have a duty to protect them from it. So we should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example, in the literal truth of the Bible, or that the planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children's teeth out or lock them in a dungeon.

On the positive side, if children have a right to be protected from false ideas, they have too a right to be succoured by the truth. And we as a society have a duty to provide it. Therefore we should feel as much obliged to pass on to our children the best scientific and philosophical understanding of the natural world – to teach, for example, the truths of evolution and cosmology, or the methods of rational analysis – as we already feel obliged to feed and shelter them.

We live in a society where most adults – not just a few crazies, but most adults – subscribe to a whole variety of weird and nonsensical beliefs, that in one way or another they shamelessly impose upon their children. In the United States, for example, it sometimes seems that almost everyone is either a religious fundamentalist or a New Age mystic, or both. And even those who aren't will scarcely dare admit it. Opinion polls confirm that, for example, a full 98% of the US population say they believe in God, 70% believe in life after death, 50% believe in human psychic powers, 30% think their lives are directly influenced by the position of the stars (and 70% follow their horoscopes anyway – just in case), and 20% believe they are at risk of being abducted by aliens.

The problem for children's education is not just that so many adults positively believe in things that flatly contradict the modern scientific world view, but that so many do not believe in things that are absolutely central to the scientific view. A survey published last year showed that half the American people do not know, for example, that the earth goes round the sun once a year. Fewer than one in ten know what a molecule is. More than half do not accept that human beings have evolved from animal ancestors; and less than one in ten believe that evolution – if it has occurred – can have taken place without some kind of external intervention. Not only do people not know the results of science, they do not even know what science is. When asked what they think distinguishes the scientific method, only 2% realised it involves putting theories to the test, 34% vaguely knew it has something to do with experiments and measurement, but 66% didn't have a clue.

Nor do these figures, worrying as they are, give the full picture of what children are up against. They tell us about the beliefs of typical people, and so about the belief environment of the average child. But there are small but significant communities where the situation is arguably very much worse: communities where not only are superstition and ignorance even more firmly entrenched, but where this goes hand in hand with the imposition of repressive regimes of social and inter-personal conduct – in relation to hygiene, diet, dress, sex, gender roles, marriage arrangements, and so on. I think, for example of the Amish Christians, Hasidic Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses, Orthodox Muslims... or, for that matter, the radical New Agers... all no doubt very different from each other, all with their own peculiar hang-ups and neuroses, but alike in providing an intellectual and cultural dungeon for those who live among them.

In theory, maybe, the children need not suffer. Adults might perhaps keep their beliefs to themselves and not make any active attempt to pass them on. But we know, I'm sure, better than to expect that. This kind of self-restraint is simply not in the nature of a parent-child relationship. If a mother, for example, sincerely believes that eating pork is a sin, or that the best cure for depression is holding a crystal to her head, or that after she dies she will be reincarnated as a mongoose, or that Capricorns and Aries are bound to quarrel, she is hardly likely to withhold such serious matters from her own offspring.

But, more important, as Richard Dawkins has explained so well, this kind of self-restraint is not in the nature of successful belief systems. Belief systems in general flourish or die out according to how good they are at reproduction and competition. The better a system is at creating copies of itself, and the better at keeping other rival belief systems at bay, the greater its own chances of evolving and holding its own. So we should expect that it will be characteristic of successful belief systems – especially those that survive when everything else seems to be against them – that their devotees will be obsessed with education and with discipline: insisting on the rightness of their own ways and rubbishing or preventing access to others. We should expect, moreover, that they will make a special point of targeting children in the home, while they are still available, impressionable and vulnerable. For, as the Jesuit master wisely noted, "If I have the teaching of children up to seven years of age or thereabouts, I care not who has them afterwards, they are mine for life."

