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The Doctor's Corner

Dr. David Harley B.A.,M.A.,M.A.,Ph.D.

Dr. Harley completed a Master’s degree in Philosophy specializing in analytical philosophy and philosophy of mind as well as a Master’s degree in History specializing in early 20th century intellectual history.  He completed a Ph.D. degree in Education at the University of Toronto specializing in educational theory in general and the educational theory and practice of the noted British philosopher Bertrand Russell in specific.  His thesis research employed the assistance of Bertrand Russell’s daughter to track down ex-teachers and ex-students from his experimental school Beacon Hill.  He was awarded a Canada Council Doctoral Award as well as a Canada Council Post Doctoral Award.  He has over 30 years of direct experience as an educational consultant, principal, school administrator and researcher.

The purpose of his blog is to present various opinions, articles and book reviews related to the current state of education and the changing challenges presented to students, teachers and parents. 

Drop The Worry Ball: How To Parent In the Age Of Entitlement. Alex Russell with Tim Falconer, Toronto: HarperCollins, 2014. 247 pages.

This book was brought to my attention by a parent who told me that they had found the book helpful and had attended a presentation by the author (a practicing psychologist)  in Toronto.  After reading the book, I would agree and would recommend it to any parent either currently struggling with an adolescent son or proactively seeking guidance as to sound parenting practices.  Despite its value, it was also a reminder of the fact that ideas about education are rarely new.  The merits of the book are not so much in its originality but rather as a current restatement of educational ideas of authors no longer in fashion.  It is interesting to note that the author makes references to educational theorists whose names now rarely surface and who even more rarely are read, noteworthy of whom is Jean Jacques Rousseau ---an 18th century French philosopher  often associated with progressive education movements of whom I will have more to say later.

The first chapter argues that one of the main problems in modern parenting is the fact that parents rarely allow children to suffer the natural consequences of their own actions and constantly intervene to protect them from themselves.  The result of this, it is argued, is that children do not learn but displace the responsibility to a parent or supervising adult.  One of the most popular books during the 19th century in England for enlightened liberally minded parents was Herbert Spencer’s On Education in which the same argument was made.  In the 1920’s the British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote a book entitled On Education:  Especially in Early Childhood in which he stated that wherever possible children should be confronted by the natural consequences of their own actions.  Of course both authors limited such actions within the parameters of reason i.e. circumstances that were not life threatening or injurious.  Bertrand Russell gives an example of allowing his son to eat too much ice cream to the point that he was sick as an example of how the natural consequences of an action could reinforce through direct experience guidance provided by adults.  In this case, Russell was also arguing against what he regarded as unnecessary authoritarianism in parenting in favor of promoting independence of thought and action.  For Russell, fostering independence of thought and action in a child necessitated parents stepping back and allowing for the process of learning to take place as opposed to developing growing dependence on adults and external authority.

The book under review makes the same argument.  As a practicing psychologist the author states that:

“I regularly see parents who take their care-giving obligations to lengths that are actually a disservice:  the mother who repeatedly provides alternative food choices and is surprised that her daughter is a stubbornly picky eater; the father who made it his mission to help his son with his homework and can’t understand why the boy now “doesn’t seem to care about school” and expects Dad to deal with the whole business; the mother who, hoping to show how understanding she is, overlooks her son’s bad behavior, language and manners and is dismayed that he’s oblivious to the consequences of his actions”

“They lie awake at night worrying about report cards, university admissions, careers, The Future…

   Strikingly, this is exactly what their kids aren’t thinking about.  The more parents take on these concerns, the more their children are oblivious to them.  It’s not always clear which come first --- the obligated parent or the disengaged child --- but they certainly perpetuate one another.”

Within this model, the ability to make mistakes and learn from them assumes that experiencing consequences both good and bad are essential to growth and personal development.  This means that failure as much as success form valued components of the process.  This of course should lead us to seriously question much of the prevailing educational philosophy that denies that failures exists and focuses only on success.  The prevalent current model of “Building on Success” might be more accurately described as “Building on Nothing”.   As both success and failure can be considered as polarities of the same learning curve, the one cannot exist independent of the other.  Therefore success without the possibility of failure is meaningless

The book argues that parents who continually direct, organize, reprimand and prohibit their children become “custodians of reality”.  As such children will let parents do the worrying and focus on appeasing their parents and having fun.  As such “…kids won’t pick up the worry ball unless and until parents put it down.”  So from attempting to intervene to prevent mistake, the author goes as far as to say that “…we should actually cheer for non-catastrophic, painful failure.”

This dropping of the worry ball imagery is followed by an equally compelling image of sitting on the park bench watching your child play not as a participant but as an engaged spectator.  Again, the author’s message stresses the importance of distancing parenting in such a way as to encourage autonomy and responsibility for one’s own actions.  The author is careful to draw the line between disinterestedness and monitoring from a distance:

“That’s why I encourage parents to err on the side of benign neglect.  Think about how your parents raised you.  How much more freedom did you have than your own children?”

“Don’t hover around your kid all the time….Don’t let your anxiety fire you up so that you’re off that bench showing yourself and the world what a good parent you are.  Just sit on the bench and sip your latte.”

“This will be a hard thing to do and sometimes you will feel like a bad parent.  But you will be doing the right thing for your kids and ensuring that they succeed in the jungle gym of life.”

There follows a very interesting chapter entitled Obligated Parents and Entitled Kids.  An important argument is presented to the effect that the more parents feel obligated to accommodate a child the more the child will feel entitled.  As he puts it, bad parenting can often arise as a result of “being too patient, too reasonable, too available and too accommodating.”

“Obligated, over-involved parents tend to raise entitled, disengaged kids.  It’s an epidemic, with cases ranging from mild to extreme.   The more disengaged or inappropriate a child is, the more active and involved parents tend to become….the more active and involved parents get, the less engaged and responsible children behave.”

