Levelling Down

I have blogged before about the so-called “self-esteem” movement that has taken over the thinking (?) of those who run our schools. The idea is to tell everyone that they are wonderful and this is supposed to inspire them to excellence. The problem is that all the data show this is false, that kids know it’s a lie and they simply do as little as possible and wait to be told how wonderful they are. Everyone gets the trophy, not just those who actually have earned it. The woman who has studied this movement in detail and written the definitive book on the subject is Maureen Stout who has taught at all levels from kindergarten through college and while initially a supporter of the movement, came to realize the damage it was doing in the schools.

Professor Stout holds a PhD in Education from UCLA and now teaches at California State University in Northridge. In 2000 she wrote The Feel-Good Curriculum: The Dumbing Down of America’s Kids in the Name of Self Esteem.  One of the key chapters begins as follows:

“. . .the self-esteem movement has slowly infiltrated education to the point that today most educators believe developing self-esteem to be one of the primary purposes of public education. As a result, schools are providing more courses in ‘life skills’ and less attention on academics, which are the sore of a liberal education. The very essence of public schooling is thus being transformed. We are in danger of producing individuals who are expert at knowing how they feel rather than educated individuals who know how to think.. . .The self-esteem movement infiltrates virtually every aspect of schooling from teaching methods to evaluation to curriculum planning. It is the most popular of all the fads, and the most dangerous. . . .The preponderance of evidence illustrates that self-esteem is irrelevant in all areas of education.”

I recall the comment of one of the legislators in California — a state where the self-esteem movement received state-wide impetus from the legislature and has become the accepted thinking of those who determine education policy in that state — who  was confronted by the hard evidence that the self-esteem movement actually thwarts development in children and said “I don’t care what the evidence shows. I know it works.” In a word, don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind’s made up.

In any event, the latest sad chapter in this ongoing saga comes not from California, but from a Minneapolis suburb where the annual honors banquet applauding the efforts of the brightest and best students in the Senior class was cancelled because it (presumably) hurt the feelings of those kids who did not and, in some cases, simply could not, achieve those honors themselves. The plan is to give all the kids some sort of recognition for the efforts they expend in school — presumably for breathing in and breathing out, certainly not for merit. Indeed, merit has pretty much gone out the window.

This is the result of a trend that goes far back beyond the self-esteem movement, namely, the egalitarianism that has resulted from the recognition that human rights must be acknowledged in all men and women regardless of their circumstances. The notion of human rights is a vital moral precept and one of the prizes of the Enlightenment; it is precious indeed. But it has sired some peculiar off-spring — such as the notion that any attempt to point out differences among people amounts to “discrimination,” and this is a bad thing. It has also fostered the self-esteem movement in the schools, which has, in turn, given rise to the absurd notion that we dare not call attention to the achievements of the best and the brightest because someone’s feelings might be hurt.  To which I say, “tough noogies, that’s life!” Some people are deserving of praise because they excel and if we want our kids to achieve anything resembling excellence we need to point out those who stand above the rest.

In the 1960s Gabriel Marcel noted the danger of the egalitarian movement, its tendency to “level down” the population, to make mediocre the norm, to lower expectations and demands and give everyone credit whether it was deserved or not. In the schools, as Maureen Stout pointed out, it is “dangerous,” because it destroys the urge on the part of bright kids to show their stuff and it fosters the lie that everyone is excellent when, in fact, only a few are. If everyone is excellent, then no one is. The word loses meaning. We need to recognize and reward merit and excellence or they will disappear forever. That’s the danger Professor Stout is pointing to. And she’s right.

