Have We Lost Something?

I repost here a piece I wrote a couple of years ago and which strikes me as even more relevant today.  It is a theme I pursued at some length in my book The Inversion of Consciousness from Dante to Derrida and it remains one of my main interests today.

In his introduction to the Barnes and Noble edition of Balzac’s classic Père Goriot, Peter Connor asks the provoking question:

“Is Balzac the artist who has recorded for our modern era the death of soul? The death of all belief in something greater, grander than the individual?”

The question is rhetorical and Balzac makes it quite clear what he means to say in his many novels and stories that comprise the Human Comedy which he wrote in the early and middle parts of the nineteenth century. In his novel The Country Doctor, for example, he has this remarkable passage:

“With the monarchy we lost honor, with the religion of our fathers, Christian virtue, with our sterile governments, patriotism. These principles only exist partially instead of animating the masses. . . . Now, shoring up society, we have no other support than egoism. Woe betide the country thus constituted. Instead of believers, we have interest.”

“Interest” here, of course, refers not only to the money made from money, but self-interest — or, better yet, short-term self-interest which has become all the rage not only in France, but also in this country where the business model provides a template for all human endeavors, including health care and education. Profits now and screw tomorrow…. and the planet.

But, ignoring for the moment the reference to the restoration of the monarchy in France after Napoleon (and the oblique reference to the “reign of terror” in which clerics were one of the favorite targets of the Jacobites), let us focus instead on the loss of virtue. The “death of God,” as Nietzsche would have it. And recall that Karl Gustav Jung echoes Balzac’s plaintive cry when he wrote a set of essays in the 1930s and collected them in a book titled Modern Man in Search of Soul. All of these men, and others like them, have noted that the modern era (and especially the post-modern era I would add) have displaced soul with stuff. We live in a disenchanted age. It is an age of scientism and capitalism, the one ignoring intuition and insisting that the scientific method is the only way to the Truth; the other giving birth to a crass materialism that places emphasis on things over the ineffable. We have ignored Hamlet’s observation:

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, then are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

And “philosophy” in Shakespeare’s day meant natural philosophy, or science.  Indeed, ours is a “commodified culture” as Robert Heilbronner would have it, an era in which the new car or the flat-screen TV are much more important to most of us than virtue, or the development of what used to be called “character.” And we have the audacity to think that there are no problems our scientists, mostly technicians these days, cannot solve.

Balzac’s many novels and stories — more than 90 of them — comprise “a documentary of the cramped modern soul, a soul shown to be cynical, pitiless, insensible, gluttonous, scheming, and, perhaps, above all, indifferent,” as Conner would have it. In his classic  Père Goriot, which many think is the cornerstone of Balzac’s Human Comedy, he describes in exacting detail the residents of a boarding house where the novel takes place:

“There was not a soul in the house who took any trouble to investigate the various chronicles of misfortunes, real or imaginary, related to the rest. Each regarded the others with indifference, tempered by suspicion; it was a natural result of their relative positions. Practical assistance not one of them could give, this they all knew, and they had long since exhausted their stock of condolences over previous discussions of their grievances. . . . There was not one of them but would have passed a blind man begging in the street, not one that felt moved to pity by a tale of misfortune.”

That was France in the nineteenth century. And it was written by a novelist who, we all know, makes things up. Surely this is not the real world, not the world of these United States in the year of our Lord 2018? And yet with the exception of the remarkable people Jill Dennison tells us about weekly in her blog, most of us seem to fit the pattern of the lodgers Balzac is describing in his novel, sad to say. We do seem to be indifferent to others, preoccupied with our very own selves, turned in on ourselves, perhaps posting a selfie on social media in hopes of getting yet another “like.” We glorify our indifference to others by calling it “tolerance,” and delude ourselves into thinking we are better than we are.

It is certainly the case that many Christians have given a bad name to Christianity. We can see with our mind’s eye those who drive each Sunday in their gas-guzzling SUV to a mega-church where they sit in comfortable chairs, sipping an espresso coffee and watching the frantic preacher on a television set near the book store where his latest book is on sale, along with other memorabilia, including, no doubt, tee shirts. Such people abound who go by the name “Christian” while all the time indulging themselves, festering hate in their hearts, supporting a president who is the embodiment of hate, fear, and unbridled greed.