The book makes for good and instructive reading and I have ended up quoting directly from the book much more than I typically do in reviews because paraphrasing seems to diminish the impact of the specific examples provided.  However, the overall argument of the book is fairly simple and as I have mentioned has a long tradition within Western intellectual writing going back at least to the 17th century English philosopher John Locke and passing through to the 20th century philosopher Bertrand Russell. The argument being that children learn as a result of direct interactions with reality not mediated by adult interference and that suffering negative results from actions is as constructive an experience as experiencing positive results.  The view that children can mature more effectively through consequences rather than relying only upon adult authority is intimately associated with the growth of liberal democratically oriented societies.  It is interesting to note the fact that this philosophy also underlies Montessori methods and play therapy.

Rousseau is an interesting figure in the history of education given that being associated with writings that fueled the French Revolution he is often represented as a proponent of ‘free’ education.  However, he was far from that.  His seminal work on education was called The Emile and then as now it is sometimes quoted and never read thereby fully qualifying to be a classic.  However, a reading of the book describes how the guardian of Emile focuses his entire life on the upbringing of the perfect male child.  To this end, Emile is placed within a wholly contrived environment in which his range of options are limited not by choice but availability.  Adult authority is therefore implicit in that situations are engineered or contrived to create predetermined outcomes.  As such, adult manipulation is everywhere inherent in an environment devoted to the purpose.  Such an overwhelming task resulted in Rousseau himself disposing of his infant offspring to a foundling institute in Paris not known for promoting longevity among its clients.  Rather than do an imperfect job, it appears that he chose to entirely abrogate the responsibility.  With regard to independence, Rousseau was fortunate to find a noblewoman of substantial means to support him and as such his personal freedom was underwritten by an aristocracy that he attacked.

The problem with the distancing argument as basis of parenting lies in the manner of interpretation and application.  Drop The Worry Ball provides numerous examples of sage advice given by the author to clients with positive results.  I would have been interested to hear more accounts of similar advice given that did not have the desired effect but assume that this would be self-defeating.  The problem with many issues involving children is that they are often a long time in the making and as such do not readily respond to any quick fixes or in some cases any fixes at all.  Much of the advice given in this book has more value as a pro-active parenting strategy than a reactive one.  By the time that parenting strategies have been addressed and corrected, the damage is often done. Unlike other areas of human endeavor, most parents regard themselves as educational experts until proven otherwise.  That expertise is based upon examining their own childhood with a view to perpetuating what they liked and removing those elements that they remember distastefully oblivious to the fact their negative experiences may well have resulted in positive reactions.  Rather than improving upon their own experience, they are puzzled, shocked and horrified to find disappointing results.

Much of modern parenting suffers from the same issues that affect much of current society in that there is a great deal more emphasis placed upon feeling rather than thinking.  A general lack of tolerance for opinions other than our own or within an identified group of orthodoxy has as its foundation a feeling that something is true.  The stronger the feeling, the more the conviction that one is right and others wrong.  The appeal to reasoned facts and an understanding of alternative opinions or interpretations is not widely evident.  With the emphasis upon diversity, there seems to be a focus on everything but a respect for a diversity of opinions and an attempt to understand them. 

Parenting is much less a matter of feeling your way through things as it is thinking your way through things.  Our first response to a situation is often to give in to our child to secure happiness or peace in the present.  However, good parenting often consists of thinking rather than reacting and definitely in resisting initial impulses.

Having said that, it must be clarified that parenting should never be presented as an exact science or a science at all, but more as an art where actions are considered within existing contingencies and where the quality of the effort as opposed to the amount of effort determine the outcome.  Much of what passes as informed opinion is grounded in beliefs that arise from things that support our existing beliefs.  Those beliefs are often grounded in self-interest and emerge from what we want to believe as opposed to what we know.  As some contemporary wit stated it “I will see it when I believe it”. It is also more convenient to blame others or portray ourselves as victims than to take responsibility for our own actions and to scrutinize the beliefs giving rise to them.  Parenting also relies upon consistency and given the state of many marriages this is something to be sought rather than merely assumed to be in place.  Many parents agree to disagree and in so doing child rearing becomes a battleground of contesting approaches doomed to have disastrous but fully predicable outcomes.

The overprotectiveness of children is associated with over mothering.  In 19th century England, upper class boys were removed from protective nannies and mothers and sent off to board schools giving rise to books such as Tom Brown’s School Days.  This was regarded as a necessary measure needed to prepare them for a less than receptive adult world.  Poor families did not need to go to these measures because the work and effort required to subsist spared nobody.  The luxury of a childhood emerged only with wealth and leisure.  With changes in family dynamics and a discrediting of paternalism in all its forms, it would seem that we might have now entered an age of maternalism in which the primary parenting influence has been taken over by the mother.  The result of the expansion of extending this approach to the care of infants and adolescents

could be argued to be a consequence of men’s diminished role in parenting, the erosion of the family unit and the lack of positive male role models. 

Be that as it may, the messaging and parenting within the family do not exist in a vacuum and there are many more challenges from without than in previous generations. 

Present educational policies and philosophies undermine consequences by producing an artificial environment that conforms to students and yields to demands for special treatment and exemptions.  Advocacy for children is based upon the same premises as the criminal justice system in that lawyers define guilt and innocence in terms of intricacies within the law.  What was once trial by combat to determine guilt or innocence by brute force is now trial by argument in which one side attempts to outwit the other regardless of the guilt or innocence of their client.   Advocacy for one’s child more than often is motivated by a desire for special treatment or an exclusion from the consequences that apply to others.  Much of the flawed educational practices and philosophies currently in place are not just the result of being poorly thought but also responses to parental pressures of advocacy to bend rules or make exceptions.

