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.

Communities

In an ideal world, that is a world as I like to imagine it, colleges and universities would be communities of learning, places where folks with different points of view, ages, and preferences meet to discuss with open minds the issues that have confounded humanity for generations. The emphasis here is on “communities,” since the idea is that there is a common purpose, a common goal: all are together to learn from one another and from other minds outside the community that are invited in to share what they know and join in the conversation.

In the real world, the world we all know and love, it is not quite like this. Increasingly, colleges and universities have become warring camps where faculty and students align themselves with one another on political or ideological grounds and dare others to intrude. Increasingly commonplace are such things as the denial of invitations to certain people to come to campus to join in the conversation; such invitations are met with howls of protest as they are regarded as the anathema of what education is now all about. Faculty members select reading material that conforms to their own particular “take” on the issues of the day, insisting that others have done so for generations and it is now their turn. Whether or not this is true, and I seriously question it, there is no place for this sort of selective indoctrination, the hammering into young and impressionable heads the last word on controversial topics that allow for a variety of opinions, indeed, demand a variety of opinions in order to help the young people to learn to think. Cultural diversity, with the stress on the superiority of other cultures (any other cultures) to our own, has taken the place of intellectual diversity, the open expression of a variety of points of view on complex issues. Shouting has replaced civil discourse, and open minds have been closed.

Years ago, when I taught at the University of Rhode Island there was increasing interest among faculty members in the new unions that were forming around the country. At URI we had the American Association of University Professors, the mildest form of union, but one dedicated to guaranteeing freedom of speech, intellectual freedom, and, of course, decent wages for the hard work that many are unaware goes into teaching the young. At the time I worried that this new wave of unionization might well lead to a confrontational relationship between faculty and administration, that it would destroy the collegiality that I though central to the purpose of a community of learning. How naive! But, in a sense, I was right. Unions, for all the good they do, tend to grow like an experiment gone wrong and to become all-powerful and all-important. Instead of working to protect the ideals of communities of learning they lend themselves to the growing conviction that education is all about business and learning must take a back seat.

All of this, I suppose, is the complaint of an old, fossilized college teacher who complains that things were never as they should have been but are even worse today then they were once upon a time. There is some truth in this, of course, as old folks tend to look back with rose-colored glasses. But, at the same time, it is undeniably true that the gap has grown wider and wider between the ideal of education as a place where the young come to gain true freedom, the possession of their own minds, and the reality of college as a business. I have seen it happening and while I have done what I could to close that gap I do realize that it is too little too late. Things were never ideal, and there have always been reasons to complain — legitimately so. But of late, the larger culture has come together with the academy to create a world within a world in which business is the order of the day and intolerance has replaced tolerance while the young struggle to understand why they are there in the first place — and how on earth they are going to pay for the privilege after graduation.

There are success stories, of course, excellent students who want to learn and grow led by dedicated teachers who realize that the student’s intellectual growth is of paramount importance, and it is not fostered by indoctrination posing as education . And these exceptions are the foundation on which to build our hopes as they are in the world at large where good people struggle to do good while all around them folks worry only about how to do well, how to “succeed” in  world in which success is measured in dollars and cents.

Forget About It!

I have blogged in the past about our country’s anti-intellectualism which is glaringly obvious and has been commented upon by numerous others. I refer to our increasing determination to deny the higher purpose of the human mind, its capacity to achieve order, inclusiveness, and coherence. Our country was founded by practical people who were busy building lives in a new country. Following those early years we seem to have attracted a great many people, with notable exceptions, who were convinced that such things as education were esoteric and not really worth the time or attention they received in Europe, for example. Following those early years, we have seen increasingly pragmatic people who have narrowed their focus on the here and now and such things as the making of profits. Today, as I have noted on numerous occasions, we have reduced everything to the business model, including religion and education. The human mind now simply calculates profit and loss — or checks out social media.