As Balzac notes, and this is not just a novelist speaking, we have lost religion, “Christian virtue.” And this includes not only so many of those who pretend to be Christians, but many of those who have rejected religion altogether, all religions. Along with “more things in heaven and earth” we have indeed lost our souls.  If we have any doubts we need only reflect on how so many of us celebrate Christmas these days.

Scrambling

The Big Ten  recently announced that their athletic teams would play against only conference opponents this Fall. This follows on the heels of the Ive Leagues that announced that they were cancelling all Fall sports because of the Carona Virus. Given the fact that the Pac 12 has admitted the possibility that they will follow the lead of the Big 10, there is a distinct chance that other conferences will follow suit;  it is also possible that there will be no Fall sports on any college campus this year because of the virus.

I ask: so what?

The answer to my snide question is that there is BIG money involved. Football provides the funding for all other sports on many large college campuses and the prospect of no football has sent a number of athletic directors into spasms. In fact, a number of colleges have already eliminated “non-revenue” sports such as swimming, tennis, and golf to save money. As a former tennis coach this pisses me off just a bit. But again, I ask: so what?

Suppose that the colleges have to drop sports this Fall and even in the long term — if not forever. This would mean that the reason to attend college can no longer be linked to the success of the sports teams. It  might even mean that the colleges and universities might have to restructure their priorities and make academics the mainstay of the students’ experience and students find other means of entertainment. Heaven forbid!

When Robert Hutchins became president of the University of Chicago many years ago the first thing he did was to eliminate the athletic programs. This caused no end of consternation among the alumni and boosters, but he weathered the storm and the University became a beacon in the bleak landscape of universities that fell to the temptation to make athletics their main raison to exist. The University of Chicago remains one of the few universities in this country to not have intercollegiate sports and yet it survives. Not only that, but it has maintained a brilliant academic reputation until this day. And this despite the fact that it is located in South Chicago which many regard as a dangerous place to live.

In a word, the Carona Virus is making us all take a deep breath and reorder our priorities. Why should the colleges and universities not do so as well? And in doing so, while we realize that college athletics can provide a large source of income for many — but by no means all — universities, the students may be the ones who benefit from dropping intercollegiate sports in the long run. After all, college is supposed to be a place where the young begin to emerge as mature adults whose world is wider and deeper.  And while they must find other means of entertainment while on campus, they may just end up spending more time in the library — which makes more sense. The question of what place, if any, sports are to take in the college curriculum is a thorny one at best. And it is one many refuse to even consider.

I am a retired academic who has always thought that academics are what college is all about. And while I did coach championship tennis teams and thought the experience rewarding for all involved, I managed to keep my perspective and always regarded the athletic end of things as icing on the cake — never the heart and soul of why those young people were enrolled in college.

It would not pain me at all to see intercollegiate athletics fall by the wayside, even though it would mean my finding something else to do on Saturday during the Fall (I do love to watch college football despite my slightly twisted perspective!). In the end we may just find out what really matters. Not only on college campuses, but in the world in general. I really think we are already beginning to find out!

Ostrich-Like

I went all the way back to my first year of blogging for this one (November 2011). Sad to say, the problem remains and we continue to pretend that it will simply go away — like the Carona virus. More of us need to be aware and involved — though, while the government ignores the big problems that surround us, there are many who do care and who have done remarkable things even in the time since this post was first written. With an election coming up perhaps we can depose some of those in Congress who are the most purblind?

Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature, recently spoke to a crowd of 600 people at Oregon State University on the topic of global warming. From the story in the local newspaper covering McKibben’s lecture, we read: “McKibben discussed the history of 350.org, the worldwide organizing movement he helped found in 2008. The group’s name stems from research that claims anything more than 350 parts-per-million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is unsafe and will disastrously impact the environment. Scientists estimate the environment currently contains 390 parts-per-million of carbon dioxide.” He is a self-styled “bummer-outer” and yet he continues to draw crowds and sell books while dealing with a very disturbing issue. His message is bleak “It’s the worst thing to happen in the history of our Earth — at least since we’ve been on it.” But the crowds he draws are encouraging  (600 people in attendance at a lecture of this type is quite a remarkable thing!) and he hopes that social networking will help address the problem.