Schools used to be based upon a competitive meritocracy to screen students for desirable careers and post-secondary options.  Prior to this, those options were largely determined by those who had money rather than the superior ability or indeed ability at all.  Attempts to eliminate competition from within schools is as ill advised as eliminating it from sports. In the final analysis, it not only destabilizes the activity but also denies the fundamental nature of society and the individuals who make it up.  Competition is not just a want, it is also a need.  Competition does not vanish by suppression.  However, it does benefit from being directed into positive venues.  Competition cannot be successfully repressed but it can be constructively sublimated.

Other families in the immediate community often present challenges.  Instead of providing support they can often provide examples that threaten or undermine positive parenting models.  Whereas families traditionally looked to each other for support, that common ground is no longer apparent or to be taken for granted.  This factor combined with the alternative reality promoted through media in all its forms, makes information more available in quantity while totally bypassing any considerations of quality.   Much of the available messaging can be confusing and destructive to any mind seeking answers amidst confusion.

Parenting is hard work and a huge responsibility but it is also the important bridge between one generation and another.  The shortcomings of our children weaken their prospects for personal happiness and fulfillment but also weaken the society at large and jeopardize its future.  Given the current state of affairs, there is some justification for concern as the challenges ahead of our children continue to grow both personally and collectively.   Again, it is important to stress the quality of that effort and not merely the quantity of it.  The struggle to provide children with what they need as opposed to what they want is both stressful and difficult requiring constant vigilance.

Dropping the Worry Ball is a good introduction to the art of parenting and to the general topic of thinking about how to be a good parent.  It is easy to read and you will find it constructive and worthwhile.

Book Review: Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men. Leonard Sax, M.D.,Ph.D., New York: Basic Books, 2007. 267 pages.

Despite the fact that Boys Adrift was published over a decade ago, it remains pertinent today as raising issues that continue to remain unaddressed and of growing importance.  The author possesses the distinct advantage of not only having a medical degree but also a Ph.D. in psychology which in this case serves to demonstrate a competent handling of research data while at the same time resisting the temptation to over-medicalize behavior. 

As of the time of writing the book, the author notes that one third of all men in the United States between the ages of 22 to 34 were still living at home with their parents representing a 100% increase over the previous 20 years.    He goes on to say “I’ve seen hundreds of families where the girls are the smart, driven ones, while their brothers are laid back and unmotivated.   The opposite pattern --- with boys being the intense, successful child while his sister is relaxed and unconcerned about her future — is rare.”  He then goes on to say that as of the time of writing there are 2 boys for every three girls attending college and that in some larger colleges the ratio is 2 girls to each boy.  He provides the following statistics of male attendance at colleges:

1949          70%

1959          64%

1969          59%

1979          49%

1989          46%

1999          44%

2006          42%

I could find no data to update this to 2019 but can only assume that the numbers have continued to deteriorate.  Based upon the patterns indicated however, a rough estimate would place the current numbers at between 38% and 40%.

Having stated the problem, he goes on to examine the causes.  Sax goes on to identify five causes.  These are (a) changes at school (b) video games (c) medications for ADHD (d) endocrine disruptors and (e) a lack of appropriate male role models exhibiting responsible behaviors and the values of civility.  Each of these requires attention and raises interesting issues.

Sax maintains the changes made to school environments have resulted in taking less account of gender differences and promoting a system more favorable to the inherent characteristics of females. He argues that gender related behaviors were viewed in the progressive 1960’s and onwards as being merely the result of social conditioning.  However, current research contradicts this assumption and supports the view that many of these behaviors are genetically predetermined.   Girls, he maintains, are generally less aggressive and more likely to be compliant with adults.  Boys tend to be more aggressive and prone to test limits and defy authority.  He makes reference to the fact that boys are diagnosed with ADHD three times more than girls.  He cites a 2006 University of Pennsylvania study that “…girls’ greater self-discipline and self-control- perhaps deriving from their greater motivation to please the teacher-appears to be a key distinguishing factor that has enabled girls to survive and thrive in the accelerated world of twenty-first century education.”

The other issue that he raises is the decline in learning by doing and direct experience as opposed to learning through books or interacting with a computer screen.   In simple terms this can be stated as knowing through experiences as opposed to learning about something.  The emphasis upon the latter as opposed to the former “…may seriously impair development---not cognitive development but the development of lively passionate curiosity.”  And again “The end result of a childhood with more time spent in front of computer screens than outdoors is what Louv calls “cultural autism".  The symptoms?  Tunneled senses, and feelings of isolation and containment…(and) a wired know-it-all state of mind.  That which cannot be Googled does not count.”

The second major contributing factor Sax identifies as being video games.  He argues that video games have replaced playing outdoors with the result that boys are four times more likely to be obese than boys of one generation ago.  As completion has been reduced or removed from most school settings, it has re-emerged as a primary attraction of video games in which there are clear winners and losers and opportunities for public glory.  Physical education and team sports have given way to non-participation and watching others. This lack of inclusiveness provides little outlet for male competitive drives within a real environment.  Video games, on the other hand, can provide an outlet for male aggression and role playing as well as feed a sense of maleness but within an alternative reality not grounded in the here and now.

The third factor identified is medications for ADHD. The inflated and inappropriate attribution of the diagnosis together with the rampant prescription of medications to curb behaviors has created a near epidemic.  This has happened as a result of schools pushing for a diagnosis and medications to control behavior and sanctioned by psychologists too weak to resist the pressure.  Also because “…primary care physicians  --- pediatricians and family physicians --- are not usually well-versed in the diagnostic subtleties involved in distinguishing ADHD from other explanations for why a boy might be “hyper” in the classroom.  Too often primary care physicians --- particularly in affluent suburban communities ---may suggest a trial of medications “just to see if it works”.  Bad idea.”

And again:

“…these medications may damage a crucial area of the brain responsible for drive and motivation. What’s not to like is that young children are being medicated to make the teacher’s job easier---not because it’s in the best interests of the child, but because it simplifies classroom management.”

