Needs

Source: Fraser Institute
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Here is a comment I posted to a discussion about Needs, a blog post at Scenes from the Battleground. I suggest you read the original Needs article first. It will hopefully make the following more intelligible.

Update: I have edited this slightly (tho it is still too long and wordy) after reflecting on a comment left by OldAndrew.

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A most interesting and provocative post, with lots of frank-bordering-on-the-plain-rude responses in the comments. I shall try to enter into the spirit of things.

In your original article, you fail to make several, crucial, distinctions; which omissions weaken your argument, whereas inclusion would strengthen it.

1) You fail to distinguish personal needs from social ones; i.e. personal, private needs (such as for food, sleep, sex, etc) which are and should be met by the individual him/herself, on the one hand, and needs which can and should be met by others, e.g. the educational institutions, on the other.
You write, we have the problem of identifying what counts as a need and in particular which needs educational institutions have an obligation to meet. It is indeed difficult, so all the more reason to bear in mind the distinction between personal and non-personal needs. Failure to keep, or perhaps make, this distinction leads you to set up straw men, such as Are we really obliged to make all students happy and psychologically healthy? (“We” here presumably meaning schoolteachers.) Who is suggesting you are so obliged? However, students are people and need to be happy and psychologically healthy. It does not necessarily follow that schoolteachers are responsible for meeting this need. Presumably, you have heard people make this assertion. They are wrong, and need to have their faulty logic pointed out to them (but please see also the point below about the hierarchy of needs).

2) You fail to distinguish between needs and wants: (quoting P.S. Wilson) a young bully, for example, from his point of view may ‘need’ to find victims. Plainly this is a ‘need’ which, though identifiable, should not be met.
This is not a need. A bully may want to find victims, but a want is not a need. Although I am quoting Wilson, not you, nowhere in your post do you make this rather crucial distinction. That omission weakens your argument – “needs” implies some kind of obligation or necessity for someone to do something about it – because your opponents’ argument (that if something is a need, that implies a moral duty to meet it) is seriously weakened once this distinction is made plain.

3) I have discussed the three main explanations given as to why children are blameless for their behaviour.
The three you list are, in my experience, given as explanations for behaviour. An explanation for behaviour is not the same as an excuse for bad behaviour, nor is it a reason not to blame or not to punish. Folks who use these explanations as reasons why children (or adults) should not be blamed or punished for bad behaviour, are failing to make this crucial distinction and guilty of sloppy thinking. An explanation for behaviour (bad or not) does not imply blamelessness; the one does not logically follow from the other.
It seems to be a common human need to explain behaviour. This is not the same thing as explaining away behaviour. Why don’t you point out this distinction to your opponents and detractors? It would seriously weaken their argument, and strengthen yours.

4) You fail to show you are aware of the significance of Maslow’s Theory, A Hierarchy of Needs (the key word is “hierarchy”, it’s right there in the title; that’s a hint. Maslow (as I recall) stated that basic needs must be met first, before higher needs can be attended to. Your apparent ignorance of this key fact, combined with your failure to make the above 3 distinctions, leads you to make the hilarious statement, “Maslow has helpfully included sex as a basic need, a fact forgotten by those who would quote him in an educational context, as the obvious implication would involve turning schools into brothels.” Who is implying this? Only you! Only someone who fails to distinguish between private, personal needs (e.g., sex), and social ones, i.e. needs that should be met by, e.g., an educational institution, could make such a suggestion. Only someone who fails to distinguish clearly that a need does not imply a moral duty to fulfill it, could make such a ludicrous suggestion. In addition, only someone who fails to appreciate the significance of “hierarchy” in “hierarchy of needs”, and someone who fails to distinguish between an explanation for behaviour and an excuse for behaviour, could make such a statement. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is relevant to teachers, I would suggest, because they have the problem of identifying what counts as a need and in particular which needs educational institutions have an obligation to meet.

if it is not possible to identify what needs we should be meeting then we can’t possibly declare that needs haven’t been met. Identifying needs that an educational institution should meet is greatly helped by distinguishing between needs and wants, between personal, private needs and others, and between basic versus higher needs.

Finally, students are people and have emotional needs which must be met. One such need is for attention. For a baby, attention or lack of it means the difference between life and death, because a baby cannot feed itself. Some children learn that a sure-fire way to get attention is to do something naughty. This puts the adult, who is aware of this, in a dilemma when considering how to deal with the bad behaviour: paying attention to the behaviour merely re-inforces it, yet not paying attention to it may encourage the behaviour, a) because the student thinks they can get away with it, and b) because the person’s need for attention is still unsatisfied.

The knowledge that emotional needs are basic needs, and it can be useful to bear in mind that one key emotional need, particularly with young children (but not limited to them)  is attention. It helps satisfy the teacher’s/parent’s/adult’s need for explanation for behaviour. Explanation for behaviour is useful when deciding how to respond. But it does not excuse bad behaviour. (Did I already mention that?)

Now imagine we accepted the belief that meeting this need was not, a moral duty, or an act of charity, but a method of treating the underlying cause of poor behaviour. We would cease looking for the most famished child to feed first and start feeding the worst behaved.
A very good point. And your final paragraph is particularly powerful.

For the record, I agree with OldAndrew. People who fail to distinguish between needs and wants, who bundle human behaviour up into all-encompassing “needs”, then further simply assume (without justification or explanation) that some or all of these “needs” must be met (“because they’re needs!”) by the educational institution generally and by teachers in particular – such people are using sloppy thinking, faulty logic, and they should be exposed without mercy and as soon as possible, because their ideology is seriously damaging.

I don’t live in the UK so I have no idea how dominant the ideology is which OldAndrew is arguing against. Judging from his blog, it sounds like he (and a handful of other crazies) are the only dissenters. Is there a big debate going on about this? Or is he, in fact, a minority of one?

Suggested further reading: Go For It! by Dr. Irene Kassorla;
How To Talk so Kids Will Listen, and Listen so Kids will Talk, by Faber & Mazlish;
anything by Dr. Haim Ginott

By the way, I usually vet the related articles listed below by Zemanta. Not all of them are relevant, and of those that are, not all are interesting or well written. This one is particularly interesting.

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2 thoughts on “Needs”

  1. Okay, I’m baffled, how on earth is it a strawman to suggest that if “we believe that a dyslexic child needs to gain the greatest possible skill in reading and writing” then “we will be trying to make them read and write as much as possible, even to the extent of giving them extra lessons in reading and writing and removing them from conventional lessons, or even mainstream schooling”?

    What’s your alternative? Wobble boards?

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/7425743.stm

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