I mentioned in a previous post in which I quoted at length from Huxley’s Brave New World Revisited, that he was very concerned about the loss of human freedom in a world increasingly crowded and tending toward what he calls “dictatorship.” I want to continue to quote from his book because what he has to say is so relevant today and has the ring of truth. Speaking of truth, he thinks the ability to distinguish between what is true and what is false are essential elements in a good education. Imagine!
“An education for freedom (and for the love and intelligence which are at once the conditions and the results of freedom) must be among other things an education in the proper use of language.. . . .Suffice it to say that all the intellectual materials for a sound education in the proper use of language — education on every level from kindergarten to graduate school — are now available. Such an education in the art of distinguishing between the proper and the improper use of symbols could be inaugurated immediately. Indeed it might have been inaugurated at any time during the last thirty or forty years. And yet children are nowhere taught in any systematic way, to distinguish true from false, or meaningful from meaningless, statements. Why is this so? Because their elders even in the democratic countries do not want them to be given this sort of education.”
Indeed, their parents want them to learn a trade, to be able to earn money right after graduation — which is important, to be sure, but not of first importance. Given that the distinguishing mark of the human species is the use of symbols, it is of first importance, as Huxley suggests, that our children learn to use their minds, to learn how language functions and to see how easily facts can be manipulated in order to persuade the unwary. Huxley, as I have mentioned before, understood the nature of freedom and the ease with which it can be taken away from us — without our knowing it has been lost. As he says in this regard:
“It is perfectly possible for a man to be out of prison and yet not to be free — to be under no physical restraint and yet to be a psychological captive, compelled to think, feel, and act as the representatives of the national State, or of some private interest within the nation, want him to think, feel, and act. There will never be such a thing as a writ of habeas mentum; for no sheriff or jailer can bring an illegally imprisoned mind into court, and no person whose mind has been made captive by the methods outlined above [in his discussion of propaganda] would be in a position to complain of his captivity. The nature of psychological compulsion is such that those who act under constraint remain under the impression that they are acting on their own initiative. The victim of mind-manipulation does not know that he is a victim. To him the walls of his prison are invisible and he believes himself to be free.” [Italics added]
The result, of course, is a society like that in Huxley’s novel, a society of captives who think they are free: denizens of an ant hill, as Dostoevsky put it. When I asked my classes to read Huxley’s novels most had no idea what he was talking about: his world was so unlike theirs. Or so they thought.
“That so many of the well-fed television watchers in the world’s most powerful democracy should be so completely indifferent to the idea of self-government, so blankly uninterested in freedom of thought and the right to dissent, is distressing but not surprising. ‘Free as a bird,’ we say, and envy the winged creatures for their power of unfettered movement in all three dimensions. But, alas, we forget the dodo. Any bird that has learned how to grub up a good living without being compelled to use its wings will soon renounce the privilege of flight and remain forever grounded. Something analogous is true of human beings. If the bread is supplied regularly and copiously three times a day, many of them will be perfectly content to live by bread alone. ‘In the end,’ says the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s parable, ‘in the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us, ‘make us your slaves, but feed us.'”
One wonders if the plethora of entertainment that surrounds us and diverts our attention from important matters could possibly be part of an attempt to dull our minds, weaken our critical faculties. Is that far-fetched? In any event, apropos of Huxley’s last comment, the interesting, albeit disturbing, question is what will happen to these Dodos when there isn’t enough bread? They will then be forced to think in order to survive, but almost certainly, as things now stand, they will be unable to do so.
Great continuation of discussion. The comment on education is dead on accurate. Our General Assembly in NC is cutting Teacher assistant funding and wants to do away with Driver’s Ed training. These are practical examples of cutting where you should not. Yet, to the broader question, why is a strategy of whitewashing history to sand away the edges of dissent make any sense other than to squelch future dissent as some have attempted to do here? Trying to write about truths, I feel like Sisyphus. Once people have learned the lie (or misinformation), it is hard to dissuade them. Before Huxley, Mark Twain once said “it is easier to fool someone than to convince them he has been fooled.”
I like Twain’s comment. He was a funny (and wise) man. The attack on the schools across the nation is symptomatic of anti-intellectualism that has been prevalent since our founding. It got worse when Stevenson ran against Eisenhower and was dismissed as “an egghead,” but that was revealing the mood of the times. If it’s not practical, it’s not worth doing. The idea of freeing young minds is central to a democratic education, but it seems to be increasingly lost on smaller and smaller minds — outside and inside the teaching ranks. And let’s not start on legislators who can’t see beyond their own self-interest!
Remember Paul Tsongas who had good ideas, but was considered too boring? On the flip side CEOs are increasingly more introverted as their business is more complex. We need more of those.
Sometimes, I have to think it is cultural even more than educational. There was a golden era of education — maybe the mid-1930s into the Space Race era, when K-12 education became more accessible and taught so many things that it seems not even college students learn today. But before that, and even up to WWII in some places, and especially in many rural areas, not everyone went to high school. In fact, a lot of them were lucky to finish eighth grade — in part because, in a different way than what Hugh said in his comment here — it wasn’t practical. Young people were needed to work on the farm, or in a store or as a maid, bringing extra income into the home. And travel from the countryside into school in town wasn’t practical either. And very few Americans, really until the GI Bill opened the doors, ever went to college.
Yet … yet, those minds were not afraid to learn, were curious and engaged. They weren’t dodos, in other words. Why, what is the difference between, say, 1900 or 1920, and today? Was part of it still this real belief that in striving, in trying to become self-made, you could still reach the American Dream? Was it that there were fewer distractions like the electronic and entertainment gadgetry, or splintered homes and families? It seemed that, back then, even without much of a school education themselves, people believed in investing in their schools (how many new school buildings were built between 1890 and 1960, and usually with great civic pride, not the continual I’m-not-gonna-give-you-a-dime griping we get now). There was more willingness to invest in science, medicine for reasons of discovery and common good — now, it seems like it too often comes at the behest of profit, whether in pharmaceuticals, space travel, high-tech.
It’s frustrating. Blame needs to be leveled mostly at the adults, I think, of recent generations, though, and not the kids who are too often getting stuck with what parents and grandparents leave them — if they have parents or grandparents who are around, even. But we’ve left a shoddy legacy of unfocused priorities, political and ideological cross-purposes that make it nearly impossible to do anything meaningful on education, and, too, often, just simple apathy about the fate of our kids. Hopefully you will rouse some folks, Hugh, and stir at least some of us to do more!
Great comment, Dana. I wonder if there ever was a “golden age” of education. But, as you say, in days gone by folks valued a good education and were willing to spend money. They also respected teachers and teachers had a degree of status in society — not like in Europe, but still, much more than they do now when they seem to be viewed as sucking the life-blood out of ordinary folks who are filled with resentment as a result. I doubt that teachers rank much higher in the minds of the “man in the street” than politicians these days. Pertly it is because they are paid so poorly (therefore they cannot be worth anything), but also because there is a deep-seated suspicion in this country that anyone who can use his or her mind is “strange,” a “geek.”
Or what’s MORE obvious: Subversive.