Donald Kraybill, an anthropologist who made a close study of an Amish community in Pennsylvania, was well placed to observe how this works out in practice. "Groups threatened by cultural extinction," he writes, "must indoctrinate their offspring if they want to preserve their unique heritage. Socialisation of the very young is one of the most potent forms of social control. As cultural values slip into the child's mind, they become personal values – embedded in conscience and governed by emotions... The Amish contend that the Bible commissions parents to train their children in religious matters as well as the Amish way of life... An ethnic nursery, staffed by extended family and church members, moulds the Amish world view in the child's mind from the earliest moments of consciousness."

But what he is describing is not, of course, peculiar to the Amish. "An ethnic nursery, staffed by extended family and church members..." could be as much a description of the early environment of a Belfast Catholic, a Birmingham Sikh, a Brooklyn Hasidic Jew – or maybe the child of a North Oxford don. All sects that are serious about their own survival do indeed make every attempt to flood the child's mind with their own propaganda, and to deny the child access to any alternative viewpoints.

In the United States this kind of restricted education has continually received the blessing of the law. Parents have the legal right, if they wish to, to educate their children entirely at home, and nearly one million families do so. But many more who wish to limit what their children learn can rely on the thousands of sectarian schools that are permitted to function subject to only minimal state supervision. A US court did recently insist that teachers at a Baptist school should at least hold teaching certificates; but at the same time it recognised that "the whole purpose of such a school is to foster the development of their children's minds in a religious environment" and therefore that the school should be allowed to teach all subjects "in its own way" – which meant, as it happened, presenting all subjects only from a biblical point of view, and requiring all teachers, supervisors, and assistants to agree with the church's doctrinal position.

Yet, parents hardly need the support of the law to achieve such a baleful hegemony over their children's minds. For there are, unfortunately, many ways of isolating children from external influences without actually physically removing them or controlling what they hear in class. Dress a little boy in the uniform of the Hasidim, curl his side-locks, subject him to strange dietary taboos, make him spend all weekend reading the Torah, tell him that gentiles are dirty, and you could send him to any school in the world and he'd still be a child of the Hasidim. The same – just change the terms a bit – for a child of the Muslims, or the Roman Catholics, or followers of the Maharishi Yogi.

More worrying still, the children themselves may often be unwitting collaborators in this game of isolation. For children all too easily learn who they are, what is allowed for them and where they must not go – even in thought. John Schumaker, an Australian psychologist, has described his own Catholic boyhood: "I believed wholeheartedly that I would burn in eternal fire if I ate meat on a Friday. I now hear that people no longer spend an eternity in fire for eating meat on Fridays. Yet, I cannot help thinking back on the many Saturdays when I rushed to confess about the bologna and ketchup sandwich I could not resist the day before. I usually hoped I would not die before getting to the 3 p.m. confession."

All the same... this particular Catholic boy actually escaped and lived to tell the tale. In fact Schumaker became an atheist, and has gone on to make something of a profession of his godlessness. Nor of course is he unique. There are plenty of other examples, known to all of us, of men and women who as children were pressured into becoming junior members of a sect – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Marxist – and yet who came out the other side, free thinkers, and seemingly none the worse for their experience.

But there are also those cases, not so uncommon, when it has become a central plank of someone's belief system that they must not let themselves be defiled by mixing with others. When, because of their faith, all they want to hear is one voice, and all they want to read is one text. When they treat new ideas as if they carry infection. When, later, as they grow more sophisticated, they come to deride reason as an instrument of Satan. When they regard the humility of unquestioning obedience as a virtue. When they identify ignorance of worldly affairs with spiritual grace... In such case, it hardly matters what their minds may still remain capable of learning, because they themselves will have made certain they never again use this capacity.

The question was, does childhood indoctrination matter: and the answer, I regret to say, is that it matters more than you might guess. Though human beings are remarkably resilient, the truth is that the effects of well-designed indoctrination may still prove irreversible, because one of the effects of such indoctrination will be precisely to remove the means and the motivation to reverse it. Several of these belief systems simply could not survive in a free and open market of comparison and criticism: but they have cunningly seen to it that they don't have to, by enlisting believers as their own gaolers. So, the bright young lad, full of hope and joy and inquisitiveness, becomes in time the nodding elder buried in the Torah; the little maid, fresh to the morning of the world, becomes the washed up New Age earth mother lost in mists of superstition.

