There is no miracle in the fact that if a child learns any language, he learns the language that those about him speak and teach, especially since his ability to speak that language is a precondition of his entering into effective connection with them, making wants known and getting them satisfied. Fond parents and relatives frequently pick up a few of the child’s spontaneous modes of speech and for a time at least they are portions of the speech of that groups. But the ratio which such words bear to the total vocabulary in use gives a fair measure of the part played by purely individual habit in forming custom, in comparison with the part played by custom in forming individual habits.
Each person is born an infant, and every infant is subject from the first breath he draws and the first cry he utters to the attentions, and demands of others. These others are not just persons in general with minds in general. They are being with habits, and beings who upon the whole esteem the habits they have, if for no other reason than that, having diem, their imagination is thereby limited. The family into which one is born is a family in a village or city which interacts with other more or less integrated systems of activity, and which includes a diversity of groupings within itself, say, political parties, clubs, cliques, partnerships, trade-unions, corporations, etc.
For the plasticity of the young presents a temptation to those having greater experience and hence greater power which they naturally resist. It seems putty to be molded according to current designs, that plasticity also means power to change prevailing custom is ignored. Docility is looked upon not as ability to learn whatever the world has to teach, but as subjection to those instructions of others which reflect their current habits. To be truly docile is to be eager to learn all the lessons of active , inquiring, expanding experience. The inert, stupid quality of current customs perverts learning into a willingness to follow where others point the way, into conformity, constriction, surrender of skepticism and experiment.
When we think of the docility of the young we first think of the stocks of information adults wish to impose and the ways of acting they want to reproduce. Then we think of of the insolent coercions, the insinuating briberies, the pedagogic solemnities by which the freshness of the youth can be faded and its vivid curiosities dulled.
Education becomes the art of taking advantage of the helplessness of the young. The forming of habits becomes a guarantee for the maintenance of hedges of custom. The habits of the growing person are jealously kept within the limit of adult customs. The delightful originality of the child is tamed. Worship of institutions and personages lacking in imaginative foresight, versatile observation and liberal thought, is enforced.
Very early in life, sets of mind are formed without attentive thought, and these sets, persist and control the mature mind. The child learns to avoid the shock of unpleasant disagreement, to find the easy way out, to appear to confirm to customs, which are wholly mysterious to him in order to get his way, that is to display some natural impulse without exciting the unfavorable notice of those in authority. Adults distrust the intelligence which a child has while making upon demands for a kind of conduct that requires a high order of intelligence, if it is to be intelligent at all.
Habit and impulse may war with each other, but it is a combat between the habits of adults and the impulses of the young, and not, as with the adult, a civil warfare whereby personality is rent asunder. Our usual measure for the ‘goodness’ of children is the amount of trouble they make for grownups, which means of course the amount they deviate from adult habits and expectations. Yet by way of expiation we envy children their love of new experiences, their intentness in extracting the last drop of significance from each situation, their vital seriousness in things that to us are outworn.
While childhood is the conspicuous proof of the renewing of habit rendered possible by impulse; the latter never wholly ceases to play its refreshing role in adult life. If it did, life would petrify, society stagnate. Instinctive reactions are sometimes too intense to be woven into a smooth pattern of habits.
We have already noted how original plasticity is warped and docility is taken mean advantage of. It has been used to signify not capacity to learn literally and generously, but willingness to learn the customs of adult associates, ability to learn just those special things which those having power and authority wish to teach. Original modifiability has not been given a fair chance to act as a trustee for a better human life.
John Dewey, ‘Habits and Will, Human Nature and Conduct, An Introduction to Social Philosophy’.