Desire and Understanding



Desire and Understanding


In the course of a perceptive description of a cat James Joyce writes: “She understands all she wants to” (Ulysses, p.48). The cat doesn’t try to understand what she has no wish to understand, let alone what she cannot understand; she doesn’t try to acquire knowledge that doesn’t interest her. Her desire and her understanding are in perfect harmony. Nor does anyone try to force knowledge and understanding on her. She has what might be called desire-dependent understanding. Presumably other animals are the same way: they understand what they want to understand—what they need to understand to survive, what fits their natural life-style. We could even state a law of zoology: animals understand only what they desire to understand, neither more nor less. There is synchrony, a coordination of the mental faculties. They don’t know things they are not interested in knowing, and they do know what they want to know. That seems only right and proper.

            But humans are the exception to this rule: they understand a lot they have no desire to understand. I am not thinking so much of knowledge of unwelcome facts, though this is real enough; I am thinking of the process of formal education. We are a species that sends our kids to school for many years in order to learn things they are generally resistant to learning; no other species does this. We haven’t always done it: there was a time when human children were not forced to acquire knowledge they had no desire to acquire. But for centuries we have been forcing our children to learn what they desire not to learn—what they have no wish to learn. We have been filling them with desire-denying knowledge. Imagine if the same were true of (say) lions: instead of training their cubs in hunting skills in the usual way, they pack them off to boarding school to force them into endless lessons on correct predatory behavior, keeping them stuck indoors, giving them mountains of homework, forcing them to take stressful written examinations in how to bring down an antelope. We can suppose that the cubs don’t take kindly to this, suffering from maternal deprivation, jungle homesickness, performance anxiety, insomnia, and lifelong neurosis. We can even suppose that this education, so contrary to their natural inclinations, produces serious trauma with the inevitable PTSD. As it is, however, they are not subjected to this desire-denying regimen, but simply play with their mothers and siblings and gradually acquire the necessary skills. So far as I am aware there are no instances of lion cubs refusing to be taught hunting, feigning illness to avoid it, playing truant, and resenting the whole educational process. But human cubs experience the exact opposite: they really don’t like to do what they are coerced into doing on a daily basis for years on end. Their natural desires and their imposed educational program are completely out of sync. Their inclinations are violently flouted (sometimes literally).

            You would think this state of affairs might occasion serious reflection on the part of educators. Generally speaking, to thwart an organism’s natural psychological make-up is considered unwise: this degree of desire suppression might be thought to have some untoward psychological consequences. Isn’t school really a type of prison, psychologically speaking (it has often been experienced this way)? Isn’t it possible that education is inflicting massive trauma on its victims, causing neurosis, anxiety, low self-esteem, and general emotional sickness? And this is happening at a particularly vulnerable time in a human being’s life, when he or she has little in the way of emotional defenses. Could it be that deep-seated and widespread unhappiness results from this systematic violation of human desire? Isn’t it obvious that this is mental cruelty analogous to forcing cats to learn mazes all day? The standard response to this kind of concern is that they will thank us in the long run. There will be misery now, yes, but when they grow up they will feel the benefit. Granted no one would put children through this agony just for the sake of it—they are clearly not happy with the prevailing state of affairs—but the end justifies the means.    [1] We should always be wary of this type of argument (“spare the rod spoil the child” etc.) but there is this special consideration too: the reason for adopting this painful means to eventual happiness is the economic structure of the society that we now live in. So the defense of the oppressive nature of education is that it is necessary to survive in the economic world we have created—not that it is psychologically healthy for children and the adults they will become, or even tolerable. You might as well say, “Yes, I know it’s extremely damaging psychologically, but it’s the only way to prevent people from becoming destitute given the society we have created”. The fundamental point is that we are flouting a zoological law that ensures psychological harmony throughout the animal kingdom. Of course, people do like to learn things, even at school, some people more than others, but the form this has taken under relentless economic pressure is undeniably oppressive, going completely against the grain for almost everybody. (I am no exception: I recall the dread that ”Double Maths” used to instill in me, and I was pretty good at maths.) You would think the system might try to mitigate these deleterious effects, or at least openly acknowledge them; but it is has grown up with a naïve and outdated developmental psychology that pays little attention to the possibly traumatic effects of subjugation to a deeply disliked educational regime. James Joyce’s cat would not tolerate it for a moment–there would be all manner of biting, scratching, and screeching. Really, education should be against the law! And corporal punishment for failing at your lessons or “talking in class”—a class 1 felony.    [2]

