Capitalist Realism

I am reading a short book with the above title written by Mark Fisher. The author is a teacher in England who is both well read and articulate, though a bit enamored of postmodern jargon. His argument is a fascinating blend of insight and overstatement.

An example of his tendency to overstatement is his sweeping generalization about the inevitable destruction of the planet by “capitalist realism.” As he would have it, “. . .capitalism is by its very nature opposed to any notion of sustainability.” This claim flies in the face of the endeavors of such people as Elon Musk and the growth, world-wide, of the renewable energy movement which is clearly driven by the profit motive. The fact is that alternative energy is a step in the direction of saving, not destroying, the planet. And it is a step taken by capitalists — and those governments that support capitalism.

Fisher also conflates religion and superstition, almost in passing, as do so many intellectuals. The two are not the same, though in the case of many devotees the differences may be hard to make out. Superstition is a crutch the fearful lean upon to help them make it through the day and it attempts to explain the mysterious in simple terms that can be understood by the tiniest minds. It is above all things self-regarding.  Religion, on the others hand — at least in principle — requires faith in a Being greater than the self and demands constraints on impulse and a willingness to sacrifice self-interest in the name of sympathy, if not love, for others. In a word, religion demands that its followers do their duty; superstition demands nothing.

But when it comes to the topic of education, which is close to Fisher’s heart, the man has important things to say. Much of what he says rings true and echoes my own experience and that of the folks I have read and spoken with who are also concerned about the sorry state of education in our day.

Fisher worries about what he calls the “post-disciplinary framework” within which education finds itself today, a time when the very notion of discipline has been lost in the wave of education’s gobble-de-gook about “self-esteem” that leads invariably toward a sense of entitlement in the spoiled child. He worries, as do I, that education has also succumbed to the dreaded business model and is now all about profit and loss rather than about the students and their ability to function in an increasingly complicated world. He has also discovered the truly disturbing effects of the fascination on the part of the young with electronic toys and the social media. He is aware, as are growing numbers of people (backed by several recent studies) that they are addictive and that they stand between the young and their ability to use their minds in a thoughtful and productive way — a way that will benefit them and those around them. He draws upon first-hand experience to help us understand the pitfalls of the digital age in which these young people live and thrive:

“Ask students to read more than a couple of sentences and many — and these are A-level students mind you — will protest that they can’t do it. The most frequent complaint teachers hear is that it is boring. It is not so much the content of the written material that is of issue here; it is the act of reading itself that is deemed ‘boring.’ What we are facing here is not the time-honored teenage torpor, but the mismatch between a post-literate ‘New Flesh’ that is ‘too wired to concentrate’ and the confining, concentrational logics of decaying disciplinary systems. To be bored means simply to be removed from the communicative sensation-stimulus matrix of texting, YouTube and fast food; to be denied, for a moment, the constant flow of sugary gratification on demand. . . .

“The consequences of being hooked into the entertainment matrix is twitchy, agitated, impassivity, an inability to connect or focus. Students’ incapacity to connect current lack of focus with future failure, their inability to synthesize time into coherent narrative, is symptomatic of more than mere demotivation . . . . What we in the classroom are now facing is a generation born into that ahistorical, anti-mnemonic blip culture — a generation, that is to say, for whom time has always come ready-cut into digital micro-slices.”

In a word, the new electronic toys to which the young have become enslaved are standing between them and the possession of their own minds. They cannot possibly become educated citizens who are involved and able to creatively address the problems they will indubitably face in the future. Worse yet,

“By contrast with their forbears in the 1960s and 1970s, British students today appear to be politically disengaged . . .[Moreover, they] seem resigned to their fate.”

Fisher blames it all on capitalism and he may be right. I suspect he is. But whether he is right or wrong about the cause of the inability of today’s young to become responsible participants in their own future what he says is disturbing, to say the least. And while many will dismiss his claims on his inability to understand the young — the latest version of the generation-gap — we must remind ourselves that he is himself young and much involved with others younger even than himself. And, more to the point, he just may be right. It’s time to stop shooting the messenger and think about what he is saying.

