Are Children Bad?

Freud having his field day

On 27th October 2021 Katharine Birbalsingh, Headmistress and Founder of the free/charter school Michaela, tweeted the following:

Twitter

In subsequent days Birbalsingh has been both hounded and celebrated online in equal measure. Her critics are seemingly shocked by her audacity to bring religion into the context of educating children. Her defenders, however, say that children (as people) inherently struggle to make the morally right choice when the wrong choice can often be so damned tempting.

As an English teacher this reminded me of John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men, the story of two American ranch workers who dream of one day owning their own piece of land.

A few years ago, while teaching a top set boys’ class in Year 9 I dared to be a bit clever and have them write a psychoanalytical interpretation of the tale through the lens of Sigmund Freud’s theory of the human psyche. In a nutshell, Freud argued that the human personality is the result of competing internal forces: the Id, the Ego and the Superego, which can be defined as thus:

Sigmund Freud’s theory of the personality

The case I put to the class was this: Lennie represents the Id – his urge to pet soft things, his eagerness to take care of imaginary rabbits. Petting rabbits will not make Lennie any richer in a material sense, but that doesn’t stop him wanting to. We are all Lennie to a degree in that we all want something, all the time. We have done since birth and will go to our graves laced with wants. As Freud acknowledges, this is chaotic and animal-like: a toddler having a meltdown in a sweetshop. We are all born with this readily installed, and it never goes away, only ever being managed.

Lennie’s close friend George is the Ego. He’s in charge most of the time. The more practical of the two, he tends to the tricky business of getting them not what they desire, but what they immediately need: employment, food and shelter – safety. These don’t magically appear because they want them. A plan must be put in place to obtain them, a plan that only George, and his more practical nature, can formulate. George taking care of Lennie is the Ego managing the Id.

The Superego is presented in the form of the boss’ son Curley. Steinbeck uses him to criticise American society, as he personifies the ranch’s hostility towards its workers. A tyrannical figure, he keeps order through cruelty and the threat of violence. Both George and Lennie learn very quickly, like all the other characters, to keep their heads down and behave accordingly each time he shows up.

So what’s this got to do with Original Sin?

Students are often confused as to why George stays with the burdensome Lennie. Whenever I’ve asked them why he might, they often suggest that is may be as Lennie is a big man he is capable of beating up anyone who might wish to hurt them.

But this isn’t it.

George doesn’t stay with Lennie because his desire to touch soft things is chaotic and animalistic. It is because Lennie’s insistence on hearing George speak about their dream of having their own land (and rabbits) brings out in George a child-like desire; a craving for something that is often so silly and impractical you would ordinarily be too embarrassed to say it aloud.

Like us all, George fundamentally needs to believe that the dream of owning his own piece of land is still one day possible despite, in the context of The Great Depression, it being exceedingly unlikely. He needs to feel that there can be more to life than the practicalities of simply surviving; the monthly getting and spending, even if this is an illusory dream.

Lennie (left) and George (right) from the 1992 film adaptation

Most teachers enjoy working with children, I believe, because most young people are a source of energy and optimism having not yet had their faces rubbed in the dirt by painful experience. They are innocent in that sense, admirably believing they can achieve anything if they just put their minds to it. And who knows? Maybe they just might.

Are children bad then?

Childish Id – or Original Sin, if you prefer – can be very ugly if left untamed. As depicted in the novel, without George, Lennie ends up committing a terrible atrocity. And we have all experienced to some degree the horror of this in the classroom or at home. Teachers and parents must stand by and support young people, like George does with Lennie, for the sake of the child and for the sake of others.

But the paradox of Steinbeck’s novel, and the controversy that comes from talking about children and Original Sin, is that our wants are not exclusively awful.

They are also the stuff of dreams.

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