Educational Psychology. Lev Vygotsky 1926

Chapter 12. Ethical Behavior

The Nature of Ethics from the Psychological Point of View

The problem of moral education is among those questions that are now undergoing a reassessment in psychology and in culture in the most decisive and most thorough-going fashion. The thousand-year link between morality and religion has been broken, and, under the force of analysis, morality is beginning to acquire an increasingly temporal character. It is now possible to establish beyond all reasonable doubt the experiential, temporal character of morality, and its dependence on historical and social conditions, and its class character.

Every nationality and every epoch, and likewise every class, possesses its own morality, which is always a product of social psychology. There is the morality of the Hottentot, who, it is said, responds when asked the question, “What do you consider to be good, and what do you consider to be bad?” by declaring, “Good is when I steal a wife; bad is when I'm robbed.”

Moral concepts and ideas vary depending upon the social environment, and what is considered bad at one time and in one place, elsewhere might be considered the greatest of all virtues. And if there are any common feature in all these different manifestations of moral consciousness that can be identified, this is only because certain common elements shared by every human society were once part of the social order.

Thus, from the standpoint of social psychology, ethics must be looked upon as a certain form of social behavior that was established and evolved in the interests of the ruling class, and is different for different classes. This is why there has always existed a morality of the ruler and a morality of slaves, and this is why epochs characterized by crises have represented the greatest crises of morality.

It is said that in the schools of ancient Sparta, children were forced to wait upon a common table while the adults had their meals. A child had to steal something from the table, and he would be punished only if he couldn’t do this, or only if he were caught red-handed. The moral lesson of this experiment was to steal and not get caught. Such an ideal was entirely conditioned by the Communist order of the closed aristocratic society of Sparta, in which concern for property did not constitute the standard of morality, in which stealing, therefore, was not considered a sin, but where force, craftiness, cunning, and composure constituted the ideal of all citizens of Sparta, and where the greatest sin was the inability to deceive someone else and to control one’s emotions.

As in every school of thought, moral education here coincides entirely with the class morality which guides the school. In France, where special classes in ethics have been introduced and where there are textbooks of morality in use, the educational ideal consists in those bourgeois virtues which permeate the mind and soul of the French middle-class. In one French textbook on morality, for example, there are hardly any “ethical standards,” according to M.M. Rubinshtein, and in their place thriftiness is exalted and bank books turned into the criterion of morality.

Such class ideals are inherent to all other systems of education. This was also the case in the pre-revolutionary secondary schools, which were constructed on authoritarian foundations, in which obedience was considered the ideal for the student, and the general goals of moral education were to educate a loyal subject or a hard-working official.

Now that the world has experienced the cleansing threat of social revolution, the very foundations of bourgeois morality are trembling, and it is very possible that in no other realm do we meet up with such shapeless and tenuous ideas as in the domain of ethical standards. All those rules of bourgeois morality, which were fully laden with hypocrisy and mendacity, have lost their meaning. Bourgeois morality was compelled to be hypocritical, because it taught one thing and did another, because it was constructed at the juncture of class interests and, preaching the kingdom of God after death, implanted a kingdom of enslavers in the world. Lies and hypocrisy were the natural source of such a form of morality, and sanctimoniousness was its inevitable accompaniment. The child saw one thing out in the world and was told something else altogether, and all the school’s endeavor was oriented towards reconciling this divergence between real life and morality in the child as effortlessly as possible.

The child either was unable to reconcile the two, or, if he was taught how to do so, he would become accustomed to viewing morality as a kind of social decorum that everyone had to observe, though this always entailed great effort, in fact, it was only through such effort that he could assume this point of view. The child’s moral consciousness could be reduced to the convictions of Griboedov’s chambermaid, i.e., that “There’s nothing wrong with sinning, just don’t spread rumors.”

The fear of moral retribution supplied the compulsory sanction for morality, in addition to public opinion, and, in his moral behavior, man was easily guided psychologically by the very same custodial rules – this you should not do, but that you may do – and usually guided himself in all his behavior in precisely this way. One Russian philosopher was right, in this sense, to refer to these moral concepts as embodying a kind of “moral policeman,” since the force of moral precepts was rooted in the compulsory and humiliating power of fear in the face of moral punishment and the pangs of conscience. There was a special morality of the strong and the weak, and just as in regard to external laws, so in regard to the laws of conscience, the weak would submit to them, and the strong would rebel against them and break these laws. In its revolt against bourgeois morality, European philosophy proclaimed the immorality of its own basic laws, and speaking through Nietsche’s lips, declared itself to be beyond good and evil.

Shestov says that man’s relation to the categorical imperative is just like the attitude of the Russian peasant towards that forest of tall trees which Peter the Great had forbidden to cut down. In both cases, there is the attraction of an entirely arbitrary deed, though the individual still confronts the fear of retribution and punishment, in the one case external and in the other case internal. The moral commandment, “do not kill,” has always been understood in just this sense; that is, “do not kill, not because that’s the wrong road to take, but because you yourself will die from the pangs of conscience.” This, the internal contradiction of bourgeois morality, was exposed by Dostoyevskil in Crime and Punishment. In Nietzsche’s revolt, the overall negative critical work of his thinking, in its attack on bourgeois morality, had the force of a stick of dynamite, exploding the very foundations of Christian morality from within.

A new morality will be created once a new human society will have been created, but at that point it is likely that moral behavior will have been entirely dissolved into general forms of behavior. All of behavior in general will be moral, because there will be no basis whatsoever for any conflict between the behavior of one person and the behavior of society in general.

Here it is possible to take note only of several points that the pedagogics of moral behavior must deal with.

