children are left to pedagogy
December 15, 2009, 3:59 pm
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , ,

Here is an excerpt from Bernard Schlink’s The Reader.  When a teenager, the protagonist has an affair with a woman in her thirties.  During much of the time they spend together, he reads from his father’s library aloud to her.   The affair ends when she mysteriously leaves their town.

Years later he encounters her again:  he is a lawyer and she a former Nazi prison guard standing trial for her role in a wartime tragedy.  During the trial he comes to realize that she is uneducated and cannot read.  He goes to his father, a professor of philosophy, to ask whether it is moral to tell the judge that she is illiterate and cannot defend herself.

The father answers no, that it is better to leave people with their own choices and thus their dignity, even though you may think you know what will ultimately be best for them.  By breaking this trust, we trespass and manipulate and control.  Here is the excerpt:

When he answered, he went all the way back to first principles.  He instructed me about the individual, about freedom and dignity, about the human being as subject and the fact that one may not turn him into an object.  ‘Don’t you remember how furious you would get as little boy when Mama knew best what was good for you?  Even how far one can act like this with children is a real problem.  It is a philosophical problem, but philosophy does not concern itself with children.  It leaves them to pedagogy, where they’re not in very good hands.  Philosophy has forgotten about children.’  He smiled at me.  ‘Forgotten them forever, not just sometimes, the way I forget about you.’

‘But …’

‘But with adults I unfortunately see no justification for setting other people’s views of what is good for them above their own ideas of what is good for themselves.’

‘Not even if they themselves would be happy about it later?’

He shook his head.  ‘We’re not talking about happiness, we’re talking about dignity and freedom.  Even as a little boy, you knew the difference.  It was no comfort to you that you mother was always right.’

-excerpted from The Reader, Bernard Schlink

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