The interesting question here is why we continue to ignore this problem — much as we continue to ignore the problem of overpopulation? The answer, I suspect, is the size of the problem and our reluctance to think about unpleasant, indeed deeply troubling, issues. Further, we tend to ignore problems if they are not in our own back yard. The disturbing thought here is that this problem is in our back yard, whether or not we want to admit it. But we prefer, ostrich-like, to keep our heads buried in the sand of our own ignorance and pretend that things will turn out OK. This is what Jacques Ellul once told us was our response to “the technological imperative,” which focuses on means rather than ends.  We think there is no problem that we cannot fix: someone will come along with a gadget and fix it.

The truth of the matter is that there is no gadget that will fix this problem. And it isn’t simply going to disappear. It is real and it requires, at the outset, that we avoid denial. — which is understandable, but inexcusable.  There are still many people who insist that global warming is a myth. They look at the thermometer, see the low temps and draw the unwarranted conclusion that the globe is not warming. But we must keep in mind the modifier, “global.” In 2010, for example, nineteen nations around the world recorded record high temperatures. And regardless of whether my thermometer reads low temps today, the average here and everywhere else is going up. It is a global issue.

Once we have advanced beyond denial, there are some things we can do to help matters — from the small things like turning down our thermostats and driving more fuel-efficient cars to the larger things like writing our congressmen, supporting companies that are known to be environment friendly, and boycotting those we know to be ignoring their global responsibilities. For example, McKibben’s efforts recently resulted in enough pressure on the President to send the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline project back to the State Department for thorough review, effectively killing the project. There is hope and political activism and citizen petitions can be effective even against the giant corporations that would pollute the earth in the name of higher profits for a few. McKibben’s web site expands on these themes. But it all starts by pulling our heads out of the sand and admitting that there is a problem and it is one we need to address. We owe it to ourselves, our children, and to our children’s children.

Still Blowin’ Into The Wind

I repost here a piece I wrote after the last election because we near yet another one and the issues have not changed. I am not stupid enough to think I can change things with these posts, but I always hope that a discussion will follow and the issues will be at least raised. There was no discussion of this post and this puzzles me.

I recently discussed a Reuters poll that showed that more than 60% of Americans of all political stripes would like to see the E.P.A. maintain its present strength or increase it to help protect the environment. Indeed, polls have shown for years that Americans are concerned about the environment, a concern that usually appears among the top ten with astonishing consistency. And yet, as I have noted, when it comes to electing our representatives to Congress we tend to ignore their stand on the environment and show a much greater concern for such things as terrorism, defense, and the economy.  This has been a pattern for many years and it requires some explaining.

I’m not sure I can provide that explanation, but I can speculate — a thing I tend to be fairly good at, since it requires little research. I am guessing that the concern over the environment is indeed genuine. I don’t question it at all. But it is what I would call a “submerged concern.” That is, it’s there, but it doesn’t surface in any meaningful way. It will surface, of course, when we can no longer drink the water, breathe the air, or are forced to pay two week’s salary for groceries.  But until then, since it is not as pressing for most folks as, say, being able to make the payment on the new SUV, it will remain submerged.

Much of our tendency to keep the concern submerged is fear, of course. None of us wants to think about the dire consequences of continued attacks on the earth which supports us and the air that we require. And none of us wants to make sacrifices. God forbid that we should drive more economical cars and grab a sweater when we are chilly rather than turning up the thermostat! But some of it, at least, is due to our unreasonable conviction that no matter how great the problem someone will solve it. We have blind faith in science — while at the same time we question the veracity of the scientists who tell us that we are destroying the planet. (No one said folks worry about such things as consistency — the minds of so many of us resembling in many ways a rat’s nest of confused bits and pieces of truth, half-truth, and blatant falsehoods — all of which are bound together by wishful thinking. It’s the only kind of thinking a great many people are capable of, sad to say.)