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The Death of Mind

Years ago, when I was hired to start a philosophy department and direct a required course titled “Ideas In Flux” at a new state college in Minnesota, I was struck by some of the jargon that passed as a “philosophical” statement of purpose for the college. There was much talk about the “psychic-emotional” complex of the student which was to be the focus of attention for those who taught. There was a great deal of experimentation going on — this was the late 1960s — and the brand-new college was supposed to combine the liberal arts and the technical in new and amazing ways. But the notion of the “psychic-emotional complex” was entirely new to me. And it remains a mystery to this day, since no one could really say what the hell it meant at the time. I came to suppose that the college was expected to focus attention on the “whole student” because that was the jargon that was in the air at the time and which I came to hear much about in later years.

The 1960s were troubled times in the fight of traditional liberal arts programs struggling to survive the attacks of the SDS and other outraged young people who targeted the “establishment” and pretty much all tradition, including history, they regarded as “irrelevant.” The liberal arts were presumed to be “elitist” and rejected by a host of those who were in the process of throwing out the baby with the bath water. Doubtless, there was much about what had been traditionally done in the name of education, and indeed much of what was referred to as the “establishment,” that deserved to be jettisoned. But the process was never really thought out and much damage resulted from what some convinced themselves were needed improvements in the bastion of the Ivory Tower and in society at large.

In a sense, the liberal arts are “elitist,” because they focus attention on the human mind and seek to help young people become as intelligent as possible. Some succeed and some fail. In a world that prized (and still prizes) the commonplace, the ordinary, the average — a society that seeks to leave no student behind– any process that seeks to help one person to rise above others is suspect (except in sports!).  Or so it was to a great many people who preferred instead to focus attention  on the “psychic-emotional complex.” At the time I thought if colleges and universities sought to develop the “whole student” they would fail. It made more sense to me to focus attention on what could be done and done well rather than to try to deal with the entire complex person, seeking not only to develop intelligence but help build moral character as well. I thought then, and I think now, that this cannot be done. Educators might succeed if they narrowed their focus, but if they took a shotgun approach to education they would miss all the targets and simply confuse the young who were supposed to leave college more intelligent than they were when they arrived. Most of the evidence I have seen since that time suggests that the shotgun approach has indeed failed. Students today leave the colleges and universities relatively unchanged by the experience which has been confusing and confused for more than a half-century.

At the time I thought, and said publicly, that the Church and the family were the two institutions that should focus attention on character, the emotional and moral  development of the child seeking to become an adult. Let the schools, said I, focus attention on the mind and on mind alone. That way something important might happen while the student passes through twelve or sixteen years of schooling. But it was not to be. The Church was, and is, too busy trying to repair the roof and keep the pews filled with satisfied customers, and the family has pretty much become dissolved into fragments that tear the young person in several different directions at once, leaving him or her bewildered and disappointed — even a bit frustrated.

In a word, the schools have killed the mind. Intelligence has disappeared behind the charge that any attempt to develop it is “elitist” and therefore not acceptable in an egalitarian society, a democratic society, in which no one is any better (or any worse) than anyone else — or dare not presume to be. This is a sad state of affairs indeed. It marks the end of any notion that intelligence matters and that in some sense we all ought to try to become as smart as we can in those few years we spend in school.

After discussing the problems I have touched on here, Lionel Trilling, in a 1972 essay, bemoans the fact that the professors in our colleges and universities have ignored their duties. As he notes:

“Surely it says much about the status of mind in our society that the profession which is consecrated to its protection and furtherance should stand silent under the assault, as if suddenly deprived of all right to use the powers of mind in its own defense.”

In the end, he worries that

“. . . .  mind at the present time draws back from its own freedom and power, from its own delight in itself.”

Instead, we seek to develop the “whole person,” the “psychic-emotional complex” that which we take to be the whole person. And in the process we become care-givers rather than educators and fail to develop the minds of the young. In doing so we fail the young as whole persons and the society at large. Ironic.

Homework

As a rule I mute television commercials. I can’t stand most of them as they send us all subconscious messages from multinational corporations that seek to entrap the will and bring about the purchase of something we simply do not need. Some are clever and I try to listen to them, just for a laugh. But there is a new Apple iPad commercial that I happened to listen to recently, because I was remote from the remote, and that commercial gets my goat!

