Both legally and as a matter of common practice, we all of us set limits upon our children's freedom of choice. Few of us would countenance our twelve year old daughter embarking upon a sexual relationship with a man of thirty. Similarly, we feel that we should have the right to make decisions on behalf of our children as regards medical treatment. Most of us also decide their bedtime, supervise their diet and choose their clothes. Strangely though, when it comes to education there are those who would give their children unfettered choice over what they learn and how it is learned. These are the parents who espouse the doctrine of autonomous education.
I have wrestled with this strange concept for some years and confess myself no closer to understanding the underlying rationale than I was when first I encountered the notion. Let us take it step by step and see where I may be going wrong. If my eight year old daughter were ill and needed some painful and invasive procedure in order to recover her health, I would consent to it on her behalf. Perhaps left to herself she would decline this treatment, because being a child she would not understand the implications of her refusal. In short, she would be incapable of making an informed decision; I would make it for her. I think most parents would do the same. In precisely the same way, if I had a child who refused to eat anything but sugar and also would not clean his teeth, I would feel that I had a problem. Because I would, as an adult, be better able to see the long term consequences of my son's actions, I would be an irresponsible parent if I failed to act. in other words, I would prevent him from living on sugar and make sure that he cleaned his teeth, no matter what his own inclinations in the matter were. This is because as a child he would not be able to foresee the long term and unpleasant results of eating nothing but sugar and not cleaning his teeth afterwards. Responsibility would devolve naturally upon his parents to remedy the situation.
So far, so good. I believe that most parents would probably go along with me up to this point. Where some would differ would be when I move from physical to spiritual and mental health. Just as we have a duty to care for our children's physical health, so also must we guard their mental development. If our child wished to do nothing but watch cartoons and DVDs all day long and showed no interest in any other activity, it would be our duty to try and open out their interests and, if necessary, forbid them to spend all their time in front of the television.
Just as we are able to foresee the ill effects of certain physical actions in our child's routine, such as eating nothing but sugar, so too can we look into the future and see what might happen if their minds are not stimulated and stretched. We can also have a shrewd guess as to what their lives will be like if they remain illiterate as adults or if they are unable to work out the change from a £10 note when out shopping. We can also foretell that if they do not have a grounding in history and geography, then much of the news will be meaningless to them. If they do not learn about the generation of electricity and the nature of a gene, then they will be unable to understand the debate over nuclear energy or genetic engineering. In effect, if we neglect to make arrangements for them to learn these things, then we are really choosing for them; making a decision on their behalf that they will grow into ignorant and ill informed adults, unable to function as full citizens in today's society.
Of course some children may choose to research nuclear energy for themselves, just as others may want to find out what a gene is. Others will of course choose not to do so, but instead lay in bed all day or spend their time endlessly playing computer games. Giving young children choices like this, choices that will have such far-reaching and possibly irrevocable consequences is not really fair on them. As adults, we are much better placed to decide what a child needs in order to grow into a healthy and well rounded person. Most of us choose healthy food for them, so too should we be providing healthy fare for their minds. More, we should be planning in advance what they may need to know in the future. This, of course, is why we should have at least a provisional plan for their education and learning, rather than depending upon chance and the vagaries of a growing child's mind.