opinions on the child: raising knowledge questions with literature

14 07 28 baby
(by Theo Dombrowski, OSC TOK blog July 28, 2014) On a day when TOK students seem hard to rouse to even a mild level of vehement engagement, they will almost certainly perk up when asked questions like the following:

  • If a parent coddles a child every time it cries will the child become manipulative, crying to get whatever it wants?
  • Should a child ever see its parents naked?
  • Should a baby be breast fed or bottle fed?

Chances are, of course, you will discover some strong opinions. The tone of certainty which can accompany such opinions, normally reserved for verifiable knowledge claims, seems common in questions of child-rearing–where verification is, to say the least, elusive.

But what have these questions to do with TOK? Clearly, they are not knowledge questions but instead questions within research, within the scope of the human sciences. Equally clearly, conclusions will be based not just on facts but on values.   For a TOK class, such questions and their answers are the grounding example (or the bait!) to lead students into broader knowledge questions about methodology and justifications for knowledge claims. And to lead them further into thinking about knowledge claims and analysis, let us turn, for today, not to research articles but to literature.

A Novel of Social engagement
Booker Prize winning novelist Ian McEwan has one of his protagonists consider exactly the vehemence typically accompanying questions on child rearing–a vehemence that, as the protagonist observes, is odd for two key reasons:
  1. For virtually every “fact” about childrearing there seems to be an equal and opposite one
  2. The “fact” of one generation can easily become the fiction of the next.

First published in 1987, The Child in Time has, this year, been given a new lease on life because of its current availability in electronic form. Though many parts of the novel provide rich and savoury opportunity for examining knowledge questions, one particular passage (pp. 77-78) is brilliantly focused on exactly the issue of unsupported knowledge claims about child rearing. IB students are used to examining passages of fiction in literature and language classes, of course, but doing so in a TOK class– though emphasizing different tools of analysis–can both refreshing and illuminating because:

  1. the way of presenting the ideas–with irony and verbal flair, couched in a narrative context–is colourful (and fun!).
  2. the very way that one can explore ideas through fiction allows the opportunity to reinforce some thoughts on the Arts as an area of knowledge.

1. The Narrative content

Early in the novel, the protagonist, author of children’s books, is participating on a government committee given the task of writing a book on how to raise and educate young children. Aware that his position can hardly be disinterested, he assures the committee that children should learn to read between ages 5 and 7.
Immediately thereafter, though, he thinks he just might be wrong:
He was not even sure–in fact it might be a rather fine thing, to pass the first eleven years of life playing the accordion, dancing, taking old clocks apart, listening to stories. In the end, it probably made no difference either way, nor was there any way of telling. It was that old business of theorising, taking up a position, planting the flag of identity and self-esteem, then fighting all comers to the end. When there was no evidence to be had, it was all down to mental agility, perseverance. (boldface not in original)
The rest of the passage is even better fodder (bold face not in original):
And there was no richer field for speculation assertively dressed as fact than childcare….For three centuries, generations of experts, priests, moralists, social scientists, doctors–mostly men–had been pouring out instructions and ever-mutating facts for the benefit of mothers. No one doubted the absolute truth of his judgements, and each generation knew itself to stand on the pinnacle of common sense and scientific insight to which its predecessors had merely aspired.  
He had read solemn pronouncements on the necessity of binding the newborn baby’s limbs to a board to prevent movement and self-inflicted damage; of the dangers of breastfeeding or, elsewhere, its physical necessity and moral superiority; how affection or stimulation corrupts a young child; the importance of purges and enemas, severe physical punishment, cold baths and, earlier in this century, of constant fresh air, however inconvenient; the desirability of scientifically controlled intervals between feeds, and conversely, of feeding the baby whenever it is hungry; the perils of picking a baby up whenever it cries–that makes it feel dangerously powerful–and of not picking it up when it cries–dangerously impotent; the importance of regular bowel movements, of potty training a child by three months, of constant mothering all day and night, all year, and, elsewhere, the necessity of wet-nurses, nursery maids, twenty-four-hour state nurseries; the grave consequences of mouth-breathing, nose-picking, thumb-sucking and maternal deprivation, of not having your child expertly delivered under bright lights, of lacking the courage to have it at home in the bath, of failing to have it circumcised or its tonsils removed; and, later, the contemptuous destruction of all these fashions; how children should be allowed to do whatever they want so that their divine natures can blossom, and how it is never too soon to break a child’s will; the dementia and blindness caused by masturbation, and the pleasure and comfort it affords the growing child; how sex can be taught by reference to tadpoles, storks, flower fairies and acorns, or not mentioned at all, or only with lurid, painstaking frankness; the trauma imparted to the child who sees its parents naked, the chronic disturbance nourished by strange suspicions if it only ever sees them clothed; how to give-your-nine-month-old-baby a head-start by teaching it maths.
Here was Stephen now, a foot soldier in this army of experts, asserting, as energetically as he knew how, that the proper time for children to become literate was between the ages of five and seven. Why did he believe this? Because it had long been standard practice, and because his livelihood depended on ten-year-olds reading books. He was arguing like a politician, a Government Minister, passionately, seemingly innocent of self-interest…. The young child who can read,” Stephen said, “has power, and through that acquires confidence.”  
The passage clearly makes a handy potted version of a kind of mini area of knowledge in its own right. As a kind of miniature human science, childcare is shown, through this protagonist, to epitomize several potential problems with making generalizations about human beings – problems that highlight the importance of careful methodology in the human sciences.
1. Where inductive reasoning (studies with controls) are scant,deductive reasoning can be flourished under the banner of expertise–and yet without the (questionable) premises spelled out.
2. Particularly problematic are the kinds of patternsand generalizations often sought by human scientists when they concern cause and effect–and effects to be felt in the future.
3. In this particular case, self-proclaimed “experts” from several different areas of knowledge make pronouncements– “generations of experts, priests (c.f. religious knowledge) moralists (c.f. philosophy), social scientists, (c.f. sociology, psychology)doctors”(c.f. natural sciences). According to the protagonist, when it comes to childcare, virtually no AoK is immune from making unsubstantiated knowledge claims!
4. Through the protagonist’s eyes, questionable claims to knowledge can be buttressed by