There were exceptions, as noted, and one of those exceptions was Thomas Jefferson who in his Notes on the State of Virginia proposed a system of public education for all (boys) that would be capped off by several years at his university where the very best and brightest would be given the best possible classical education then available.

Interestingly, even in the three primary grades of his proposed public education, Jefferson did not stress such things as reading, writing, and figuring. He thought those things were a given — all kids learned them at home. In the very early years he advocated more substantive subject matters, such as history. The memories of young children were to be

“. . .stored with the most useful facts of Greek, Roman, European, and American history. . . .History by apprising them of the past will enable them to judge the future; it will avail them of the experiences of other times and actions; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men.”

Jefferson was clearly in the minority, since history has never been the strong suit of American schools and by the time of the intellectual rebellion in the 1960s of the last century history was rejected by student radicals as “irrelevant.” It has now been removed from the basic core requirements of the majority of American colleges and universities and many high schools as well. Henry Ford thought it “bunk,” a sentiment taken up by Huxley in his Brave New World in which his citizens were nothing more than ignorant pleasure-seekers. Young American men captured in Korea during that “police action” were easily programmed to take anti-American half-truths as the whole truth because they were ignorant of their own history. Moreover, many of those who teach, even today, insist that the teaching of such things as “facts” is a waste of time when, indeed, facts are the building blocks of thought and like it or not they must be learned if thinking is to take place. Without those blocks thinking and speaking are merely gobble-de-gook — as we can tell by reading or listening to our Fearless Leader. And history is the subject best able to prepare the young to be “judges of the actions and designs of men.”

Santayana famously said that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat its mistakes, and we have seen how true that is. But in Jefferson’s program outlined above there are other elements that also deserve to be considered. For one thing, he is advocating what might be called a “natural aristocracy” in which the best and brightest rise, like cream, to the top. Borrowing from Plato, he thought the preservation of our Republic depended on this. Education was the key. The Republic, if it was to be successful must attract the best and brightest to the halls of power to make the important decisions regarding the correct path the country should follow. We have no idea how that might have worked because we have never really committed ourselves to the education of all citizens as Jefferson would have us do. Job training, yes. Education, no. And our anti-intellectual sentiments lead a great many people to regard a liberal education, for example, as “elitist,” a citadel of social privilege, if you will. In fact, a liberal education is one that would provide the very best possible foundation for anyone with a mind to make important decisions and be aware of the forces that operate around them — forces that threaten to imprison them in chains of bias and ignorance and overwhelm them with such things as “alternative facts.”

We pay a huge price for our ignorance, not only of the past which we blindly ignore, but also of such things as science and mathematics which enable us to better understand the world around us and make sense of things. Jefferson’s was a pipe-dream, many would say, though he rested his hopes for the future of his beloved Republic on that base. And my dream of a liberal education for all — which owes its origin to such thinkers as Jefferson and Plato, among others — is also a pipe dream. I have kicked this poor, dead horse so many times my foot is numb (and the damned horse simply will not budge). But we might do well to recall that one of the founders of this nation who had high hopes for a free country of free minds once outlined a program for maintaining freedom in the years to come. And in ignoring his admonition to educate (not train) all citizens we may well have made ourselves a bed of thorns upon which we now must sleep. If we can.

 

 

Here We Go Again!

You may have picked up the stench from East Lansing, Michigan where the outrageous behavior of Dr. Larry Nassar recently came to the surface and is now followed by allegations of innumerable sexual attacks against women by members of the university’s basketball and football teams. Dr. Nasser has been sentenced to 175 years in prison for his behavior involving Olympic athletes as the flowing clip from CNN reveals:

(CNN)Once a world-renowned sports physician treating America’s foremost Olympic women gymnasts, Larry Nassar now will spend the rest of his life behind bars.

