Monday, November 10, 2008

Home as mini-school

Family as School

By John Taylor; 2008 Nov 10, 07 Qudrat 165 BE

"Fill Thou, O God, our home with harmony and happiness, with laughter and delight, with radiant kindliness and overflowing joy, that in the union of our hearts Thy love may find a lodging place, and Thou Thyself mayst make this home of ours Thine Own!" (George Townshend, The Mission of Baha'u'llah, George Ronald, Oxford, 1952, #48, p. 147)

The Even More Particular Reform of Families.

Often we hear it said that family is the foundation of society, but what does that mean? Why do we always say that everything is built on it? Is this anything more than a pious hope, a mere idealistic sentiment without substance? If family is the ground of society, should we not take it more seriously? Instead we give family a passing nod and move right on to broader, graver issues. This reduces society's most basic institution, the one from which we all spring, to an isolated backwater. How many political thinkers actually take it to heart that the family is the root of all we do?

Only one in my experience.

It took the genius of Jan Amos Comenius to demonstrate not only that this foundation can be measured, but also that the same measuring tools for family reform are applicable to all other reform, from that of individuals to the whole planet. Comenius does this by going to first principles. Following Aristotle, he recognizes throughout the Panorthosia that everything is based on knowing, willing and acting, and that there are three institutions primarily devoted to each of these functions respectively, education, religion and politics. Hence in paragraph ten of his chapter on family in the Panorthosia he writes,

"To describe the order of the household in more detail, I should say that we shall have the best reform of every family if every home contains its school, its church, and its state on a small scale."

This functional definition is infinitely better than trying to define a family by who its members are, how they are related to one another (sometimes called natalism) or by the dwelling place where they happen to abide. As long as the members of a household perform together these three jobs, learning, worshipping and consulting, they are a family. Of course, this excludes a great many that think of themselves as families, and includes perhaps even more who would be surprised to hear themselves called a family. That does not matter. What is important is that this definition allows us to take seriously the proposition that family is the foundation of society. In addition, it offers three "handles" by which to connect the family to broader institutions specializing in education, faith and politics. This, Comenius assumes, should allow personal and social reformation to proceed in tandem with improvements in family households.

In the eleventh paragraph, Comenius proceeds to the first of three functions of the family, education. An institution cannot be an institution unless it has a history, some sort of shared knowledge. This is inherited like genes; it has to be gained by means of common effort. That is the mission of the family qua "school."

"It will have its School if every effort is made to see that every member of the household learns something useful every day..." (Panorthosia, Vol. I, p. 33)

There is a great deal packed into one sentence, so let us concentrate on this first part of it. To start off, Comenius suggests for families a modest, eminently doable goal for every member, young and old. What could be easier than to learn something useful on a daily basis? In his better known work, The Great Didactic, Comenius -- who is best known as the inventor of life-long learning -- described how daily learning could bolster general happiness, both personal and social,

"If, in each hour, a man could learn a single fragment of some branch of knowledge, a single rule of some mechanical art, a single pleasing story or proverb (the acquisition of which would require no effort), what a vast stock of learning he might lay by. Seneca is therefore right when he says: `Life is long, if we know how to use it.' It is consequently of importance that we understand the art of making the very best use of our lives." (John Amos Comenius, The Great Didactic, 1649, M.W. Keatinge, tr.,

The family school, then, would reinforce the determination of individuals to expand their understanding ceaselessly. Presumably, then, a family school session would go beyond just adding another topic to gab about over the dinner table. A family school session would reserve enough time during the day for each member in an unhurried manner to share what they learned over the past 24 hours and clear up any questions or problems. In this way the practical daily lessons of each member would to the extent possible become shared, familial knowledge.

Second, this addition of education to the mandate of families would tend to alter the basic design structure of households. As it is now, homes devote a great deal of space and expense to kitchens, bathrooms and living rooms. I have argued elsewhere for high density housing where the kitchen, bathroom and garage would be offloaded to common areas with rented facilities and where work is done cooperatively. That leaves only bedrooms, dining rooms and living rooms in family dwellings. Comenius's idea here creates a need to accommodate daily, coordinated study in each home, which would require some kind of classroom. A small family might combine its study, worship and consultation in a single area, while a large, wealthy household could devote space for separate rooms for its school, church (or temple, or, for Baha'is, Mashriq) and governmental activities.

Let us now go on to the complete first sentence of paragraph 11,

"It will have its School if every effort is made to see that every member of the household learns something useful every day, both from God Himself, by reading a daily portion of His Word at morning and evening prayers, and from mankind by hearing about some famous event in history or receiving good advice on some aspect of morals."

The first part is religious, and I will not expand upon it, since it is already part of the daily duty of every Baha'i. I have written about daily prayer and reading of Holy Writ at length already. The second part, hearing historical events or homilies implies something unknown in families since the invention of electronic media: active control of the data flow into the home. Instead of passive recipients of information, families become active researchers and presenters of wisdom. This proposal alone makes Comenius the most radical reformer of modern times; he makes Proudhon and Marx look like shrinking violets. He continues, even more radically,

"Also it would be a very profitable daily exercise if good discussion groups (with the head of the house as chairman) were held regularly round the table, where as the occasion arises from the morning hymn or the reading of Scripture or some historical tale or the news of the day reported from various sources, everyone would put forward any good idea which occurred to him either in the form of a question or a statement."

Comenius, taking advantage of the relatively new invention of the printing press, was one of the first developers of the independent group study program conducted in the home. Elsewhere in the Panorthosia he lays it out in much more detail. This group discussion of the text technique later became prominent in Protestant Christianity, the socialist and adult education movements, as well as the "Ruhi Circles" so familiar in the Baha'i Faith.

Next time we will go on to Comenius's ideas about how the family can perform its job as mini-church, or, if you prefer, a domestic Mashriq.

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