Worldly Philosophy

Ours is not an age in which we want to have much to do with those who pursue ideas for their own sake; rather, ours in an age that stresses the practical, the “cash value” of ideas that must result in immediate gratification of the pleasure principle. It is said, for example, that the young  should avoid college courses in such things as philosophy, history, and literature because “what can you do with them?” They are impractical and don’t lead to a better job and, presumably, happiness ever after. This has not always been the case. There was a time when knowledge was pursued for its own sake and the practical was an after-thought.  Moreover, as it happens, such things as philosophical ideas can have immense practical payoff. Take John Locke.

I am reading a remarkable book written by Richard Pipes entitled A Concise History of the Russian Revolution. In the early pages of that book, while trying to probe the causes of the revolution in Russia, and indeed the root causes of revolutions around the world, Pipes points out the immense influence of the English philosopher John Locke.

“In his political writings Locke laid down the foundations of the liberal constitutions of Great Britain and the United States. But his philosophical treatise [Essay Concerning Human Understanding] inadvertently fed a very different, liberal current of political thought. The Essay challenged the axiom of Western philosophy and theology that human beings were born with ‘innate ideas,’ including knowledge of God and a sense of right and wrong. This notion had made for a conservative theory of politics because, by postulating that man comes into the world spiritually and intellectually formed, it also postulated that he was immutable. From this it followed that the principles of government were the same for all nations and ages. According to Locke, however, man is born a blank slate on which physical sensations and experiences write the messages that make him what he is.”

The implications of this radical change in the perception of human nature were picked up by such thinkers as Helvétius in France who expanded Locke’s thesis into a full-blown political theory that centered around the notion that human beings were imperfect and the political state was necessary in order for them to become fully human. This implied that government is justified in “far-reaching intervention in the lives of its citizens.” As Karl Marx would have it, “The whole development of man . . . depends on education and environment.” Thus was born social science and close at its side materialism and with it capitalism with all its warts and imperfections. It no longer mattered that man was created in God’s image because God was effectively dead. As a result, man could become anything the governments and their agencies determined he could become. As Helvétius had noted:

“Man is totally molded by his environment. Thus a perfect environment will inevitably produce perfect human beings.  . . . . Good government not only ensures the greatest happiness for the greatest number but literally refashions man.”

The people do not know — parents do not know how to raise their children, for example. But the state knows and we need to simply follow the lead of those in power to realize our full human potential.  Not only does this idea drive the social sciences, but strange as it may seem it has permeated our colleges and universities in our day as growing numbers of radical faculty members openly regard education as the indoctrination of the unformed young into the “correct” way of thinking and acting — namely how their professors themselves think and act. I kid you not. Nor do I exaggerate.

It was especially during the period from the eighteenth century until the middle of the twentieth when this way of looking at things had the most powerful influence outside the academy. It was the intellectual background for the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the Constitution of the United States which was founded on the hope that through civil laws, education, and social engineering citizens would develop civic virtue and ignore their own self-interest in order to realize the common good — through which they themselves could become better human beings. Thomas Jefferson had a portrait of John Locke in his study, be it noted.

In any event, this shows us that ideas written down in his closet by the unworldly philosopher can have immense impact on the real world in which most people dismiss such esoteric stuff as “irrelevant” and go about the business of doing business.  And one might think also of the writings of Karl Marx, as mentioned, and Jean Jacques Rousseau. These were “worldly philosophers.” For those who want practical results and are willing to think about why and how those results are to be brought about, it might pay to read what philosophers, historians, and novelists have had to say — and regarding the latter I am thinking about the immense impact of Charles Dickens’ novels in England in the midst of widespread poverty and a diffident Parliament that seemed to be heading the country toward another”Reign of Terror.”

Indoctrination

Readers of my blog are fully aware that I am somewhat fixated on the topic of education — what it is and what it is not. In reading Jean Jacques Rousseau’s notions about education (an author who wrote Emile, one of the supposed great works in education) I found myself disturbed by his confusion between education and indoctrination. It made me reflect on the fact that we tend to make the same confusion — though we would be reluctant to admit it. After all, who would agree to pay teachers to indoctrinate their children rather than educate them? The answer should be obvious: most of us do (to a degree).

