Autobiography by John Stuart Mill
Chapter I: Childhood and Early Education
Philosopher John Stuart Mill lived during the 19th century, when Romanticism, with its emphasis on the liberal arts and the human experience, was reaching its peak in Europe. Writing in chapter 1 of his autobiography, Mill’s presents a detailed account of his early childhood education overseen by his studious father and driven by the classical liberal arts, beginning with Greek at the age of 3, followed by Latin, arithmetic, history, literature, logic, science and political economy, and a smattering of poetry and prose until the age of 14. Such an upbringing resulted in Mill seeing the mind as active and human nature as malleable, and holds that we come to possess a deeper state of knowledge by engaging with knowledge actively. In doing so, he is elevating the human experience to one that should seek out diverse knowledge because there is utility in doing so for one’s self, but also for serving the world in which you are a part of, which is kinda romantic, is it not?
With years being consumed with study, Mill shows a deep respect towards his father, who went from a poor upbringing to a self-made intellect, and still found the time to pass on all that he had learned. Throughout the text there is an aire of both reverence and obedience shown by the young Mill. Looking back at his childhood, he continually reiterates being deeply engrossed in his studies, only rarely expressing displeasure. However as an adult, he may be looking at the past through rose-coloured glasses and not remember his desire for more leisurely activities. Despite the cultural motif of Romanticism’s left-brain themes of emotion, the visual arts and music, Mill’s father, seeking to craft a whiz kid, instilled a right-brain mindset into his child that was grounded in utilitarianism. As such, Mill has little ‘childhood’ to speak of, which is not that dissimilar in relation to today’s disappearing childhoods, so it is perhaps best to pick and choose elements from Mill’s upbringing rather than seek to mimic it.
Mills also shares similar views about early education with Rousseau and Locke, mainly that parental involvement and beginning early is paramount. However, I found that Mill takes a much more critical stance of the way his peers were undergoing their education by labeling it, “little better than wasted” (para. 1). In contrasting his own education, Mill’s main contention is that, “they are crammed with mere facts, and with the opinions or phrases of other people, and these are accepted as a substitute for the power to form opinions of their own” (para. 23). Mill’s criticism can be placed within two categories, how we learn and what we learn; the latter will be explored later. Regarding how Mill learned, we see the presence of deep learning, where he was tasked with a subject to learn on his own, which is then followed by exploratory conversations with his father and then further solidified through teaching his younger sister. The issue of homeschooling is also raised and whether governments should restrict children’s education or allow parents sovereignty over their child. As well, the notion of movement and environment is evidenced through Mill’s cognitively beneficial nature walks with his father. The concept of standardized testing is also largely absent in Mill’s education, but instead marked by more realistic low-stakes, low-reward tests. Finally, there is little mention of any long drawn out summer vacation in Mill’s childhood, leading one to assume that his education continued year-round, calling into question the current ‘dumber over the summer’ model. Taking a step back and looking at Mill’s education, despite his father’s heavy presence, there is something much more humane, sensible and suitable about it, especially when comparing it to the depersonalized method of gathering two dozen kids in a classroom setting for 40 hours a week over 12 of their formative years.
Regarding what should be learned in our childhood and the focus of my argument is that the liberal arts education of Mill is ever more necessary for children today. In implementing a liberal arts education in elementary school, it first helps to circumvent the crisis facing many liberal arts colleges facing decreasing admissions amid what one professor labels ‘social justice wafare’ as well as crushing indebtedness and the coming STEM-heavy 4th Industrial Revolution. Although the benefits are many, the liberal arts are often neglected in grade school, especially at the elementary level, where the curriculum has been criticized as “narrow”. This has created a situation where information and skills, for instance reading comprehension skills, are taught heavily through instruction and often abstractedness, rather than by the student fully integrating “a broad background in social studies, science and the arts [that] brings meaning to passages and helps make sense of the world.” This creates a malaise in students where many do not feel their education is connecting them to the real world. A curriculum heavily influenced by the liberal arts would seek to resolve such an issue and return the deep philosophic origins of science and math, which are largely ignored in elementary school. This reintegration of logic and reason, rooted in a pedagogical framework crafted for children would go a long way to creating the foundations for children to understand the world they live in. To reimage schooling also involves being able to demand that the instructors in place be capable of integrating complex subject matter, like Mill’s father, who was very knowledgeable himself and saw real value in what he was teaching, but more importantly was able to get his son to see the value in learning for learning’s sake. Sadly, today’s education majors may not be our best and brightest. However, if schools can get capable teachers that are not only passionate about teaching students, but also passionate about the subject matter, perhaps Oxford’s tutorial system, which closely resembles Mill’s childhood education of intimate conversations, could be effectively implemented in schools. However, in order to demand more of children at such a young age, I think we as a society first need to get over our collective ageism that hinders what we expect of them. There is a common behavior issue regarding children who don’t listen, but maybe it goes the other way as well. A liberal arts education focuses on the individual and communication, so children will not only develop the ability to articulate meaningful ideas, but be able to effectively listen and respond critically to the opinions and ideas of others. However, I do wonder if schools were to begin to teach philosophical principles, might they be opening themselves up to student criticism which cannot be addressed effectively about the structural absurdity of modern schooling? This raises a critical question that with the current structural hierarchies in place, whether they be within governments, schools or businesses, a liberal arts education would pose a threat to established power structures by virtue of its quest for truth and the necessary use of criticism in order to do so. Although there is much homage paid towards the idea of self-thinking individuals, in reality our institutions would crumble if made a reality. And yet status quo be damned, by implementing a liberal arts curriculum in childhood it will provide the child’s sponge-like mind with the tools necessary to challenge their own understanding of the world, as well as society’s supposed truism, and forever help them to integrate themselves into ever-changing world.
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