Children are Ends, Not Means

My latest essay for the upcoming Diablo Valley School newsletter:

Children are Ends, Not Means

One of the reasons I love Sudbury schools is that we recognize our kids are not the raw material of somebody else’s plans, but rather are good in themselves. We as parents and the school we send our kids to are blessed to be able to help our kids grow into who they really are. We are not to try to make them into what we’d like them to be, except insofar as we’d like them to be free, happy, responsible human beings.

Seeing kids as ends, rather than means, is a stark departure from our current culture and the last couple of hundreds of years of history.  The founders of the country were big fans of John Locke, who in turn was a major proponent of the idea of the mind of a child as a tabula rasa or ‘blank slate’. This raises the question: who get to write on that tablet? Towards what end?

Philosophers leapt in to supply the answer. Johann Gottlieb Fichte, the founding light of modern graded classroom education, taught that the state has the right and duty to fill in the child’s mind, to write on that blank slate, even to the point of taking children away from their parents for their entire childhoods. Note we’re not talking about abusive parents here – just parents who are failing to raise their kids to do what the state wants them to do. In Fichte’s mind, that was ALL parents.  

Fichte’s ideas were put into practice in early 19th century Prussia, where Horace Mann, the founder of modern American public education, learned them. For the next 100 years, the proponents of Prussian education in America sought to snuff out all the independent, locally run schools and replace them with Prussian style schools that would raise up kids to do what they are told.

Mann’s dream has succeeded so well that, today, almost all educational battles boil down to who gets to tell the kids what to do – in almost all models, it is accepted without challenge that the kids are a means to some end, and that purpose of school is to train them so that that end is achieved. Usually, these ends go by sympathetic names – improving their economic prospects, building a better society, promoting justice, enhancing our nation’s ability to compete globally, and so on.

These goals may be good things, and one would hope that a free, responsible person would aspire to help make the world a better place. But – and this is a big but – if you try to get there by treating children as if it is their purpose to further whatever your pet issue happens to be, you have turned those children into things – means – whose value quickly and inevitably is determined by how useful they are in promoting some end. Even ends like justice, to which I would hope we all aspire, can subtly turn a kid into a thing to be used.

It is much more challenging, and a far, far better thing, to try to help kids discover who they are and how they fit into the world. That is what a Sudbury school is set up to do. A Sudbury school is not about making a kid economically useful. Responsible, resourceful kids do tend to be productive members of society, however. The practical yet imperfect justice meted out by the Judicial Committee is not meant to solve the world’s problems, but to maintain a free atmosphere at school. Yet a kid who has years of experience in JC will see, on a very practical level, what justice means.  The kids sustain and define the society at school for their own purposes. Yet a kid who has spent years directing his own activities among peers will have a grip on what a good society would be like.

Diablo Valley School tries to treat every child as a valuable person in himself, never as means to somebody else’s ends.


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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