Carrel: Children should be conditioned like dogs

Alexis Carrel, Nobel Prize Winner.  Man the Unknown, 1939.  [Source]

[…] A man’s value depends on his capacity to face adverse situations rapidly and without effort.  Such alertness is attained by building up many kinds of reflexes and instinctive reactions.  The younger the individual, the easier is the establishment of reflexes. A child can  accumulate vast treasures of unconscious knowledge. He is easily trained, incomparably  more so than the most intelligent shepherd dog. He can be taught to run without tiring, to  fall like a cat, to climb, to swim, to stand and walk harmoniously, to observe everything  exactly, to wake quickly and completely, to speak several languages, to obey, to attack, to  defend himself, to use his hands dexterously in various kinds of work, etc. Moral habits  are created in an identical manner. Dogs themselves learn not to steal. Honesty, sincerity,  and courage are developed by the same procedures as those used in the formation of  reflexes— that is, without argument, without discussion, without explanation. In a word,  children must be conditioned.

Conditioning, according to the terminology of Pavlov, is nothing but the establishment  of associated reflexes. It repeats in a scientific and modern form the procedures employed  for a long time by animal trainers. In the construction of these reflexes, a relation is  established between an unpleasant thing and a thing desired by the subject. The ringing of  a bell, the report of a gun, even the crack of a whip become for a dog the equivalent of  the food he likes. A similar phenomenon takes place in man. One does not suffer from  being deprived of food and sleep in the course of an expedition into an unknown country.  Physical pain and hardship are easily supported if they accompany the success of a  cherished enterprise. Death itself may smile when it is associated with some great  adventure, with the beauty of sacrifice, or with the illumination of the soul that becomes  immersed in God.

The psychological factors of development have a mighty influence on the individual, as  is well known. They can be used at will for giving both to the body and to the mind their  ultimate shape. We have mentioned how, by constructing proper reflexes in a child, one  may prepare that child to face certain situations advantageously. The individual who  possesses many acquired, or conditioned, reflexes reacts successfully to a number of  foreseen stimuli. For instance, if attacked, he can instantaneously draw his pistol. But he  is not prepared to respond properly to unforeseen stimuli, to unpredictable circumstances.  The aptitude for improvising a fitting response to all situations depends on precise  qualities of the nervous system, the organs, and the mind. These qualities can be  developed by definite psychological agencies. We know that mental and moral  disciplines, for instance, bring about a better equilibrium of the sympathetic system, a  more complete integration of all organic and mental activities. These agencies can be  divided into two classes: those acting from without, and those acting from within. To the  first class belong all reflexes and states of consciousness imposed on the subject by other  individuals or by his social environment. Insecurity or security, poverty or wealth, effort,  struggle, idleness, responsibility, create certain mental states capable of molding human  beings in an almost specific manner. The second class comprises the factors which  modify the subject from within, such as meditation, concentration, will to power,  asceticism, etc.

The use of mental factors in the making of man is delicate. We can, however, easily  direct the intellectual shaping of a child. Proper teachers, suitable books, introduce into  his inner world the ideas destined to influence the evolution of his tissues and his mind.  We have already mentioned that the growth of other mental activities, such as moral,  esthetic and religious senses, is independent of intelligence and formal teaching. The  psychological factors instrumental in training these activities are parts of the social  environment. The subjects, therefore, have to be placed in a proper setting. This includes  the necessity of surrounding them with a certain mental atmosphere. It is extremely  difficult today to give children the advantages resulting from privation, struggle,  hardship, and real intellectual culture. And from the development of a potent  psychological agency, the inner life. This private, hidden, not-to-be-shared, undemocratic  thing appears to the conservatism of many educators to be a damnable sin. However, it  remains the source of all originality. Of all great actions. It permits the individual to  retain his personality, his poise, and the stability of his nervous system in the confusion  of the new city.

Mental factors influence each individual in a different manner. They must be applied  only by those who fully understand the psychological and organic peculiarities which  distinguish human beings. The subjects who are weak or strong, sensitive or insensitive,  selfish or unselfish, intelligent or unintelligent, alert or apathetic, etc., react in their own  way to every psychological agency. There is no possibility of a wholesale application of  these delicate procedures for the construction of the mind and the body. However, there  are certain general conditions, both social and economic, which may act in a beneficial,  or harmful, way on each individual in a given community. Sociologists and economists  should never plan any change in the conditions of life without taking into consideration  the mental effects of this change. It is a primary datum of observation that man does not  progress in complete poverty, in prosperity, in peace, in too large a community, or in  isolation. He would probably reach his optimum development in the psychological  atmosphere created by a moderate amount of economic security, leisure, privation, and  struggle. The effects of these conditions differ according to each race and to each  individual. The events that crush certain people will drive others to revolt and victory.

We have to mold on man his social and economic world. To provide him with the  psychological surroundings capable of keeping his organic systems in full activity.

These factors are, of course, far more effective in children and adolescents than in  adults. They should constantly be used during this plastic period. But their influence,  although less marked, remains essential during the entire course of life. At the epoch of  maturity, when the value of time decreases, their importance becomes greater. Their  activity is most beneficial to aging people. Senescence seems to be delayed when body  and mind are kept working. In middle and old age, man needs a stricter discipline than in  childhood. The early deterioration of numerous individuals is due to self-indulgence. The  same factors that determine the shaping of the young human being are able to prevent the  deformation of the old. A wise use of these psychological influences would retard the  decay of many men, and the loss of intellectual and moral treasures, which sink  prematurely into the abyss of senile degeneration.

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