How Ironic!

Liberals might not like reading John Carroll’s books. He takes what he calls “radical liberalism” to task and blames those well-meaning folks who crave greater human freedom for many of the ills of contemporary culture. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that it is precisely those who demand greater human freedom that have placed the chains of fear and uncertainty on modern men and women. He does not deny that liberalism has been a good thing. As he says,

“Our civilization has benefitted prodigiously from the liberal impulse, but always in cases in which it has operated in a circumscribed manner, within a securely ordered institutional environment.”

Indeed. True freedom demands restraint. The absence of restraint is not freedom, it is chaos and misery. It is the French Revolution. A case in point is capitalism which is one of the many fruits of liberal thinking — as set forth in the writings of Adam Smith in the eighteenth century at the height of the Enlightenment when liberal thinking was all the rage. Smith was convinced that the “invisible hand” would guide the capitalist and that in the end there would be greater prosperity for all. Smith was a part of the Scottish Moral Sense School. This was group of thinkers who were convinced that there is a core of human sympathy in all people and that would tend toward generosity and compassion. The urges of the capitalist for more and more profit would be restrained by their natural sympathy for others. We know how that turned out.

Carroll is convinced that it is liberalism’s excesses and naivety (as evidenced in the case of Adam Smith) that are at the heart of the problem:

“Liberalism’s psychological assumption about humans — leave them alone and they will flourish — is naive. It is blind to inclinations to greed, violence, and evil, inclinations that are an inherent part of human egoism. It assumes a capacity for self-restraint that our entire history contradicts. In practice, the upper middle class, without the constraints of culture, has been left with one value– freedom — which has become intoxicating. Liberalism has proven the perfect rationalization for selfishness.”

The classic example is that of the liberal parents who refuse to reprimand their child for throwing a rock through a window because he was just “expressing himself.” We wouldn’t want to thwart his creative growth! And those same parents send their spoiled child off to school where  underpaid teachers are not allowed to discipline the children but are somehow supposed to remedy the mistakes the parents have made.

Radical liberal thinking led to the concept of the “free school” initiated by A.S. Neill in England (following Rousseau) which rebelled against the excessive Victorian restraints that needed to be loosened — but not tossed aside. Restraint is not in itself a bad thing. Indeed, as Carroll and many other thinkers have insisted, restraint is what has led to civilization and to what we like to call “progress.” It’s also the key to sound character. The problem with liberalism, for all its good intentions (and they are very real, as human beings struggled against authority and unrestrained power for centuries and demanded their freedom with good reason) is that

“its adherents never know when to stop. Once unleashed, liberalism keeps going until no authority is left; it has no principle of restraint. The threat, since 1960 [ the time of the counter-culture], has been of excessive liberalization rendering schools ineffective in the struggle to keep discipline.”

This has certainly been the case in the schools where the free school ideal — which led to “progressive education” and the self-esteem movement in the lower grades — has left the lower middle classes, especially, illiterate and therefore unable to take advantage of opportunities for economic advancement, thus breeding resentment in a great many who feel left out. The result of all this, as Carroll sees it, is what he calls “rancour.”

“Nietzsche saw rancour as the prototypical modern disease. It manifests itself in resentment against another person, another group or party, or another body of ideas”

Rancour infects not only the intellectual and cultural elite who in their blind determination to increase human freedom have become nihilistic and turned against their own history and against Western Civilization generally; it is especially prevalent in the lower middle class where millions of people in the West feel trapped and ignored by those who have the power and make the decisions that directly affect their lives.

The gap between the “upper middle-class,” the intellectual elite and those with money and power, on the one hand, and the  cultural “lower middle classes” (those who watch the soaps, read the Enquirer, and admire Clint Eastwood), on the other, has grown wider of late. We may find ourselves with an explanation here for the fact that a man who is all ego has become president of the most powerful nation on earth: those who have felt left out experience this rancour and, blind to the man’s faults, see only Clint Eastwood or John Wayne. These folks also hate restraint and want quick solutions to problems that are far too large for them to wrap their heads around — especially as they cannot read, write or figure and have been provided with toys to entertain them and keep them distracted.

