John Stuart Mill & educating children

John-Stuart-Mill

I have been re-reading portions of John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography as I am especially interested in his early childhood education and upbringing. Mill was taught highly advanced subjects starting from the age of three. He mastered Greek and Latin before he was grade school aged and was mastering German and French before he was ten. He was introduced to literature in history, advanced mathematics, the physical sciences and philosophy incrementally, but always with the expectation that he could master these subjects. His father, the utilitarian philosopher James Mill, was a leading thinker of the early nineteenth century who believed that his son was capable of assimilating highly sophisticated knowledge from an early age. It turns out that he was correct.

Now readers of Mill’s Autobiography will know that the young Mill experienced a profound personal crisis when he was around twenty years old in which he rebelled against aspects and elements of his philosophical training, background and intellectual milieu. I have been thinking about Mill’s crisis and its relationship to his education, especially the utilitarian experiences of his youth -but that is a subject for a different post. You can read Mill’s discussion of his crisis here: http://www.bartleby.com/25/1/5.html

What I take from Mill’s account of his early education is as follows: if a young person is reared by her parents (or extended relations) to take her own mind seriously; if they continually attempt to engage her in discussion; if a partnership develops in which the child is not expected to be led by the adult, but the adult is willing to partner in the child’s education -and thus embrace the child’s curiosities- then it is not out of the realm of possibility that the child could be tackling sophisticated ideas, concepts and written works before teenhood.

Now it is hardly my interest to promote the notion that sticking a child in a library and pressuring them to keep reading is a formula for turning out little geniuses. I don’t put much stock in the notion of genius even if I do believe in brilliant insight and inspiration. What I am interested in looking at is not only the capabilities of children and adults, but also what their environment can do for them, especially in fields of inquiry that often are reserved for university age students.

I doubt many people are unfamiliar with stories of young adults -children even- who are prodigies in mathematics and music. Why couldn’t a child become highly literate in the humanities, in the liberal arts and sciences as Mill became? Is it because the assumption is that these dialogical subjects are beyond the linguistic and conceptual capacities of children and young adults below a certain age?

Math and music are dialogical. I fail to see why we should treat the liberal arts and sciences differently. It is known that language acquisition is strong in children; in fact it is especially strong. If children’s minds are primed for language acquisition, why are they not similarly primed for a dialogical education in subjects which, if offered to them at an early age, they may learn to love and believe they can excel in once they reach a post-secondary age? (On language acquisition, see for instance: https://www.forbes.com/2005/10/19/chomsky-noam-language-learning-comm05-cx_de_1024chomsky/)

I am interested in these questions, though I am not suggesting I have answers to said questions. But my work as a Socratic educator is informed by my concern with these matters.

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