The commercial shows a middle school teacher assigning homework to his class, presumably on a Friday, and a voice-over starts intoning the message “Ugh, homework. I hate homework.” The style of the commercial is reminiscent of Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story and perhaps that is what they were going for. It shows the kids having fun, playing and larking about, at times with their iPads (presumably suggesting that homework on iPads can be fun? Or perhaps the kids are just checking social media?), while all the time the voice tells us repeatedly how much they all hate homework.

And we wonder why our kids are falling behind the students of nearly all of the other so-called “developed” nations! This sort of anti-intellectualism, which is all-too prevalent in America and has been for many years, determines that those children will never catch up to the rest of the world. We know the public schools are under attack and the data show that we draw those into public school teaching who are in the bottom third  of the students in our colleges. They are paid a pittance and asked to raise the kids in addition to teaching them — or, most recently, arming themselves against possible terrorists. And if we now start to send the message that they should not assign homework — presumably because the kids don’t like to do homework — we simply add fuel to a fire already threatening to go out of control.

Homework, like it or not, helps young people deepen their knowledge of the subject matter after an all-too-short school day — in addition to acquiring the skills of self-discipline and self-denial, which we all dearly need. It also helps them to become independent learners instead of just recipients of the teacher’s bits of knowledge. To be sure none of us wants to do work of any sort — which is why we are paid, I suppose. But work is necessary and homework in the schools is a necessary component of the load the student is asked to bear. And let’s face it, that load is not back-breaking. We seem to be asking our students to do less and less due to the fiction that they are under so much pressure already. And at the same time grade inflation convinces them that the work they are doing is stellar when, in my experience and from what I have read, it is generally sub-par. The result, of course, is our age of entitlement.

Needless to say, this is an issue close to the heart of a retired college professor who has read and thought about education at all levels for many years (and blogged endlessly, some would say). I have even written a book about the current condition of education in this country and it has always been a concern of mine — because it is a problem that can be solved if we simply put our minds to it. If tiny Finland can do it, we certainly can! Initially it would require that we somehow stop the mindless attacks from the political Right against public education and determine to put a much larger share of the annual federal and state budgets into education thereby attracting better teachers and showing them that education matters.

In any event, the attack on homework by a corporation determined to sell more electronic toys to a generation already stupefied by those toys is a compound felony in my view. I have always thought Apple a cut above the rest, but I must now revise my views. At the same time I will continue to worry about the present state of education in this country, convinced as I am that it holds the key to the success or failure of this democracy. And I will continue my practice of muting the commercials.

Once More With Feeling!

In an age that places a premium on feeling, that even tends to wallow in feeling and seeks everywhere the expression of “honest” feelings, it is refreshing indeed to read in a short story by Thomas Mann a passage that leads us in another direction entirely. In art, surely, the premium placed on feelings and raw emotion would seem to be entirely appropriate. Mann thinks otherwise. His hero, Tonio Kröger, is a poet and he is holding forth about the nature of art in the company of a close friend who is a painter. Both of these people should know what they are talking about and both agree that art is a matter not of feeling, per se, but of feelings under control. And it is precisely the issue of control that we seem to have lost somewhere in the discussion of the value of raw emotion as the only honest expression humans are capable of. Kröger makes his position clear:

“Nobody but a beginner imagines that he who creates must feel. Every real and genuine artist smiles at such naïve blunders as that. A melancholy enough smile, perhaps, but still a smile. For what an artist feels is never the main point; it is the raw material, in and for itself indifferent, out of which, with bland and serene mastery, he creates the work of art. If you care too much about what you have to say, if your heart os too much in it, you can be pretty sure of making a mess. You get pathetic, you wax sentimental; something dull and doddering, without roots or outlines, with no sense of humor — something tiresome and banal grows under your hand, and you get nothing out of it but apathy in your audience and disappointment and misery in yourself. For so it is. . . feeling, warm, heartfelt feeling, is always banal and futile, only the irritations and icy ecstasies of the artist’s corrupted nervous system are artistic.”

