John Stuart Mill & educating children


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:

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:

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.


Can young children benefit from independent study in history?

Yesterday I had the privilege of guest teaching a course entitled “Historians, Communities and the Past” which is taught by my good friend Tim Compeau, PhD at Huron University College here in London.

Over the course of 90 minutes we engaged in a Socratic discussion about the question: “Is it responsible to allow grade school children the option of self-directed learning in the field of history?”

The conversation was very engaging in no small part because we reflected on whether one of the chief problems in educating children and young adults is that educators, policymakers, teachers and parents become focused upon names and disciplinary boundaries at the expense of allowing for interdisciplinary discovery, exploration and problem-driven learning. Or, to put it another way: at the expense of creativity.

Here is a scenario:

Imagine an 8 year old student who has become fascinated by schools; she is interested in the schools built by pioneers and how people in earlier times were educated -especially in rural and remote communities- in one room school houses. She decides that she wants to learn everything that she can about one room school houses. After talking with her teacher and her parents, she decides that she wants to undertake a project (independent study) to learn everything that she can about how one room school houses came to be; where they were pioneered; why they have persisted; how they work. She visits museum exhibits, watches movies, reads books and even talks with people who have knowledge of, or personal experience with, being educated in one room school house environments. She is then allowed to undertake her project.

To my mind, a series of questions arises from this hypothetical:

1.) If this project were a school project, what discipline would this child be studying? Do we simply call it social studies, or can we say it is history, sociology, education and economics?

2) Can this project be accommodated as a primary/elementary school classroom project?

3.) Is a teacher/student relationship required here?

4.) If we do not allow the child to undertake this study are we hindering her education?

5.) Is it inconceivable that an 8 year old child could do this or have a desire to do this?

6.) Is this student actually developing an interest in sociology, education and economics (as well as history) by her choice of this project? Does subject (academic discipline) in the conventional sense even matter in this case?

As you might imagine, this type of scenario prompted much discussion. I leave it to you to decide how you might answer these questions or think about this matter.


Passion & the education of children and young adults

I wrote a short essay on the role of passion in the education of children and young adults. The piece is based upon my work at The Infinity School here in London. You can read the link and explore the school’s website here: