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Exposing young minds to the rubbish of modern life

In the seventeenth century, the great English philosopher John Locke penned "Some Thoughts Concerning Education" to his cousin's family. Today they remain highly erudite and insightful - indeed, I've had the pleasure of writing a book on them which is now published by Bloomsbury.  

A couple of the many pieces of advice that often resurface in my mind is Locke's thoughts on the impressionability of young minds. (Here we find one of the earliest but certainly the most influential arguments in the history of psychology - that children are affected by what they are exposed to. A-level psychologists learn this as 'social learning' but its intellectual roots can be found in Locke's philosophical and educational works.) 

Firstly, avoid letting the children hang around the servants. This inegalitarian statement rankles modern sentiments and images of kind, paternal and maternal Victorian servants who may act as an emotional counterpart to austere parents who show no love or interest in the children; yet what Locke was concerned about was exposure to the rudimentary thought, cruel intentions, and the superstitions of uneducated minds that could undo family values and the thwart the emergence of young gentlemen and ladies. (You may also detect how close Jane Austen was to John Locke's heart in many of her novels!). Secondly, don't tell the children horror stories of the bogeyman and fearful creatures of the night - such fears remain embedded in the mind for decades, he notes, leaving adults incapable of walking out into the dark by themselves. 

It's the impressionability of young minds that still requires our attention. Instead of 'don't let the children play with the servants' a modern Locke would advise against exposing our youngsters to the trash of modern tv and youtube and violent computer games. What we see certainly affects our minds - even more so for young people and despite the mediaís attempts to sustain the theory that Ďallís well in moderationí, the evidence of deleterious effects on children and young adults is consistently and constantly increasing.

Several of my students profess to loving the Jeremy Kyle show - which, from what I gather when I'm at the gym as it's on the big screens and barely avoidable unless I close my eyes as I warm up on the rowing machine - is about the kind of the people living the kind of lifestyles that Locke would have abhorred. The ill-educated servants that Locke was concerned about are now paraded on tv as entertainment. But what entertains us can drag us down. The Stoic philosopher, Seneca, warned his nephew to avoid going to the games for that reason - they disturb the emotions too much, he said, leaving us agitated and uncritical. When we laugh at the pitiable idiots on such shows as Kyle's, or listen to the drivel on Radio 1 or commercial radio, we are affecting our minds: we are become slowly insensitive to ithiliocracy (rule of the stupid). As for the boogey men, I have some young students who enjoy horror films - they've been watching them since the age of 10 or 12, often sneaking their film viewing on Netflix. Again, the impressions generated on the young mind are palpable - while they may not become sadistic they do tend to have extraordinary fears of the unexpected, because that is what they're minds are gradually expecting to happen all the time - people to jump out of nowhere, hands reaching out to grab their neck while they sleep, death and murder all around. 

Fear breeds insecurity and in turn breeds dependency. Minds that are susceptible to fears as children - either promoted by authoritarian parents or by horror films - are, accordingly to psychologists, more likely to lean towards obedience and uncritical thinking in later life. That is something that authorities prefer of course, but these are definitely not the values that civilisation and the good life rest upon! Just listen to the fears that are created in political contests or when political departments are after more money - implicitly or explicitly fearful scenarios are generated and the uncritical nod their heads and accept the higher taxes or burdens and the gradual dissipation of liberties.

While we can discuss genetic influences and innate personality dispositions, cultural exposure has an enormous impact on our young minds. However, itís not the case that young people are mere receptors of what they experience - a logical path that many who followed Locke have emphasised - but that they are capable of learning to discriminate between what is good and useful and what is bad and useless. Helping the young to discriminate between the good, the bad, and the ugly - even if they doggedly maintain that their taste in music or films is justifiable - at least opens up the possibility that their choice may be challenged or that other people may follow a different path. And when they learn that - they pick up a very important value for any civilisation to flourish: toleration.

Article by Dr Alexander Moseley
Added Fri, 15 Apr 2016 17:47


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