Thus, as John Carroll would have it, the “radical liberals” are hoist by their own petard. Those whose only value is unlimited human freedom now find themselves imprisoned in a world of unrestrained greed and self-interest surrounded by unrestrained ignorance, resentment, and even violence. How ironic.

 

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Lost Its Way?

The stereotype of the old-fashioned schoolroom shows us the stern-faced teacher walking up and down the rigidly straight aisles with a ruler in her hand glowering at the children who were told not to speak in class or even to sneeze. If a child dared to make a noise and, say, whisper to the child next to her, the ruler would come down swiftly and the child would break into shrieks and later have nightmares about those terrible days. The idea was, it seems, to keep the kids in line, force-feed them knowledge — teach the kids the “three Rs” whether they wanted to learn or not.

Following the lead of people like Jean Jacques Rousseau in France and later A.S. Neill in England, parents and teachers in this country began to realize that this model was somehow wrong and that the child matters. Theory started to shift toward what we now call “child-centered education.” The subject-matter began to be thought of as less important than the child who was being taught. Such notions as “authority” and “discipline” took on a pejorative meanings, calling up images of the ruler coming down on the knuckles of the small child by a teacher who suffered from Jehovah’s complex. Soon popular psychologists got on the bandwagon, thinking they could not only teach better than the teachers, but also raise children better than the parents. Parents and teachers were told not to “inhibit” the child, that “stern discipline” was not the way to go, that the child ought to be treated like an adult and allowed to find their own way. Teachers and parents were told to be their kids’ friends, not authority figures. Soon the “free schools” sprang up, patterned after Neill’s Summerhill school in England — where students were allowed to select their own subjects and study them when they were ready to, and not before. His system worked with many bright, precocious children, but in the majority of cases the children learned little and the experiment was called by many people, including Bertrand Russell, a failed experiment.

But the child-oriented movement in this country had gained headway and began to take this country by storm. Supported by people like John Dewey (who later abandoned the theory, realizing that it had gone too far afield) and by the pop-psychologists who fell all over themselves rushing to get their books into print, parents and teachers questioned their own instincts and fell in line behind the so-called “experts” who may or may not have ever taught or even to have children of their own. They were not to restrict the children; they were there to support the child no matter what, always say “yes” and never say “no.”  Thus was born the permissive society with which we are now so familiar where students are told they can walk on water even when it is not frozen and “authority” and “discipline” have become bad things — in the home as well as the classroom. Neill took a plain truth, namely, that students learn more quickly those things they enjoy — and developed it into a blatant falsehood, namely, that they will not learn those things they do not enjoy. In fact, students learn to like a great many things they might have avoided had they not been required to study them. Further, maturity is a function of being able to do those things we are not fond of doing, or which we have an aversion to doing.  Child-oriented education has resulted in numberless children who are mis-educated and remain immature well into adulthood.

While this might be seen as (a necessary?) swing of a pendulum away from the stereotype given at the outset of this discussion, the pendulum at present shows no signs of moving. There is little evidence that more than a handful of folks connected with education realize how damaging this theory has been to the education of our children — as evidenced by comparisons of the American school system with the likes of Finland. Take, for example, the current notion of discipline which is regarded as a bad thing, whereas, in fact, intellectual discipline involves the ability of a mind to follow an argument, form cogent arguments, perceive untruths and formulate responses to blatant falsehoods. In a word, discipline is essential to real thought. It does not require teachers patrolling the classrooms with rulers in hand. But it does require teachers who are acknowledged as legitimate authority figures and who are committed to teaching tough subjects and demanding positive results from their students. Above all else it requires teachers who demand that their students learn to read, write, speak their language, and calculate such things as the tip in a restaurant — things that increasing numbers of American students cannot do. The sort of thing that passes for thought in a classroom where discipline is thought to be a bad thing is merely disjointed, incoherent drivel.