Flight From Woman

Despite the fact that he never married, Henry Adams held women in the highest possible regard and often, in his autobiography, tells the reader how he was “rescued as often before by a woman.” In most cases it was Senator Cabot Lodge’s wife, who, with her husband and children, accompanied Adams on many of his travels. Indeed, it was with the Lodges that Adams first visited Mont St. Michel and Chartres and later wrote his remarkable study. He spends the bulk of one chapter in his autobiography taking about the plight of women in his age and says, in passing, “Adams owed more to the American woman than to all the American men he ever heard of, and felt not the smallest call to defend his sex who seemed able to take care of themselves. . . . woman was the superior.” In addition, Adams wrote two novels that center around women: Sybil and Madeline Ross in Democracy, and Esther in the novel by that name. In the former, Madeline Ross finds herself unable to “purify politics” in all-male Washington because she discovers “an atrophy of the moral sense by disuse.” Indeed.  For the most part the women stand head and shoulders above the men in the novels as they did with the women in Adams’ life.  I suspect that it was Adams’ high regard for women that drew him to the Chartres Cathedral which was built as homage to the Virgin Mary. As I suggested in an earlier blog, the Virgin represented to medieval men and women the Earth Mother from whom we all came and whose warm embrace will enfold us all in the end. What is this all about?

I would suggest that this has nothing whatever to do with modern feminism. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that modern feminism has helped to effectively eliminate from common discourse any discussion of the woman as she was viewed by such men as Henry Adams. Some would insist that this is for the better. But let us pause and reflect. To Adams, women represent the softer and more gentle side of life, the intuitive and emotional, caring and loving side. Woman represents feeling, man represents reason and cold, hard logic. And despite the fact that Adams himself had a mind like a steel trap and could reason with the best, he preferred feeling which he insists brings us all closer to one another and to life itself. His heroes and heroines show extraordinary sensitivity and he himself was drawn to beauty in all its forms. Adams would have agreed with Jung who insisted on the duality within each of us and tended, for his part, to prefer the side of feeling, the compassion and love that was represented by women and which he was not himself afraid to acknowledge in himself. In fact, he seems throughout his autobiography to regret deeply not having lived in the medieval period when the Virgin Mary was very real and gave meaning to life; she was available to all as a source of comfort and succor.

But what of this duality? Why is it that so much of what is written and spoken about women and men today seems directed toward a categorical denial, a leveling down, an insistence of no difference where differences clearly exist? Why is it that today women so often must seek success in men’s terms, by wearing pants and being assertive and tough enough to break the “glass ceiling”? The male is hard and repellant in so many respects. As Karl Stern points out in his interesting book Flight From Woman,

“Just as in the function of the spermatozoon in its relation to the ovum, man’s attitude toward nature is that of attack and penetrate. He removes rocks and uproots forests to make space for agriculture. He dams up rivers and harnesses the power of water. Chemistry breaks up the compound of molecules and rearranges the position of atoms. Physics overcomes the law of nature, gravity, first in the invention of the wheel — last in the supersonic rocket that soars into the stratosphere. . . . Man’s activity is always directed against nature.”

Men are leading the onslaught against the Earth Mother today: why would women want to be like men? The answer is that society demands it. We have defined success in monetary terms and the only way women can be successful, as we define that term today, is to play a man’s game. and play it as well as or better than the men. However, it is not demeaning to women to insist that they are different, especially if that difference amounts to a superiority. And it assuredly doesn’t imply that women should be denied the same rights as men. For centuries, of course, they were denied a voice and recognition as morally equal to men. It is certainly understandable that women have become defensive about being set apart: they want the recognition they deserve and have been so long denied. But perhaps the fight has progressed a few steps too far. That is one of the consequences of the trend toward equality that slowly emerged from the age of Enlightenment when people first started thinking about moral equality and the need to recognize the rights of all. But moral equality does not translate into sameness: we should  eschew any leveling down, recognize difference and accept it.

