Duval on Moral Epistemology, pt. 3.3: Conservatives and Education

Duval on Moral Epistemology, pt. 3.3: Conservatives and Education October 20, 2016

Following on from the previous post, where the focus was corporal punishment, here we look at corporal punishment in school, as well as authoritarian teaching styles

Talwar, Carlson and Lee (2011[1]) found that children educated in highly punitive environments performed as well as children in non-punitive environments whilst in kindergarten but, from about the age of five, punitive environments negatively impacted children’s natural development in Executive Functions. This being said there are important developments in Executive Functions between the ages of two and five, so it may be that the damage is done in the punitive environments experienced between those ages, but the impact is only expressed once the child goes to school (as opposed to kindergarten), possibly because of the differences in the learning environment and the expectations attached to that environment. Indeed, Tomoda, et al. (2009) pointed to the reduced gray matter in the left and right medial frontal gyri, and it should be noted that these areas are found to be integral to Executive Functions. These are “general-purpose control mechanisms that modulate the operation of various cognitive subprocesses and thereby regulate the dynamics of human cognition” (Miyake, et al. 2000, pp. 50[2]). These subprocesses include the abilities to: shift between sets and domains of data; update and monitor information in multiple domains; and, the inhibition of inappropriate responses, within and across domains.

As with poor attachment, we have seen that corporal punishment has significant effects on individuals. The mere fact of a predisposition to conservatism as an adult is not, in and of itself, indicative of a history of abuse, nor can it be considered a negative outcome, per sé. It does, however, seem as though a household that has conservative attitudes towards corporal punishment is more likely to give rise to the brain structures that predispose one to conservatism, and thus conservative views on corporal punishment. Indeed one consistent finding in the corporal punishment literature is that those who were raised with corporal punishment also endorse corporal punishment in particular, and violence in general (e.g. Deater-Deckard, et al., 2003[3]; Smith, 2012[4]). Of greater concern is the fact that corporal punishment is a significant predictor for subsequent physical abuse.

Corporal Punishment in Schools

Corporal punishment in schools is still permitted in 19 states in the US (Collazo, 2014[5]), and it should come as no great surprise where those states are (see figures 3 & 4). Spanking is not legal on the West Coast, or in the North East, the two areas that have the fewest Evangelicals (Pew Forum, n.d.[6]). In the states were it is legal, disabled children and minorities are spanked more. Suggesting, again, that the punishment is born of frustration and misunderstanding rather than a child’s misdemeanors. With regard to gender, boys are four times more likely to be spanked in school than girls, but in the home, being female is a significant risk factor for abuse (Zolotor, et al., 2008[7]).


Figure 3 (left): States where spanking of children in public school is still legal (in red). Figure 4 (right): For direct comparison’s sake, the 2012 election results. Note that there are some Conservative-leaning states in the West/mid-West that voted for Romney, but that have outlawed spanking. Only Colorado voted Obama, but hasn’t outlawed spanking.

Religious Education

In the Western world, schooling has been impacted by, and is very often provided by, religious institutions. From the Church of England- and Roman Catholic-assisted schools in the UK, to the Texas school board’s ongoing crusade to have historically and scientifically inaccurate texts used for “teaching”[8]. What is taught, and how it is taught, has been heavily impacted by religious belief, coupled with the ongoing corporal punishment outlined above. The primary focus of learning in Protestant schooling is the importance of the Bible (especially for Evangelicals – recall the Biblicism and crucicentrism noted previously). Now, the thing about the Bible, and any education with the Bible at its centre, is that it necessitates learning by rote. You cannot derive knowledge of the Bible from any other source that is not also referencing the Bible – the exceptions being those things that are both in the Bible and also in virtually every other holy book, such as the Golden Rule. This has lead to claims in educational circles that progressives are kneejerk reacting against rote learning as some vestige of Dickensian religious schooling (e.g. Didau, 2014[9]). Of course some things must be learned by rote, such as the times tables, and other things can be augmented by judicious use of memorization techniques, but rote learning has, for the most part, been superseded (Orlin, 2013[10]), except, presumably, in Bible class.

liberty bounds

Figure 4: This is a placard at a pub near the Tower of London. I include it here because of the last sentence on the left hand panel. Not the best quality picture, I’m afraid.