Flaubert put it simply: “Discipline makes art of impulse.” The notion that the artist simply sits down and “let’s it all hang out,” or that she creates her best work under the influence of alcohol or drugs, is a fiction. The artist’s mind, her intellect, is never disengaged. Our tiresome devotion to raw emotion, the face of the crying athlete after a loss, the histrionics of the player on the football field after a routine tackle, the pumping of the fist after a three-foot putt falls in — all of these are regarded by so many of us as the only totally honest expressions that humans are capable of. And this is also a fiction. It is not emotion or feeling in and of itself that are valuable, that delight us or create works of art that can make us weep; it is what the artist does with those raw feelings, how she works them into a poem or a story or a painting, that makes us marvel and weep.

This is not to say that the artist, in particular, does not feel. On the contrary, artists are among the most sensitive of humans and we are lucky to live among them. But the good ones know that it is not enough simply to feel. It is also necessary, for their art, to take those feelings and blend them into something beautiful, something that reveals to us features of our common world we would otherwise miss. Otherwise they simply “make a mess.”

It has always struck me as a feature of our culture that we err on the side of what we call “honesty” in prizing emotion and we pay little attention to the self-discipline that is required not only in good or great art, but also in the conduct of ordinary human interaction, the formation of what was once called “character.” The Greeks prized self-control. We prize selves that are out of control. This may explain a lot — not only why so much of what passes for art is mere sentimentality, dull and doddering, as Mann would have it, but also why the quiet ones who go about their business and do the right thing by others and for their art are so often ignored or dismissed as somehow insignificant. In fact, they may be the ones we should pay closest attention to in our tizzy to hold up the model of raw emotion we see on the field or in the gallery as the highest expression of human beings.

The Need For Authority

About four years ago I posted a piece on my blog about “Parental Authority” that incorporated the comments below by Christopher Lasch. Now, I have referred to Lasch many times as I regard him as one of the most astute thinkers I have encountered and certainly one of the very few who seems to have his finger on the pulse of contemporary society. Lasch is convinced that our permissive society has brought about the “Culture of Narcissism,” and while we are fond of accusing our current president of this malady, it would appear that it is widespread in our commodified, hedonistic culture in which success is measured by the size of one’s pocketbook and increasing numbers of folks can’t see beyond the perimeters of their own diminished selves. In any event, I want to revisit the comments I quoted from Lasch’s book in an attempt to unpack some of the more important insights he shares with us in an attempt to understand the role of authority, not only in the family, but also in the society at large.

The undermining of parental authority began in the 1920s with a book, Parents On Probation, by Merriam Van Waters. The movement toward the rejection of notions like “authority,” “discipline,” and “virtue” was given tremendous impetus in the 1950s by people like Dr. Spock and the other pop-psychologists who decided that it was they who should be raising the kids, and not the parents, and that in the end no opinion ought to be given preference over another — unless it was their own. In any event, Lasch had this to say about the lost notion of authority and its effects on society as a whole:

“. . .the collapse of parental authority reflects the collapse of ‘ancient impulse controls,’ and the shift ‘from a society in which the Super Ego values (the values of self-restraint) were ascendant, to one in which more and more recognition was being given to the values of self-indulgence.’ The reversal of the normal relations between the generations [in which the children have come to rule the home], the decline of parental discipline, the ‘socialization’ of many parental functions, and the ‘self-centered, impulse-dominated, detached, confused’ actions of American parents give rise to characteristics that ‘can have seriously pathological outcomes, when present in extreme form,’ but which in milder form equip the young to live in a permissive society organized around the pleasures of consumption. . . In this way [parents] undermine the child’s initiative and make it impossible for him to develop self-restraint or self-discipline.”

Lasch is convinced that not only the kids but their parents as well all need some sense of authority to give structure and coherence to their lives. It is the development of a healthy Super Ego, according to Lasch, that provides this structure and without it we have self-indulgence, confusion, uncertainty, and even the frustration that leads to violence when we are told that something we want we cannot have. The “values of self-restraint” that Lasch speaks about in the above comment are precisely those values that were once called “virtues” and which made the peaceful and successful coexistence of humans in society possible. These were the virtues that were prized during the Victorian Age and before that in the Age of Enlightenment and which lead to such things as the founding of this nation on the basis of  the conviction that citizens were virtuous and would invariably elect wise and virtuous men and women to high office. This, unfortunately, has not been borne out as recent experience will attest. Much of this comes from the rejection of the notion of authority, the notion that there is someone else who knows better than you or I what is the proper thing to do in a given situation. Some would argue that the Protestant Revolt diminished the role of the church as the ultimate authority and this has undermined the notion of authority of the church and placed the ultimate authority in the Bible which is subject to the interpretation of anyone who could read. Is it possible that this displacement planted the seeds of relativism, the gradual translation of virtue, which is fixed, into values, which are merely matters of opinion? I simply ask.

