I will cut to the chase and assert that properly understood, parents and teachers do, or should, ‘impose’ something on their children or students. Here I follow one of the Oxford definitions of impose: ‘to place authoritatively.’

An ever-controversial issue is whether education of the young is more a drawing out or a putting-in of something. The truth, it seems, is in the right balance of the two. But here I want to suggest that many—even among those explicitly seeking to provide a traditional and objective formation—have lost sight of the importance of the ‘putting in,’ even a kind of ‘imposing.’

In using the verb ‘impose’ I recognize it might easily be misunderstood. There are different modes of imposing, and education demands appropriately gentle and respectful yet also firm modes. There are indeed harsher forms of imposing that are not only ineffective but inappropriate. But I use this word intentionally to provoke a closer look, since its etymologically-rooted meaning conveys a crucial aspect of education: i.e., we are crafting and conveying something from a position of authority.

There is an analogy between how an artist, such as a sculptor, ‘imposes’ form on matter, and how we form persons, especially the young. In any analogy it is key to see the similarities and the differences. First some differences: the clay of the sculptor is simply passive in receiving this form rather than another form. The clay cannot actively appropriate and make its own what is being imposed. Further, this formation is not a matter of the sculptor discovering and respecting the deep inner potential of the clay (though an artist might say there is something of that going on!). The sculptor has freedom in choosing what he wants to express in his work.

Person-formation is different. Its objective foundation, and the solemn obligation of the parent or teacher, is discovering what human nature in general and this soul in particular demands to become himself. And of course also, the place of the teacher is to offer something in such fashion that it ultimately be taken up and appropriated by the student and become fully and voluntarily his own.

Yet these differences do not negate the similarity that justifies the analogy. A person needs direction, especially from those in authority over him, for both his heart and his mind. Yes, what is being cultivated is something toward which the person is already naturally inclined; and so right cultivation should ultimately be experienced as a kind of bringing out of one’s true inner self. Nevertheless, at the same time the cultivation needs to give something, to give form, in both a positive and a negative way.

Positively, the parent or teacher, from his fuller understanding, must convey in various ways the rich good of human flourishing. A large part of this conveying will be through leading the young into its enactment. This is more than simply giving a child space to pursue his interests. This calls for showing, again primarily by enactment, something the child will not see unless it be shown him.

The negative side fits hand in glove with the positive. The young need to be protected from a whole set of things that will appeal to them, especially in a culture where contrary, attractive things are almost ubiquitous. They need to learn that these other things are contrary to the goods we are positively promoting. And when they do not see this, they will often, in an age appropriate way, need to be restrained. Such restraint is part and parcel of cultivating the good.

What really is my point here? I am concerned that a well-intentioned focus on ‘respecting the child’ can lead parents and teachers to miss or under-practice their place as form-ators, givers of ‘form’ as it were. There is of course an opposite problem, which for now I leave unaddressed.

I conclude with a remarkable line from Aristotle:
“But the soul of the student must first have been cultivated by means of habits for noble joy and noble hatred, like earth which is to nourish the seed.”
In context, he is referring to the formation that starts before presenting the ‘argument’ or explanation for right and wrong.

Noble joy and noble hatred. What powerful, life-changing realities! What does it take to form noble joy and noble hatred in our young people–from their earliest days? As parents and teachers this is our duty and our joy, and it calls for lifelong consideration and reflection. It begins of course with ourselves, and is brought to fruition through education: the incomparable art which seeks to ‘give form,’ life-giving form, to the lives of our young.  ~ ~ ~

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