The fourth factor identified by Sax is endocrine disruptors.  Endocrine disruptors are environmental chemicals that interfere with the endocrine or hormone systems in the body of both humans and animals.  These chemicals consist of drugs, pesticides, compounds used in plastics and consumer produces as well as industrial by-products and pollutants.  They are associated with causing a wide range of cancers as well as with learning disabilities including extreme cases of ADHD, cognitive and brain developmental issues as well as sexual development problems including the feminization of males and masculinization of females.  Research in these matters is ongoing as well as steps being taken to remove or reduce certain chemicals.  Being aware of the issues and the identified toxins makes some constructive reaction possible as does the mobilization of public opinion and enhanced government regulation.

The fifth and final factor discussed is the loss of positive role models.  Sax argues that not all traditional gender roles should be dismissed as gender stereotypes and that the deconstruction of images of ideal husbands and fathers has resulted in more men becoming self-centered and irresponsible.  He cites the fact that in the USA a little over one third of all children are born to unmarried mothers.  The decline of married couples with children is not confined to any one racial or ethnic group in America where only one in four households is made up of a married couple with one or more children.  The image of the responsible, mature and presentable father prevalent in television series through the 1950’s and 60’s has given way to the Homer Simpson stereotype:

“To become a man, a boy must see a man.  But that man doesn’t have to be his father.  In fact, ideally, it should not be only his father.  Even if your son has a strong father or father figure in his life, he also needs a community of men who together can provide him with varied models of what productive adult men do.”

In addition to the lack of positive male role models there is also the growing disconnect between the generations in which the influence of guidance of adults is replaced by other teenagers.  The immediate affect of this is to succumb to immediate pleasure and avoid any personal responsibility.  All traditions, he maintains “…embrace the truth that children and teenagers must be taught by adults, not by one another.”  Between the pulling away from adults by children as well as the lack of assuming responsibility to guide, influence and direct, the relationship between the generations has broken down.   

In the final section of the book the author concludes with outlines of possible solutions for the problems that have been identified.  These solutions involve some basic responses in terms of diet, exercise, changes to the prevailing educational philosophies and practices, sensitivity to gender differences, as well as the delivery of lessons in single sex classrooms as an option in addition to co-educational models.  However, identifying the problems as he does provides an obvious set of solutions even though those solutions may be problematic and in some cases even impractical.   Setting a good example for children and being a good role model is one example, especially in a society in which values have become so questionable and exposure to negative influences so pervasive.

I urge anyone interested to order a copy of this book.  It is well worth reading and I think attacks the problem well by first identifying it for what it is and then looking objectively for causes and contributing factors.   Many medical practitioners place emphasis on symptoms rather than causes.  In some cases this is accompanied by the assumption that there is some underlying physiological root cause yet to be identified.  In other cases, as long as the symptoms can appear to be addressed through medication the matter is considered as having been successfully dealt with.  Sax explores the sociological implications and causes of behavioral patterns and challenges much of the political correctness of gender identity in the interests of truth gathered from empirical research.

The Ten Commandments of Education

The Ten Commandments of Education


You shall not consider your level of boredom to be an index of relevance


You shall not consider your feeling that something is true to be the same as knowing that it is true


You shall not consider that a reluctance to do something is the same as having an inability to do it


You shall not consider selfishness to be individualism


You shall not believe that you can only express your uniqueness by conforming to fashion


You shall look no further than yourself to explain your failures


You shall always look to others to explain your successes


You shall not consider being able to access information as being the same as knowing it


You shall not escape responsibility by doing nothing


You shall always be ignorant of that which you do not know

Book Review: Saving Normal: an insider’s revolt against out-of-control psychiatric diagnosis, DSM-5, big pharma, and the medicalization of ordinary life. Allen Frances, M.D. New York: Harper Collins, 2013. 314 pages.

Among the many books published about learning disabilities and the associated debates, few authors could approach the issues better qualified than Dr. Frances who in addition to serving as Chair of the DSM-IV Task Force and serving as part of the leadership group for the DSM-III and DSM-IIIR, is professor emeritus and former chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Duke University School of Medicine.  His attacks on the assumptions guiding the directions of modern psychiatry are profound in their implications.  This is a book that cannot be recommended enough to those interested in the subject matter or who have a child or family member who has been subject to a psychiatric or psychological  evaluation.

Dr. Frances states a main argument with regard to his concerns;

“Human difference was never meant to be reducible to an exhaustive list of diagnosis drawn carelessly from a psychiatric manual.  It takes all types to make a successful tribe and a full palette of emotions to make a fully lived life.  We shouldn’t medicalize difference and attempt to treat it away by taking the modern day equivalent of Huxley’s soma pills.  The cruelest paradox of psychiatric treatment is that those who need it most often don’t get it, while those who do get it often don’t need it.  So how do we save normal, preserve diversity, and achieve a more rational allocation of scarce resources?”

This diagnostic inflation has its roots in a form of emotional reductionism in which the emotional ups and downs of life are rendered as treatable abnormalities requiring medication or therapy or both.  His concerns are that with this inflation has come the danger of discrediting the central core of diagnostic progress initiated by the DSM.   So what is the DSM and how did it reach this state of influence and crisis?

The author gives an informative history of psychiatry leading up to a crisis in the 1970s where psychiatry was thoroughly discredited as a result of two studies.  The first of these focused on a study where videotapes of patients were given to different psychiatrists in America and England only to show very serious discrepancies in the diagnostic results.  In another study, graduate students staged that they were hearing voices in order to be admitted to psychiatric wards and despite behaving in a perfectly normal manner were held for prolonged periods of time.   The net result was to hold the reliability of psychiatric practice in question. 

The solution to this problem was seen in the creation of the DSM III (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) which aimed to standardize diagnostic practice in the same manner as a dictionary would standardize spelling and definitions.  The aim of this was to create consistency.  Whereas the first DSM published in 1952 and the second printed in 1968 had been largely unread and ignored, the success of the much enlarged DSM III was extraordinary.  It shortly became a runaway best seller as well as a standard text of reference throughout many countries.  This was followed by the DSM III (Revised), the DSM IV and the current DSM V with each edition increasing exponentially in terms of size and content.  So how were the DSM editions created?

