Who Are The Trustworthy?

I have referred to Charles Pierce and his marvelous book several times. The first time was back in 2013. No one “liked” it or made a single comment — perhaps because I attack our blind faith in the wisdom of children? Anyway, I will post it again (with modifications), because what he had to say is still very much to the point.

The truth is something different from the habitual lazy combinations begotten by our wishes.(George Eliot)

One of the major curiosities in this most curious age in which we live is the undue adulation the young receive at the hands of their elders. In fact, one might say the young now command center stage in this drama we call contemporary living, as their elders are ignored and shunted off to stage left, despite the fact that their elders spend countless hours trying to pretend they are young themselves. The young can do no wrong and we listen at doors for the latest piece of wisdom that might let slip from their lips. They are charming, lovely, beautiful — untainted by the stains of a corrupt world. And they are wise beyond their years, presumably.

If families are talking over the dinner table and the young speak up silence immediately ensues in order to allow them to say their piece. The notion that the kids should not interrupt and are simply being rude has gone the way of the dinosaur. In any event, it never occurs to anyone that when they speak what the kids have to say may not be worth listening to and their withdrawal from the adult world as they grow older is nothing more than a sign of their budding narcissism. But there it is: the result of the youth rebellion.

Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation, insists that it started in the 1960s when groups like the S.D.S. led the attack on the “establishment” in general and the universities in particular, giving birth to the slogan “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” Richard Hofstadter would insist, I dare to say, that it started a decade earlier during the McCarthy hearings, or, perhaps, when Dwight Eisenhower was running against Adlai Stevenson and suddenly Americans began to distrust “eggheads” like Stevenson. The youth movement, he might say, is simply the logical development of the anti-intellectual movement that came out into the open in the 1950s and which has since been fostered by growing numbers of people in this commodified culture who have never trusted those impractical types who live in “ivory towers.” In any event, as a culture we have come to distrust the elderly (especially those who can think and speak coherently) and instead we check our gut feelings and listen to the young as the sources of what we like to call “truth.”

The attack on the universities has resulted in grade inflation and the dumbing down of the curriculum in the schools, and the distrust of those over thirty has resulted in the mindless rejection of all in authority, including parents and teachers, and the almost total dismissal of the notion of expertise which, we are told, is “elitist.” To be sure, the teachers and parents have been party to the retreat as they have shown little courage and practically no confidence in themselves in the face of this assault. But, face it, some are in a better position to know than others and the odds are that those who have lived longer and studied complex issues carefully probably know a thing or two. Perhaps it is time to invent a new slogan: “Don’t trust anyone under thirty.” Or so says Mark Bauerlein and this sentiment, if not those same words, is echoed in the writing of another contemporary student of America’s current cultural malaise.

I refer to Charles Pierce who, in his best-selling book Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue In The Land of The Free, points out that this attack on authority and expertise — and those over thirty — has resulted in a lowering of intelligence (in a country where more people vote for the latest American Idol than they do the President of the United States), along with the reduction of all claims, including scientific claims, to simple matters of individual opinion, anyone’s opinion. And this in a nation based on Enlightenment ideas articulated and defended by the likes of John Jay, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. We have devolved into a nation that has declared war on intelligence and reason, the cornerstones of the Enlightenment, and prefers instead the alleged certainty of gut feelings and the utterances of children. We have turned from books and hard evidence to the mindless drivel of reality shows and video games. Pierce defends three “Great Premises” that he is convinced sum up the attitude of Americans in our day to matters of fact and questions of ultimate truth:

(1) Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.

(2) Anything can be true if someone says it [often and] loudly enough.

(3) Fact is that which enough people believe.  (Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it).

I suppose the last parenthetical comment might be regarded as a corollary of the third premise. But the fact is that in this relativistic age we distrust those who are in a position to know, we wait for the latest poll to decide what is true, and we adulate the young while we ignore the fact that, lost as they are in the world of digital toys, they know very little indeed. As Pierce has shown so convincingly, we are all becoming idiots. We have lost the respect for that truth which we do not manufacture for ourselves, but which stands outside the self and requires a relentless effort to grasp even in part — together with our conviction that some things are truly evil while others are truly good. All truth is now mere opinion and the moral high ground has been leveled. We ignore the beauty all around us along with the ugly truths about what we are doing to the planet while we indulge ourselves in the latest fashion and seek the liveliest pleasure, convinced that it is the good. And all the while we wait eagerly to see what pearls of wisdom might fall from the young who are busy playing with their digital toys.

What will come of all this remains to be seen, but we might be wise to recognize the fact that those under thirty are still wet behind the ears and don’t know diddly about much of anything that really matters. Their elders don’t seem to know much either, but if we recall that the admission of our own ignorance (as Socrates so famously said) is the beginning of wisdom, then that may be the way the adults in this country might begin to resume their role as mentors and our distrust of authority and expertise might be put to rest while we acknowledge that the children know even less than we do, and the majority does not determine what is true or false.

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10 thoughts on “Who Are The Trustworthy?

      • They have set the bar pretty high in the field of education. American teachers tend to dismiss Finland because they don’t deal with the heterogeneous group of students we do over here. But this is not the case: they deal with hordes of immigrants and they are regarded as the best educated students in the world.

  1. A sad, but honest statement of our society today. I was, of course, part of the “don’t trust anyone over 30” generation, and fully believed I knew more than my elders back in the 60s. Somehow, though over the course of the past 50 years I have come to realize what a silly fool I must have looked, and to realize just how much more I DON’T know than that I do. Unfortunately, as long as people continue to go on about their lives unconcerned with those things they don’t understand or won’t admit, the only hope seems to “tear it down and start over”. I fully agree that the answer lies in the re-building of our education system, but that seems unlikely in the current regime where only the wealthy (and white) are valued. Sigh. Good post, my friend!