The disgraced former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison, a judge announced Wednesday, after more than 150 women and girls said in court that he sexually abused them over the past two decades.
“I’ve just signed your death warrant,” Judge Rosemarie Aquilina said in a Lansing, Michigan, courtroom. “I find that you don’t get it, that you’re a danger. That you remain a danger.”
Nassar had pleaded guilty to seven counts of criminal sexual conduct in Ingham County in Michigan and admitted to using his trusted medical position to assault and molest girls under the guise of medical treatment.
Imagine that: 150 women testified against this man who has shown little remorse that raises deep questions about the man’s mental stability, among other things.
But the aftermath at Michigan State, where Dr. Nasser was team physician for many years, raises even more questions. It has all the hallmarks of the Penn State investigations not too long ago involving charges of sexual attacks on young boys by a member of the Penn State football staff. The fundamental problems here are twofold: (1) The University feigns ignorance regarding victims of alleged attacks, and reporting those attacks is not encouraged; moreover, when attacks are reported they are not taken seriously. (2) The culture of secrecy that surround the athletics programs which are laws unto themselves. Attacks are investigated by campus police who then report to the Athletics Director as do those young women who allege attacks. The Athletics Director is then charged with following up those charges and punishing the attackers when found guilty. But, as can be imagined, the in-house investigations give every appearance of a cover-up and the University continually denies the charges, as do the basketball and football coaches who, if they did not know of the attacks (which is doubtful) certainly should have.
In any event, we have here the resounding echoes of the seemingly endless number of scandals that would appear to rock college campuses where the sports teams are laws unto themselves and just when we think public reports of the latest scandal would surely end the nightmare, it passes as just another incident reported in the news and quickly forgotten. The genie is out of the bottle on college campuses where Division I athletics are King. And it is not clear, given the amounts of money involved in sports at that level, that the genie can be put back into the bottle. On the contrary.
As a life-long educator this bothers me on so many levels. I have spent my life dedicated to the ideal of education as the process of freeing young minds and have always regarded college as the place where the process finds its highest expression. I have no problem with sports, having played them all my life and having been a certified teaching professional in tennis and a collegiate tennis coach for many years. But as an educator I have always thought that sports should take their place in the college and university hierarchy well below the ideals of educating young minds.
But at the Division I level of NCAA sports this is clearly not the case where education comes after all the money is counted and the bills are paid — and folks are paid off, apparently. The corruption in itself is an object lesson, one would think, but like so many object-lessons this one is not learned — even in the hallowed halls of academe where history is still taught. We hear and read about these things going on and then return to business as usual. Nothing changes and the problems persist.

Sad But True

I know I tend to repeat myself about the sad demise of education in what was once one of the the more literate countries on earth (?), but the evidence is “out there.” Our schools are simply not getting the job done, and cutting off funding is not the answer. On the contrary. But this brief note in a recent New York Times story pretty much puts the icing on the cake:

“Just how bad is our reading problem? The last National Assessment of Adult Literacy from 2003 is a bit dated, but it offers a picture of Americans’ ability to read in everyday situations: using an almanac to find a particular fact, for example, or explaining the meaning of a metaphor used in a story. Of those who finished high school but did not continue their education, 13 percent could not perform simple tasks like these. When things got more complex — in comparing two newspaper editorials with different interpretations of scientific evidence or examining a table to evaluate credit card offers — 95 percent failed.” 

I saw this in my college classrooms on a day-to-day level and started to do some research years ago to see if it was just in my experience. But it is not. It is a problem that is endemic in a culture that is increasingly disinclined to read and write and, of late, addicted to electronic toys. And it helps explain why our recent presidential election went the way it did. The only way out is to make a genuine commitment to education, including full funding; and one would like to see the Blob dismembered — the Blob being the huge bureaucracy that controls public education at all levels. If tiny Finland can get it right, we certainly can — if we want to!