The DSMs were created by panels of experts who came together to decide what would be included or excluded as well as what the exact defining conditions were for each condition.  As such, conditions were given a name and then defined in terms of the specific descriptors required as the necessary and sufficient conditions to qualify.  The process was therefore inherently subjective and as the sufficient and necessary qualifications were either tightened or loosened the number of people who could be described as falling under that condition would be either increased or decreased.  As a result of other pressures such as the ability to qualify for special services or insurance coverage, the inherent dynamic was to relax the standards.  Additionally, the influence of pharmaceutical companies to promote their products as well as their unique ability to advertise directly to the public (unique among all countries in the Western Hemisphere) contributed to this tendency.  As a result, throughout the history of the various editions there is a notable decrease in the requirements for major conditions as well as an increase in the number of named or identified conditions.  This double thrust has resulted in a monumental level of diagnostic inflation that now appears to have taken on a life of its own.

To give a concrete example of this in terms of impact, a person might be considered as being accurately diagnosed as being ADHD according to the DSMV who would not have qualified according to the DSM IV.  As such, the attribution is conditional upon the defining characteristics.  But as any first year philosophy student will tell you, defining the characteristics of something does not determine existence.  For example, determining the characteristics of Santa Claus does not confer existence upon him.  Therefore, whatever existence ADHD may be said to have is not the same as say measles in which there is an identifiable and discrete biological causative agent that generates the symptoms.  In other words, there is an existent thing independent of the attributes.  In the event of all mental conditions, the underlying assumption is that there is some biological, neurological underpinning that though not identified is the causative agent.  Therefore, in keeping with the best traditions of behaviorist psychology, the DSM focuses on observed behaviors and does not concern itself with explanations involving the inner mechanisms of conscious or unconscious motivations or intent.  This however is suggestive of a naïve sense of Cartesian dualism in which mind and body or mind and brain are two distinct things that somehow interact or in which mental phenomena is in some manner merely derivative of the brain.  Sophisticated explanations of this issue are involved in what in philosophy are referred to as The Mind/Body problem.  The most satisfactory explanations involve the view that mind and brain are one and the same thing but looked upon from different aspects leading to a description of individuals as mind/bodies.  As such, mental states can be described in terms of chemical balances but are not ultimately reducible to them any more than the Mona Lisa can be reducible to five primary colours.

As such the consistency offered by virtue of the DSM though necessary has also given rise to an inherent reductionism or simplicity of interpretation.  Although Dr. Frances alludes to this, he does not in my opinion go far enough because looking closely at some conditions can arguably undermine the very foundations from which they are formed.  In short, inferences based upon behavior devoid of intention can give rise to simplistic interpretations.  Repeated behaviors around not paying attention can lead to the conclusion that the subject has difficulty paying attention but if asked might say that no effort to pay attention is forthcoming because the subject has no interest or perceived benefit from engaging in the activity.  The term ‘disability’ has as an underlying assumption that the subject wishes to do something but has the desire to.  A cunning proponent will argue that the subject has no desire to because they experience difficulty doing so.  However, this argument is clearly circular and is of the same form as defining good as what is not bad and what is bad as is not good.  We know from our own experience that our interests are largely dictated by whether we find value in something or not. Therefore some people will experience great excitement watching a hockey game and be able to remember all of the events in detail while another may follow a chess tournament with equal attention.

In talking to boys over the years about why they have exhibited so little effort in individual classes or school generally it is common to discover that it is not an inability to focus or put forward effort but a lack of willingness based upon a lack of interest in doing so.  This is often tied in with three important factors.  First, they perceive no immediate useful utility in what they are learning.  Second, there is no immediate tangible reward for this effort or disincentive either. Third, many believe that there is no sense in learning what can be readily accessed on a smart phone.  As such, access to information and its repetition is equated with the ability to know and process information.

However, the consistent theme in all learning disabilities as with all behavioral and mental disabilities is the focus on the observed behaviors as a cluster of information not unified or directed by an agent or self.  The result of this is language such a John has ADHD when in fact it might be more accurate to say that John is ADHD.  The language itself directs the narrative along the lines of an affliction impinging upon the individual from the outside as opposed to behaviors for which the individual has control or is accountable.  In this manner, personal responsibility for behaviors is removed and the individual is then represented as a victim of an agency external to their control.  Just as you would not blame a person for having measles the same implication results from the diagnosis that a person has ASDHD.

As such, the dysfunctions identified by clinical psychologists and psychiatrists are largely a result of reified clusters of behaviors that are then interpreted in terms of an affliction largely addressable by prescription drugs as opposed to any cognitive adjustment in terms of processing and accountability.  This is where the talk therapy that emanated from what used to be referred to as depth psychology has given way to prescriptions and pharmaceutical solutions.  Talk therapy once practiced by psychiatrists and psychoanalysts has increasingly given way to medication partly as a result of their success in suppressing the symptoms of mental illness but also in part as a result of cost effectiveness.  The talk therapies practiced by figures such as Freud, Adler, Jung and others could involve hundreds of hours of patient contact and as such even if they proved to be effective would be financially untenable for any general applicability.  These practical underpinnings have resulted in talk therapies being used by therapists and social workers under such banners as Mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

However, to return to the issue of the medicalization of ‘normal’ behaviors I am reminded of a television commercial that was current a few years ago.  It started with a scene of a party in a room in a house or apartment with people standing around engaged in happy conversation contrasted by a single young woman seated by herself on a sofa looking quite uncomfortable.  A deep voice then materialized asking the questions “Do you feel awkward in social settings?’  “Do you find yourself lacking the confidence to interact with others?” “Do you feel alone and hopeless?” Then the answer comes that if you say yes to these questions you are probably suffering from Social Anxiety Disorder.  The good news being that once identified, the problem can be addressed and solved.  There is a medication, the name of which is given prominently on the screen, and with this your problems can be solved.   You are advised to see your physician and to ask for this medication.  The next scene in this commercial consists of a repeat of the initial scene but with the solitary female now standing and happily interacting with an eligible male who is equally animated.