Note, first, the negation of the absolute, supra-empirical roots of morality, or of any innate morality of feelings. From the psychological point of view, moral behavior, like everything else, arises on the foundation of innate and instinctive reactions, and evolves under the influence of the methodical effects of the environment. Without question, the foundation of moral feelings have to be sought in the instinctive sense of sympathy for another person, in social instincts, and in much else besides. As it comes into contact with every imaginable datum, concept, and phenomenon in the process of growth, these innate reactions turn into those conditional forms of behavior we refer to collectively as moral behavior.

Hence the general conclusion that moral behavior is a form of behavior which is amenable to education through the social environment in exactly the same way as is everything else.

We should also bear in mind the uncertainty that now pervades morality. On the one hand, revolutionary boldness is needed, not a narrow-minded view of things, in order to discern what is happening, what is its genuine meaning, and to know how to reject all those prejudices which only recently everyone believed to be unshakeable moral tenets. All that is left of bourgeois morality, like the corrupt legacy of a previous life, all this must be swept clear out of our schools. On the other hand, however, there is a certain risk concealed in this impermanence of present-day morality, the risk that all moral restraint will be lifted and the child’s behavior become entirely arbitrary.

Bear in mind that such utter amoralism, the complete absence of all restraining principles, will return us to those naive ideals where our natural instincts are pursued, ideals which we have left far behind and which modern man can in no way agree with. We cannot agree to the blind pursuit of the demands of our instincts, because we know in advance that these demands were begotten by previous epochs, and are the residue of the long-past experience of adaptation to vanished environmental conditions, and, consequently, pull us back, rather than carry us forward. Moreover, that the instincts must inevitably be restricted to, and adapt to new conditions in the world, constitutes the essential condition of education.

Consequently, within that uncertain chaos which the present-day state of morality presents, there are a number of such moral standards which have been the basis of man’s social behavior and which nevertheless have to be recognized. It is not the responsibility of educational psychology to arrive at exact definitions of the form and content of these moral standards. This is the something for social ethics, while the business of psychology is simply to find out whether it is even conceivable to put this into practice in the real world.

Bear in mind that all those revolutionary epochs when the old order breaks down and falls apart often represent such an improbable combination of the most diverse moral cultures that the child may sometimes find it utterly impossible to make any sense of this confusion. Moral crises, therefore, lie in wait for the child at every step of the way, and, consequently, the teacher and educator can in no way ignore questions of moral education. No other epoch creates such magnificent opportunities for moral heroism, and in no other epoch is there such a risk of moral degradation.

Getting accustomed to the spirit of the epoch, to those great currents which permeate the world, is the only criterion here. The purely aesthetic and passive perception of the clarion call of revolution, to which Blok passionately summoned the Russian intelligentsia, writing that, “With all your body, with all your heart, with all your consciousness, heed the call of revolution” – this cannot serve as a foundation of moral education, inasmuch as heeding the call of revolution once upon a time will not lead to active involvement in revolution, and if the poet’s summons is to be applied to our actions, it has to so resonate that its meaning express the demand not simply to listen to, but to himself create the music of revolution.

The third basic feature of moral education in our epoch is found in that aspect of truth that distinguishes the ethical outlook which is being created right before our eyes. Truth and the unflinching capacity to face reality squarely in the eye in all the most difficult and all the most confusing circumstances in life – this is the first demand of revolutionary morality. Never before could moral education have reached such an inexorable and absolute truth as now, when absolutely every undisclosed moral “value” has been put on the map and revealed in its true form.

In this as in all other realms, a revolutionary epoch is scarcely able to suggest consummate systems of morality, whatever the previous epochs might have boasted of. Though on the other hand, we may impose on our moral education various individual demands that go well beyond the demands imposed in preceding epochs. We can require that Soviet education train fighters and revolutionaries in the realm of morality, as in all other realms. We should not set out with the abstract ideal of creating an entire personality, since such a personality does not exist and since such an education would neglect contemporary goals and turn into a game of verbal gymnastics. We confront the concrete goals of training the adults of the next epoch, the adults of the next generation, in full accord with the historical role which will be their lot. Hence the extraordinary degree of specificity and integrity which have become the foundation of moral education in our epoch.

Principles of Moral Education

The first question which comes up is to decide on the relationship between moral education and the general education of the personality. In this area, Tolstoy leaned to a negation of all culture, and found that wherever the higher forms of culture flourished, there the higher forms of immorality flourished too. Hence, his conclusions were in the spirit of Rousseau, that the moral ideal lies not in the future, but in the past, that it consists in the negation of civilization and in a return to nature.

That such a view is in radical contradiction to the revolutionary ideology of consciousness of class, an ideology by virtue of which mankind will, in the long run, come to believe in the vigor and dominance of the culturally armed man over nature – this is something no one can deny. There is, however, in Tolstoy’s critique of culture an entirely healthy aspect, and this critique may be adopted, though with some corrective, if we take into account the fact that here it is not a matter of culture in general, but of capitalist culture, in particular. There can be no doubt that the moral contradictions reach their zenith at the highest stages of human culture, and that a tribal village represents a healthier moral climate than a European city. But from this one can only conclude that European culture has outlived itself, not that culture in general is antagonistic to morality. On the contrary, since the time of Socrates, the contrary view has been put forward, one which identifies moral behavior with moral consciousness.