In any event, we are faced with the undeniable fact that a great many people in this society repeatedly elect to Congress men and women who are paid to vote for Big Oil and whose reelection depends on continuing to support programs and people who are hell-bent on taking as much plunder out of the earth as humanly possible and leaving it to future generations to clean up the mess — while they gasp for air and drink Kool-Aid made up of reconditioned toilet water, presumably. We fault those folks in Congress, as we should. They really should put the well-being of their constituents before their own political party and their own re-election. But, judging form the past, this will not happen as long as the cushy jobs in Washington pay well (and the representatives see to that) and the voters are stupid enough to keep them in office. And the fault that this is allowed to happen is our own.

The founders made it clear that the idea was to rotate the representatives every couple of years so there would be new blood and new ideas. George Washington was smart enough to know that the President, at least, should have term limits. At that time the jobs didn’t pay very well and involved a lot of work for men who had more important things to get back to at home. But slowly and surely representation in Congress turned into a full-time, high-paying  job and those in office found that they were making huge piles of money and really preferred to keep things that way. Voting for clean energy and against Big Oil simply doesn’t fit into that scheme. This is why there should be term-limits, of course, but more importantly, it is why we should vote out of office those whose only concern is for themselves and their own well-being. What will it take to wake enough people up to the very real dangers we all face in the not-so-distant future? That is the question!

Communicating

I post here a piece I wrote many years ago and which seems to be even more relevant today as we swim in a sea of gibberish and tweets and the elections are about to begin. I have updated it a bit.

Once upon a time, long ago, after humans had freed themselves from the primeval ooze and struggled to stand upright, they gradually invented language in order to communicate with one another. Initially, it was through pictures and gestures, but eventually they developed an alphabet and put words together. All of this was in order to communicate their ideas and feelings to one another, to make clear what they had in mind.

It was thought for many years that language was the one thing that separated humans from other animal species. But then it was discovered by people like Wolfgang Köhler that chimpanzees could communicate with one another and it was later learned that they could even teach one another the language. Then we learned that other animal species also have communication skills and even something similar to language. This was about the time when humans were losing their own use of language. Coincidence? Probably. But in the event, humans discovered their vocabularies shrinking and their ability to grasp such things as compound sentences slipping away. It was about the time when they started playing with electronic gadgets designed to increase their ability to contact other people and, presumably, to communicate with them. Coincidence? Almost certainly.

But, it turns out, the idea is no longer to use language to communicate with one another. Language is now for self-expression. We use it to tell others how we feel or, at best, to order pizza. We discovered that we don’t need a rich vocabulary or complicated sentences. We can use images and gestures. Just like our ancestors. 😜

The problem is, of course, that language is necessary for thought and as language becomes impoverished so also does our ability to think. This is demonstrated, if we require a demonstration, by the alarming number of people who support Donald Trump. Obviously, these people have lost the ability to think. I haven’t been listening at doorways, but I would wager they can’t speak, either. The problem is that language was initiated in order to make it possible for us to communicate with one another. And this means that a fairly sophisticated vocabulary along with the rules of grammar and usage are also necessary if we are to tell each other what’s on our mind and find out what is going on in theirs. The point was wonderfully made by John Barth in his novel The End of The Road in which the hero, Jake Horner, is dealing with a reluctant student in his basic College English class. The student insists that because language came before grammar we don’t need grammar. After a lengthy Socratic exchange between Jake and the student, Horner concludes as follows:

“. . .if we want our sentences to be intelligible to very many people, we have to go along with the convention [the rules of grammar]. . . You’re free to break the rules, but not if you are after intelligibility. If you do want intelligibility, then [you must master the rules].”

But, it would appear that a great many of us are like the student in this exchange: we don’t want to obey the rules of grammar because ultimately we are not really interested in communicating, in intelligibility. Language is simply a device we employ to express ourselves. Period.

In a word, we as a species regress. And as we regress we are surrounded by a growing number of problems that require careful thought and imagination. This at a time when thought and imagination have become impoverished by “advances” in technology and the growing influence of the entertainment industry whose motto is: take it down to the lowest level in order to attract the largest audience. Educators have followed suit, lowering expectations and providing their students with electronic toys. Coincidence? Perhaps. But a bit unnerving none the less.