This commercial serves as an excellent example of the overall template used to market pharmaceutical solutions.  First there is an identified problematic behavior quickly followed by the naming of the behavior or behaviors as if in some manner the process of naming it implies some power, control or understanding of it.  Then there is the presentation of a medication that will instantaneously solve the problems by eliminating the problematic behaviors with the assumption that once the behaviors are eliminated or controlled the causes are no longer relevant ---assuming of course that they ever were.  In the case of the woman in question, the internal mental conditions responsible for her behaviors or causing her to behave in this manner become irrelevant.  Once the symptoms are addressed the problem is viewed as solved.  The formula involves the exaggeration of a problem to the level of a crisis followed by the suggestion that the problem having been named is understood followed by a simple solution step resolving the issues and bring about a hopeful future.  In such a manner, a shy or timid person is rendered dysfunctional and in need of normalization through medication.  The complexities of thought, feeling and personality vanish.

I think that Dr. Frances’s book is a valuable and thought-producing work.  It should be carefully read and digested in terms of its implications both in terms of mental health issues but also within the framework of human diversity of personality, temperament and abilities. 

Bertrand Russell as Educator: The Freedom of Discipline or The Therapeutic Applications of Philosophy

A Paper Presented to the American Bertrand Russell Society at the Annual Meeting Held at McMaster University in May of 2018 by Dr. David B. Harley B.A.Hons.,M.A.,M.A.,Phd. (Toronto)

Preliminary Remarks

In 1980 I completed my Ph.D. Thesis at the University of Toronto entitled “Beacon Hill and the Constructive Uses of Freedom”.  Over the next three years it was expanded and modified and then laid to rest in a drawer as I gave up the theory of education to become immersed in its practical application within the private sector.  Recently, the manuscript has been unearthed and I have started a final revision with a view to publication that now benefits from three decades of practical experience.  Russell’s ideas have guided me throughout my career.  As the theory and practice of education have developed over the intervening years, I have become increasingly convinced that Russell’s core ideas about education have taken on increased relevance especially in and around what I have chosen to call The Freedom of Discipline.

Contrary to every rule of writing an essay, I have therefore decided at my own peril to not restrict my subject matter to a manageable selective presentation but have instead opted to try to cover too much in too little time.  My offered defense lies in the fact in as much as this represents a kind of précis of a much larger work, I hope that you will make allowances accordingly.   The arguments presented and the facts to justify them are not as lengthy or as detailed as the originals from which they have emerged.  There is therefore a certain impoverishment necessitated by imposing upon content the limitations of time. 

This presentation is focused on three central arguments.  First, that Russell’s interest in education, though commonly perceived as being aroused primarily only after the birth of his children, can in fact be traced well into his earliest years and extends through most of his writings and as such should not be viewed as being merely tangential to his primary interests.  Second, that Russell’s educational theories as put into practice at the experimental Beacon Hill School in 1927 bore only superficial similarities to A.S. Neill’s Summerhill and were indeed distinguished by very profound differences in approach arising from what were incompatible views on how individual freedom could best be promoted within an educational context.  Third, that many of the changes in modern educational theories and practice since the 1960’s have  been largely inspired by views arising from Neill’s influence and have suffered accordingly as a result of a flawed concept of how freedom should be applied and understood in the upbringing and education of children.

Anyone who has read Russell’s autobiography knows that his early life was unhappy and characterized by death, loneliness and fear of mental instability.  His sister died in 1874 followed quickly by the death of his mother in the same year.   Russell’s father Amberley died two years later upon whose death Russell and his brother Frank were removed to stay with their paternal grandparents despite the dying wishes of Amberley who had made other arrangements in order to spare them the evils of a religious upbringing.  In 1876 the two boys went to live at Pembroke Lodge and Frank was quickly sent away to a boarding school leaving the young Bertie alone.  In 1878, Lord John Russell, his grandfather, died followed in 1880 by the death of Russell’s aunt’s child and then Russell’s aunt in the same year.   After Lord Russell’s death it was necessary to undertake a considerable downsizing of staff and servants as well as the  the shutting down of portions of the house.   

The lack of other children and a stern religious upbringing gave rise to an introverted childhood filled with insecurities and finding solace in nature , books and increasingly in mathematics.    According to Russell, his upbringing was repressive to the extreme and characterized by religious orthodoxy.  He endured the onset of puberty with intense confusion, guilt and ignorance. 

In 1889 at the age of 17 he met and fell in love with Alys Pearsall Smith, an American Quaker who Lady Russell, his grandmother, made it clear she felt was not an appropriate match.  After his 21st birthday, Russell inherited funds sufficient to enable him to make an independent choice, and so a meeting was arranged with the family doctor during which time he was made aware that his Aunt Agatha had suffered from insane delusions, that his father had been subject to epilepsy and that he had an uncle whose existence had been kept a secret who was committed to an insane asylum.  The fact that there was some insanity in Alys’s family provided additional barriers to the marriage for fear that mental infirmness would be passed to children.  Russell then decided to have a childless marriage.   However at the time the use of contraceptives was believed to contribute to insanity and mental disabilities and so Russell was then confronted with the prospect of a marriage without children and without sex.  Fortunately, he was able to find another physician who advised him that there were no negative effects from the use of contraceptives and that he himself employed them with no injurious effects.  Russell decided to go forward with the marriage only to have another obstacle brought to bear by Lady Russell who had arranged for him to leave England to accept a position with the British Embassy in Paris.  This did nothing to diminish his resolve, and he was married In December of 1894.