“Morality,” says Socrates, “is knowledge, and immorality is the fruit of ignorance.” Here there is a real psychological problem which is in need of analysis. According to William James “The hackneyed example of moral deliberation is the case of an habitual drunkard under temptation. He has made a resolve to reform, but he is now solicited again by the bottle. His moral triumph or failure literally consists in his finding the right name for the case. If he says that it is a case of not wasting good liquor already poured out, or a case of not being churlish and unsociable when in the midst of friends, or a case of learning something at last about a brand of whisky which he never met before, or a case of celebrating a public holiday, or a case of stimulating himself to a more energetic resolve in favor of abstinence than any he has ever yet made, then he is lost; his choice of the wrong name seals his doom. But if, in spite of all the plausible good names with which his thirsty fancy so copiously furnishes him, he unwaveringly clings to the truer bad name, and apperceives the case as that of ‘being a drunkard, being a drunkard, being a drunkard,’ his feet are planted on the road to salvation; he saves himself by thinking rightly."[1] Thus, it’s as if there was a complete identity established between moral behavior and moral consciousness. “Our moral effort, properly so called, terminates in our holding fast to the appropriate idea. If, then, you are asked, in what does a moral act consist when reduced to its simplest and most elementary form? you can make only one reply. You can say that it consists in the effort of attention by which we hold fast to an idea which but for that effort of attention would be driven out of the mind by the other psychological tendencies that are there. To think, in short, is the secret of will, just as it is the secret of memory”.[2]

To find a way out of this awkward situation, we should add that there are facts which at once point to the reverse relationship between consciousness and moral behavior. The reader surely knows that it is one thing to know how to act, and an entirely different thing to act correctly. One can understand perfectly well that alcohol is harmful and nevertheless not have the willpower to give up being an alcoholic. Obviously, here it is essential to bear in mind that consciousness, of course, plays a kind of role, though not the decisive one, and that it is only one of several components and, quite often, inferior to other, more powerful instinctive drives. Consequently, it is still not enough to provoke the awareness that some good deed is necessary, rather it is far more important to make certain that this idea dominate consciousness, and this means disciplining the child’s consciousness so as to assist him in gaining the upper hand over all his conscious and unconscious desires.

Once again, it is not a matter of reducing consciousness to just one thing. In his analysis of the mental state of the alcoholic, James is right to point out that the alcoholic’s moral victory or defeat depends wholly on whether he gives the correct name to his state. But one must also ask what this state depends on, and this question, of course, may be answered only in the sense that the very appearance of this or that idea in consciousness depends, in turn, on the different stimuli which have preceded it, and these are usually powerful emotional drives. Consequently, we can speak of conscious influence only when we understand this as something connected with the nervous system, as a system formed by precisely those reactions which all of behavior consists in, though we are speaking only of those reactions which inhibit and regulate the rest of behavior. In other words, only an understanding of consciousness as involving preparatory forms of organization of behavior can supply us with an explanation of the role of consciousness in ensuring proper behavior.

Hence follow several conclusions. There can be no doubt that consciousness exerts a decisive influence on our moral behavior, though there is no direct dependence whatsoever which can be established between the two. It was for this reason that Meumann was able to show that moral development and the general level of education go hand in hand, while Witheft established the rule that success in school has fundamental importance for the student’s entire moral existence. The question has to be asked in such a way as to disclose the relationship between success in school and behavior, though this does not mean also explaining this relationship.

We can see this if we take a look at morally backward children. We know that intellectual development may be associated with the greatest immorality, and, consequently, intellectual development, in and of itself, is hardly a guarantee of moral behavior. We also know of the converse, that one may be blessed with luminous moral behavior even though one’s intellect is greatly retarded, that retarded children may display a genuinely keen and understanding heart, and, consequently, mental development cannot be taken as even a necessary condition of moral giftedness. Nevertheless, we are still justified in claiming that there exists a profound relationship between the two, and that mental development is a propitious condition for moral education.

Such a relationship denotes a finer life, more complex and more diverse forms of behavior, and, consequently, allows for far greater opportunities and possibilities for educational intervention. In the mentally underdeveloped child, the process of behavior is far simpler and, consequently, there is no opportunity for all those infinitely involved schemes children have to be drawn into in order to influence their behavior.

However, only that form of consciousness proves to be decisive for morality which is directly associated with behavior and realized directly in activity, for otherwise a correct consciousness may lead to incorrect deeds.

All attempts at moral education, at moral sermonizing, must, for these reasons, have to be seen as quite futile. Morality has to constitute an inseparable part of education as a whole at its very roots, and he is acting morally who does not notice that he is acting morally. Just like health, which we notice only when it is disturbed, like the air which we breathe, so does the way we behave in terms of morality arouse in us a whole series of concerns only when there is something seriously wrong with it. Herbart’s rule, “not to teach too much,” is nowhere as applicable to this extent as in moral education.

It is for this reason that we feel it is pointless to teach morality. Moral precepts, in and of themselves, will, in the student’s mind, seem like a collection of purely verbal responses that have absolutely nothing to do with behavior. At its best, such a system is like a motor that has not started up some device and which is doomed to remain idle. At its best, therefore, it may cause some conflict between the child’s behavior and the moral precepts. There can be no doubt whatsoever that, for example, the struggle of Tsarist pedagogics against certain childish vices associated with sexual behavior not only did not lead to useful results, but, on the contrary, turned out to have harmful effects, in that it created complex and agonizing feelings in the child’s soul. The child who did not feel capable of dealing with his own desires, who did not know how to counter them, suffered from the consciousness of his own guilt, his own fears, and his own shame, and, as a result, things that were, in and of themselves, not so terrible, were transformed into severe mental and nervous shocks under the influence of such unwise education.

Not only does education in morality seem pointless and harmful, but every form of moral education already seems to attest to a degree of abnormality in this realm. Moral education should be dissolved entirely imperceptibly into all those general modes of behavior that may be established and regulated by the social environment. Neither student nor teacher should think special instruction in morality is called for. Our understanding of moral behavior becomes enlarged, inasmuch as we are then justified in speaking not only of moral behavior in the narrow sense of the term, but also of a moral relationship to things, to oneself, to one’s body, and so on.

