This morning I was, against my better judgment, listening to ‘In Our Time.’ It’s not that I dislike the adenoidal tones of Melvyn Bragg – I used to enjoy watching him on t’telly – it’s the programme itself. Somehow they always seem to take an interesting subject and turn it into something dull and ponderous. And I particularly dislike the ubiquity of the historic present (‘Napoleon sees his opportunity and grasps it’, ‘Henry desperately wants a son’) as if this can substitute for interesting narration. But this morning I was grabbed by the subject because they were talking about a theory of child-centred education.
Oo, I thought, I wonder who they’re talking about? It could have been John Stuart Mill or John Holt but it turned out to be Rousseau and my heart sank because, must as I admire his ideas on education they are very definitely For Boys Only. Surprise, surprise, girls must have a completely different system because well, we’re just not that bright, are we? And you know how emotional women get – we just wouldn’t cope (see this explanation.)
But it gets worse – for it transpired (and this I didn’t know) that in doing this ‘great’ work, Rousseau completely abandoned – yes, abandoned – his wife and their five children. I was outraged to hear this, and it reminded me of Enid Blyton and how she neglected her own children in order to write for other people’s. Her elder daughter commented on how confusing it was to read her mother’s descriptions of reading them bedtime stories – all completely fabricated as no such thing ever happened.
Should I be surprised? Is it a general – nay, invariable rule that people who bang on about something don’t actually practise it themselves? Can you think of other examples? Or perhaps counter-examples? Well, I have one – no, hang on- two. I was reading this morning about how St Francis not only preached against the Crusades but went to the Middle East to show friendship and solidarity with Muslims there. When Christians deviated from the gospel he was always ready, not only to point this out but actually to do something about it. As for Gandhi, the ways in which he married practice and preaching are well-known – and as a Quaker I ought to know that Friends aim to put everything we believe into practice.
So what is going on with these others, Rousseau and Blyton et al? Dickens was another case in point; a campaigner for children’s rights who neglected his own family. So is there some kind of philosophical point we can extract from this? And if so, what is it?
Answers below please.