But, back to Rousseau for a moment who, among other things, did not believe that the children of the poor and disenfranchised should be educated. In his words:

“The poor man does not need to be educated. His station gives him a compulsory education. He could have no other. . . .Those who are destined to live in country simplicity have no need to develop their faculties in order to be happy. . . . Do not at all instruct the villagers child, for it is not fitting that he be instructed; do not instruct the city dweller’s children, for you do not know yet what instruction is fitting for him.”

The sort of “education” that Rousseau recommends for the remaining few is most interesting:

“It is education which must give souls the national form, and so direct their opinions and their tastes that they are patriots by inclination, by passion, by necessity. A child, on opening his eyes, should see his country, and until he dies he should see nothing but his country.”

These two comments are worth considerable reflection. They both raise red flags, for different reasons. The first quote focuses on Rousseau’s conviction that some people (most people?) cannot be educated. The hero of his book, Emile, was a privileged son of a wealthy father and was privately tutored. Rousseau simply took for granted that the children of poor villagers could not be educated and that any attempt would fail. This is interesting because we are, as a society, committed to the notion of universal education, the notion that all are educable and “no child should be left behind.” Unfortunately, as it happens, this is not true. To an extent Rousseau is correct. Not all children are educable. Take it from me! But it is impossible to state a priori who is and who is not educable and therefore the opportunity should be made available to all. But the notion that all children can be taught something by good teachers is a stronger position, because teaching children “something” does not necessarily mean they are educable.

This leads to the notion of indoctrination which is clearly implied in Rousseau’s second comment above. So much of our teaching is directed toward teaching children “something” rather than teaching them how to use their own minds to determine what “somethings” are worth knowing and which are only worth ignoring altogether. In point of fact, much of what passes for education in this culture is really job training, teaching the young those skills that will enable them to make a living. This is assuredly not education; it is indoctrination by another name. And there are those among us who would insist that the sorts of flag-waiving that Rousseau recommends should be taught as well. In a word, we ignore the fundamental distinction between education, training, and indoctrination. These are not at all alike, and while training may be advantageous to all, education ought to be but, as Robert Hutchins said long ago, we have never really made the effort. We are satisfied if the kids can get a job after they graduate, whether they are able to use their own minds or not. And were the schools to buy into the sort of brain-washing that Rousseau recommends it is fairly certain that a great many parents would rejoice.

In brief, we need to be clear in our minds just what it is we are talking about when we talk about “universal education.” If we really believe in it, we should embrace the concept fully and make it available to all — and not settle for indoctrination or job training. A democracy, as I have said on numerous occasions, requires an educated citizenry. It was the assumption of the Founders that all who voted would be aware of and concerned about the common good and also they would be “schooled” to the point where they could distinguish the worthy candidates for public office from the frauds. Recent experience has proven that a great many of our citizens do not exhibit “social virtue” and cannot vote intelligently and this should make us even more determined than ever to insist that teachers focus on enabling all of their students to use their own minds and not settle for anything less.

Free Or Slaves?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was no friend of representative government. He was convinced that citizens are only politically free when they make the laws they themselves obey, in a pure democracy. Indeed, he was convinced that in a pure democracy the citizens would be well-informed and discuss the issues thoroughly. They would then vote and their decision would be the correct one. Anyone who was in the minority would then obey the will of the majority and in doing so, paradoxically, be “forced to be free.” Freedom, in Rousseau’s view, is defined as doing the right thing. Any form of representation, on the other hand, is a form of slavery, according to Rousseau. Citizens are putatively free for one brief moment when they vote, but after that moment has passed, they are slaves to the people they voted into office — those who would subsequently make the laws the voters would then have to obey.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau  (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Rousseau, of course, never envisioned an age in which the airwaves would be filled with political campaigning, promises never to be fulfilled, and smiles that never seemed to leave the faces of the politicians who spent fortunes to be elected — not to mention the endless stream of phone calls and emails promoting the latest candidate who will assuredly  “cut the pork” and “break the grid-lock in Washington.” He also never envisioned an age in which the candidates themselves would be chosen by a handful of wealthy men running giant corporations, thereby limiting the “freedom” of the voters even more. After all, how free are we when we don’t even chose the folks we are supposed to vote into office? But, then representation is itself a logical puzzle. Think about it.