Moral behavior will always be that which is associated with the free choice of social forms of behavior. Spinoza writes that if a person runs away from something on the grounds that it is bad, he is acting like a slave. Only that person is free, in Spinoza’s view, who runs away from something because something else is better. With this as a ground rule, William James gives a perfectly rigorous technique for moral education, on the basis of the principle that one must always proceed not from evil, but from good. “See to it now, I beg you, that you make freemen of your pupils by habituating them to act, whenever possible, under the notion of a good. Get them habitually to tell the truth, not so much through showing them the wickedness of lying as by arousing their enthusiasm for honor and veracity ... And in the lessons which you may be legally obliged to conduct upon the bad effects of alcohol, lay less stress than the books do on the drunkard’s stomach, kidneys, nerves, and social miseries, and more on the blessings of having an organism kept in lifelong possession of its full youthful elasticity by a sweet, sound blood, to which stimulants and narcotics are unknown, and to which the morning sun and air and dew will daily come as sufficiently powerful intoxicants”.[3]

In other words, we should not proceed in moral education the same way we proceed in thinking of laws in the criminal code, when we refrain from some deed simply because we fear the punishment that would ensue. Do not, in other words, turn morality into the internal policeman of the soul. To avoid something out of fear still does not mean you are performing a good deed. In this sense, Rousseau was profoundly in error when, wishing to keep his hero Emile away from dangerous and sordid affairs, placed him as a child in a clinic for venereal diseases in the hope that ulcers, stench, shame, and the abasement of the human body would frighten the youth. From the psychological point of view. chastity purchased at the price of fear sullies the soul worse than outright debauchery, inasmuch as it does not destroy all base wishes and desires in the child’s mind, but only creates in his mind a petty and mean struggle between these desires and the no less humiliating and no less servile feelings of fear. Only that chastity has any value which is procured by a positive attitude towards action and by an understanding of its true essence. Not to do something out of a fear of dire consequences is just as immoral as to do it. Every unfree attitude towards things, all fear and dependence, already denotes the absence of any moral sensibility. In its psychological sense, the moral is always free.

In this sense, present-day pedagogics is in radical contradiction with religious and, in particular, Christian morality, whose principle tool has been intimidation, threats, and the like. “He whose life is based upon the word ‘no,’ who tells the truth because a lie is wicked, and who has constantly to grapple with his envious and cowardly and mean propensities, is in an inferior situation in every respect to what he would be if the love of truth and magnanimity positively possessed him from the outset, and he felt no inferior temptations. Your born gentleman is certainly, for this world’s purposes, a more valuable being than your ‘Crump,’ with his grunting resistance to his native devils,’ even though in God’s sight the latter may, as the Catholic theologians say, be rolling up great stores of ‘merit'”.[4]

There are three irrefutable drawbacks of this type of pedagogics. First is the fact that it can never be certain of success. It frightens the weak, but arouses resistance in the strong and imparts a special charm of strength, boldness, and challenge to the breaking of rules. It is profoundly remarkable for moral psychology that rebels and those who break the rules of moral psychology are always portrayed in man’s imagination in an attractive light simply because they represent strength, unyielding pride, and insubordination to rules. From Byron’s passionate heroes to the most commonplace school wit – everything that is insolent and which refuses to surrender to intimidation quite naturally draws the child’s sympathies. In such instances, the child seems to respond with the words of the Apostle: “I see what is better and approve of it, but instead I follow what is worse.”

The second drawback of this form of moral education, which is always based on the absence of freedom, is that it creates an entirely false picture of moral values, assigning to moral virtue a kind of wealth, arousing self-esteem and a contemptuous attitude towards everything which is wrong. Everyone is forced to experience the sort of agonizing moral conflict that Andreev described in his story, “Darkness,” sooner or later, and the time comes for everyone when he recognizes that it is sometimes shameful to be good, just as it is shameful to be rich when it is combined with the terrible darkness of the unenlightened human soul. And then the honest and morally pure person who has been totally consumed in the enthusiasm to perform good deeds discovers the degradation and insignificance of his own moral purity when confronted by a vulgar prostitute and decides that if we are powerless to illuminate the darkness with our pitiful lanterns, then it is better to extinguish them and start to crawl about on all fours in this darkness.

Finally, the third danger is that every description of misdeeds, by creating a succession of images in the child’s mind, creates, at the same time, the impulse and inclination to perform these deeds. Recall that every act of consciousness is a nascent activity, and that, consequently, by cautioning our pupils against what they should not do, we are, at the same time, focusing their attention on these deeds. and thereby encouraging them to perform them. The common expression, that the forbidden fruit is sweetest, contains a great psychological truth, and communicates some of what we have been speaking of here. There is no better way of compelling a child who has picked up a glass to break it than by repeatedly cautioning him. “Now look, don’t break it,” or “you're going to break it. I'm sure of that.” In the same way. there is no surer method of leading a child into carrying out some immoral deed than by describing it in great detail.

This is why Thorndike is quite correct to emphasize the harm brought about by discussing with children in painstaking detail and at great length the motives, methods, and opportunities for committing suicide, as is done in certain French textbooks on morality. To do this means creating in the student’s mind propitious conditions and material that might take hold of the child’s mind at some point in the future and guide his behavior not away from suicide, but towards it. Explains Thorndike, do not speak to children by telling them, “You must not cut a cat open in order to see what is inside.” Every consciousness of some phenomenon contains a certain motor impulse, and this impulse is especially strong in children. All of us know how much power is exerted over a child’s behavior by a book he has just finished reading, in the same way that children who have begun to read James Fenimore Cooper and Captain Mayne-Reade will run off to America to become Indians. Consequently, there is nothing more dangerous in childhood than such teaching of morality, in which, by virtue of natural psychological consequences, the teaching of morality turns into the teaching of immorality. Here we can say, without fear of falling into error, that whereas knowledge of a good deed is far from any guarantee that it will be performed, knowledge of bad deeds will always serve as encouragement.