Education As Business

 In the spirit of self-promotion, which is all the rage these days,  I post here a piece that will appear in my upcoming book. It is a post from a few years back which develops the theme suggested in the rather cryptic note I posted recently after learning that the University of Wisconsin offered graduate degrees in glass blowing! There is no doubt whatever but that higher education has lost its sense of direction and the reference in this post to the book by Jerry Selingo makes that crystal clear (sorry).

Jeffrey Selingo, the editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, has written a book titled College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means To Students. In his book he says, flatly, that “American higher education is broken” and lays to rest any faint hopes people like me have that the creature will somehow take on new life and make possible the education of generations to come. The creature has turned into big business and, like all businesses, it will adapt to changing circumstances and the demands of its clientele — or perish. As one of the people Selingo interviews remarks, “In other industries, those who don’t innovate go out of business. . . Higher education shouldn’t be any different.” In a word, education is business and, like so many institutions in this country, including the Church, it has adopted the business model and is all about making a profit — not educating young minds. And in order to do that higher education will have to become whatever its prospective buyers want it to be, like Walmart. Selingo is not in the least sanguine about the current state of things; he recognizes the importance of the liberal arts to the students themselves who must acquire the skills of communication and thought to succeed in any enterprise whatever.  In a particularly telling passage he expresses his dismay:

“More than ever, American colleges and universities seem to be in every business but education. They are in the entertainment business, the housing business, the restaurant business, the recreation business, and, on some campuses, they operate what are essentially professional sports franchises. As colleges have grown more corporate in the past decade, they have started acting like Fortune 500 companies. Administrative salaries have ballooned, and members of boards of trustees are chosen for their corporate ties, not for their knowledge of higher education. Colleges now view students as customers and market their degree programs as products.”

As things now stand, it’s a booming business. There has been “an almost insatiable demand for college credentials.” And that is what education is now all about: credentials. Students approach colleges and universities in order to get a tailor-made program that will prepare them for the careers they hope to pursue for the rest of their lives. They refuse to buy off the rack: they want their suits made-to-fit. This is, after all, the age of entitlement. And the colleges are adept at meeting those demands, instituting 300 new majors in 2010 alone — added to the 1,400 already extant — to make sure they can attract and hold the growing demand and give the kiddies what they want.

Gone are the days when folks like Robert Hutchins dreamed that colleges should be beacons rather than mirrors. They are mirrors, pure and simple. If they have not completely jettisoned the basic core requirement in the liberal arts — which used to be what higher education was all about — they have pared it down to a series of electives in a smattering of academic disciplines that guarantees the student very little knowledge about a range of unrelated subjects. This hardly passes muster as education in which the young are liberated from narrowness of vision and the short-sighted view of the world we associate with business where it is all about profits. Despite the fact that these students have no idea what they  ought to know in order to propel them into a changing world and that they are practically guaranteed to change their career objectives several times before they are forty, they plunge ahead into a college that feels comfortable and take the courses that the brochures and marketing professionals hired by the colleges have assured them will guarantee them success and happiness here and now, and forevermore.  Please note, the message is all about “information,” and, as Selingo points out, there is very little talk about how to process that information — i.e., how to think. This oversight is reflected in the results of the Collegiate Learning Assessment test given to currently enrolled upperclassmen in which over the years, especially, students who major in the more popular fields, such as, education, sports science, social work, and business tend to score low and follow-up research indicates that they are among the least successful college graduates — “three times more likely to be living at home with their parents, more likely to have run up credit card bills, and less likely to read the newspapers or discuss politics.” But, hey, caveat emptor.

The effects of the changes are widespread. For one thing, students “have come to regard their professors as service providers, just like a cashier at the supermarket or a waiter in a restaurant. . . . who must constantly innovate to serve students better, servicing students’ curiosity and their desire to apply knowledge to create impact.” This has resulted in a “major power-shift” in the classroom in which the students call the shots and evaluate their professors in the social media — hard graders scoring low. Selingo recounts a case in which an elderly biology professor who was giving low grades to his students was summarily removed from his classroom, in mid-semester, and replaced by another, younger professor who immediately boosted the grades of all students remaining in the class by 25% (many had already dropped out). After all, we don’t want to displease our customers: they might take their business elsewhere. And we wonder how grade inflation became rampant in the colleges and universities!