The “reversal of normal relations” between parents and children of which Lasch speaks refers to the child-oriented families and schools that are now commonplace in which the child is regarded as the better judge of what is best for him and the parent hides in the forest of self-indulgence and the pursuit of wealth and pleasure. The teachers also look to their students for guidance as to what it is their pupils want and those whimsical desires are codified into a curriculum that changes with the whims of the students. Everywhere we look we see confusion and self-doubt — except on the faces of the spoiled and entitled children who appear to be self-assured while all the time they have no idea where it is they ought to be going. Indeed, the notion that there is an “ought” that needs to be recognized is alien to a narcissistic culture that revels in pleasure and self-indulgence. The parents and the teachers reveal, as Lasch mentions, “self-centered, impulse-dominated, detached, confused actions.” The children and students are bewildered and float aimlessly through life. The authority of a parent or a teacher, someone who knows better and who can provide guidance, is missing and the result is  predictable: it becomes impossible for the children or the student to “develop self-restraint or self-discipline.” Indeed, it is not clear to most of us just what these things are or why they are needed.

In the absence of a fixed point of reference provided by an authority figure or indeed any sense that there is anything other than self that matters, it is no wonder that undisciplined and bewildered children grow up to become ill-suited to a society or a job that may demand of them self-restraint and at times sacrifice.  It is no wonder that many of them resort to violence in rejecting those demands which are foreign to them, demands that were once normal but which are slowly being eroded away.

Socialism Revisited

I am reposting a piece I wrote in 2013, before Bernie Sanders declared himself as a candidate for president, but a time when the word “socialism” was misunderstood and used pejoratively — much as it is today. Sanders is dismissed by many, including the media apparently, because he is a “socialist.”  But how many who readily dismiss the man understand what the word means? This post was an attempt to clarify the meaning somewhat, so I post it here again. Please note that Sanders refers to himself as a “democratic socialist.” The modifier is important.

In every generation there are a number of words that take on pejorative overtones — many of which were never part of the term’s meaning in the first place. Not long ago, for instance, “discipline” was a positive concept, but it has become a bad thing thanks to pop psychologists and progressive educators who ignore the fact that mental discipline is essential to clear thinking and the creation of art instead of junk. Another such term is “discrimination” which used to simply suggest the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff, good paintings and good music from random paint scattered on canvas or mere noise. Indeed, it was a sign of an educated person to be regarded as discriminating. In recent days, thanks to the Tea Party, the latest loaded, “scare term” is “socialism.” The political scare term used to be “communism,” but that term was somewhat neutralized when the Soviet Union broke up and reconciliation became the word of the day. But even when it was in use, most people would have been shocked to know that in its pure form communism was in close harmony with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Further, the Soviet Union was never a communist nation by any stretch of the term. If anything, it was a socialistic dictatorship.

But let’s take a closer look at socialism. The term means, strictly speaking, that the state owns the means of production. That has not come to pass in this country, even with the recent federal bailouts of the banks and auto companies — initiated by a Republican President, by the way. But there certainly has been growing involvement on the part of the government in economic circles, ever since F.D.R and his “New Deal.” Frequently these incursions were made to fill a void created by uncaring corporations, many to protect our environment which seems to be of no concern to large-scale polluters. Further it may be a good thing that such things as anti-trust laws interfere with the unbridled competition that many think is essential to capitalism — an economic system that has resulted in a society in which the 400 richest Americans now have a combined net worth greater than the lowest 150 million Americans and nearly half of the population lives in poverty. In any event, even if the current President, and others of his ilk, has been accurately accused of promoting “socialism,” we might want to know if this would be such a terrible thing. Take the case of Finland, a decidedly socialistic nation.

