Oldest human truth has become latest theory

14th June 1996 at 01:00
What makes Alan Smithers so sure that "we are not born human" (TES, May 31). Children are born into culture. Their earliest actions and responses are culturally conditioned, how could they not be, but at the same time they represent a child's opening moves in the life of reason.

Dependence and independence are twin aspects of our humanity from infancy onwards.

The extraordinary thing about children's early language, gesture or play is not how ineptly children think and act but how ingeniously they make sense of the opport-unities which culture affords them.

Professor Smithers thinks of "humanness" as a kind of higher Order attainment target in a subject called "civilisation", with the average 11-year-old falling somewhere around level 4. It is an unattractive and unconvincing picture. Humanness is more like a precondition than an achievement. It is precisely because of their distinctively human powers and purposes that children come to learn, often with the help of their teachers and sometimes despite them.

Professor Smithers is right about one thing though. This ancient argument is central to any genuine educational debate. The national curriculum ignores it.

If our new traditionalists of Left and Right now, at last, want teachers to examine it, those of us who do not share the professor's fondness for "original sin" will be only too happy to oblige. You might say it is the opportunity we have been waiting for.

MICHAEL ARMSTRONG Harwell primary school The Styles Harwell Oxon

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