The rich exchange of letters between Russell and Alys during this period reveals a great deal of self-examination of his own upbringing,  how he would avoid these shortcomings if he had children and the growing belief that the mental infirmness in his own family was the direct result of upbringing and mis-education.

In one such letter he states: “…I remember saying to myself:  When I have to do with children I will remember my present feelings and avoid those mistakes that are being made with me.”

and again:

“I wish we were going to have children, if only to give them a sensible education in matters of sex---I should almost like to start a co-educational school for the purpose of applying my theories…”

The shortcomings in Russell’s early education are presented by him as being directly attributable to his grandmother’s inflexible, puritanical and moralistic attitudes towards all matters but especially sex as well as the inappropriate circumstances of solitude imposed upon him.  His grandmother, as he states, was interested in piety and nothing else.  The only highlights of his upbringing are attributed to being introduced to the joys of science by his uncle Rollo and to Euclid and mathematics by his brother Frank.

Despite the fact that the early part of the 1900’s is associated with Russell’ work in theoretical mathematics and logic, between 1901 and 1903 he wrote pieces that include “The Study of Mathematics”, ”A Free Man’s Worship”, “On History” and in addition began a book on education of which the manuscript's first chapter has survived entitled “The Education of the Emotions”.  The importance of this manuscript cannot be overestimated for it proves that Russell had thought enough about the topic of education to feel compelled to write a book about it.  Moreover, the ideas presented in “The Education of the Emotions” demonstrates a remarkable continuity with those that he later developed and published.

Russell begins by stating that the division of the mind between intellect and emotions is largely fictitious and based upon convention.   Given that people understand best what interests them and since interests are derived from emotions, it follows that intellect and emotions are inextricably woven together.  The education of the emotions must take place during the first seven years of life and should foster the development of good emotions and remove evil ones where ‘good’ emotions come from a love of what is good as opposed to a renunciation of what is bad.  Good emotions are those that expand the boundaries of self to include others and eventually all of mankind.  Early education should aim to instill a “love of great ends” the pursuit of which he believes constitutes the good life.  Discipline, he maintains, is only second in importance to magnanimity and is of such importance that its cultivation must be started from the earliest of years.

Russell goes on to consider an opposing philosophy of education which espouses the natural goodness of man, a belief that the need for discipline is exaggerated, and that the child’s impulses are only good as long as they are left unthwarted, so that the goal of education is merely to allow free play.  Although Russell agrees that it is important to train good impulses, Russell argues that good impulses are rarely sufficient because the means to realize the end cannot immediately follow the urge and may require many intermediary steps.  Hence “Whoever has not learnt to endure tedium and pain is incapable of persistence, or of difficulties which resist prolonged and repeated assaults.”  He goes on to argue that it is sometimes as important to restrain good emotions as bad ones since exclusive concern with the welfare of those close to us may counter the dictates of just action.  Therefore, even someone with no bad impulses would still need discipline:

“It becomes, consequently, an unavoidable element in education to teach the habit of judging all desires, even the best, in the court of reason, and of allowing scope only to such as are acquitted in that tribunal.” 

As such, objectivity and reason as manifestations of mental discipline combined with knowledge to afford the basis of action such that concrete ways to secure good ends can be realized and in so doing bring happiness and fulfillment. 

This view of what is to be ideally achieved through education is what I shall refer to as the Freedom of Discipline which finds itself ideally expressed many years later in his autobiography when discussing the views that he shared with Joseph Conrad.

“His point of view, one might perhaps say, was the antithesis of Rousseau’s…. (man) becomes free, so I believe Conrad would have said, not by letting loose his impulse, not by being casual and uncontrolled, but by subduing wayward impulse to dominant purpose.”

Small wonder therefore that Russell named his first son John Conrad and his other son Conrad Russell.

Beacon Hill School was established in 1927 and could be seen as the fulfillment of his intention expressed in 1894 to Alys.  He maintained  that having looked at available alternatives, he could find no school that was fully satisfactory despite the fact that he was able to find school placements for his children both before and after Beacon Hill. But then indeed, starting up new experimental schools and advocating innovations in education seemed to be the thing to do as a wave of new private schools made their appearance such as Bembridge School (1919), Rendcomb School (1919), The Malting House School in Cambridge (1924),  A.S. Neill’s Summerhill (1924, Dartington Hall 1926) and the Bryanston School in 1928 among others.  H.G. Wells, though not starting up a new school, still took it upon himself to provide the new textbooks for the wave of educational reform and produced The Outline of History, The Work Wealth and Happiness of Mankind and the Biology of Life  thereby covering the fields of History, Economics and Science.

The Beacon Hill prospectus that was mailed to interested parents described the proposed program and its objectives.  These included:

  • combining physical and psychological care as suggested by modern knowledge of the growth of personality
  • dispelling or avoiding anxieties and nervousness to which developing children are liable
  • open air activities to give children every opportunity for “running wild” as in the old-fashion large family
  • aesthetic development through sense training
  • active as opposed to passive learning
  • great emphasis to be placed upon intellectual development
  • free speech and open discussion on any topic
  • teaching of the classics to be held to a minimum
  • main emphasis to be placed upon science and modern humanities
  • individual initiative and curiosity to provide the main thrust for learning as opposed to authority, external disciple and drill
  • knowledge to be presented not as mere knowledge but as an instrument of progress
  • not to produce listless intellectuals but young men and women filled with constructive hopefulness

The setting for this experiment was no less impressive than its aspirations. Telegraph House in Sussex was large and spacious with the then modern conveniences of electric light and central heating situated among 230 acres of forest and 600 feet above sea level.  It belonged to Russell’s brother Frank and was rented from him for this purpose.