Finns pay high taxes “but they don’t spend all their money building $22 billion aircraft carriers, $8 billion submarines, $412 million fighter planes, or spend a million dollars a year keeping each soldier in foreign adventures such as Iraq and Afghanistan,” as noted in a recent article by Ed Raymond in Duluth, Minnesota’s Weekly Reader. On the contrary, Finnish children are guaranteed essentials in the way of food and clothing, medical care, counseling and even taxi fare, if needed. “All student health care is free for the family. The state provides three years of maternity leave for the mother and subsidized day care for parents. All five-year-olds attend a preschool program that emphasizes play and socializing. Ninety-seven percent of six-year-olds attend public pre-schools where they begin to study academics. ‘Real’ school begins at seven and is compulsory,” as Raymond goes on to point out.

Finnish schools are rated the highest in the world; their teachers are held in high esteem, paid well, and are drawn from the top quartile of university students. Last year in Finland there were 6.600 applicants for 660 empty teaching slots. The student-to-teacher ratio is seven to one. Contrast this with our over-crowded classrooms and an educational system that underpays and overworks teachers and holds them in low regard. Clearly, there is something here worth pondering, and it lends the lie to the notion that socialism is an inherently bad thing and something to be avoided at all costs, especially given the fact that recent studies have suggested that the Finns are among the happiest people on earth.

Am I advocating socialism? Not necessarily. But I advocate fairness and I am in total support of those who want a system that taxes the wealthy as well as the poor; those who think a good slice of the “defense” budget would go a long way toward funding projects such as Bernie Sanders envisions; I also support attempts to provide health care for those who cannot afford it; I vote for political candidates who seem to care more about people than about profits; but above all else, I oppose those who throw about terms they don’t understand in at an attempt to frighten others rather than to advance understanding.

Sparing The Rod

A good friend of mine was recently enjoying the visit of his son and his son’s wife and their 3 year-old son. My friend’s wife had undergone surgery a few weeks before and was still tender, but she was enjoying the visit very much when her grandson decided to punch her in the stomach — thinking it great fun. My friend grabbed his grandson and held him by the arms and sternly told him that hitting people is wrong. The boy’s mother clutched her son, glowered at my friend, and said “he’s only a child.” (I told my friend he should have smiled and said,”You’re right, he’s just a child. We have raised two quite successfully. How many have you raised.” But, of course, he wouldn’t say that. No grandparent would. It just isn’t done.)

In fact, that was the end of the incident as my friend and his wife, like most grandparents, simply bit their tongues and kept quiet. After all, whatever they told their son about raising his child would fall on deaf ears. It matters not to the young that their parents and grandparents have lived a long time and had a great many experiences: the young know better. We moan about how little we learn from history, but we are simply echoing our behavior as young folks when we also ignored our elders.

But the interesting thing to ponder about this incident is that it is all-too-common. Our kids are being raised by parents who have been told that any sort of corporal punishment, or even strict discipline, will damage their child irreparably. But this is not the case. I’m not advocating corporal punishment, but it’s a psychological fact that little or no discipline will damage the child irreparably; strict discipline may result in a neurosis, but it is treatable. In a word, lack of discipline results in a character flaw, which is permanent. The pop psychologists who write the books that busy parents read and take as gospel have led several generations of parents down a blind alley: their children are growing up severely flawed — a situation compounded by the added damage the schools are doing by reinforcing the notion that children should be praised but never criticized.

I was a camp counsellor in Maine for five summers. The owner of the camp was a wise man and seemed to know everything there was to know about raising kids. After all, he worked with 110 boys every year for more than twenty years and had raised two girls of his own. During the very first meeting with the counsellors he told us to be sure to mean what we say when we reprimand the kids in our charge. “If you tell them to stop doing something or you will kill them and they continue to do it, you will have to kill them.” He was obviously making a point: mean what you say. If the child is misbehaving and you threaten him — by insisting you will take away his dessert that evening, or confine him to his cabin– then you will have to take away his desert or confine him to his cabin. The worst thing you can do is make the threat and fail to carry it out. In this case the child becomes confused and ceases to believe the authority figures in his life. Lines that should be drawn are not and he doesn’t know what is appropriate action. As a result he eventually learns to ignore authority figures generally, even though his psyche desperately needs authority figures in order to allow him to fully develop his personality. The camp owner didn’t go into detail, but he made his point. And when parents disagree about the punishment their child deserves the child becomes confused and his world is scrambled. Consistency is essential to good child rearing.