As Stern insists in a remark that would offend many women today, women “act and react out of the dark, mysterious depths of the unconscious, i.e., affectively,  intuitively, mysteriously. This is no judgment of value, but a statement of fact.”  This does not mean that women should not pursue mathematics and science or become police officers, which are supposed to be more “manly” activities, but simply that we should all acknowledge that there are differences between men and women and that every one of us is an intriguing combination of the two natures. Some women make better physicists or mathematicians than men and some men make better poets or writers than many women do. Recent testing suggests that young girls do as well as or even better than young boys in tests involving math and science. But that does not mean that there are not differences between the two aspects of the human psyche or that women and men are not different from one another in ways that subtend the physical. It is precisely because we come to this topic with bags choked with prejudice and suspicions that when differences are pointed out we insist that value judgments are being made; we refuse to acknowledge the facts that stare us in the face.

But if in the end we insist upon making those value judgments, rather than simply to acknowledge that there are ineluctable differences between the sexes, then perhaps we should simply agree with Adams that the female is superior to the male. Love trumps aggression every time. As Joseph Conrad would have it, women are “not the playthings of Time,” they shine forth with “an unearthly glow in the darkness.” And that darkness is the result of man’s unfettered rapaciousness over the centuries.

But as I write these words I wonder if we have come to the point where they simply no longer make any sense.

Parental Authority

One of the most difficult concepts for our society to come to grips with has been that of authority, especially parental authority. The authority of the policeman is fairly simple to deal with: if we see a badge or a flashing light most people listen and respond appropriately. But the authority of experts and especially the authority of parents and teachers has been questioned for a number of years now in what is an increasingly egalitarian and permissive society in which a leveling-down process has given birth to a sense of entitlement on the part of a vast majority of the spoiled young people in this country. No one has wrestled more successfully with the concept of authority than Christopher Lasch, whom I have referred to in previous blogs and who has brought his grasp of basic Freudian principles to bear on the subject and helped clarify what is decidedly a very misunderstood concept. “Authority” is not a nasty word, as some would have us believe.

We need to start by distinguishing between spurious authority and legitimate authority, rooting out, for example, the bogus authority of “experts” such as Merriam Van Waters, author of Parents On Probation, who as early as the 1920s started the rumor that in an increasing number of cases parental authority was “warped” and children should be raised by the “helping professions” rather than parents.  One must question the credentials of these supposed “authorities” in child rearing. Such bogus authority is simply power in another guise, leading to the rejection of the legitimacy of the parental role in the family in the name of  the state’s “social responsibility” for the children. I hope to explore this theme more fully in a subsequent blog.

The recognition of the legitimate authority of acknowledged experts with bona fide credentials is something we all benefit from and our society desperately needs. This is the case with regard to the authority of those who have a thorough understanding of their field of expertise, as recognized by their peers, and it is most assuredly the case with regard to the legitimate authority of parents and teachers. While we have solid grounds for rejecting the supposed authority of many in the “helping professions,” not only must we recognize the authority of the physician and the auto mechanic, we must also recognize the authority of the scientist who tells us that the globe is warming and that human existence as we know it is facing radical change while the planet itself is in jeopardy. And we must allow for the legitimacy of the authority of the parents over their own children and the teachers to teach the young.

But ours is an egalitarian age in which we have begun with a misunderstanding of the notion of moral equality in which all are entitled to fair treatment under the law and expanded the notion to the absurd conclusion that there are no differences between men and women, or between the gifted and the obtuse, or between a spurious opinion and a reasoned opinion. This is the “leveling-down” process I mentioned above. In insisting, wrongly as it happens, that there are no differences that make any difference between opinions or people  we have tossed out the notion that there are some who know more than others, that some things are true while others are false, and that some people are capable of remarkable deeds while others simply are not. While we are all equal before the law and from a moral perspective differences are less important than similarities, some people are simply more able than others to do specific things: some differences do make a difference. And there are those whose legitimate authority we should all admit, though we seem reluctant to do so.

Now, whether or not one agrees that the general abandonment of the notion of legitimate authority is a serious problem, one must agree that the attack on the legitimate authority of the parents most assuredly is. As Lasch has noted, quoting  anthropologist Jules Henry,

“. . .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. . . The parent’s abdication of authority intensifies rather than softens the child’s fear of punishment, while identifying thoughts of punishment more firmly than ever with the exercise of arbitrary, overwhelming violence.”