One person cannot possibly represent more than one other person — with whom he presumably agrees on every possible point of contention. Two or three, or two or three thousand people who are supposed to be “represented” by a single person, a paid politician, is a logical impossibility. And when that politician’s allegiance is to the wealthy few who have placed them on the ballot in the first place, then the notion of political freedom in a representative government begins to stretch beyond recognition.

In a word, Rousseau’s notion that voters are free only when they actually vote (presuming that they bother to vote at all) raises problems in the world we have come to know — the world in which politicians are professional liars, for the most part, who are selected by a process over which we  have no real control. We seem to have even less political freedom than Rousseau imagined, which was very little indeed. But why worry? I’ve got over two hundred channels on my television: now there’s real freedom!

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.

State of Nature

Thomas Hobbes imagined the state of nature to be a condition we were all in before the rise of political states. He described it as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The basic emotion shared by all in the state of nature is fear. The purpose of political states is to keep us all in awe of the Sovereign and therefore at peace with one another. While other political theorists, such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau borrowed the notion of a primitive state of humans prior to the formation of political states, none imagined the condition to be quite as unsettling as Hobbes did. For the most part, Hobbes’ notion was dismissed out of hand.

But what about the relationship among nation-states themselves? Might it not be possible to make a case that nations are in a state of nature such as Hobbes describes with respect to one another, though not quite so bleak? Just consider the current disposition of nuclear weapons among the nations and think what their possession means to the various nations that possess them — and especially to those who do not possess them. Also, consider the fact that concern over the possibility that bellicose nations such as Iran seem on the brink of having such weapons has struck fear in the rest of the world — a fear that has driven other nations to express outrage.

But, when you think about it, it may well be that the possession of nuclear weapons in large numbers is what keeps nations from one another’s throat. At least, that is a possibility, and our hope. But there is also the possibility that as nuclear weapons proliferate the likelihood that a nuclear exchange will take place increases. There are currently eight nations (possibly nine) with nuclear weapons in their possession — the United States leading the pack with 10,300 such weapons at last count (!). It is ironic that the nations that have yelled loudest at the thought that Iran might be in possession of nuclear weapons control the majority of such weapons worldwide. Ignoring the fact that this is the height of hypocrisy, concern is legitimate when a nation that has openly expressed its antipathy toward the rest of the world seems about to possess nuclear weapons.

The defense that Iran, or any other country, is simply developing nuclear capacity for peaceful purposes is irrelevant, since 4 out of 6 countries with nuclear power capacity also have nuclear weapons. One seems to lead to the other. Another way of looking at this is to note that the six countries with the most nuclear power plants control 97% of all nuclear weapons worldwide. But whether or not the fact that a country has nuclear power leads invariably to the possession of nuclear weapons, the world is correct in wanting to reduce the number of nuclear weapons and resist the attempts by any more countries to get them.

The mere possession of nuclear weapons in large numbers like those in the U.S. is morally indefensible. This is especially true when not long ago an American President was reportedly contemplating the use of “low yield” nuclear weapons as a first strike option in the Iraq war [Hint: Not the sitting President; his predecessor.]. It has generally been assumed that such weapons would only be regarded as deterrents to war, or at worst retaliatory, never as the first option in a war. The mere suggestion is marginally insane, as indeed is the buildup of such weaponry itself.

In any event, it is reasonable to say that nations in our nuclear age exist in a state of nature in relation to one another. Thus, one might well follow Hobbes in suggesting that what the world needs is a Sovereign, a world government with punitive powers to keep the nations at bay. If any single nation ever seriously considers the use of such weapons as a first-strike option, the case for such a world government is all the stronger. Hobbes insisted that bellicose individuals needed a Sovereign they would fear more than they feared one another.  As things now stand, the obvious choice to play this role is the United Nations, but at present, the United Nations is a toothless tiger. If we are to follow Hobbes’ lead, the tiger must be armed and fearsome and probably relocated in a neutral country.  Perhaps this is what the world needs to get along in a nuclear age.