Toward an ideology for healing

Sort of continued from last time…

Again from Phillipé Aries’ Centuries of Childhood: “Youth gave an impression of secretly possessing new values capable of reviving an aged and sclerosed society.”

I can’t help wondering this: What would the world be like if we thought about children this way?

Though we say fanciful things about them – “Oh, they’re so innocent and sweet,” “oh, give them the chance to be kids,” etc., our fundamental position is that children’s ideas are inferior, immature, disruptive, and of generally lesser value than adults. While we may not go around saying any of that (it would sound cruel), the stance is made clear by our chronic attachment to models of raising and educating children based on telling them what to do, what to learn, when to do it. Only when they’ve passed into adulthood do their insights become available as tools or agents of change, improvement, adjustment, revitalization.

When Howard Gardner rolled out his theory of multiple intelligences in the early 1980s, a society believing that its youth might possess the capacity to heal an aged and sclerosed society would have rejoiced.  We would have leapt into action in response to the suggestion that our narrow educational focus on the 3Rs was obscuring great swaths of intellectual potential.  Such a society would have seen the urgent need to begin recognizing and supporting the development of a much wider range of capacities.

We weren’t that society, though.  What actually happened in many schools was that Gardner’s theory was acknowledged, but it was used primarily to improve strategies for teaching the same old curricula.  The intelligences (seven in Gardner’s original book: linguistic, musical, spatial, intrapersonal, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, and interpersonal) were treated more as learning styles, not as capacities with their own merit.

This treatment of Gardner’s theory certainly didn’t hurt – it often made learning life better for many children, as lessons were tailored to better suit them.  But we didn’t take the opportunity to shift our stance on human potential.  We didn’t ask ourselves, for example, “this kinesthetic intelligence: what is it? What might it be for? What might it be able to do? What might we be overlooking and missing out on?  Where might it take us beyond where we’ve already been?”

Gardner’s theory arrived in the context of an ideology that didn’t have room for it, so we could do little more with it than use it to support that existing ideology.  It reminds me of Stuart Kauffman’s notion of the “adjacent possible,” summarized here by Steven Johnson:

“The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.  Yet it is not an infinite space, or a totally open playing field.  The number of potential first-order reactions is vast, but it is a finite number, and it excludes most of the forms that now populate the biosphere.  What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain changes can happen… Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open.  You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet.  Those four rooms are the adjacent possible.  But once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point.”(Johnson describes the concept with helpful examples and much greater detail, so if you’re interested please see his book Where Good Ideas Come From.)

We weren’t ready for multiple intelligences in 1983, and we may still not be.  As I was typing up the adjacent possible quotation, I thought “am I being pessimistic here?  A downer?”  If we’re not ready, what’s the point of inquiring into this at all?

Well, maybe it’s that instead of monkeying around with our theories, we’d be wise to monkey with the ideologies first.  The way one might be wise, upon noticing that a house was sagging, to have a look at the foundation before trying to shove the walls back in line.

What if we started to ponder the possibility that, as Aries suggested humans once did, children possess thoughts, ideas, outlooks that might have great capacity to solve, reshape, transform?

Aries wrote that these values of youth might “heal an aged and sclerosed society.”  I hadn’t seen the word sclerosed before.  I knew sclerosis, the noun (or rather had heard it and knew it as bad news, medically) but never the verb, so I looked it up. A sclerosis is an abnormal hardening of body tissue.  It’s also an excessive resistance to change.  To be sclerotic is to become rigid and unresponsive; to have lost the ability to adapt.

Sclerosed society indeed.  You’d think we’d be eager, desperate even, to include our young in the quest for solution and transformation, given the war-torn and generally strained condition of society.  But we have, as the dictionary spelled out for me, become rigid and unresponsive; lost our ability to adapt.  We keep doing the same things over and over, resulting in sick lethargic children and struggling adults who turn to numbing activities and substances to get from day to day.

We could really use a new ideology or two.  The one Aries alludes to seems to me like a really good bet.  Just the consideration of it (even if it turns out they don’t possess secret values capable of healing an aged and sclerosed society) might well shift our vision enough to see our young newly, to receive them not as pawns in our outdated survival game but as new information, new potential for contribution.  New light.


2 Responses

  1. Thank you for defining and confirming my frustrations with the way in which we hold the emotional and cognitive development of children in our society. And then thank you again for introducing new food for thought and continuing the ongoing break down of my previously held beliefs. Talk about being pessimistic…my thoughts are that the system needs to implode on itself before we can step back, reassess and (hopefully) reorganize into something more supportive of the individual (such as Multiple Intelligences).

    I’m very much enjoying your blog…keep it coming!

  2. Some of us have found that the people who teach young children in Reggio Emilia, Italy, have a different Image of the Child. (In my forthcoming book Part One is seven chapters on this topic.) Faith in children’s strength, wisdom and ability to make sense of their world, seeing them as complete people at a stage which requires some dependency but also permits making choices and thinking clearly… these are great assists for the teacher who wants to explore the possibilities of human beings. I’d like to see more discussion of this… and you can write to me at


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