            All this combines with a curious inconsistency: children are denied knowledge of what they want to know while being force-fed what they don’t want to know. I am speaking of sexual knowledge. True, things have improved somewhat, but even now there is a reluctance to teach sex with the rigor and determination with which (say) calculus is taught. And sex is a pretty important subject about which people have a lot of natural curiosity (I am here including love, family, friendship, human decency etc.). Shouldn’t children be given a full and deep education in such matters, possibly including examinations, advanced courses, and remedial classes? You can be sure it would be well received: it fits nicely with the human desire to know what it wants to know. And subjects that appeal less naturally to young people (for that is what they are) should be framed in such a way that their epistemic desires are properly respected. Otherwise we run the risk of producing a race of psychologically damaged, thwarted, depressed, warped, anxious victims. We can all now see how awful earlier pedagogical practice was, as we can see the same with respect to earlier child labor practices; but the fundamental problem hasn’t been solved, namely that education, as we have it today, is radically contrary to people’s natural desires. It is against human nature, to put it briefly. If children could learn mathematics in the way they learn their language—quickly, naturally, painlessly—things would be different, but sadly that is not the case given the way the human mind is structured. As things stand, we simply do not desire to learn things the way they are taught to us, or even at all in some cases. Does anyone believe it would be wise to teach every child Sanskrit or metallurgy or medieval manuscript writing on pain of serious punishment—for hours a day, year after year? Does anyone think that the fact that children would hate doing this is no reason not to impose it? We should always respect innate human psychology and not assume it can be violated with impunity. The element of coercion in current educational methods is a source of real concern (or should be), as are the psychological effects of the kind of education now taken for granted. The successful boy or girl is the one who survives this regime with the least psychological damage. I recall the day when I took my very last examination (I was 24) and the intense feeling of liberation I felt after the oppression of my earlier years. The system is frankly inhuman and despotic. It took me several years before the trauma began to wear off and I could live without the nightmare of a typical English education haunting me. And I don’t mean kids shouldn’t have to work so hard (I still work hard); I mean that their wishes in the matter of learning should not be routinely disregarded. They should be treated more like James Joyce’s cat, or as the lioness treats her cubs, or as the gorilla treats its aspiring little gorillas. It works for them; it should work for us (also primates). We should take a more biologically informed view of education. It’s a good idea in education to take a close look at the mind you are trying to educate and not suppose it is like a piece of putty you can mold at will, or as consisting just of a faculty of knowing that is independent of the rest of the human psyche. Children have desires about what they know and how they come to know it, which should be taken into account. So I advocate what might be called desire-sensitive education. 

    [1] Presumably we would all agree that other things being equal it would be preferable simply to download all this stuff into children’s brains so as to avoid the years of toil and heartache associated with traditional education. But of course this is not technically feasible, so we must resort to standard techniques of arduous instruction. Let it be noted that technological efforts to ease the process of education have long been sought, most recently in the form of the computer.

    [2] What would we think if the side effects of a formal education were even more severe than they are today? What if reading, writing and arithmetic caused actual physical pain and actual mental disorder? Would we still try to justify them by the instrumental value of a sound education in the 3 R’s? What if education made people go blind on a regular basis? I hope no one would argue that this would be good for children from a character-building point of view!

4 replies
  1. Joseph K.
    Joseph K. says:

    Thank you for this. You’ve written about one of the topics I obsess over. The thwarting of freedom and natural desire in modern society. You’re entirely right. Our society operates on what Russell called the mechanistic conception. And it is a great source of harm and evil.

    “The distinction between the mechanistic and humanistic conceptions of excellence is the most fundamental of all distinctions between rival sets of social ideals. The mechanistic conception regards the good as something outside the individual, as something which is realized through a society as a whole, whether voluntarily cooperating or not. The humanistic conception on the other hand, regards the good as something existing in the lives of individuals, and conceives social cooperation as only valuable in so far it ministers to the welfare of the several citizens. The mechanistic conception is not interested in the individual as such, but only in the part the he can play as a cog in the machinery. It will endeavor to train and alter his nature as to make him submissive when the Plan of the Whole thwarts his individual desires. He must be taught to say to the State: “Thy will be done.” On the other hand the humanistic conception regards a child as a gardener regards a young tree, i.e. as something with a certain intrinsic nature, which will develop into an admirable form given proper soil and air and light.”

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      Good quotation from Russell (a hero of my youth). It’s interesting that capitalist education resembles communist subjugation. States always seem to thwart and warp the individual.


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