Thus we discover around us folks whose attention is directed at the toys in their hands — even when they are next to one another — and who find it difficult, if not impossible, to say what they mean or understand what others say to them,. But since language is no longer about communication, since it is now about self-expression, it really doesn’t matter. As long as others know that I am angry, hungry, or sad, that’s really all that matters. If they don’t understand what I am feeling so much the worse for them. It’s all about me. I don’t need language. 🙂

Purblind

Our enlightened president recently noted that if we had fewer carona virus tests there would be fewer cases. Now we know (he has told us) he is the smartest man on the planet, but this is close to the stupidity he evidenced when he recommended that we drink Clorox.

The notion that if we don’t test there will be fewer cases rests on the absurd assumption that if we don’t see it then it isn’t there. I honestly think this man actually believes this. He is nothing if not sincere.

But this is delusional. There are facts and there are realities and no amount of strong belief can change those things. I cannot fly unassisted and I will not live forever. I don’t want to believe these things, but that doesn’t alter the facts.

I don’t want to join the parade of president-haters. It’s too exhausting and not very productive. Life is too short and attention to what the man is doing on a daily basis is certain to shorten my life which is already approaching its end. But I do believe that as a trained philosopher I have a responsibility to point out that what we want to be the case is rarely, if ever, what is the case. It’s an epistemological truth: facts exist independent of thought. And truth is a correspondence between what we believe and what is the case, independent of us. As much as I want the virus to be over I still realize that it is still killing people and as an old fart with a disease I am smack in the middle of the target demographic (as they say).

This is why I get so worked up when I see the delusional people going about their business as though the virus is over. Business demands that sports return as soon as possible, so the various billionaires who own the professional sports teams fall all over themselves trying to make it happen — as do college presidents. The colleges are even considering going ahead with collegiate football even if there are no students in the stands. Billions of dollars are at stake. There is even talk about holding the motorcycle rallies in Sturgis, South Dakota again this Summer because it is a celebratory year. So thousands of folks from around the country will gather there for a few days of fun and fames and then leave and take away with them hundreds of cases of the virus they can spread back home.

What we have here is a failure to communicate, as Strother Martin once said. There are a great many people out there who simply refuse to believe what they are told — even by experts with no axe to grind. So we open things up and express our surprise that folks are getting sick again. The numbers rise and we ignore the facts because we don’t want to believe them.

I have said it before, many times, and I will say it again. America is living in the Age of Entitlement when children are told they are terrific even when their work simply doesn’t measure up and all are supposed to succeed even though this empties the word of all meaning: when all succeed, none succeed. Thus do we refuse to recognize true excellence when it stands before us. Since they were very young the children of this country have been told they can walk on water by their parents and teachers. They grow up and, being unused to anyone saying “no,” they don’t hear the word — or see the writing on the wall. They cannot walk on water. Sorry about that.

Whether we like it or not, this virus has not gone away. It still sickens and kills and we need to remind ourselves that what we want to be the case may not be the case at all. In a word: for the first time in our lives, we may have to do something don’t want to do.

And we are demonstrating that we can’t handle that message very well. This does not bode well.

 

 

The Other

I repost here a piece I wrote many years ago but which still seems relevant. At the very least it helps us alter our focus from the pandemic and the protests — not to mention the upcoming election.

The latest item in the stack of daily horror stories that we call “news” is about students harassing and even threatening bus drivers, teachers, and administrators. As a recent Yahoo story tells us,

The most recent school safety report from the National Center for Education Statistics, the data branch of the U.S. Department of Education, found that 5 percent of public schools reported students verbally abused teachers on a daily or weekly basis. Also, 8 percent of secondary school teachers reported being threatened with injury by a student, as did 7 percent of elementary teachers.