Ignoring the issue of the necessity of rote learning when it comes to the Bible, it seems that the learning of Biblical stories at all can be a net negative, this is a problem for Evangelical biblicism. Corriveau, Chen and Harris (2014[11]) found that children who had been raised in more religious households, with more exposure to Biblical stories, and more often told that the stories were true, were less able to differentiate between fact and fiction. When presented with stories set in the present day, these children were unable to distinguish between stories that were possible, and stories that involved some kind of magic or departure from reality. This may explain the thousands upon thousands of pages and posts, by adults, claiming that the Harry Potter series of books is evil, un-Christian, and even outright satanic.

In general, attempts to force children to learn, rather than allowing them to learn, is also a net negative (e.g. Gray, 2011, p. 28[12]):

Research at a modern-day democratic school designed to facilitate self-education demonstrates that our hunter-gatherer educative instincts are quite adequate for education today, given an appropriate educational environment. The ideal environment for such education—found both in hunter-gatherer bands and at the school studied—is one in which young people (a) have unlimited free time and much space in which to play and explore; (b) can mix freely with other children of all ages; (c) have access to a variety of knowledgeable and caring adults; (d) have access to culturally relevant tools and equipment and are free to play and explore with those items; (e) are free to express and debate any ideas that they wish to express and debate; (f) are free from bullying (which includes freedom from being ordered around arbitrarily by adults); and (g) have a true voice in the group’s decision-making process. The per-student cost required to create such settings is less than half that of the average for our current public schools.

Note specifically that “young people … are free to express and debate any ideas that they wish to express and debate.” This idea is supported by a pilot study for Philosophy for Children, of 3,159 primary school pupils. The study found that encouraging children to engage in philosophical discussion positively impacted their numeracy and literacy skills, even when measured months later. This intervention was particularly effective in the case of low-SES children (Cassidy, 2015[13]). In the words of Alexia Fox, assistant head teacher of Hinde House School in Sheffield:

Philosophy for Children has made a huge difference to the way our children interact with each other. In the playground, they can talk about their disagreements. They now respect other children’s points of view. In the classroom, their ideas are far more developed as they are better equipped to understand how others think and accept that these opinions are all valid. It is extremely valuable academically and socially.

It is perhaps appropriate that one of the more famous progressive schools in Britain – Beacon Hill – was the brainchild of one of Britain’s most eminent philosophers, Bertrand Russell (Gorham, 2005[14]). In the US, some schools are experimenting with Mindfulness Meditation instead of detention, thereby getting rid of the punitive atmosphere (Gaines, 2016[15]; Holistic Life Foundation, n.d.[16]), too.

Conclusion of 3.1, 3.2 and 3.3

I have illustrated that both political and religious conservative views, particularly as instantiated by Republican-supporting Evangelicals, as well as poor educational outcomes, a preference for corporal punishment, and low socio-economic status are strongly inter-linked. If one is being appropriately circumspect, one can’t yet make claims about the direction of causality, but one can say with some certainty that each seems to be a risk factor for the others.