Yet, we can ask, if this is right: what would happen if this kind of vicious circle were to be forcibly broken? What would happen if, for example, there were to be an externally imposed "time-out"? Wouldn't we predict that, just to the extent it is a vicious circle, the process of becoming a fully-fledged believer might be surprisingly easy to disrupt? I think the clearest evidence of how these belief systems typically hold sway over their followers can in fact be found in historical examples of what has happened when group members have been involuntarily exposed to the fresh air of the outside world.

An interesting test was provided in the 1960s by the case of the Amish and the military draft. The Amish have consistently refused to serve in the armed forces of the United States on grounds of conscience. Up to 1960s young Amish men who were due to be drafted for military service were regularly granted "agricultural deferments" and were able to continue working safely on their family farms. But as the draft continued through the Vietnam war, an increasing number of these men were deemed ineligible for farm deferments and were required instead to serve two years working in public hospitals – where they were introduced, like it or not, to all manner of non-Amish people and non-Amish ways. Now, when the time came for these men to return home, many no longer wanted to do so and opted to defect. They had tasted the sweets of a more open, adventurous, free-thinking way of life – and they were not about to declare it all a snare and a delusion.

These defections were rightly regarded by Amish leaders as such a serious threat to their culture's survival, that they quickly moved to negotiate a special agreement with the government, under which all their draftees could in future be sent to Amish-run farms – so that this kind of breach of security should not happen again.

Doesn't this say something important about the morality of imposing any such faith on children to begin with? I think it does. In fact I think it says everything we need to know in order to condemn it. Given that most people who have been brought up as members of a sect would, if they only knew what they are being denied, have preferred to remain outside it. Given that almost no one who was not brought up this way volunteers to adopt the faith later in life. Given, in short, that it is not a faith that a free-thinker would adopt. Then it seems clear that whoever takes advantage of their temporary power over a child's mind to impose this faith is abusing this power and acting wrongly.

So I'll come to the main point. I want to propose a general test for deciding when and whether the teaching of a belief system to children is morally defensible. As follows. If it is ever the case that teaching this system to children will mean that later in life they come to hold beliefs that, were they in fact to have had access to alternatives, they would most likely not have chosen for themselves, then it is morally wrong of whoever presumes to impose this system and to chose for them to do so. No one has the right to choose badly for anyone else.

This test, I admit, will not be simple to apply. It is rare enough for there to be the kind of social experiment that occurred with the Amish and the military draft. And even such an experiment does not actually provide so strong a test as I'm suggesting we require. After all the Amish young men were not offered the alternative until they were already almost grown up, whereas what we need to know is what the children of the Amish or any other sect would choose for themselves if they were to have had access to the full range of alternatives all along. But in practice of course such a totally free-choice is never going to be available.

Still, utopian as the criterion is, I think its moral implications remain pretty obvious. For, even supposing we cannot know – and can only guess on the basis of weaker tests – whether an individual exercising this genuinely free choice would himself choose the beliefs that others intend to impose upon him, then this state of ignorance in itself must be grounds for making it morally wrong to proceed. In fact perhaps the best way of putting this is to put it the other way round, and say: only if we know that teaching a system to children will mean that later in life they come to hold beliefs that, were they to have had access to alternatives, they would still have chosen for themselves, only then can it be morally allowable for whoever imposes this system and chooses for them to do so. And in all other cases, the moral imperative must be to hold off.

Let me give an example. In 1995, in the high mountains of Peru, some climbers came across the frozen mummified body of a young Inca girl. She was dressed as a princess. She was thirteen years old. About five hundred years ago, this little girl had, it seems, been taken alive up the mountain by a party of priests, and then ritually killed – a sacrifice to the mountain's Gods in the hope that they would look kindly on the people below.