And we wonder why our education system is on the ropes! We refuse to pay teachers what they are worth and complain when they want to make enough to live on while at the same time we expect them to raise our children for us. It is clear even from this small sample (and we have no idea how many people refused to respond) that many of our children have no idea what the word “no” means. They suffer from an enlarged sense of “self” fostered by unlimited time in front of the TV and playing video games (which help isolate them and convince them that they are the center of the world) while their parents are off somewhere else trying to make enough money to pay the bills. The parents, accordingly, are being irresponsible by ignoring their children and refusing to teach them such elemental things as “manners.” What they are teaching their children are lessons in irresponsibility: do your own thing and the hell with others. It’s hard to determine which is the “cause” here since there are multiple factors involved.

For some time now as a culture we have rejected the notion of authority as a bad thing — even the authority of expert opinion. Now everyone has an opinion about everything and all are equal. As Ortega y Gasset pointed out some time ago,

“Today the most average man has the most mathematical ‘ideas’ on all that happens or ought to happen in the universe. Hence, he has lost the use of his hearing. . . There is no reason now for listening, but rather for judging, pronouncing, deciding. There is no question concerning public life in which he does not intervene, blind, and deaf as he is, imposing his ‘opinions.’” [Ignoring the fact that some opinions are more reasonable than others is a part of our preoccupation with self.]

We have also rejected notions such as discipline and discrimination, both of which are now regarded as bad things, taboo.  Both are, however, essential to a responsible, intelligible, well-ordered, world. Contrary to popular misconceptions, none of these things causes repressed egos. When properly guided they merely cause a redirection of energy into productive avenues of expression.  However, as long as we continue to read and hear on all sides that the self is the only thing that matters, reject even legitimate authority as bogus, and identify freedom with lack of restraint, simply, we must learn to expect our kids to pick up on the hints. They take their clues from what is going on around them; they are not stupid. Unschooled and self-absorbed like their parents, yes, but stupid, no.

I recall a good friend of mine who was the school superintendent at our local school. The gym was located in the school building near the classrooms; he went out to the gym one day not long ago because a student was shooting baskets and making a racket instead of attending classes; because of this he was disturbing those students who might have wanted to learn something. He told the boy to stop and go back to class. The boy turned to the man (the school superintendent!) and told him to f$%# off — and he continued to dribble the basketball and shoot buckets! My friend didn’t know what to do: he wasn’t strong enough to physically manhandle the young man and the local police weren’t an option if he wanted to avoid a scandal (which he did). If he suspended or expelled the student he would have to deal with the parents who would invariably take the boy’s side (because he is their son and can do no wrong). But he decided to suspend the boy anyway. As expected, he was severely criticized by the boy’s parents and their friends (it’s a small town) and was eventually “let go.”

Anecdotal? Yes. But symptomatic of the larger problem: our kids are learning to be irresponsible because they are surrounded by irresponsible adults. Clearly the parents should have supported the superintendent here. We are in danger of reverting to barbarism where the strongest (and loudest) rule. But “might” does not make “right.” The kids must learn, and we all must recall, that “civilization is above all else the will to live in common,” to quote Ortega once again.  We need others in order to become fully ourselves: we cannot go it alone, no matter how brave or audacious we think we are. But the first step is to acknowledge and above all respect the legitimacy of others’ interests even when they conflict with our own. We seem to be losing that and it is in danger of tearing us apart.

Once More Into the Wind

I repost here a piece I wrote in 2012 to show how much impact such posts have on current affairs (!) and because I do think I stumbled on a few good points — with the help of other seminal thinkers. I have added a few comments to bring the post up to date. 

The revelations highlighted in a Chronicle of Higher Education recently about the “Millennials” and the study that shows them to be much more “me” oriented than previously thought is really not all that surprising. The phrase “the me generation” has been used for some time now, and what this recent study shows is that “generation” should be plural.

Christopher Lasch wrote the definitive book on the subject back in 1979 when he noted that

“.. .the collapse of parental authority reflects the collapse of ‘ancient impulse controls’ and the shift from a society in which the values of self-restraint were ascendant to one in which more and more recognition was given to the values of self-indulgence.” (The Culture of Narcissism)

Increased “self-indulgence” in the absence of a strong parental authority figure, according to Lasch, leads invariably to narcissism. In a word, permissive parents in the 1960s and 1970s were regarded by a prominent social psychologist as the root cause of the narcissism that was becoming prevalent at that time and has grown exponentially since then.

