The War for Children’s Minds — Stephen Law

This useful book is a careful and spirited defence of the idea that children should be taught to think for themselves rather than uncritically accept the views of some authority, be it parental, religious or governmental. You’d think that this view would be completely uncontroversial. But surprisingly many people mistakenly think that this leads to anarchy, moral relativism, a rejection of traditional values, or all of these things.

Some people think we now find ourselves in a sort of moral malaise — the old values have been thrown out and there’s nothing to replace them. Liberal attitudes to education are often blamed. But Law demonstrates that teaching people to think for themselves doesn’t necessarily result in these alleged problems, and in any case the current situation isn’t as bad as is made out.

I especially enjoyed the chapters on moral relativism. I have long thought that moral relativism is a well-intentioned mistake, and Law shows that teaching children to think for themselves does not lead to relativism: in fact it’s an excellent defence against it.

It’s probably unfortunate that Law uses the term “Liberal education” to describe the idea of teaching people to think for themselves. Especially in America, the “L” word is often misinterpreted to mean you’re a pinko tree-hugging unpatriotic terrorist-lover. That will probably lead to many people attacking the book without reading it, as Philip Pullman says in the book’s jacket blurb.

Probably the most useful thing for me is that the book exposes a couple of false dichotomies. We don’t have to chose between thinking for ourselves and following religious or other traditions; we can do both. Also, we don’t have to choose between authoritarianism and moral relativism; we can choose neither. By learning and teaching to question beliefs and think for ourselves, we can avoid falling into either of these traps.

Even if your political or religious beliefs incline you towards rejecting this book out of hand, you should read it anyway — and decide for yourself.

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