In the blog post “When and How Do People Learn To Think?,” David Harriman says:
Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order in the sixteenth century, once said: “Give me a child until the age of seven and I will give you the man.”
He exaggerated, but he wasn’t wrong. If the age is changed to seventeen, then–in a certain sense–I would agree. By that age, an individual has automatized a particular method of thinking (or of not thinking), a way that his mind habitually deals with its content. Ayn Rand called it “psycho-epistemology,” and it is a crucial aspect of who we are. It isn’t set in stone by high school graduation, but it’s difficult and rare for adults to make major improvements in their psycho-epistemology.
Now, how do people learn their basic method of thinking? Typically, they do so by generalizing from countless arguments they heard during their formative years, and not by explicit study of epistemology. If the arguments they accepted in their youth were based on vague ideas and frequent appeals to emotion, then that becomes part of their implicit method. If they accepted many rationalistic arguments that merely deduced connections between floating abstractions, then that becomes part of their method. In any case, most people cannot identify the essentials of their method–it is automatic and implicit. And despite the fact that there are often inconsistencies, there is usually a dominant approach that guides an individual’s thinking.
Yes, how one teaches matters a great deal — and it shows that not all teachers are interchangeable. One should take choosing one’s child’s teachers and educational methods as seriously as picking a brain surgeon.
Some teachers can do a lot of good for your child; some can do a lot of harm. The harm does not have to be deliberate and abusive; the harm can be implicit and subtle. Students pick up methods of thought from how they are taught and from the work they do.
The methods of Plato, Kant, John Dewey are destructive; they undercut a student’s training in reasoning and therefore in discovering and choosing the ideas and values needed for a good, happy, successful life. A year spent learning algebra a la Plato can leave one, for the rest of one’s life, wondering how algebra is useful. A few years of learning math a la Plato can leave one wondering how math — one of the most practical sciences there is — is ever used in life. A year of learning physics influenced by Plato and Kant can blind you to the use of reason and induction in dealing with the physical world, i.e., can make you wonder what kind of “magical” powers some people like Newton and Maxwell have, since they seem to come up with ideas out of nowhere, ideas we could never grasp or develop.
In contrast, methods of Aristotle, Newton, Rand, Locke, Jefferson, Galileo, Montessori, help students make the most of themselves and their lives. The methods help a student grasp the true nature of a subject — math, politics, art, physics — and show him how to apply them to the practical necessities and the enjoyment of life. A good teacher, as you know, can give you a lifelong passion for math, or physics, or literature, or history. A good physics teacher can open your mind to how the physical world works and how we know it, and can use physics to teach you some methods (induction, research, internal Q&A) that you can use in other areas of life and learning.
The methods of education and the teachers of your child can help or hinder your child. Now individuals have free will and are not programmed like computers by their teachers and schools; individuals can and do maintain their own integrity; what a child chooses to do in the privacy and sanctity of his own mind is a powerful factor on his thinking methods, as are his environments of friends and family — but the mind is complex and hard to figure out; no one can learn everything on his own; and the time students spend in school and under the watch of a teacher is time they are training themselves to think a certain way, and that training does have some effects for better or for worse, so we need to choose carefully.