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Picture-book ‘interventions’ for children

Education

“Study: Science acknowledges a ‘God-shaped vacuum’ in young children”

That’s not how the headline reads, but it’s what the story implies. A couple of days before Easter, The Wall Street Journal reported on a pedagogical experiment conducted by psychologists at Boston University. The experiment itself isn’t especially noteworthy: A team of four academics, led by Deborah Kelemen, commissioned a 10-page picture book of “realistic pictures and factual narrative with nonteleological, nonintentional language.” That is, the text of the picture book implied no purpose or design in the development of the trunk of the pilosa (a “fictional” animal—actually an order of South American mammals including ground sloths and anteaters). The children were tested after the book was read to them, and all showed some level of understanding that the pilosa’s trunk had once been thick, but had adapted to the animal’s circumstances and became thinner. With reinforcement, the learning remained in place three months later.

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This proves that young children tend to learn what adults teach them, which is, after all, the point of education. It’s the language used to describe the experiment that’s so telling. More than once, Kelemen describes it as picture-book “intervention.” Intervention is what we do to correct a damaging behavior, stepping between the individual and his illusions. The illusion of these unsuspecting 5- and 6-year-olds is that this world and everything in it exists to some purpose and some higher intelligence may be directing it all. This is true even of children raised as atheists, and is a “conceptual bias” that must be overcome. Thus the “intervention”: “the logic of natural selection could ultimately place students in a better position to suppress” these biases. In other words, their suspicion that the universe might be something other than a gigantic accident. 

Do you hear haunting echoes of Romans 1:18?

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”

Pascal’s “God-shaped vacuum” is as much an observable fact as micro-evolutionary adaptations within species, but it can’t be measured and therefore is not scientific and therefore doesn’t exist. What “conceptual biases” are Kelemen and company revealing? The very fact that young children intuit some meaning to their own existence should tell the academics something, but their own blinders are firmly in place.

Here’s another haunting passage:

“[W]hoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).

Picture-book “intervention” will probably not spread widely through our educational system (most teachers share the same conceptual biases as their students), but these Massachusetts primary-schoolers have been robbed. As C.S. Lewis (in The Abolition of Man) says of modern materialist education, “Another little portion of the human heritage has been quietly taken from them before they were old enough to understand.”

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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