THE head teacher and educationist Katharine Birbalsingh found herself recently at the centre of a spat on social media about the doctrine of original sin.
Although she would not describe herself as a Christian, she suggested that children are not born “good”, and need to be taught the difference between right and wrong. This caused outrage, some of which came from those in the education world who have always been opposed to Ms Birbalsingh’s discipline-based approach, preferring educational approaches based on the Rousseau-esque view that human nature is at its most authentic when it is left to develop spontaneously.
Original sin is a distinctly Christian doctrine, which sets out to explain humanity’s alienation from God and propensity to violence. In its mythic form — the story of the Garden of Eden — it involves the human desire to acquire by force what only God has by nature: the knowledge of good and evil. Some early Christian writers thought that the first sin was gluttony, but Western theologians settled for pride.
A modern interpretation that I find plausible involves something closer to envy, and is found in the writings of the French Christian anthropologist René Girard. He thought that the origin of sin lies in our psychic awareness of the divine, our sense of being “addressed” by our Creator. Once we are aware of God, we want what God has, and this is precisely what the serpent promises.
One of Gerard’s interpreters, Paul Gifford, in Towards Reconciliation: Understanding violence and the sacred after René Girard (James Clarke & Co., 2020), illustrates how this plays out by asking us to imagine a three-year-old being introduced to a room full of wonderful and fascinating toys. Also in the room is another child playing with a chosen toy. Ask yourself the question: which toy does the new child want to play with? It is, of course, the toy already chosen. The child knows just how desirable the already chosen toy is, because he or she can “read” the other child, deciphering his or her desire and wanting what the other child has, simply because they have it. And so back to the playground.
A child’s impulse to snatch is pretty basic. Mature parents deal with it by demonstrating what is off limits, and putting up with fists and frustration. It is a sad reflection that so many children, including some who have subsequently been helped by Ms Birbalsingh, have been given so little capacity for self-regulation by their parents.
Children need to learn to discipline their desires, and so acquire the freedom to make wise choices. This does not diminish spontaneity or creativity, but it gives them the boundaries that they need to flourish. There is a reason for Ms Birbalsingh’s success. In the playground and in the classroom, original sin is an observable fact, a true reading of our human plight, and also a promise of our salvation.