Understanding the symptoms and causes of a broken culture.
Real education in the broadest and richest sense has always been an unlikely proposition. Its most floral moment may have been Periclean Athens, and then only for a privileged minority of enfranchised philosophers, statesmen and citizens of the polis. The ideal was articulated in Plato’s Phaedrus, as “an acquired conviction which causes us to aim at excellence,” by which was meant both intellectual vigor and civic virtue. Although we have laudably democratized the concept to apply not only to a favored few, I am acutely aware of the unattainability and even the preposterousness of this ideal in a real-world context of practical affairs, class disparities, occupational shrinkage and ubiquitous functionalization. Nevertheless, the ideal is the asymptote toward which we aspire, knowing all the while that we must fall miserably short of so noble an aim. A mind is a terrible thing to waste, whatever its complexion.
And minds are being wasted wholesale by a malformed pedagogy that has forgotten the meaning of the word “education,” derived from the Latin e-ducere, “to lead out” of ignorance, sloth and dispersion. As Michel de Montaigne observed, “It is not enough for our education not to spoil us; it must change us for the better.” The contemporary paradigm that controls thinking on the subject fails on both counts. It catapults to the forefront instructional techniques and “strategies” involving what the trade calls “technology tools,” which are confidently expected to increase teacher and student productivity in the classroom. This atelier of technology tools includes such apparently pedagogically useful and stimulating devices as e-mail, fax, Internet, virtual whiteboards, remote computer access, grammar software, spell checkers, various kinds of built-in templates, and a coven of task and answer wizards. These wizards have now replaced the scholar-teachers and personal tutors of yore and enable ordinary teachers and students to do all sorts of interesting and valuable things such as—according to a PERFORMA bulletin I have before me as I write—“create professional looking and complex Word documents.” The bulletin goes on to indicate how so notable a feat of scholarly creativity is to be accomplished: simply, we are told, “by using information.”
How all these trivial games and empty contrivances are supposed to function in the absence of ideas, which are for the most part bestowed or stimulated by dedicated reading and studying, transcends both the laws of probability and plain common sense. “[A] reasonable man understands,” writes Jonah Goldberg in The Tyranny of Clichés, “that the costs of ripping up the old and tried are often too expensive for the theoretical promises of the new and untried.” Our contemporary ideologues and planners consist of a breed of inept and myopic specialists for whom the historical past and tried modes of instruction are entirely irrelevant.
To make matters worse, the “problem of education” is compounded today by yet another factor, the political skewing of the pedagogical agenda by a flagrant Left-wing parti-pris that has infected both practice and curriculum. Our so-called “educators” consist not only of one-dimensional technophiles but also of committed indoctrinators who consider as their mandate the unleashing of an army of young ideologues who believe in the foolish and partisan notion of an achievable social utopia. Which means in practice that students imbibe without examination the entrenched ideas and policies of their mentors who staff the political Left, embracing such postulates as: undifferentiated multiculturalism, the fostering of statistical “diversity” and racial preferences, big government, equality of results irrespective of input, unbridled entitlements, the leveling of intellectual distinctions, and, of course, a pro forma anti-Zionism.
This is the very cohort that turned out in record numbers in 2008 to vote for Barack Obama, whom they regarded in much the same way as Shia Islam regards the Hidden Imam—a messianic prophet who incorporated in his being all the dogmas they had been taught to cherish and enact. The university, as we know, was one of the main targets of the Gramscian “march through the institutions,” with the purpose of influencing the young to espouse the doctrines of the socialist creed and instructing them, to cite political and educational writer Bruce Bawer, in “the utopian promise of authoritarian ideology.” We can see both the effectiveness of and the damage wrought by the Gramscian project in the recent Occupy movements.
The consequences of this twin attack on the educational citadel—the utilitarian reduction of responsible pedagogy and the political indoctrination of a student “clientele” incapable of independent thought and genuine research—have been nothing short of disastrous. What Victor Davis Hanson says of the California school system applies across the national spectrum: “politicized curricula that do not emphasize math, science, and reading and writing comprehension” will produce an incompetent future generation entrusted to “build our power plants, fly our airliners, teach our children and take out our tumors.” When one considers the deprivations and manipulations visited upon our students, the sequel is chastening.
Moreover, the cognitive travesty that culminates in the compromised university begins in public school and even kindergarten, where pupils are not only poorly trained in the protocols of learning but early imbued with the poisoned pabulum of Leftist precepts and suppositions. Regrettably, the effects are not confined exclusively to the mediocre and radicalized public and elementary educational institution, but spread outward to society as a whole. “Today,” writes Brandon Vallorani of the Political Outcast website, “the radicalization process is taken to our nation’s corporations, universities, courts, and political parties.” The ripple effect is undeniable.
The misguided priorities that animate our education system, from primary to post-graduate, are both a symptom and a cause of a broken culture. In The Cry for Myth, Rollo May quotes a student speaker at a Stanford graduation exercise, who claimed his class did not know how it “relates to the past or the future, having little sense of the present, no life-sustaining beliefs secular or religious.” It is moot whether we can fix the culture by fixing education, or whether we need to address ourselves to the culture of which education is a part, or whether we should work on both fronts at once—a trilemma which puzzled no less an authority than Alfred North Whitehead in The Aims of Education, a book which no authentic educator can afford to ignore. One way or another, we need to heal a broken educational covenant. It is a start, perhaps, to recognize the problem and to continue bringing it to public attention.
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