I have always felt as though I was on the bow of a huge ocean liner pissing into the wind as the ship heads blindly and very erratically into the unknown. I have this fear that the captain learned his trade online and hasn’t the slightest idea how to captain an actual ship — how to manoeuver in the fog or avoid icebergs. I have grown hoarse over the years trying to fight the inevitable — and I have known all along it was inevitable. And despite the groups like the American Council of Trustees and Alumni who have joined me on the bow of the ship trying to insist that colleges hang onto at least a semblance of a core, liberal education in the midst of handing out easy credits for whatever happens to be the day’s most popular fad, it seems clear that the future of education has been determined. From the perspective of the colleges and universities, the students are customers, they are not young people who need to be put in possession of their minds. In fact, their minds pretty much belong to the corporations that have molded them and who now own the colleges and universities and influence what students will learn in order to become obedient followers of the corporate piper in years to come.

 

Open Minded?

In a review of  The Kinsey Report that Lionel Trilling published in 1948 he notes that the Social Sciences were already suggesting ways folks ought to behave instead of simply telling us how they do in fact behave. They were already becoming prescriptive when they should have restricted themselves to description. This greatly affected the way we raised and taught our children. That went well!

He also makes a fascinating point about our democratic way of thinking, what he calls our “generosity of mind.” He regards this as peculiarly American and he insists that it is “often associated with an almost intentional intellectual weakness.” What he is speaking about is our refusal to make distinctions because of our fear that such distinctions will point the way toward discrimination.  Indeed, given the date of this review, one must conclude that Trilling was prescient, because we are now handicapped by our fear of “being judgmental,” by our inability to even allow for the possibility that anyone is different from anyone else lest this suggest that the one is somehow inferior to the other.  To quote Trilling at some length:

“[This intellectual weakness] goes with a nearly conscious aversion to making intellectual distinctions, almost out of the belief that an intellectual distinction must inevitably lead to a social discrimination or exclusion. We might say that those who most explicitly assert and wish to practice the democratic virtues have taken it as their assumption that all social facts — with the exception of exclusion and economic hardship — must be accepted, not merely in the scientific sense but also in the social sense, that is, that no judgment must be passed on them, that any conclusion drawn from them which perceives values and consequences will turn out to be ‘undemocratic.'”

This is a powerful statement and is worthy of serious reflection. What Trilling is saying is that our refusal to make distinctions has led us to the point where we are now intellectually disabled. Our fear that we might be “judgmental” renders us unable to make important distinctions between those who can and those who cannot. In our effort to “leave no student behind,” for example, we have dumbed down the curriculum in our schools to the point where those who graduate have learned very little, if anything — and the very bright are the ones who are left behind. On a broader canvas the liberal arts, as has been said many times, are elitist (“undemocratic”) and cater only to the very few. On the contrary. They can make it possible for all who come into contact with them to gain possession of their own minds and become autonomous persons who can resist the temptation to follow the herd and swallow the latest political pill that will eventually make them very sick.

The notion that certain thoughts are “undemocratic” is a brilliant way to point out that our determination to think alike has made it impossible for most of us to gain any sort of real intellectual freedom. Liberals must think in a certain way which (God Forbid!) must be nothing like the way conservatives think. And vice versa. True intellectual independence would allow us to make the important distinctions, to point out major differences, say, between women and men, between social classes, between the gifted and the obtuse. It would allow us to make distinctions between such things as the use and the mention of the “N” word, for example. Additionally it would allow us to distinguish between a protest against racial injustice and disrespect for the flag of this country, a distinction so many, including our President, seem unable or unwilling to make. To add to our intellectual burden is the current proscription against using certain words — despite the fact that words form sentences and sentences form thoughts. Without words, all words available, our thinking becomes crimped and begins to resemble, oh I don’t know, say, tweet-speak??