Flaubert said that discipline makes art of impulse. Similarly, discipline makes thought out of tangled, incoherent ideas and half-truths. Undisciplined thought is not real thought at all, it is mere impulse, gut feelings. And coming from kids who are, in many cases, overflowing with  undeserved self-esteem, the way is paved for our mindless age of entitlement where spoiled kids cannot read, write coherently, or figure. But let us not simply assume that the pendulum will swing back somewhere just short of the teacher cruising the aisles with ruler in hand  — say, to the vital notion of intellectual discipline instilled by demanding teachers who recognize and reward genuine excellence. It’s not going to happen unless enough people realize that the pendulum needs a push. And, sad to say, there appear to be very few around who even recognize the fact that the pendulum has become stuck in place.

Is SOLE The Answer?

A curious article turned up on HuffPost recently, written by a man named Sugata Mitra. The man advances a thesis about education that sounds awfully familiar, though it pretends to be brand, spanking new. In fact, it is “Summerhill” on steroids — or computers, which amounts to the same thing in this case. And A.S. Neill’s Summerhill  is as old as the hills. Mitra stresses creativity and turning kids loose with computers to become self-learners, which is precisely what Neill proposed (without computers) in the early 1900s. After a brief history lesson in which he claims that the traditional educational system came out of Victorian England where it was designed to turn out factory workers (wrong!), Mitra tells us that

But what got us here, won’t get us there. Schools today are the product of an expired age; standardized curricula, outdated pedagogy, and cookie cutter assessments are relics of an earlier time. Schools still operate as if all knowledge is contained in books, and as if the salient points in books must be stored in each human brain — to be used when needed. The political and financial powers controlling schools decide what these salient points are. Schools ensure their storage and retrieval. Students are rewarded for memorization, not imagination or resourcefulness.

For one thing, phrases like “outdated pedagogy” beg the question, which is precisely whether or not traditional teaching methods can be effective. The answer, contrary to Mr. Mitra, is that they can —  they have been and they continue to be. And the Victorian educational system that he claims was designed to turn out factory workers produced people like Bertrand Russell and Winston Churchill. Furthermore, it is not clear to me that students today are not rewarded for “imagination or resourcefulness,” and, heaven knows, they are asked to memorize very little. Mr. Mitra’s claims are rife with errors.

The main issue here, aside from the fact that Mr. Mitra is actually selling a package he designed himself and which he calls “Self Organized Learning Environments,” or “SOLE” (a bit of a conflict of interest there!), is that he reduces education to “salient points” which is another word for “information.” It is clear that the internet is full of more information than one can assimilate in a lifetime — even if they spent all of the time sitting down staring at the screen. And that is the key: assimilation. Education is a complicated process that takes information and translates it into action by means of thought. And it is precisely thought that is missing in Mitra’s equation. One cannot teach young people how to think by sitting them down in front of a computer, and education is more about thinking than it is about the information they may or may not download from the computer.  Information is merely a means to an end.

One is reminded of Mary Shelly’s monster in Frankenstein who is supposed to have learned to read by staring at a newspaper day after day: it is absurd. There needs to be interaction, give and take. In a word, there needs to be a teacher to ask key questions and guide the students through the impossibly confused jumble of information on the internet to that information that is relevant — another key word. How does one determine unguided what is and what is not relevant by simply staring at a computer screen? Answer: you can’t. Relevance and the ability to assimilate information require interaction with teachers.

To be sure, we live in an electronic age and it makes sense to incorporate electronic equipment, such as computers, into the curriculum. But as Jane Healy has shown, excessive reliance on these gadgets can actually stunt the growth of the left-hemisphere of the child’s brain thereby making future learning nearly impossible. What is required is a selective use of electronic toys and a lively imagination on the part of the gifted teacher to draw young people from the frantic rapid-fire world of electronic toys into the world of words and ideas where real learning takes place. And let’s not burn the books quite yet. SOLE is not the answer: good teaching is the answer, and teachers are precisely the ones who would be shoved aside by Mr. Mitra’s plan — known as “the bad plan.”

Never Say “No”

The revelations highlighted in the 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 it has just become worse.

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. I mentioned her in a previous blog. 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. 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 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 chapter 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 whistling in the dark — or spitting into the wind if you prefer. 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. So I will keep spitting.