My friend’s grandson was getting mixed messages. He was being told that hitting is wrong and he was also told it was OK because he is “still a child.” There is a glaring inconsistency between what his grandfather said and what his mother said in return. And his father said nothing, to make matters worse. One wonders how long he will remain a child in his mother’s mind. But one thing is certain: he will grow up a spoiled brat and a young adult with little or no self-restraint and a terribly weak character. How sad.

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.

Machiavelli and Steinbeck On Parenting

Machiavelli gives the following advice to prospective Princes:

“From this arises the following question: whether it is better to be loved than feared or the reverse. The answer is that one would like to be both the one and the other; but because it is difficult to combine them, it is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.”

I was reminded of this passage when reading John Steinbeck’s remarkable story “The Red Pony” in which he describes the complex relationship between the little boy, Jody, and his father whom he both fears and loves. Steinbeck has this interesting passage in the story:

“When the wood-box was full, Jody took the twenty-two rifle up to the cold spring at the brush line. He drank again and then aimed the gun at all manner of things, at rocks, at birds on the wing, at the big black pig kettle under the cypress tree, but he didn’t shoot for he had no cartridges and wouldn’t have until he was twelve. If his father had seen him aim the rifle in the direction of the house, he would have put off the cartridges off for another year. Jody remembered this and did not point the rifle down the hill again. Two years were enough to wait for cartridges. Nearly all of his father’s presents were given with reservations which hampered their value somewhat. It was good discipline.”

Several things jump out of these passages. To begin with, the notion that discipline might be a good thing, that a young boy might have to wait a couple of years to get what he wanted, is a dated concept — Steinbeck wrote this story in the early 1930s. But what intrigued me most was the ability of Jody’s father to “instill” both love and fear in the young boy, the very thing Machiavelli says is difficult for the Prince to do. But it is a key to good parenting, I would think. A child should respect, love and even fear the parent a bit. I am not talking about child abuse here — while Jody’s father is a bit stern, there’s no suggestion that he beats his son — I simply mean that a twinge of fear in the child that comes from the conviction that he or she knows the parents mean what they say. Jody knows his father will not give him the cartridges if he sees  him pointing the rifle at the house.  Moreover, the need to demand that Jody postpone immediate gratification, only “hampers” the value of the gift in the ten-year-old boy’s mind; in fact delayed satisfaction, increases value — the satisfaction that comes from a long-awaited gift (even if it is given with “reservations”) — all of which seem to go into the difficult (Freud says “impossible”) job of parenting.

We have lost a great deal in trashing the concept of “discipline,” insisting in all cases that it amounts to disguised abuse, and giving in to the notion that good parenting means complying with the child’s every whim. These bogus notions came from the plethora of pop-psychology books that were all the rage in the 1950s that sought to tell parents how to raise their children. This was the outcome, in turn, of a movement that started in the 1900s when the “helping professions” regarding themselves as “doctors of a sick society” decided that most of the problems with criminals in this country resulted from bad parenting and the job should be taken over by trained professionals like themselves.

This, of course, was nothing more than self-promotion on the part of educators, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and penologists. To state the case as plainly as possible, the  parents are the ones who should raise their children. The child simply needs to know the meaning of the word “no,” and he or she needs to know the parents mean what they say and that whatever else might happen, they love their child and want what is best for them. All of this comes from that difficult balance of love and fear that comprise the core of respect that should be at the center of any relationship between a child and his father or mother.  Steinbeck knew this, and his story about the red pony (which is really about Jody) gives us a convincing portrait of a child who both respects and loves his father — and fears him in the sense described above.

Parental Paralysis

[This is a continuation of the topic begun previously.]

In a most interesting chapter of that most provocative book, The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch has a careful analysis of the cultural phenomenon I call the “parental paralysis. ” I speak of the apparent inability of so many parents in this country to simply rely on their own intuitions in raising their children because a host of so-called “experts” have convinced them that they (the experts) know so much more about raising children than do their parents. For some reason parents have bought into this nonsense. The experts, whom Lasch calls the “helping professions” consist of social workers, teachers of “domestic science,” academic experts on “marriage and the family,” marriage counselors, family therapists, psychologists, and other social scientists of their ilk.

