Thinking over our discussion of John Holt's How Children Fail, I was struck by how often we invoke positive and negative emotions in our thoughts on education. Holt thought that school failed because it was all about negative motivation, that is, getting children to learn relied too much on making them afraid and upset. That, he thought, impeded learning.
What everyone seems to want is a system in which people learn because of motivations that we see as positive: curiosity, community feeling, a sense of mastery.
I wonder, is this realistic? Has anybody ever really mastered anything entirely from positive motivations? It seems to me that the biographies of successful people are full of dark feelings: fear of failure, hatred of losing, shame at underperforming, etc. Or just a grim obsession with their chosen path that dominates their lives.
To take the example closest to hand, I write this blog for fun, and yet I sometimes force myself to sit down and produce something because I feel bad about not having done more. I read over each post several times in a vain attempt to fix all the editorial mistakes, and I keep reading over recent posts for days, catching more and chastising myself for them. (If you hate typos, you should wait three days before reading anything I post.)
My books, likewise, were written partly from the joy of writing but also partly from fear of seeing myself as a boring, uncreative person who does nothing but work and sleep.
So is it realistic to think that children can learn without being made afraid?
In his essay on his own school days, George Orwell wrote that you can only get boys to learn Latin and Greek by frequent beatings. Is the same true for algebra? Are there millions of young people who could only be motivated to learn math by fear of failing?
Nor does this end with graduation. A corporation, it seems to me, is an institution that motivates people to work hard by a combination of positive and negative reinforcement: praise, pay raises and the possibility of promotion for those who succeed, the threat of dismissal for those who fail.
The ruling theory of raising children used to be "spare the rod, spoil the child." Now it seems to be reducing suffering as much as we can. Can we make that a successful approach to education?