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.