Trilling is on to something here and the fact that he was aware of this tendency in the late 1940s is truly remarkable. The tendencies he points out, as I have suggested, have only become worse and we are, as a society, even more “intellectually weak” than we were in 1948. The only way out is through education properly conceived, a course of study that takes the young on a challenging journey with the greatest minds that ever lived and, while being sensitive to the feelings of the disadvantaged, it allows for the open discussion of even the most controversial of topics with those who agree with us and, more especially, those who do not.

 

Hard Times

I am not a Charles Dickens scholar and really not much of a fan to be honest. I have read a number of his novels, but I find them a bit too didactic to be true art though I realize that novelists are free to do with their writing whatever they choose. At the same time I realize they are well worth reading, despite the fact that so many of his characters are caricatures, overdrawn and designed to produce a smile or a frown. Clearly, he was determined to draw attention to the poor and downtrodden of his times and their proximity to criminality which is always a temptation, especially for the poor. Moreover, his popularity and his influence are well documented. If popularity were the measure of the true worth of a novel, Dickens’ name would be at or near the top of the list. But I do not think popularity counts for much when it comes to aesthetic value. Still, as I say, his novels show signs of true artistic impulses, his writing is masterful, and his novels always provide us with something to think about.

In Hard Times, for example, Dickens targets utilitarianism, just aborning in his day and in his view a threat to the human spirit. Utilitarianism was the brain-child of Jeremy Bentham and it involved a careful calculation of alternatives in order to determine in a given case which is the best (i.e., most pleasurable) course of action, the “felicity calculus” as he called it. In a word, one could calculate the amount of pleasure involved in alternative courses of actions to determine which was the better choice. It’s all about human pleasure and calculation. And it was the calculating part that bothered Dickens — by which he meant all sorts of mechanization and regulation, the determination to measure everything and the eradication of all spontaneity and imagination. Dickens was a true romantic.

Folks like Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, have always had a problem with reason and the notion that one should incorporate reason into the normal comings and goings of the ordinary human. By way of satirizing this notion, for example, Dickens has Gradgrind hold forth at the start of Hard Times:

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

Mr. Gradgrind (note the name) the schoolmaster is all about “facts” and his determination to make reasoning machines out of his pupils — as Dickens sees it. And this view of education became an accepted truth about traditional ways of educating young children. It gave birth to such things as the Summerhill experiment in England in which children were allowed to have free reign over their own education. This eventually morphed into progressive education, an education, following Dickens’ lead — and the full-blown attack by Rousseau earlier on — that paid less attention to the subject matter (Facts) than it did to the children who were being taught the subject matter: education became child-oriented. And we have inherited this view of the proper way to educate children, for better or worse, emphasizing self-esteem and giving birth to our age of entitlement.

I have held forth on this topic many times, and I will not bore my readers by dragging out old axes I love to grind. But suffice it to say that, assuredly, the child matters — but so does the subject matter. In addition, facts (especially in our day of “alternative facts”) and reasoning skills are essential to help young people gain possession of their own minds, so they can free themselves from stupidity, narrowness of vision, and blatant prejudice. We need to teach the child when she is young and as she grows older we need to teach the child the subject matter. When she reaches college we need to teach the subject matter. Facts, perhaps, but necessary ingredients in any well-rounded education. I share Dickens’ aversion to utilitarianism and the trend toward reducing quality to quantity, but his reaction is a bit extreme.

In a word, we need Romantics to remind us of the pitfalls of a too narrow indoctrination which we try to pass off as the only way to teach and learn. But we also need to rescue the notion of discipline and rigor from the dust-heap where they have been thrown by the zealots who see only one way to do things. It’s a question of balance, in the end, reason and heart. We need not choose between them. I suspect Dickens knew this: he was trying to make a point.