Moral Transgressions in Childhood

Every teacher is forced to deal with moral misdeeds committed by children. These misdeeds may range over an extraordinarily lengthy scale, from slight and insignificant faults to genuine and serious offences, in the form of murder, arson, and so on. Quite analogously, the steps taken by teachers against such children begin with slight and simple verbal reproofs and end in penal colonies for young offenders, where children are kept behind bars and subjected to prison conditions.

How should we view these moral misdeeds in children from the psychological point of view? Until the true nature of morality was discovered, moral behavior seemed to be just as objectively necessary for behavior as are the rules of logic for thinking. Both the adult and the child who has transgressed moral precepts seem to be abnormal, and ill. In such instances, pedagogics spoke of a moral deficiency in the child, as if speaking of an illness, in the same sense one usually speaks of a mental or physical impairment. It is supposed, moreover, that a moral deficiency is an inborn defect attributable to biological causes, to heredity, or to physiological causes of some defect in the structure of the organism, like congenital blindness or deafness. Thus, it is claimed that there are people who, from the time they are born, are moral and others who, from the time they are born, are immoral, and that, consequently, there are children who, by their very nature, are condemned to sit behind bars, because they are born criminals, just as a blind person is fated never to see light, since he is born without vision.

It goes without saying that, from the point of view of physiology and psychology, such ideas are nonsense. No physiologist has ever had to deal with any sort of special organs of morality in the human body which, if injured, would lead to an absolute love for criminal behavior and for practical jokes. No psychologist in analyzing the forms of human behavior and in explaining the laws governing their development has ever had to confront the existence of such innate reactions that might govern moral or immoral behavior. Thus, the concept of moral imperfection is not a biological concept, but a social concept. It is not innate, but acquired, and arises not from biological factors that guide the development of the organism and its behavior, but from social factors that guide and adapt this behavior to the conditions of existence in the particular environment in which the child has to live.

Thus, moral imperfection always derives from experience and always denotes not a defect in innate reactions and instincts, i.e., not a defect of the organism and of behavior, but a defect of conditional relations for adaptation to the conditions of the environment, i.e., a defect in education. It is, therefore, far more correct to speak not of the moral deficiency of a child, but of his social underdevelopment or neglect. Hence a general conclusion becomes perfectly clear, a conclusion which should serve as a starting point in all questions having to do with the education of such children. These children require no special pedagogics, no protective, corrective, or punitive measures whatsoever, only redoubled social attention and quadrupled educational influence from the direction of the environment. In every case of moral misdeeds in children, from the least significant on up to the most serious, we are dealing with a conflict between the child and the environment, and we have to recognize that every child is a congenital moral criminal simply by virtue of the fact that he is born with reactions that are notoriously maladjusted to the environment. Even in the utterly most well-educated families, no child is born with the ready ability to behave properly; on the contrary, in absolutely none of his normal actions and deeds does he obey the rules of good breeding and morality, and in this sense the whole task of education is only to help the child adapt to the conditions of his surroundings.

The educational influence of the environment the child is immersed in is the only tool for the adaptation of these reactions. And since under the conditions of the modern order, the social environment is always is always organized in the most discordant way imaginable, consequently, by virtue of the contradictions it contains, there will inevitably always be people in whom anti-social behavioral patterns will consequently evolve simply because they fell under the influence of inauspicious circumstances. Consequently, in these instances we have to think of social re-education as being the only pedagogical tool for overcoming these evils.

Such a child has to be placed in an environment that would foster in him, in place of the anti-social behavioral patterns already established in him, new ways of interacting with people that would also adapt him to the conditions of his existence. A morally imperfect deed is anti-social above all, and moral education is, above all, social education. In this sense, the rule of scientific pedagogics is quite the reverse of what is often employed as regards those who break laws in society and in government. There, banishment from the social environment is the natural thing to do, whereas here, in contrast, the most involved forms of participation, and of social contact, are appropriate. There, we have an extraordinarily slight concern with the character of the offender himself, and all our concern is directed towards rendering him harmless and safeguarding the environment from his influence. Here, in contrast, our concern must be directed towards preserving and transforming the child’s character and, consequently, our goal is the most thoroughgoing re-education of the child. Nowadays, even the state in its punitive policies has begun to assume that point of view towards offenders which views punishment as being intended to serve the purposes of reeducation rather than of intimidation and retribution. And just as in the case of serious offences, so does the slightest misdeed committed by a child ultimately always point to a greater or lesser schism in the child’s social behavior.

Therefore, like criminal behavior generally, criminal behavior in children does not at all point to a low overall development of the individual. On the contrary, an offence points often to a certain strength, the capacity to rebel, considerable freedom, and the capacity for powerful feelings – and the capacity to desire much and to achieve much. Under the conditions of bourgeois morality and truth, everything that exceeds the bounds of the average man is banished to become the province of criminals, of those who sense a force in themselves and who cannot be reconciled with the established way of life. Dostoyevskil, in speaking of his novel, The House of the Dead, remarked that in the prisons for hard labor, one could find the most gifted, the most forceful members of the populace gathered there, except for the fact those forces had been corrupted, perverted, and employed for evil purposes.

