A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

Does teaching preschoolers about Aboriginal culture or homosexuality make them more ‘tolerant’? This educator thinks not.

Catherine Scott

Topics Politics

There is a strong belief in our culture that ‘knowledge is power’. There is a parallel suspicion that those who wish to deny certain knowledge to some people are doing so to protect a powerful group or interest. ‘Transparency’ is touted as a virtue and the ‘right to know’ is promoted.

There is no doubt that in some cases information is covered up in order to protect dubious activities. But is it always the case that it is a good idea to ‘let it all hang out’?

Educators also have great faith in the power of information to change people in desirable ways. We, and the community at large, believe that knowing more about an issue or a group of people will inevitably lead to more informed attitudes and greater tolerance.

My observations of young children have caused me to doubt the worth of some attempts to increase children’s tolerance by increasing their awareness. This occurs when programmes are designed without regard to children’s developmental stage. In these circumstances another old saw applies: a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

My first inkling that well-meaning education programmes might be doing more harm than good came when my family moved to a country town in Australia that had a large Aboriginal population. I was wandering around the shopping centre with my four-year-old and we encountered some Aboriginal people. My daughter asked why they had dark skin and I said ‘because they are Aboriginals’.

She proclaimed: ‘Aboriginals are yucky.’

I was appalled and astounded, as she had had no contact with Aboriginal people until we moved to the town a month or so before. I asked her why they were ‘yucky’. She replied that it was because they eat grubs.

It transpired that her previous preschool had conducted an Aboriginal education programme. Its well-meaning teachers had not considered how the information presented might sound to three- and four-year-old Anglo children, especially the effect that knowing that the Aboriginal diet included witchetty grubs might have on them.

Another example of the backfiring of attempts to educate about human difference is the introduction of very young children to the variety of human sexual practices. The ABC children’s television programme Play School has featured gay people and there are any number of well-meaning books with titles like Angie Has Two Daddies.

Anyone who has dealings with infants and primary school-aged children, as a parent, teacher or otherwise, knows that for kids of this age ‘kissing’ and everything that goes with it is in the same category as eating grubs: it’s yucky! This is the case for heterosexual activity and the ‘yuck factor’ now also extends to homosexual activity, something about which most children of earlier generations knew nothing.

Of course it is not the sexual practices that are taught – but make no mistake, there’s enough subterranean knowledge circulating in the playground about what mummies and daddies do to make it plain what daddies and daddies or mummies and mummies might also be doing.

The new awareness has not led to increased tolerance of human variety – rather, my observations indicate that the result is a whole new set of things to be concerned about and an increased collection of nasty names to call people. These days infant school girls call each other ‘leso’. I took a straw poll and others agree with me that ‘in our day’ infants and primary school (or even high school) children did not abuse each other in this fashion.

Thus, far from an increase in tolerance the inappropriate mixing of information about varying sexual practices with lack of cognitive readiness has led to intolerance.

Children decide soon after they start school that teachers are obviously a higher authority than parents, because, for example, notes go home telling parents to do things and parents oblige. This notion can combine with some, again, well-meaning education programmes to cause difficulties. I shall use my youngest child as an example once again.

In her final year of preschool my daughter started to respond to many requests with strident refusals and the insistence that ‘I don’t have to do what you tell me to/what I don’t want to do’. Another moment of astonishment and concern followed for her mother. I tried to get to the bottom of this newfound rebelliousness and discovered that it was her take on the message being purveyed by the anti-child abuse education she had received.

Programmes designed to help children avoid abuse quite rightly do not go into detail about the harm they are designed to prevent, and can quite easily be interpreted as conferring the right to say ‘no’ to anything that the child does not want to do. My daughter is certainly not the only one who got the wrong message: another mother reported that the result for her son of ‘If it doesn’t feel right, you can say no’ was his refusal to eat peas because ‘it doesn’t feel right’. He cited his teacher as the authority supporting his defiant stance.

My daughter is now eight but the residual effects of her misunderstanding the point of the anti-abuse education lingers. It is now part of her mindset that she does not have to do what she does not want to do. There is a troubling sense in which such programmes lead to an ‘it’s all about me’ mentality rather than ‘I’m part of a family/community’ attitudes.

While we understandably want our children and those we teach to be able to look after themselves while being tolerant of others, current attempts to ensure this may be backfiring. It’s time to consider whether children are hearing what we are trying to say to them. Or whether it is the case, to quote one of my informants, that ‘we’ve gone from being ignorant even as adults about many matters, not too many generations ago, to being informed but still ignorant at the age of 5’.

Catherine Scott is an Australian former art teacher who has taught in both primary and secondary schools. She also worked briefly as a school counsellor. She currently lectures in neuropsychology and learning theory.

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Topics Politics


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