Portal Site for Russellian in Japan
On Protecting Children from Reality
[From: Mortals and Others, v.1, 1975.］
One of the firmest beliefs of parents, law-givers, and teachers in many nursery schools is that children should be preserved from all contact with crude fact and should have everything presented to them in a pretty-pretty, fanciful form. I know women who teach music to young children and instead of giving the notes their proper names, they call a crotchet 'ta', a quaver 'teh', and a semi-quaver 'ta-teh'. They have a notion that these names are more attractive to the young, though, so far as I have observed, this belief is wholly unfounded. Modern children's stories suffer from an analogous defect : they do not present a realm of fancy as such but give an air of silliness to what they pretend is real. In graver matters, there is the same error: historical characters are portrayed as wholly virtuous unless they are recognised villains. It is not thought good for the young to know that great men have their weaknesses or that great causes have always had their bad sides. Sex instruction for the young is frequently advocated, but hardly any one advocates straightforward truthfulness about the emotional and social aspects of sex. Children are taught what the flowers do and what the bees do and what men and women (according to the conventional code) ought to do. They are given no hint that, while the flowers and bees really do what they are supposed to do, men and women as a rule do not.In spite of the reaction against Victorian prudery, hardly any one sees any harm in this form of lying.
My own experience of children has led me to a quite different view. Children enjoy fancy when it is pure, that is to say, when it makes no pretence to be reality, but they distinguish sharply between fancy and fact. The person who offers them pretty fairy tales as if they were fact rouses their indignation as soon as they find out the trick that has been played on them. So long as their personal circumstances are happy, they are not readily upset by disagreeable truths concerning the world in general. They have a dislike of humbug, which usually disappears in later life. The habit of screening them from the knowledge of disagreeable truths is not adopted for their sakes although adults may think it is; it is adopted because adults themselves find candour painful.
One of the worst defects of modern education is its indifference to reality. I do not mean by 'reality' anything profound or meta-physical ; I mean merely plain matters of fact. The habit of shying away in terror from every unpleasant feature of the world is a dangerous one and is the mark of a certain frivolous weakness. We are apt to imagine that, in this respect, we are better than our grandparents, but in this, I think, we flatter ourselves. We are slightly less reticent in sexual matters but far more reticent in politics. The statesmen of fifty or sixty years ago were in many ways abominable, but they were not quite such humbugs as are a large proportion of their modern successors. Perhaps those educators who take such pains to prevent children from hearing the truth about anything are hoping that they will adopt politics as a career and are trying to teach them how not to know what is inconvenient. If so, they may be justified from the standpoint of the personal success of their pupils. But the politician who shuns reality is produced by a democracy which has the same characteristic, and the community as a whole risks disaster when it refuses to know unpleasant facts.