Suffer the little children

By August 3, 2012Education, Society

Last evening I went to the 20th birthday celebration of the Wiradjuri Centre of the University of Canberra. You could say it is a child-care centre, or a pre-school, or a teaching site, or a research site, or a pre-service area for future teachers —and it is all of them. It has international fame, and was started during my time at UC; I liked it and cared for it. The birthday celebration was an inspiring and joyous event, and I was delighted to be part of it. More, Wiradjuri was part of a shift in my thinking, in which the importance of universities began to be replaced by the importance of the very small, the 0-5 age-group.

It was not that I thought universities were unimportant. Not at all. But I had seen them as the inevitable and proper end of the educational ladder, as though everything in education led up to them, and that (therefore) what happened in them was supremely important. A lot of university people think like that, and it is natural enough for them to do so. Now I began to see that the first step on the ladder was no less important, because if it was missed then it was too hard for the child to reach the second step, and that he or she might never get to university, or even to finish high school.

That was twenty years ago, and in the time since I have begun to see high-quality early childhood education as vital for the future of our society. I have written a bit about it, and talked about it too. Our Governments have also moved the same way, and more is being done to provide that sector with the resources other than the disinterested love and commitment that all good education needs. Howard Gardner, whom I have mentioned before in these posts, once said that the greatest advance in education over the past few centuries has been bringing the children in out of the rain. If you infer that he thinks we’ve hardly begun to think seriously about education, then you’re probably right.

My thinking now has moved from the first step the infant makes in the child-care centre or pre-school to the decision to make the infant in the first place, because in many ways the education system has become a first-aid station for parenting and its ailments. The problem is, of course, that the decision to make a baby is seen as an absolutely private one, and that the state has no place in it. Yet  we citizens who underpin the state are affected for good and for ill by every newly made infant. We need replacements for ourselves and others, but they come with costs, and the costs are everywhere — education, health, infrastructure of all kinds, and so on. And the costs are determined by those who make the babies, one here, six there.

I don’t quite know where to go down this path, but there is no doubt that our governments recognise that bad decisions about making babies have real consequences for the society. The Howard Government set up a parenting website, and though I felt it was inadequate (I would have gone further), it was an important first step.

If we took the education of the young really seriously, we wouldn’t start with the born baby, but with the unborn one, and its potential mother and father. We would be discouraging girls from having babies unless they were in a supportive relationship that had real legs. We would be emphasising that that as parents we only have a short relationship with our children as young people: for most of our lives our relationship will be with adult children, just as our longest relationship with our parents was as adults. We would be emphasising that real love of children prepares them to be responsible, productive, self-actuating, self-confident  and altruistic adults.

That of course is not the way stories and advertising picture parenting, which is about little babies of great beauty held in the arms of mothers of no less attractiveness. But at last count we had more than 300,000 families led by single mothers. I respect the efforts those women make to give their children a good start, but the odds are against them. I am a carrot-offerer, not a stick-wielder, so I am not proposing being tough with them.

When to have babies is a conversation that we have mostly privately, not publicly. While I am not someone who thinks that the planet cannot support 9 billion people, the likely limit by 2050, the pressures on our own society of our oncreasing population means that it is a subject that should become much more public.

And I have written about how I would spend money on early childhood education. You can read in  my Writings: go to the top of  the home page, and select the Philip Hughes essay at the top of the Education section. It would be really expensive! Higher tax, anyone?

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