Alice Miller, the former psychoanalyst, has gained world renown for her
controversial and provocative writings on child rearing. Miller contends that
traditional child rearing practices—in schools, ecclesiastical settings, and the
family—consist of physical and emotional cruelty that she labels “poisonous
pedagogy.” According to Miller, children who are subjected to such treatment
have no recourse other than to repress their anger, rage and resentment for their
abusive parents. The reason they have no recourse is in great part due to the
effects of moral, religious, and ideological principles that convince the child
such treatment is “for your own good.” This repressed anger is vented years
later when the victims have a convenient target; namely, their own children (or
for teachers, their students). Hence, the cycle of poisonous pedagogy is
perpetuated from generation to generation. While much attention has been
given to Miller’s psychological theories (particularly the psychological effects
of “spanking”), there has been little in the way of philosophical analysis given
to her account of the role morality plays in this process.
Miller’s book, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing
and the Roots of Violence, is her most thorough explication of the nature and
effects of poisonous pedagogy, and will also be the focus of my analysis.1 The
first task of my analysis will be to clarify and distill Miller’s views on morality.
For example, I will clarify what she means by “morality,” set forth her account
of the role morality plays in poisonous pedagogy, and explain her objections to
morality, so conceived. Next, I will offer a critical examination of her
criticisms of morality, and entertain possible objections to her account. Finally,
I will suggest ways in which Miller’s views might be of use for educators.
Clarification of Morality and its Role in Poisonous Pedagogy.