But, if this does not astonish us, we can see the same insight suggested in the pages of a novel written 50 years before Lasch wrote his book. Edith Wharton, in Twilight Sleep  is making fun of Mrs. Pauline Manford the flighty, empty-headed do-gooder who seems to be able to embrace numerous contradictory ideas comfortably at the same time. She is busy at one point in the novel forming a League of Mothers (!)

“against the dreadful practice of telling children they were naughty. Had she ever stopped to think what an abominable thing it was to suggest to a pure innocent child that there was such a thing in the world as Being Naughty? What did it open the door to? Why to the idea of Wickedness, the most awful idea in the whole world. . . how could there be bad children if children were never allowed to know that such a thing as badness existed?”

Now there’s logic at work for you!

Though permissive parenting was a theme soon to be picked up by every pop-psychologist who could find a publisher, it is possible that Wharton may have been poking gentle fun at A.S.Neill’s Summerhill project which had started up in England a few years earlier. Summerhill was a “free school”  which had no requirements whatever and just let the kids hang out until something struck their fancy at which point, presumably, they would start to learn. The assumption was that they would not learn anything unless they were interested in it, which is absurd — though it is certainly easier if the child is interested. That’s the teacher’s job, after all.

Cassandra before a burning Troy.

If Wharton was making fun of the idea, she was joined by such eminent thinkers as Bertrand Russel, among others, who ridiculed Neill’s experiment. But to no avail. The idea caught on in England and gave great impetus to the “child-oriented” progressive movement in the schools in this country as well. It is still very much in evidence in the self-esteem movement which is simply the latest episode in this rather tiresome and ill-conceived “never-say-no” educational “theory.” In fact, the entire movement, combined with an economic system that encourages competition among individuals and the accumulation of as much stuff as possible in the shortest amount of time, leads to generations of students who have turned into adults preoccupied with themselves and their own well-being which they pretty much define in terms of material success.

Thus, much of the fuss over the “Millennials” is misplaced and should really be focused on the tendency toward cultural narcissism that Christopher Lasch identified in 1979 and which began at least as early as 1924 when A.S. Neill started Summerhill. Those of us who worry about the continued survival of Western civilization are almost certainly joining the Cassandras that have spoken up throughout history. The ship has sailed and the wisest course of action might well be to simply wait and see where it ends up. The problem with this laissez-faire attitude, however, is that narcissism leads to excessive violence, as Lasch has shown, and a society made up of expanding numbers of violent people preoccupied with their own material well-being is not likely to care a helluva lot about those around them or the world they share in common with millions of others on the planet.

How does this relate to the behavior of so many around the world who seem oblivious to the fact that they endanger others when they fail to wear a face mask during a pandemic? Need I ask?

One Small Voice

I would like to add my small voice to the din surrounding the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman. As a resident of Minnesota I am especially embarrassed by the actions of one of those pledged to serve and protect in what I regard as our best and largest city. It is beyond reckoning. But it happened. And it happens.

As one who was raised in Baltimore, Maryland throughout my adolescent years, I saw some of the blatant racism that pervades the South. Now for those who don’t regard Maryland as a Southern state because it remained neutral during the Civil War, I would simply point out that the state is below the Mason-Dixon line and is in some ways fiercely Southern. Perhaps it’s precisely because it did remain neutral during the Civil War. Now many in that state seem to be out to prove that they, too, are Southern rednecks.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I do not mean to tar all Southerners with the same brush.(And I certainly don’t mean to imply that racism is peculiar to the South. The recent events in Minneapolis prove otherwise.)  Many Southeners are fine people who are just as upset by the murder of Floyd as am I. But there are those in the South who wear their bigotry proudly on their sleeves — as there are Northerners as well.

I was a student in high school in Baltimore in 1954 when the Supreme Court decided that schools should not be segregated and recall vividly making my way through angry crowds at the end of the school day in order to get the bus back home.