    • You make my case. If someone as bright and aware as you didn’t trust those over 30 that testifies to the widespread acceptance of the mantra at the time. It has translated of late into an adoration of the young that blindly assumes that they have the answers. Some do — but most are as blind as a bat. The few are our best hope — people like you, only younger!

      • Awwww … thank you … you make my head swell! I think the adoration for the young these days is that we hope they at least have their heart in the right place. I’m thinking of the days after the Parkland shooting when the young people stepped up to the plate and said, “Enough”. But you are right … they haven’t the wisdom to take on the world, and what we must hope for is that they are wise enough to realize that they still have much to learn. Let us hope that we can begin to turn things around before it is too late, for there will come a point of no return.

      • Indeed there will be. At some point it will be too late. I do have hope for the young — many of them. But the majority are too deep into social media waiting for the latest “like.” But you show us each week that there are some who are heading in the right direction and we need to follow them. A few.

  2. Dr. Curtler,

    You have offered an interesting post, as usual.

    Since I have not read Mr. Peirce’s book, I cannot assess it globally. I can only respond to a few of ther comments related to it.

    (1) I do understand that some parents are all to eager to defer to their children, to the point of accepting rude behavior, but the research on family authority patterns suggest that this is not as much a generational problem as it is sometimes taken to be. It is, however, a reflection of a specific form of family structure wherein parents want to be the best friends of their children, rather than being the best parents of their children. This has been referred to as the “laissez-faire” approach to parenting, but there are other parenting styles, as well – authoritarian and authoritative, for example.

    I am familiar with each of these latter parenting styles: I was raised in the former and raised my children in the latter.

    AN EXAMPLE OF AUTHORITARIAN PARENTING: As a child, I was expected to be quiet and obedient. The idea that we would interrupt our parents, except in cases of real emergency, was simply not entertained. We were expected to be silent and obedient. Physical discipline was normal. Verbal tirades were commonplace. My mother, my sister and I walked on proverbial eggshells all the time. We ate in silence and rarely looked up if my father was present. If he was not, we laughed and good-naturedly teased one another. I grew into the role of family comedian, a position and a disposition I have held for over sixty years.

    The lasting legacy of this is fourfold: (1) I have spent a good deal of my life trying not to be like my father; (2) I have strong tendencies toward comedic smart-assery, especially in tense situations; (3) I am suspicious of arbitrary authority; (4) I detest bullies. A psychologist would find few surprises here, I would wager.

    AN ATTEMPT AT AUTHORITATIVE PARENTING: As parents, my wife and I married young and decided early that we would accept our natural authority along with our natural responsibility as parents. This was easier for my wife, who raised her younger siblings. It was all new to me, but I learned quickly from my wife and my children.

    There was never any question about who had the final decision-making authority in the family, but questions and suggestions from our sons were accepted and taken seriously from the time they learned to express themselves verbally. We listened. We explained ourselves. If our children disagreed, we said we understood how they felt, but our decisions were firm and consistent. We told them that they would have the opportunity to do things differently and probably better when they became parents. We said we weren’t perfect, but we did our best.

    We always prepared and ate our evening meals as a family. Conversation was far-ranging, lively, direct, and usually funny. Nobody was allowed intentionally to interrupt anyone else; if they did so unintentionally, they would apologize and wait their turn to speak. After everyone helped clear the table and do the dishes, it was time for either housework or homework, or both. If the latter, I would sit at the table doing some of my work while my sons did theirs. Never once did I do any of their homework for them. My purpose was to direct them to a higher standard of academic performance than that expected by their teachers. (I determined this was necessary when my sons were in Middle School, but that is another tale.)

    Each evening, I would review their written work, ask questions, make general suggestions, and then review the rewritten versions. I did not review their math and science homework. I expected them to explain it and demonstrate it to me clearly and correctly. When they could do so, then they were done. When my family and saw the movie, “A River Runs Through It”, my sons chuckled loudly at the scene where the father noted mistakes in written essays and returned them for rewriting until they were correct, clear, and complete. They thought the sons got off easy because the father didn’t check homework in every subject.

    As college students, my sons have often thanked me for this academic tutelage, even my youngest son who chafed at the original experience. When they became parents themselves, they have often thanked my wife and me for not trying to be their best friends and for being responsible parents. By this time, they had seen the results of both authoritarian and laissez-faire parenting among their friends and associates and were glad they had not been exposed to either. As for me, it ihas been one the greatest satisfaction of my life to watch my sons grow into better men and better parents than I ever was.

    (2) While I wholeheartedly agree that much needs to be done to improve education in this country, one cannot forget that the natural foundations of learning are laid in the home. Parents cannot control what happens in school, by and large, and that is generally a good thing. Parents can, however, accept their natural authority as both parents and as their children’s first teachers. This takes time and effort. It is generally not easy and often not enjoyable. It is essential.

    (3) It is commonplace thoughout history for elders to bemoan the failings of the young. This is an easy gambit, but it doesn’t really lead anywhere. There is ample room for complaint and criticism, to be sure, but it should be directed at the central institutions and organizations of our society and those who control them.

    Thanks once again for a stimulating comment and for your patience with my response.

    Regards and respects to all,

    Jerry Stark

    • It sounds like you had the correct approach with your own kids. Ours turned out well but I attribute that to my wife who was stern but who loved the kids and let them know it. I was busy doing everything but helping to raise the boys. There are no pat answers to the question of child-raising. It’s highly intuitive! Freud said there are two impossible jobs: psychiatrist and parent! But I do think the latest generation of young people are a different kettle of fish. The traditional complaints of which you speak may be in order this time around!

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