It is the case that corporal punishment engenders a preference for corporal punishment. It is also the case that Evangelicals are more inclined to support corporal punishment and, because of a predisposition to blame people ahead of circumstance, they are more likely to engage in it. Further, it is the case that corporal punishment (and even just a more punitive environment, which a dispositional focus leads to) impedes brain development in various brain regions (those related to complex problem solving and social reward in particular), and increases it in others (especially those related to fear processing). And, finally, it is the case that the brain areas most affected by corporal punishment are also brain areas that distinguish between liberals and conservatives, lending credence to George Lakoff’s Nurturing Parent/Strict Father dichotomy. As such, given that these are a series of inter-linked phenomena, it is likely that an improvement in any one of these will also reduce the others. Recall that Fundamentalist churches unlike most other Christian churches are experiencing growth, but that this growth is due to the high numbers coming into the church, despite the high numbers leaving (and this may explain the apparent lack of a strong causal connection between denominations and the negative outcomes outlined above). As such, whilst there may be a genetic underpinning to a preference for conservatism, it is clear that there are general and social environmental influences, of which Evangelicalism appears to be one of the strongest, in America at least. It is difficult to see how good argument can be made for Evangelicalism, Republican support, and conservative values, when the reduction of any of these seems likely to reduce corporal punishment and child abuse, and to increase educational attainment and socio-economic well-being (of both the individual and the nation).

In my next post I will illustrate how and when (in developmental terms) corporal punishment and conservative approaches to education maintain conservatism even in cases where an individual may not be genetically predisposed to being conservative. I will also discuss how this can be made sense of on the Schwartz-Duval Values Model, including a discussion on what I previously dubbed the Conservative Vortex. And finally, I will show how these issues impact upon the category error in Conservative thought that I highlighted previously.

[1] Talwar, V., Carlson, S. M., & Lee, K. (2011). Effects of a punitive environment on children’s executive functioning: A natural experiment. Social Development, 20(4), 805-824.

[2] Miyake, A., Friedman, N. P., Emerson, M. J., Witzki, A. H., Howerter, A., & Wager, T. D. (2000). The unity and diversity of executive functions and their contributions to complex “frontal lobe” tasks: A latent variable analysis. Cognitive Psychology, 41(1), 49-100.

[3] Deater-Deckard, K., Lansford, J. E., Dodge, K. A., Pettit, G. S., & Bates, J. E. (2003). The development of attitudes about physical punishment: An 8-year longitudinal study. Journal of Family Psychology, 17(3), 351.

[4] Smith, B. L. (2012). The case against spanking – Physical discipline is slowly declining as some studies reveal lasting harms for children. Monitor on Psychology, 43(4), 60 http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/04/spanking.aspx

[5] https://mic.com/articles/83349/19-states-still-allow-spanking-in-schools-and-the-statistics-are-shocking#.Ct8wxokjB

[6] http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/religious-tradition/evangelical-protestant/

[7] Zolotor, A. J., Theodore, A. D., Chang, J. J., Berkoff, M. C., & Runyan, D. K. (2008). Speak softly—and forget the stick: Corporal punishment and child physical abuse. American journal of preventive medicine, 35(4), 364-369.

[8] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/reasonadvocates/2015/11/01/correct-texas-textbooks/

[9] http://www.learningspy.co.uk/learning/♥-rote-learning/

[10] http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/09/when-memorization-gets-in-the-way-of-learning/279425/

[11] Corriveau, K. H., Chen, E. E. and Harris, P. L. (2015), Judgments About Fact and Fiction by Children From Religious and Nonreligious Backgrounds. Cognitive Science, 39: 353–382. doi:10.1111/cogs.12138

[12] Gray, P. (2011). The evolutionary biology of education: How our hunter-gatherer educative instincts could form the basis for education today. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 4(1), 28-40. https://www.psychologytoday.com/files/attachments/1195/evobio-education.pdf

[13] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/schools/teaching-primary-school-children-philosophy-improves-english-and-maths-skills-says-study-10378958.html

See also Fisher, R. (2001). Philosophy in primary schools: fostering thinking skills and literacy. Reading, 35(2), 67-73. http://teachertools.londongt.org/en-GB/resources/Philosophy_in_primaries_fisher.pdf

[14] Gorham, D. (2005). Dora and Bertrand Russell and Beacon Hill School. Russell: The Journal of Bertrand Russell Studies, 25(1).

[15] http://www.upworthy.com/this-school-replaced-detention-with-meditation-the-results-are-stunning?c=ufb1

[16] http://hlfinc.org/programs-services/mindful-moment-program/

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