Similarly, childhood offenses not only do not indicate any sort of defect in the child’s psyche, but, on the contrary, are bound up with and are quite compatible with considerable overall giftedness. Moral offenses not only do not point to an inability in the child for the acquisition of social skills or his incapacity for social relationships, on the contrary, very often such a child will exhibit an extraordinary degree of guile, cunning, ingenuity, true heroism, and, what is most important, the greatest devotion to a special morality of his own, whether of street thieves or pickpockets, who have their own morality, their own professional ethics, their own concept of good and evil.

More often than not, this moral imbalance in a child springs from two fundamental causes. First, there is homelessness, which constitutes a fact of enormous social significance and, in its true sense, is comparable to the absence of all social education, i.e., all concern for the development of adaptive reactions to the environment. On the other hand, there is the problem of children who, though highly gifted, cannot find any outlet for their energy in ordinary patterns of behavior. On the contrary, in terms of morality, obedient children usually represent a vivid example of ungiftedness, simply because they tend very often to suffer from rickets or are anemic or are dull and narrow-minded, follow the line of easiest adaptation to the environment, and either do not need very much, or who, very early in childhood, grasped the secret of a happy life and value it above all other blessings. People with great passions, people who accomplish great deeds, people who possess strong feelings, even people with great minds and a strong personality, rarely come out of good little boys and girls.

There is no one feature of the traditional moral education that attests so eloquently against this system as do these instances. In other words, not only in those instances when moral education has not succeeded, but far more often in those instances when it has succeeded, does moral education reveal its utter impotence. Nowhere has it achieved such degradation as where it achieved everything it wished. It is here that its true nature stands revealed. We have seen that wherever it did not succeed, it testified to its own utter impotence, creating, in theory, a concept of congenital moral deficiency, and, in practice, replacing desks in school by bars in prison and the school routine by forced labor conditions, entrusting prison wardens with the responsibility of completing those duties that teachers had left incomplete.

But this also happened whenever it experienced the triumph of its own force and power, wherever it reaped total success, even where it discovered it was capable only of creating a loyal and cautious child, one who was faint-hearted and inclined to be obedient, timid, and dutiful. This occurred simply because the whole system of moral education was constructed on authoritarian principles, i.e., with the recognition of that special compulsory value of the authority of parents and teachers, which sustained the sanctions of punishments and rewards, deterrence and happiness. “Listen to your elders, and you'll be good, otherwise you'll be bad” – such is the inelegant, though exact formula of this form of pedagogics.

The higher moral value was recognized in an obedience that was motivated by fear, whereas, from the psychological point of view, obedience itself lacks all power of moral instruction, inasmuch as it supposes in advance an unfree and servile attitude towards things and towards deeds. Thus, the fundamental psychological mechanism that served as the foundation of moral education was, in fact, the most profound pedagogical delusion imaginable.

It is extraordinarily important to note in this regard that this mechanism has penetrated so deeply into our flesh and blood that even the most progressive teacher and the most well-educated parent is unable to free himself of this timeworn technique, and when a mother tells her child, “Don’t do this, else Mama won’t love you,” she is making the very same mistake, except in gentler form, as the police do when they put a very young thief behind bars. A child can, in fact, abstain from his misdeeds, but the moral and educational influence of his abstention will either be null, or can even be negative, inasmuch as it is purchased at the price of fear, at the price of humiliation, and not at the price of the child’s true rebirth. This is why obedience is, for us, of negligible moral value, and the good behavior purchased at the price of obedience is not, in our eyes, a pedagogical ideal.

All the same, the authoritarian principle in morality from which this authority must have emanated in one way or another must be demolished, and in its place something entirely new must be erected. The closest we can get to a definition of this new principle, which is to become the foundation of moral education, is to view it from general approaches to education, as consisting in the social coordination of one’s own behavior with the behavior of the group, and here obedience must be replaced throughout by free social coordination. The rule that originates from everyone, from the group, and which is directed likewise to the entire group and sustained by the actual effective mechanism of the self-discipline and routine of daily life in the school has to itself replace that “pedagogical singsong” which prevails between teacher and student in the authoritarian system.

It is not obedience to someone or obedience to something, but the free adoption of those patterns of behavior which will vouchsafe the consonance of all of behavior. This mechanism is not something alien to the child, something that grips him, on the contrary, it lies within the child’s very nature, and play is the natural mechanism which develops and connects these skills together. Nowhere is the child’s behavior so regulated by rules as in play, and nowhere does it assume such a free and morally instructive form as in play. Nowhere in play do we find any patterns whatsoever that an adult might have prescribed and which the child only enact.

On the contrary, games are the natural seedlings of future moral behavior. The child obeys the rules of a game not because he is threatened with punishment or, on the other hand, because he is scared of failing in something or of losing something, but only because observing the rules – which is a promise that he renews from one minute to the next – vouchsafes him the inner satisfaction that comes from playing a game, because here he acts as part of the general enterprise that is formed out of a group at play. Breaking a rule does not represent any threat whatsoever other than the fact that, at that moment, the game has not worked out, and the child has lost interest in it, and this is a powerful enough incentive for regulating the child’s behavior.

Accordingly, it is clear what steps have to be taken by the teacher to counter the various moral transgressions a child may commit. In the authoritarian system of morality, every moral rule was accompanied by a particular sanction which entailed punishing the child in the event of disobedience, and awarding him when he obeyed. Punishment and rewards assumed the most diverse forms, from corporeal punishment, being sent to bed without supper, or being locked up in a jail cell, and all the various kinds of rewards right up through rather fine and delicate forms, for example, reprimands, censure, and, in the case of rewards, praise. The pedagogical utility, or, more properly, the harm produced by these measures was extremely variable, though they all served as tools for producing commonplace, unthinking reactions and, in the best case, taught only the virtue of obedience, only the single moral rule – avoidance of what is unpleasant.