The discovery was described by the anthropologist, Johan Reinhard, in an article for the National Geographic magazine. He was clearly elated both as a scientist and as a human being by the romance of finding this "ice maiden", as he called her. Even so, he did express some reservations about how she had come to be there: "we can't help but shudder," he wrote, "at [the Incas'] practice of performing human sacrifice."

The discovery was also made the subject of a documentary film shown on American television. Here, however, no one expressed any reservation whatsoever. Instead, viewers were simply invited to marvel at the spiritual commitment of the Inca priests and to share with the girl on her last journey her pride and excitement at having been selected for the signal honour of being sacrificed. The message of the TV programme was in effect that the practice of human sacrifice was in its own way a glorious cultural invention – another jewel in the crown of multiculturalism, if you like.

Yet, how dare anyone even suggest this? How dare they invite us – in our sitting rooms, watching television – to feel uplifted by contemplating an act of ritual murder: the murder of a dependent child by a group of stupid, puffed up, superstitious, ignorant old men? How dare they invite us to find good for ourselves in contemplating an immoral action against someone else?

Immoral? By Inca standards? No, that's not what matters. Immoral by ours – and in particular by just the standard of free-choice. The plain fact is that none of us, knowing what we do about the way the world works, would freely choose to be sacrificed as she was. And however "proud" the Inca girl may or may not have been to have had the choice made for her by her family (and for all we know she may actually have felt betrayed and terrified), we can still be pretty sure that she, if she had known what we now know, would not have chosen this fate for herself either.

No, this girl was used by others as a means for achieving their ends. The elders of her community valued their collective security above her life, and decided for her that she must die in order that their crops might grow and they might live. Now, five hundred years later, we ourselves must not, in a lesser way, do the same: by thinking of her death as something that enriches our collective culture.

The Amish may – possibly – have wonderful things to teach the rest of us; and so may – possibly – the Incas have done, and so may several other outlying groups. But these things must not be paid for by children's lives.

This is, surely, the crux of it. It is a cornerstone of every decent moral system, stated explicitly by Immanuel Kant but already implicit in most people's very idea of morality, that human individuals have an absolute right to be treated as ends in themselves – and never as means to achieving other people's ends. It goes without saying that this right applies no less to children than to anybody else. And since, in so many situations, children are in no position to look after themselves, it is morally obvious that the rest of us have a particular duty to watch out for them.

So, in every case where we come across examples of children's lives being manipulated to serve other ends, we have a duty to protest. And this, no matter whether the other ends involve the mollification of the Gods, "the preservation of important values for Western civilisation", the creation of an interesting anthropological exhibit for the rest of us... or the fulfilment of certain needs and aspirations of the child's own parents.

Children have to be considered as having interests independent of their parents. They cannot be subsumed as if they were part of the same person. At least so it should be. Unless, that is, we make the extraordinary mistake that the US Supreme Court apparently did when it ruled, in relation to the Amish, that while the Amish way of life may be considered "odd or even erratic" it "interferes with no rights or interests of others”. As if the children of the Amish are not even to be counted as potentially "others".

I think we should stop talking of "parental rights" at all. In so far as they compromise the child's rights as an individual, parents' rights have no status in ethics and should have none in law.

That's not to say that, other things being equal, parents should not be treated by the rest of us with due respect and accorded certain "privileges" in relation to their children. "Privileges", however, do not have the same legal or moral significance as rights. Privileges are by no means unconditional, they come as the quid pro quo for agreeing to abide by certain rules of conduct imposed by society at large, and anyone to whom a privilege is granted remains in effect on probation: a privilege granted can be taken away.

Let's suppose that the privilege of parenting will mean for example that, provided parents agree to act within an agreed framework, they shall indeed be allowed – without interference from the law – to do all the things that parents everywhere usually do: feeding, clothing, educating, disciplining their own children – and enjoying the love and creative involvement that follow from it. But it will explicitly not be part of this deal that parents should be allowed to offend against the child's more fundamental rights to self-determination. If parents do abuse their privileges in this regard, the contract lapses – and it is then the duty of those who granted the privilege to intervene.

