Katharine Birbalsingh shouldn't be attacked for stating the obvious
No one who believes in original sin should be let anywhere near children — especially not Katharine Birbalsingh, headmistress of the Michaela Community School and Chair for Social Mobility. At least that’s what thousands of people said after Birbalsingh tweeted the following yesterday:
Birbalsingh is despised in some quarters of the education establishment. Her Michaela School’s silent corridors, its penalties for students who fail to submit their homework, and its insistence on the parents’ duty as educators do not blend well with ‘modern’ educational methods.
The conflict between Birbalsingh’s methods and people who reject original sin is almost 250 years old.
We owe it to one of the main sources of he French enlightenment and of the rejection of reason in favour of emotions — Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In Émile, or on education (1762) Rousseau defends innate human goodness. More than a treatise on education, Émile is a lengthy illustration of Rousseau’s main philosophical principle: Mankind is good but society makes us evil. Rousseau presupposes the existence of ‘the child’ as an independent entity.
Rousseau is, as often, rather naive: no baby is born without adult implication, no infant could survive out of a social system, and no child could reach the spontaneous promptings of Natural Law if the world around prevented it. And any parent would be grateful that toddlers are not as big and strong as adults.
The doctrine of original sin does not contradict the goodness of mankind. Rather it acknowledges that goodness faces a constant struggle. It takes into account how difficult it is to make the right moral decision, which often is the hardest and more demanding. I would know what is right; yet without a strong training in virtue from infancy to adulthood, I could silence the good impulse in favour of an evil that would make life easier for me. “For I do not do the good I want to do. Instead, I keep on doing the evil I do not want to do”, writes St Paul to his Roman pupils.
When Rousseau was banned from the Enlightenment clique for his rejection of reason, he wrote Les Confessions (1782), where he justifies all the things he had done — including abandoning his own children because he believed the state ought to provide for them materially and intellectually — not apologising for them at all. Instead he posed as a victim of circumstance.
St Augustine would have tutted disapprovingly, as his own Confessions were not about making excuses, but about thanking God, his mother St Monica, and his spiritual father St Ambrose for their firm loving injunctions to virtue. Augustine notoriously stood against Pelagius, arguing that being cleansed from original sin by baptism does not grant permanent perfection but is akin to shaving one’s beard: one must to dive back into God’s grace repeatedly and to persevere in virtue.
Educators have the duty to see the imperfections of the children entrusted to them. To believe that a rude child is perfect won’t do him or anyone around him any good. Acknowledging someone’s shortcomings and addressing them with affection grants that person the forgiveness of corrected moral flaws, and the improvement of intellectual skills.
Is this something we can afford to do without?