In a word, by denying the legitimate role of the parents as authorities in the raising of their own children, and/or the abdication of that role by parents who are too self-absorbed and preoccupied with making a living (as we say), we have brought about a permissive society in which the child has become the center of the family; “discipline” has become a pejorative term; “reform” has replaced punishment; an increasingly coercive state has intruded itself into the private arena of the family which should ideally be off-limits; and the young are convinced they are entitled to what they perceive as “the good life,” and are increasingly inclined to resort to violence in order to make sure that this comes about. We have no one to blame but ourselves.

Expertise

Alexis de Tocqueville visited this country in 1831 and stayed for only nine months. At the end of that time he wrote his Democracy in America which has become a classic. Even today we marvel at the man’s astute and penetrating observations of the customs and behavior of the Americans he watched so carefully. One of the things he was struck by was our love of “equality.” As de Tocqueville says, “I think democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves they will seek it, cherish it, and view any privation of it with regret. But for equality their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible; they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that they still call for equality in slavery. They will endure poverty, servitude, barbarism, but they will not endure aristocracy.”

What this means, I take it, is that we don’t want anyone else to be thought any better than we are ourselves. If anyone dares to presume to be superior to us in any way, we are quick to bring them back down to earth. The notion of moral equality, which is a powerful idea and central to our entire judicial system, has expanded to involve a general leveling down, a sameness of persons that refuses to admit that anyone can be regarded as in any sense whatever superior to any one else. This, of course, is absurd. It is called “egalitarianism,” and it has swept this country and Europe as well. Ortega y Gasset talks about it at some length in his Revolt of the Masses.

One of the notions that has been dismissed in our insistence that no one is any better than anyone else is the notion of expertise. I have touched on this notion in previous blogs, but it deserves a more thorough discussion. An expert is one who is supposed to know something the rest of us don’t know. When, in the spirit of egalitarianism, we insist that everyone has a right to his or her opinion, that my opinion is just as deserving of serious attention as yours — no matter who you are — we may have taken things a step too far. I recall some years ago one of my students balking at something Socrates said in a dialogue we were reading. I wanted him to expand on his notion that Socrates was somehow wrong in what he said, but the student couldn’t get past the notion that “it was just Socrates’ opinion.” The student also had his opinion which he was certain was just as weighty as that of a man who had thought about the matter for more than sixty years. Yet he could give no reasons. He thought none were necessary!

I mentioned in a previous blog the expertise of the physician, which we seldom question — though as our age becomes more and more litigious this profession may be brought down to our level as well. But at this time it remains a cut above the rest of us. Also, the automobile mechanic, though here again, skepticism has led us to question the trustworthiness of our local mechanic, whether or not he is being completely honest with us. But, for the most part, we acknowledge expertise in a few  areas. Very few. I would argue that we must allow it in a great many more.

When Scot Hamilton tells me that the triple toe loop I just witnessed was not up to par, I should listen. He knows whereof he speaks. He sees more than I do (or can, even in slow motion). Troy Aikman tells me something every Sunday during football season I didn’t know, pointing out things going on the field I never saw until he pointed to them. After only nine months, de Tocqueville became an expert on the American political system and the customs of the people of this country. The list goes on. There are people who have much greater experience, more extensive knowledge, and heightened sensitivity and deeper insight that enlarges their world. One of the reasons de Tocqueville’s book is regarded as a classic is because he saw so much so clearly. He made some mistakes, to be sure, but he was right more often than not. To refuse to listen to these people on the grounds that they are “no better” than I am (which is confusing and almost certainly irrelevant) is to close off part of my world and shrink it down to a fraction of what it might be.

Our love of equality, our determination to bring the lofty down to our level, is understandable and certainly warranted in courts of law or moral discourse. But it is misplaced in the real world where there are people more intelligent, more experienced, more sensitive, than ourselves. We really should listen to what they have to say. We might learn something.