In addition, one of my black classmates in college attended a Catholic Church in Annapolis, Maryland during her first year in college. At the end of the service the priest took her aside and told her that there was another Catholic church on the other side of town “for you folks.” I was astonished and deeply embarrassed on her behalf, but not altogether surprised. I had worked throughout my high school years in a grocery store in Baltimore with two black delivery men who often told me of their anger and pain and I listened in stunned silence. What does one say? I recall one day when one of them looked at me and said “I can take most of the hatred, but when I take my family out for a drive on a Sunday it pains me to see the signs that read ‘No Colored.’ What do I tell my kids?” I had never even noticed the signs before he mentioned it. As I said, Maryland could be as fiercely Southern as Mississippi.

The George Floyd murder has the world in a buzz and one only hopes it isn’t the usual outrage that follows such an event and goes nowhere — like the outrage that followed the shooting in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. We can explain the carnage as an expression of bottled up rage and frustration that has followed this event, but surely we cannot justify it — just as we can explain Hitler’s hatred of the Jews while we can never justify it. Let’s hope the outrage in this case that has expressed itself in the trashing of private property results in positive steps taken to make sure that this sort of thing never happens again. The problem with the carnage, of course, is that many will focus on that and forget what it stems from.

However, it does seem as though the graphic pictures of the policeman with his knee on the throat of the black man handcuffed and pinned to the ground by two other policemen takes the fact of racism in this country to another level: that it makes us realize that the determination of football players such as Colin Kaepernick to protest a few years ago were not out of order, but  a timely reminder that there is hatred and bigotry in this country and that the black population have been the brunt of much of it for many, many years.

What is one to do? That is the burning question of the day and it is heartening to see people around the country talking about steps that can be taken to thwart these sorts of events and help make the world safer for the black population in this country. Black Lives Do Matter. Indeed. What is especially heartening is to see the growing numbers of white folks who are joining with their black brothers and sisters to help see that at least some of the deep-seated racism in the country is brought into the air and dissipated. One can only hope.

Want and Need

I have blogged several times over the years about the important distinction between what we want and what we need. I usually couch the discussion in the context of education where I note that children should be taught what they need in order to become autonomous adults rather than what they want as children with passing whims. The distinction has always seemed to me to be at the heart of education and a possible suggestion as to why the United States now trails many of the other “developed” countries in educating the young. Our schools (and our parents, by the way) are focused on what the young want and afraid to demand that they study those subjects they will need later on in life. The parents give into their kids for a variety of reasons, but largely because  they think it will buy their children’ love or because that is what the so-called experts have told them is the proper thing to do.

Now comes the coronavirus and the following story tells us that the chickens seem to have come home to roost — at least in Wisconsin:

Wisconsin saw a record number of new coronavirus cases and deaths reported in a single day on Wednesday, two weeks after the state’s Supreme Court struck down its statewide stay-at-home order.

The state reported 599 new known COVID-19 cases on Wednesday with 22 known deaths, according to Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services, the highest recorded daily rise since the pandemic began there. As of Wednesday, the state had more than 16,460 known cases and 539 known deaths, according to the department.

In a word, the folks in Wisconsin were disturbed enough about being told they must be quarantined in order to help control the virus that they went to court to have the regulation removed so they could go about their business as usual. Well, they went back to business as we can expect it when we take off our rose-colored glasses.

I dare say the same results will or would happen in Michigan where armed protesters stormed the governor’s office to demand that the quarantine be lifted in that state. It’s what we want.

But it is not what we need. When will we learn?

I am not a big fan of the government telling us how to live our lives, but in this case we are talking about older folks and folks with previous medical conditions whose lives are at stake if we simply continue to act on impulse and pretend that the virus isn’t there. Even John Stuart Mill, the arch-defender of libertarian values would agree that where the health and well-being of others is involved laws and  regulations are required — and morally justified.

So many of the young (especially) believe that the virus will not affect them seriously and have decided that they will take a chance. They forget, or ignore the fact, that they might carry the virus to a grandmother or a grandfather, or someone they are close to who suffers from, say, asthma. And those persons may well die because of the kids’ determination to do what they want.

But that’s what they have been taught in the home as well as in school. Just tell those in positions of authority what you want and they will deliver it to you. If they pretend not to hear, shout louder or, possibly, bring a weapon.

The chickens, as I said, have come home to roost.