Intervene how? Suppose we as a society do not like what is happening when the education of a child has been left to parents or priests. Suppose we fear for the child's mind and want to take remedial action. Suppose indeed we want to take pre-emptive action with all children to protect them from being hurt by bad ideas and to give them the best possible start as thoughtful human beings. What should we be doing about it? What should be our birthday present to them from the grown-up world?

My suggestion at the start of this talk was: science – universal scientific education. That's to say, education in learning from observation, experiment, hypothesis testing, constructive doubt, critical thinking – and the truths that flow from it.

What's so special about science? Why these truths? Why should it be morally right to teach this to everybody, when it's apparently so morally wrong to teach all those other things?

You do not have to be one of those out-and-out relativists to raise such questions – and to be suspicious that any attempt to replace the old truths by newer scientific truths might be nothing other than an attempt to replace one dogmatism by another. The Supreme Court, in its judgement about Amish schooling, was careful to warn that we should never rule out one way of thinking and rule another in, merely on the basis of what happens to be the modern, fashionable opinion. "There can be no assumption," it said, "that today's majority is 'right' and the Amish and others are 'wrong'," the Amish way of life "is not to be condemned because it is different". Maybe so. And yet I'd say the Court has chosen to focus on the wrong issue there. Even if science were the “majority” world-view (which, as we saw earlier, is sadly not the case), we'd all agree that this in itself would provide no grounds for promoting science above other systems of thought. The "majority" is clearly not right about lots of things, probably most things.

But the grounds I'm proposing are firmer. I think science stands apart from and superior to all other systems for the reason that it alone meets the criterion I laid out above: namely, that it represents a set of beliefs that any reasonable person would, if given the chance, choose for himself.

I should probably say that again, and put it in context. I argued earlier that the only circumstances under which it should be morally acceptable to impose a particular way of thinking on children, is when the result will be that later in life they come to hold beliefs that they would have chosen anyway, no matter what alternative beliefs they were exposed to. And what I am now saying is that science is the one way of thinking – maybe the only one – that passes this test. There is a fundamental asymmetry between science and everything else.

Let's go to the rescue of that Inca girl who is being told by the priests that, unless she dies on the mountain, the Gods will rain down lava on her village, and let's offer her another way of looking at things. Offer her a choice as to how she will grow up: on one side with this story about divine anger, on the other with the insights from geology as to how volcanoes arise from the movement of tectonic plates. Which will she choose to follow?

Let's go help the Muslim boy who's being schooled by the mullahs into believing that the Earth is flat, and let's explore some of the ideas of scientific geography with him. Better still, let's take him up high in a balloon, show him the horizon, and invite him to use his own senses and powers of reasoning to reach his own conclusions. Now, offer him the choice: the picture presented in the book of the Koran, or the one that flows from his new-found scientific understanding. Which will he prefer?

Or let's take pity on the Baptist teacher who has become wedded to creationism, and let's give her a vacation. Let's walk her round the Natural History museum in the company of Richard Dawkins or Dan Dennett – or, if they're too scary, David Attenborough – and let's have them explain the possibilities of evolution to her. Now, offer her the choice: the story of Genesis with all its paradoxes and special pleading, or the startlingly simple idea of natural selection. Which will she choose?

My questions are rhetorical because the answers are already in. We know very well which way people will go when they really are allowed to make up their own minds on questions such as these. Conversions from superstition to science have been and are everyday events. They have probably been part of our personal experience. Those who have been walking in darkness have seen a great light. The aha! of scientific revelation.