And if we were to imagine that this sanction were lifted and the child could imagine that his misdeeds would produce not the slightest reaction on the part of those around him, he would not have the slightest reason to refrain from engaging in these deeds. Moral behavior must be based not on external prohibition, but on internal restraint, even more properly, on the fact that man is naturally drawn to the good and the beautiful. Moral behavior must become the individual’s true nature and be enacted freely and effortlessly.

The idea that the child’s own will is his best teacher is still very much alive in pedagogics. There is the view held by many instructors which teaches not to protect children from danger, but to let them experience the unhealthy consequences of their own deeds as if in an experiment, and to learn to avoid them on their own. Thus, if a child is in the habit of instinctively reaching out to a lit candle or to a hot samovar, it is the opinion of these teachers that he should not be kept from doing so. On the contrary, he should be given the opportunity to bum himself, that this is the best school for the child, it is this which teaches him to beware of fire better than any other measure. In the very psychological mechanism of pain and the striving to avoid it, teachers have found a mighty tool, and the example just presented represents a typical instance of such an education.

In critically examining this approach, we have to bear in mind that, when applied to instances of this type, in which a healthy effect is associated directly with some deed, this type of educational measure could hardly become widespread and assume the status of a general principle. How should a teacher proceed if he wishes to act in accordance with this rule and allow children to have the experience of the adverse consequences of their deeds, and how should he proceed when the adverse consequence of some deed does not manifest itself immediately, but only after a prolonged period of time, or only after many years? Isn’t it true that, after all this time, the child could end up becoming accustomed to bad habits, and that all the harm he finds out about afterwards will not be able to save him from it? The harmful consequences of a single cigarette may be negligible and, in fact, imperceptible, but if we allow the child to, in fact, experience the harm of smoking, we run the risk of fostering in him an experienced smoker long before he comes to the realization that he has to renounce the very idea of being a smoker.

Instances in which harmful consequences are associated with just such a connection with some deed are just as likely, which makes the relationship between this deed and its adverse consequences difficult and incomprehensible to the child’s understanding. Finally, there are a whole series of deeds that induce such destructive consequences as to make it extremely risky to trust in their educational influence. If a child has a yearning to jump out the window, a teacher would hardly think it reasonable to allow him to do so in order to actually learn the harmful consequences that this would bring about. There is an extraordinarily large number of such instances, with effects that not only involve physical harm, but also moral harm.

Thus, the application of this principle could be limited to insignificant cases of the type presented above, but it cannot be of general pedagogical value, and, in particular, it is entirely inappropriate for the education of moral behavior. It lacks that essential freedom of choice which alone is capable of leading to moral behavior. Natorp says somewhere that we don’t in the least think that people without jobs could turn into angels if they were to be given their freedom. We only know that they become devils when they feel they are being oppressed. And in the same sense, it seems entirely clear and self-evident that this principle of pain is not appropriate for justifying punishment. The child learns very quickly to understand that punishment is not at all necessarily related to his misdeeds, but that there is an additional and intermediate component here expressed in the intervention of adults, and he learns to avoid this intervention, to conceal his deeds, to tell lies, and so on.

Besides, every form of punishment places both the teacher and the student in the most painful and difficult of positions. Neither love nor respect nor trust can be preserved between a teacher who is inflicting punishment and the child he is punishing. Every form of punishment, no matter what it involves, always places the student in a humiliating position, and undermines his love and trust. Herbart says in this regard that, “Threats are a poor educational tool; they tempt strong natures and are of little effect in keeping weak natures away from misdeeds, because they do not have the power to combat their negative desires. Desires make mincemeat of the fear of punishment.”

In other words, every form of punishment is harmful, from the psychological point of view, and there is no place whatsoever for punishment in Soviet schools. The very idea of a child committing some misdeed always points to a defect in the educational process. An offense committed by a student is, above all, an offense committed by the school, and only the elimination of this defect in the social organization of the school itself is appropriate. In this sense, self-governance in the school and the self-discipline of the children themselves are the best tools for moral education in the school.

One must take care that the forms assumed by such self-governance not turn into a mere replica of adult behavioral patterns, and that interest in artificial formalities does not kill the vital sense of community in the child. Accordingly, organizing the social environment in the school is not simply a matter of creating a constitution of school governance and of summoning children to general assemblies at regular intervals of time, of making choices and maintaining all those forms of communal organization that children are so eager to copy from adults. Rather, it means concern for those genuinely social relations that have to permeate this environment. Beginning with intimate and friendly relations that reach down to the smallest social groups, then moving on to the broadest associations of comrades, and ending in the broadest and largest forms of children’s movements, the school has to penetrate and envelop the life of the child with a myriad of social relations that could assist in the development of moral character. In no other realm does the general thesis of education – that to educate means to impart a discipline to life, and in a properly conducted life, it means to raise children properly – possess as much force and validity as here.

Hence, the relation between education and life, and between the school and the social order, becomes understandable, moreover that this relation must serve as a starting point for pedagogics. Questions of education will be fully solved only when questions of social order have been fully solved. Every attempt at constructing educational ideals in a society with social contradictions is a utopian dream, since, as we have seen, the social environment is the only educational factor that can establish new reactions in the child, and so long as it harbors unresolved contradictions, these contradictions will create cracks in the most well thought-out and most inspired educational system.