Dumbing It Down

When I was hired in 1968 to start a philosophy program and coordinate a required Freshman course called “Ideas In Flux” at a brand new state college in Minnesota I had high hopes. I was only four years out of graduate school but I had already taught a number of the great books to “marginal students” at one of the many colleges that flourished in those days to keep young men out of the draft — colleges with non-degree programs designed for students  who were simply enrolled in order to avoid going to Viet Nam. I was therefore determined to initiate a reading program in what was then a brand-new state college, with better students presumably, that would challenge the students and inspire the faculty who taught them. All faculty were required to teach at least one section of “Flux” a year and all Freshmen were required to take three quarters of the course to provide them with a foundation to build on later in their major fields of study.

The first quarter focused on the question “What Is Man?” a title that would be regarded as sexist today and not allowed by the PC police. I thought long and hard about the reading list and came up with selections that would be challenging but not too difficult for the average student, especially if he or she had the guidance of a dedicated faculty member. I submitted the reading list before arriving on campus, and it included (among other works) the very short, eminently readable, masterpiece by Pico Della Mirandola, The Dignity of Man. The remaining works sounded, perhaps, less imposing (I don’t remember), but in any event the entire list was rejected by the Dean of Faculty as too difficult for their students. An anthology was selected by a committee at the college before I arrived on campus and I was informed that this would be the text. I was to read the selections before the classes met each week and submit questions for the faculty members to ask in order to generate discussion within their groups.

Many of the classes were successful, but more were not. A large number of faculty members resented having to teach something out of their area of expertise. One of them, when faced with a small paperback dealing with the basic concepts of Freudian psychology, told his class that he didn’t understand a word in the book and said they didn’t have to read it. Here was an excellent educational opportunity wasted: they could have explored the text together! Eventually the Freshman requirement was dropped, primarily because so many faculty resented having to teach outside their disciplines where they were busy building up their major requirements, despite the fact that a number of them not only enjoyed teaching the subject but raved about the success they were having. For one thing, it got Freshmen students involved at the start of their college career, since the classes were small and encouraged discussion. For another, it gave interested faculty members a chance to explore intellectual territory they were unfamiliar with — though, as I found out, many saw this as a threat!

I have always been angry that the Dean of Faculties had turned down that initial reading list that included books he had almost certainly never read and probably had never even heard of. I fought that battle for several years with him and with others on the faculty. But, being young and powerless, I lost the battle in the end. But I always thought the students were being cheated: they were being regarded as less able than I knew they were. And the reluctance of so many of the faculty to fully support the course didn’t help. If you aim low, I thought, you will hit low. Instead of stretching the minds of the students (and many of the faculty) which was the initial intent of the course, the trend was downwards. “Dumbing Down the Curriculum” it has since been called. And we see it happening all over the country, at all levels.

I recall the first time I read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason as a Junior in college. I had no idea whatever what the man was saying. But after a presentation on the subject by one of the tutors and struggling with the very difficult material myself, and especially after meeting with other students in a seminar and discussing the book, I finally began to see what Kant was saying. It was difficult going, but the end result was extremely satisfying. It was like striking gold after hours of work in a dark cave! I went from a slightly better-than-average student at a technical high school memorizing and regurgitating dull material to a more mature student committed to lifelong learning.

We deprive our students of that sort of experience by selling them short, by assigning easy reading material and taking them by the hand to lead them through it — or encouraging them to read Cliffs Notes! They will never know what they have missed, and that is truly sad.

John Stuart Mill once said that we will not know what is possible until we attempt what is impossible. I have always thought that was a profound thought, and that even so-called “average” students could benefit from walking, even briefly, in the company of genius. Instead of dumbing down the curriculum we should raise it to heights we may think the students (or faculty) cannot reach. They just might surprise us!