Gardeners, not Blacksmiths

Tim Leet (September 2022)

Teaching is gardening, at least in many respects. In the garden we work with natural growth patterns, not against them. We prepare the most hospitable plot of ground we can and fight our battles of attrition against invading weeds and pests. We know the success of our labor depends on forces beyond our control. Sun and rain, love and a full belly: gardeners, like teachers, can do only what they can do. Both are humbling professions.

I’ve been tempted at times to trade in the tools of the gardener for the hammer and anvil of the blacksmith. Why all this tedious “toil in the soil” when we might arrive at the same place more quickly with a few well-placed hammer blows?

The violence of the image aside, consider the parallels. Blacksmiths impose their will through power on raw iron. Teachers can use their power in the same way, although with quite a bit more subtlety. We might impose our will through an outsized personality, offering only contingent approval, or manipulating our students’ pride and shame. Whatever the means, the effect is the same: coercion and a loss of autonomy.

From five decades worth of research on motivation and well-being, we know the deleterious impact of such coercive practices. Human growth is an organic process, and autonomy is one of its essential nutrients. Plants don’t respond well to hammers and neither do people.

Healthy moral growth requires autonomy, and yet granting young people moral autonomy is scary. It strikes many as lazy, irresponsible, and for the philosophically minded, a certain path to moral relativism. I disagree, and in the next few posts I’ll explain why.

In the meantime, tend to the garden. There are no shortcuts to moral adulthood. The hammer won’t help. Children grow in their own time, and one of the indispensable nutrients to that growth is autonomy. We need only have faith in the seed.

Categories: moral development