The staff included a cook, a housekeeper, three maids, two chauffeurs and a gardener, a matron, an assistant matron, science, art and language instructors, a part-time music teacher, a visiting doctor and Russell’s own private secretary.  Both Russell and his second wife Dora also acted as teachers.  With a student population that varied between about 15 and 25, it was small wonder that the school consistently lost money.    The days were marked by a rigid schedule.  Each morning would begin with a lineup of naked children who one by one received a cold shower.  Students were expected to make their own beds before breakfast and after breakfast everyone would proceed upstairs to brush their teeth.  After that, each student would take out their pot and sit on it in a line.  The importance of regular bowel movements was considered important and as his daughter Katharine Tait recounted years later, it was a little shameful to have not produced something in one’s pot.  At 11:00 there was a break from classes at which time orange juice was served.  This was considered a radical departure at the time as considered opinion dictated that it was too acidic for children’s digestive systems.  At 1:00 there was lunch and there was full tea served at 4:30. His daughter recalled:

“We had no choice in food, which was dreary and institutional English, though eminently nourishing….Cookies were rare, cake unknown, sugar frowned upon unless it was deep dark brown.  There were no snacks between meals, and everything was plain and nutritious.”

“For some obscure reason, drinking with meals was supposed to be bad for us.  We had to wait until after the meal, when tin mugs of tepid water would appear on large tin trays….After a particularly dry meal, we would all sit in a row on the bottom of the stairs, as close as possible to the kitchen door, waiting for the water tray to come in.”

And again:

“Though we were not free to ruin our health with late hours and bad food, we were never required to “behave ourselves” at meals, which were often quite wild occasions.  A favorite amusement was putting a dab of butter on the end of a knife and flicking it at the ceiling, where it stuck and gradually melted away into a grease spot.”

Perhaps it was from witnessing such things that some visitors came away believing that Beacon Hill was the “do as you please school”.  Sir A.J. Ayer who visited it in 1931 described it as “anarchic” and one supposes that he was one of many who shared that view.  However, Russell’s apparently strange juxtapositions of freedom and order had the effect of disguising just how much structure there was at Beacon Hill School if only one looked past first impressions.  Responding to such an attack in 1930,

Russell wrote: (the critic) “appears to think that the principles upon which we run our school can be described as ‘Back to Nature Don’t Discipline the Child theories’.  It may possibly interest you to know that self-discipline, and more particularly intellectual discipline, is one of the main things taught in our school.”

In a letter to H.G. Wells dated May 24th, 1928 Russell wrote: “You will realize that hardly any educational reformers lay much stress upon intelligence.  A.S. Neill, for example, who is in many ways an admirable man, allows such complete liberty that his children fail to get the necessary training and are always going to the cinema, when they might otherwise be interested in things of more value.”

And then many years later in Portraits from Memory: "It seemed to me, and still seems, that in a technically complex civilization such as ours a man cannot play an important part unless in youth he has had a very considerable dose of sheer instruction.”

Whereas Neill and many others to the present time believe that children are like turnips that should be left in the soil and watered but otherwise left to grow naturally and that any outside interference with that will inevitably lead to malformation,  Russell’s views are seen to be very different.   His promotion of individual growth involves a freedom of emotions such as to produce a foundation for intellectual growth that will fuse with emotions in such a manner as to promote the self-discipline required for rational self-regulation and moral purpose.

It is clear that Russell’s views on education can be distinguished by several main themes:

  • That in childhood emotional health should be viewed as a priority for providing a platform for intellectual growth which in turn feeds from and directs emotional growth
  • Education should direct its energies towards cultivating a certain mental framework through which the individual can best realize their potential through the assimilation of knowledge.
  • The end result of realizing individual freedom through discipline is an ongoing dynamic process at an intellectual/emotional level enabling the individual to acquire, process and act upon knowledge while being orchestrated by self-control imposed through the strength of the will.

It is clear that within the restrictions of current educational possibilities much of Russell’s educational proposals could not pass present day standards of political correctness or religious or nationalistic orthodoxy.  It is interesting to note however that his concerns with  emotional/intellectual growth are now increasingly reflected in therapeutic movements such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Mindfulness all of which attempt to stress-self-examination of actions relative to consequences as well as attempts to focus emotions outside of the self in order to gain some level of objectivity and to combat the growing trends towards narcissism.

Impulsivity among the young is certainly on the rise and now has an official diagnosis in the form of Executive Functioning Disorder (DSM 5).  But so is a rising tendency towards intolerance towards the views of others and a growing tendency to attack offending points of view either personally or through intimidation.  Dogmatism is certainly on the rise and the slumber of decided opinion has certainly taken on a new force.  Increasingly, people seem to argue from a position that they feel that they are right and the intensity of that feeling is an indicator of the truth of their position.  These tendencies are dangerous and do not certainly encourage optimism for the future.

The development of Russell’s mind throughout his life and his struggle with powerful emotions demonstrated a disciplined approach to knowledge as reflected in both his analytical philosophy as well as his promotion of a scientific outlook.  There is little doubt in my mind that for Russell a certain lurking fear of insanity remained throughout his life giving rise to a distrust of strong passions and actions not sanctioned or directed by reason and evidence.  In the present day strong emotions or passions towards fixed beliefs and positions seem increasingly embraced.  At no time has it been more important, one could argue, than in the present to refocus education towards the goal of teaching students how to think rather than what to think.   Recent movements in pre-university education have focused exclusively on Learning Outcomes rather than on the development of cognitive skill sets that given the facts would suggest outcomes rather than demand them.  Computers and the internet have provided limitless information accessed by those increasingly incapable of intellectually processing that information.  Just as the ownership of a book does not by itself suggest that a person has either read it or understood it, the immediate access to information in no way implies that it has been understood or can be rationally processed in a meaningful manner.  

In conclusion, I think that Russell’s focus on what education should attempt to achieve is of great importance today.  Indeed the very future of liberal democracies may well depend upon the promotion of the Freedom of Discipline at the individual level that is required to halt the drift towards the polarization, intolerance and growing self-absorption evident in modern society.