Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Book review: Children don't start wars by David Gribble



My review of David Gribble's 'Children don't start wars' has just been published on the Times Educational Supplement's website









As adults we more or less accept that our physical skills and abilities will decline as we get older and, despite what some might say, there is incontrovertible evidence that intellectually we become less alert, less flexible and less reliable after the age of about 25. The question is, does an individual’s ability to make clear moral choices also diminish with age? After all, it is adults who start wars and major international conflicts, not children.

This is the theme of a new book by David Gribble, called Children Don’t Start Wars, in which he asserts that children have moral perceptions which weaken with age and particularly when they come under pressure from monolithic and inflexible institutions and from peer pressure within the adult world.

Gribble argues that children, and especially young children, do not judge, they care; they do not hate, they love. The book begins with an account of how a Puerto Rican high school in Chicago faced up to gang culture and goes on to cleverly deconstruct William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. He also, convincingly in my view, investigates and exposes the shortcomings of many of the long-established research studies, such as that of Piaget, that looked only at the reactions of boys and not girls.

According to Gribble, the systems of parenting and schooling which dominate western cultures are deliberately designed to train children to withstand emotion. In a powerful section of the book, he suggests that part of the growing up process is learning not to cry over fairy tales. This results in people learning not to care too much about the fate of characters in fiction and therefore diminishing its power to move us and leading to a level of indifference to the sufferings of real people.

Children do not make this distinction; they see suffering and want to stop it, see unfairness and want to expose it. Gribble wants us to listen to children more often and more attentively; he wants us to be true to our collective word and ensure that our actions lead to a cleaner, safer and more peaceful planet.

The problem with the book lies not with the main assertion but with the practical classroom application of its contents. Who is this book aimed at: children, teachers or parents? Is it designed to stimulate discussion at classroom level or to inspire busy teachers to think again about the theoretical framework that underpins their own approach to pedagogy?

It is hard to discern the existence of a coherent thread that runs through the entire book. For example, the 19 chapters (the book is 226 pages) range from an exploration of what constitutes collective memory to a chapter titled “objections” that ends with an excursion into etymology.

Though published in 2010, the book is dominated by the author’s personal anecdotes from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s and fails to engage the reader on almost any level.






Do adults have a monopoly on wisdom? No, of course they don’t - but then again neither do children!

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