(It is curious that we tend to ignore the legitimate expertise of bona fide scientists who continue to warn us about the warming of the planet, but we will buy into a bunch of malarkey put out there by a host of social scientists with questionable credentials pursuing doubtful procedures.)

In any event, Lasch traces the development of parental paralysis back to the 1920s and calls the first stage of the take-over of the family by these experts the “behavioral” stage, when behaviorism was the prevailing arm of psychology and popular books written by such folks as John Watson and Arnold Gesell began to undermine the confidence of parents in their own abilities to raise their children and persuaded them that the kids were so much better off if their parents simply listened to the authors and raised the kids “by the book.” Of course, there were a great many books by Watson and Gesell and people like Ernest and Gladys Grove who promised kids “freedom from emotional bondage to their parents.” I kid you not.

The second stage came in the late thirties and forties. The growth of the progressive movement in education (which was “child-centered” rather than “subject-centered”) coupled with “debased versions of Freudian theory, [resulted in] excessive ‘permissiveness.'” During this stage, the child and his or her “rights” became the center of the home and parents were warned not to thwart their child’s development by punishment and discipline — words that began to take on pejorative meanings in the social sciences and among parents and teachers as well. Coincidentally, the role of the state began to expand as the courts asserted their right to take children away from their parents if there was evidence of abuse — evidence that was at times questionable at best. During this stage the man at the center was Dr. Benjamin Spock who has been widely mistaken for the chief proponent of permissive child-raising because of his warning to readers of the damage parents could do to their offspring by an excess of strictness. However, the good doctor also attempted to warn against excessive permissiveness, but his message was somewhat cloudy and confusing to many parents. In any event, during this stage, the parents were increasingly targeted as the main element in the deterioration of the family unit. In the view that had become orthodox among so-called “experts,” parents were the “problem” that required solution if the children were to be saved.

This brought about, in the 1950s, what Lasch calls “the cult of authenticity” in which parents were told to “let it all hang out” and be honest with their children whom they were told should be treated like adults. Children were not to be restrained in their various modes of self-expression, since all feelings were legitimate and parents were admonished to befriend and discuss problems with their kids rather than attempt to correct them. Punishment, especially corporal punishment, was definitely taboo. Whatever authority the parents might have once had over their children was by this time a thing of the past: the child was still the center of the family and the parents were still supposed to be incapable of raising them on their own. After all, parents were regarded as unable to distinguish right from wrong, as were all folks in what was becoming an increasingly relativistic age — except the “experts, of course, who were still regarded as those who knew best.  Note, please, that parental love never seemed to enter into the equation at any stage, even the final one. Perhaps this is because love is not quantifiable or reducible to behavioral terms.

The fourth stage, which is the one we have reached at present, resulted from “rising crime rates, juvenile delinquency, suicide, and mental breakdowns [which] finally convinced many experts, even many social workers, that welfare agencies furnish a poor substitute for the family.” Unfortunately, the damage had been done; a great many parents remain convinced to this day that the books written by the experts map a clear road to successful child-rearing and the courts remain able and all-too-willing to take kids away from parents who are regarded as unfit for many reasons — not all of which are legitimate. As Lasch points out, “The state can now segregate deviants [i.e., children] for no other reason than that they or their parents have refused to cooperate with the courts, especially when refusal to cooperate appears as prima facie evidence of a bad home environment.”

In a word, as the confidence of parents in their own abilities to raise their own children has waned, the power of the state has grown exponentially in its ability to remove children from what may well be loving homes, based on the testimony of the ‘helping professionals” who may or may not have children of their own and who almost certainly have learned what they know about appropriate child-rearing techniques from books written years ago that are still erroneously regarded by many as the last word in sound parenting.

If Lasch is to be believed, “the deterioration of child care has been at work for a long time and many of its consequences appear to be irreversible.” Parents have been listening for so long to those who claim to be experts, they have forgotten that love of their children, coupled with consistent and coherent discipline, are paramount (and natural)  and, while they will assuredly make mistakes, parents should trust their instincts — which for so many centuries seemed to be a fairly safe path to follow.