Who are the most violent people on Earth? Think carefully before you answer. The correct answer is two-year-olds: people in their “terrible twos.” Toddlers hit. They bite. They pinch. They scratch. (My sister has a barely visible scar on her cheek from a particularly vicious fellow toddler in her Sunday school nursery.) Toddlers also throw screaming tantrums when they do not get what they want. Sometimes, they throw tantrums when they do not even know what they want.
Fortunately, two-year-olds are generally too small and weak to inflict much damage (as long as you keep their fingernails trimmed). Even more fortunately, human beings tend to become less and less prone to violent outbursts as they grow. To study aggression in toddlers, you count the number of violent acts per hour. To study aggression in teenagers, you count violent acts per week. To study aggression in adults, you count violent acts per year. If we want a peaceful society, we must figure out how to get teenagers and adults to stop behaving like toddlers.
Toddlers are violent because they don’t know any better. Toddlers are like tiny drunks. They lack the serenity to accept the things they cannot change. Toddlers lack the verbal skills to get other people to change the things that can be changed. Toddlers lack the self-control to hold up their end of a bargain. As children develop those skills, they become less violent. Adults can help children by teaching them rules, such as no hitting, no biting, no pinching or scratching, no screaming. These rules have to be taught and learned. When adults neglect to teach these rules at the proper time in a child’s development, we say that the child is spoiled. Robert Fulghum summed up the importance of these rules in his poem All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. The poem spells out the rules that little children should learn: Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. And so on.
It’s shocking that so many older children and even grownups violate the rules that they should have learned in kindergarten. School bullying and crime boil down to a failure to follow the rules that Fulghum spelled out. People do need to learn those rules from kindergarten. But to become a responsible adult, they must learn a great deal more. They must learn a set of lessons that the ancient Greeks put together 24 centuries ago. The ancient Greeks developed a curriculum of seven subjects that provide a well-rounded education. Their word for it gave rise to our word encyclopedia.
The Greeks’ well-rounded education consisted of seven subjects. There were three language arts: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Grammar is the study of how words are altered and combined to form meaningful sentences. Grammar helps you learn how to say exactly what you mean and to understand exactly what other people are saying. Logic is the study of how sentences are combined to form reasonable and compelling arguments. Logic deals with concepts like all, some, and none and concepts like if-then and therefore. Rhetoric is the art of persuasive speech. It teaches you how to use your words to get what you want. The ancient Greek curriculum also had four arts of number, space, and time: mathematics, geometry, music, and astronomy. Mathematics deals with numbers. Geometry deals with number and space. Music deals with number and time. Astronomy deals with number, space, and time.
The ancient Romans embraced the Greeks’ well-rounded education. The Romans called these seven subjects the liberal arts: studies appropriate for free men, as opposed to slaves. Free men were expected to think for themselves and to participate in making decisions that affect themselves and others. In contrast, women and children and slaves were just supposed to do as they were told.
During the Renaissance, the wealthy families of Northern Italy expanded the well-rounded education. They added subjects that they called the humanities: philosophy, history, languages literature, and art. Like the liberal arts, the humanities served a political purpose. The liberal arts and the humanities help one learn to be rational and reasonable and to express oneself persuasively. These studies helped the members of the ruling class learn to have productive and even pleasant political conversations. As the sciences advanced, it became increasingly important for decision-makers to have a basic grasp of the sciences.
A society can be truly democratic only if everyone learns to read and gets a solid grounding in the liberal arts, the humanities, and the sciences. Unfortunately, educational policies have been put in place to undermine that kind of education. Public school teachers have been taught and often forced to use a method of reading instruction that does not work. Many children in the United States are expected to memorize whole words as shapes (sight words) instead of learning how to sound the words out. Unfortunately, children who do not learn to read cannot read to learn. Teachers have been told to stop giving formal lessons in grammar. Yet grammar is the first step in studying the classical trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Students in the United States also score below average in mathematics, when compared with students from other industrialized countries. If we want American citizens to behave like responsible adults, we need to make sure that our public schools effectively teach the subjects that are appropriate for free people. Photo by Daniel Hughes