By contrast conversions from science back to superstition are virtually unknown. It just does not happen that someone who has learnt and understood science and its methods and who is then offered a non-scientific alternative chooses to abandon science. I doubt there has ever been a case, for example, of someone who has been brought up to believe the geological theory of volcanoes moving over to believing in divine anger instead, or of someone who has seen and appreciated the evidence that the world is round reverting to the idea that the world is flat, or even of someone who has once understood the power of Darwinian theory going back to preferring the story of Genesis.

People do, of course, sometimes abandon their existing scientific beliefs in favour of newer and better scientific alternatives. But to choose one scientific theory over another is still to remain absolutely true to science.

The reason for this asymmetry between science and non-science is not – at least not only – that science provides so much better – so much more economical, elegant, beautiful – explanations than non-science. Although there is that. The still stronger reason, I'd suggest, is that science is by its very nature a participatory process and non-science is not.

In learning science we learn why we should believe this or that. Science doesn't cajole, it doesn't dictate, it lays out the factual and theoretical arguments as to why something is so – and invites us to assent to them, to see it for ourselves. Hence, by the time someone has understood a scientific explanation they have in an important sense already chosen it as theirs.

How different is the case of religious or superstitious explanation. Religion makes no pretence of engaging its devotees in any process of rational discovery or choice. If we dare ask why we should believe something, the answer will be because it has been written in the Book, because this is our tradition, because it was good enough for Moses, because you'll go to heaven that way... Or, as often as not, don't ask.

Imagine that the choice is yours. That you have been faced, in the formative years of your life, with a choice between these two paths to enlightenment – between basing your beliefs on the ideas of others imported from another country and another time, and basing them on ideas that you have been able to see growing in your home soil. Can there be any doubt that you will choose for yourself, that you will choose science?

And because people will so choose, if they have the opportunity of scientific education, I say we as a society are entitled with good conscience to insist on their being given that opportunity. That is, we are entitled in effect to choose this way of thinking for them. Indeed we are not just entitled: in the case of children we are morally obliged to do so – so as to protect them from being early victims of other ways of thinking that would remove them from the field.

But, you might ask, "How would you like it if some Big Brother were to insist on your children being taught his beliefs? How'd you like it if I tried to impose my personal ideology on your little girl?" I have the answer: that teaching science isn't like that, it's not about teaching someone else's beliefs, it's about encouraging the child to exercise her powers of understanding to arrive at her own beliefs.

For sure, this is likely to mean she will end up with beliefs that are widely shared with others who have taken the same path: beliefs, that is, in what science reveals as the truth about the world. And yes, if you want to put it this way, you could say this means that by her own efforts at understanding she will have become a scientific conformist: one of those predictable people who believes that matter is made of atoms, that the universe arose with the Big Bang, that humans are descended from monkeys, that consciousness is a function of the brain, that there is no life after death, and so on... But – since you ask – I'll say I'd be only too pleased if a big brother or sister or school-teacher should help her get to that enlightened state.

The habit of questioning, the ability to tell good answers from bad, an appetite for seeing how and why deep explanations work – such is what I would want for my daughter (now two years old) because I think it is what she, given the chance, would one day want for herself. But it is also what I would want for her because I am too well aware of what might otherwise befall her. Bad ideas continue to swill through our culture, some old, some new, looking for receptive minds to capture. If this girl, because she were to lack the defences of critical reasoning, were ever to fall to some kind of political or spiritual irrationalism, then I and you – and our society – would have failed her.

Words? Children are made of the words they hear. It matters what we tell them. They can be hurt by words. They may go on to hurt themselves still further, and in turn become the kind of people that hurt others. But they can be given life by words as well.

“I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing,” – these are the words of
Deuteronomy – “therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.” I think there should be no limit to our duty to help children to choose life.

This is an edited version of Nicholas Humphrey’s Oxford Amnesty Lecture, later also published in Social Research and The Values of Science.

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T MM on 09/02/2014 12:03am

As they become much older, perhaps a philosophy course, utilizing the platonic process, might be suitable. That is, by rhetorical questioning, working one's way into a subject, even when little is known of the subject.

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