  • a. invoking “common sense”–and thus beg the question
  • b. invoking “scientific insight” and “scientifically controlled intervals”–and thus undercut objections through suggesting objectively obtained facts
  • c. invoking “grave consequences”, “trauma” and “danger”–and thus, through appeal to fear, (c.f. argumentum ad baculum)silence objection. The same arguments implicitly make premises about the thin edge of the wedge and, of course, deterministic psychological causality centred on the exclusive importance of nurture (at the expense of nature).

Where does the author stand?

The protagonist’s (and, perhaps, the author’s) own views act as direct and indirect comment on the whole area of childcare expertise. How?

  • a. partly through direct assertion: e.g.”It probably made no difference, nor was there any way of telling.”
  • b. partly by irony arising from loaded and extravagant language . Phrases and words associated with the experts, like “pouring out instructions”, “divine nature” of a child, “flower fairies and acorns”, or “lurid” create a powerful impression that all pontificators at either extreme of every question are histrionic and laughable. Irony is a powerful tool!

2. Looking at the passage as representative of literature and the arts

Looking at the passage as a piece of fiction can afford the wily ToK teacher yet another opportunity to drive home some issues about the Arts as an AoK. Although the Course Companion goes into detail to explode common assumptions about the Arts as a vehicle of knowledge, there will always be those whose first thought about this AoK is that all art is driven by “self expression”–as if all artistic works are spontaneous emotional outpourings from the deepest recesses of the artist’s hidden self, aimed only at providing some sort of technicolour catharsis (and let the public be damned).
What better passage than this to demonstrate that, whatever “self expression” it might reflect, it can be something entirely different as well. Even the most earnest proponent of self-expression as the essence of art will be hard pressed not to admit that this passage is, above all, intellectual analysis driven by the protagonist’s interest (and possibly, but not inevitably, the novelist’s) critical and ironic social commentary.
As in the example here of McEwan’s The Child in Time, literature engages in social commentary so often – and so often so well! Although we don’t turn to novels for evidence-based, testable generalizations about human beings, we can appreciate their role in exposing how many human beings think and act, often with analysis and commentary. A novel can bring to life plenty of knowledge questions (e.g. How do we know what the best way is of raising a child?) in an engaging way, and invite critical examination of the different methods of answering them.
Ian McEwan. The Child in Time.  Jonathan Cape, 1987.  now in e-book.  
Eileen Dombrowski, Lena Rotenberg, Mimi Bick. Theory of Knowledge Course Companion, 2013 edition. Oxford University Press, 2013. https://global.oup.com/education/product/9780199129737?region=international
Photo Credit: dhammza via Compfight cc

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