Accordingly, in the present transitional epoch we will always have to deal with undesirable patterns of behavior in children, and, before anything else, we have to be ready to deal with the complex and difficult work of re-education. Next we have to find out how to retain the positive aspects of the system of rewards and punishment as educational measures for Soviet pedagogics. Though rewards and punishments have to be banished from Soviet schools because of their harmful influence, it is nevertheless beyond question that some portion of their effect will have to be retained, for otherwise the nature of children’s drives, which happen to be a powerful motivation of their deeds, will have to be made use of in the realm of moral education. This positive element should be retained, and manifest itself through the reversion, or return, of every one of a child’s actions back to him in the form of the impressions of the effect it has on those around him. Nothing so arouses us to act as the satisfaction associated with it.

This is the reason why William James was able to discern a positive element in the system of grades, and even insisted that children be told their grades. It is here that James discovered a realization of that psychological law according to which, through the work cycle, our own deed reverts back to us, in the form of a reflected impression. “We thus receive sensible news of our behavior and its results. We hear the words we have spoken, feel our own blow as we give it, or read in the bystander’s eyes the success or failure of our conduct. Now this return wave of impression pertains to the completeness of the whole experience But so far as our psychological deduction goes, it would suggest that the pupil’s eagerness to know how well he does is in the line of his normal completeness of function, and should never be baulked except for very definite reasons indeed. Acquaint them, therefore, with their marks and standing and prospects, unless in the individual case you have some special practical reason for not so doing.” [5]

We have not presented these thoughts of William James not in order to make a defense of the grading systems used in public schools. On the contrary, that grading systems are psychologically inappropriate is entirely self-evident from the reasoning presented above in our discussion of punishment. A grade is a form of assessment so alien to the entire course of school work that it very quickly starts to dominate the natural concerns of teaching, and the student begins to learn for the sake of avoiding bad grades or for the sake of obtaining good grades. Similarly, grades combine all the negative aspects of praise and censure. There is in these remarks of his a great psychological truth, however, that the child should always know the ultimate results of his own deeds, and that this knowledge is a powerful educational tool in the hands of the teacher.

Therefore, a public school should not be understood as simply consisting in a crowd of children who have nothing to do with one other. We all know that bringing together any large group of children who have nothing to do with one other and who do not share any common interests makes each child feel his isolation and loneliness even more acutely. Nowhere does a person feel so alone as when he is in a crowd he has no connection to or when he is in a modern capitalist city, where no one has any feelings for or understanding of another person. Such a system is capable only of stifling the child, and has a profoundly oppressive effect upon him. Obviously, in the Soviet school we have to be concerned with those forms of public education that would induce vital interaction between children so that the child would place a high value on the satisfaction or dissatisfaction of his classmates. With these social structures in place, the environment becomes a powerful mechanism that is forever conveying to the child the reflected impression of his own actions.

In a properly ordered social environment, the child will always think of himself as fully transparent, as if reflected by a vast resonator, and all those reflected impressions of his own deeds he will be discovering all the time will become the most powerful educational tool in the hands of the teacher.

It is thus not hard to see that the child’s relationship to his surroundings will not in the least always bear that propitious and idyllic character in which “free” education pictures itself.

The ideals of free education, i.e., the absolutely uninhibited pursuit of the child’s deeds, arouses objections from two points of view. First, it is almost never possible to actually realize free education in its entirety, and, consequently, we are always left with only a pedagogical principle possessing a certain degree of relative force within quite narrow limits. The child’s desires will always encompass much that is destructive and harmful, and, left to his own devices, a child could cause himself so much harm that no teacher in his right mind would be opposed to discouraging a child from undertaking this or that deed in the name of the principles of free education.

Moreover, complete freedom in education means rejecting all forethought and all social adaptation, i.e., in other words, all educational influence. But, education denotes a restriction and restraint of freedom from the very outset. To the extent that education is an unavoidable process in man’s life, to that extent free education denotes not a rejection of constraints in general, rather it means imparting to those constraints the elemental force of the situation in which the child lives. If a person refuses education proper, he begins to be educated by furniture, by the street, and by things in general.

Thus, free education must be understood exclusively as denoting education which is as free as it can be within the constraints of an overall educational program and within the constraints of the social environment. Thus may it always turn out, and, in fact, it often turns out that the child’s behavior is far from the same thing as the interests of the group. Then conflict may always arise, which, without forcing the child to do anything in particular, will make him see the value of changing the way he behaves so as to accord with the interests of the group. The school routine should be so organized that the child finds it best to go in step with the group, in the same way as when he is at play; that any departure from the group seem just as meaningless as quitting a game. Just like playing a game, life should demand a constant straining at the leash, a constant joy in concerted activity.

Ultimately, the theory of free education is the other side of the theory of innateness of moral sensibility. Both concede that pedagogical intervention is powerless and of no use in the development and growth of the child, and both suppose that what is most important in the child’s moral response is already present at birth. Thus do both come to the conclusion quite naturally that there are children who are good and children who are bad, children who are moral and children who are immoral, from the moment they are born and in their very nature.

In the belief that “moral degradation is inherited,” Gaupp presented in confirmation of this thesis testimony given by parents who, in speaking of their own child, declared that “[he] could not be normal; he is altogether different from other children; from the very beginning he was not the same as other children; he possessed an ineradicable desire to do evil.”

Tolstoy, likewise, supposes that the child possesses an ineradicable drive to do good. There is the very same mistake being made here; faith in the innateness of moral behavior and a lack of understanding of the fact that moral behavior is wholly the product of education.

Education does not know of any “ineradicable drive to do evil”; these very drives may be turned towards the good.

Author's Notes

1 William James, Talks to Teachers, p. 110.

2 Ibid., pp. 109-110.

3 Op. cit., pp. 113-114.

4 Op. cit., p. 113.

5 Op. cit., p. 32.