Our Children: Evil & Successful

What have we done?  By giving our children everything, we’ve made them into self-centered, grasping monsters.  At the Imaginative Conservative, Bruce Frohnen accuses our culture of eating its own children.  As the perfect terrifying example, Frohnen uses the life and rapacious career of the late Steve Jobs.  Perhaps unconsciously, Frohnen dips into one of the strongest traditions of educational conservatism.

Spoiled Children, Spoiled Society

Spoiled Children, Spoiled Society

Frohnen, Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University, castigates Jobs as the exemplar of all things rotten in our culture.  Jobs, Frohnen writes, lived as

a mean-spirited narcissist who translated a certain aesthetic sensitivity and capacity for bullying and hucksterism into a colossal waste of money and collective time, further separating Americans from one another in pursuit of a false control over their environment. As bad, his personality and corporate ethos furthered highly damaging political and economic structures of a kind best described as libertarian socialism, in which corporations and rich individuals behave without conscience, expecting the social programs they vote for but seek to escape funding to pick up the pieces from their own “creative” destruction. I also see him as in many ways a sad character, emotionally and spiritually stunted in part because of the failings of the infantilizing environment in which he grew up.

Frohnen’s arch analysis of Jobs’ character serves as more than a brutal post-mortem on a unique American life.  Frohnen wants us to see Jobs as typical, the predictable result of American culture gone off the tracks.

Why was Jobs such a grasping bully?  Because he came out of the 1960s American culture that had wilfully abandoned its own traditions of child-raising.  Jobs, like so many of his generation, was relentlessly coddled, given everything and asked for nothing.

This was more than just a question of parenting.  Frohnen examines the college education on offer at Reed College in Oregon, where Jobs briefly took classes and where Frohnen briefly taught.  The faculty at Reed, Frohnen argues, deliberately discarded educational tradition and encouraged students to wallow in self-love.  As Frohnen remembers it,

Reed College in Portland, Oregon is one of those places where students dress in black to show how depressing it is to be young and well-off; lots of Volvos in the parking lot when I was there. And the drug culture remained. By my second semester at Reed several students had overdosed on illegal drugs. When the President, a “good” leftie from Oberlin, decided to take the minimal action of proposing a faculty resolution decrying the self-destructive behavior he was in for a surprise. At first I thought the principal opposition speaker was a bag lady. It turned out she was just some English professor in a poncho. She was nearly in tears as she argued that “we” could not hope to engage productively with students if we began with such a “superior attitude.” The resolution failed by an overwhelming margin.

Though Frohnen ties his bitter eulogy to a specific time and place—the 1960s lax parenting and education of the San Francisco era—conservative intellectuals and activists have made similar arguments throughout the twentieth century. As I argue in my upcoming book, at least since the 1920s conservatives have lamented the tendency of political liberals and educational progressives to coddle children. Parents and educators make a mistake, conservatives have insisted, when they offer too much to children.

Consider, for example, the educational vision of Grace Brosseau in 1929. At the time, Minor served as the President General of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She insisted, as Frohnen does, that parents and teachers must not abandon their duty to impose on children. “Flagrant cases of un-American tendencies have been brought to light and exposed,” Brosseau warned. America had gone to hell in a handbasket. And why? Too many teachers believed in the “decrepit theory that both sides of the question should be presented to permit the forming of unbiased opinions. This may be the proper system for the seasoned adult,” Brosseau warned, but

With the young, the chances are too great, for there a dangerous inequality exists.  One does not place before a delicate child a cup of strong black coffee and a glass of milk; or a big cigar and a stick of barley candy; or a narcotic and an orange, and in the name of progress and freedom insist that both must be tested in order that the child be given the right of choice.  Instead, one carefully supplies only what will make for the development of the young body and assure its normal growth.  Why then apply the very opposite theory when dealing with the delicate and impressionable fabric of the mind?

Writing in the 1980s, conservative activists Mel and Norma Gabler repeated this warning that too much choice spoils a child.  “The only absolute truth in modern humanistic education,” the Gablers warned,

is that there are no absolute values.  All values must be questions—especially home- or church-acquired values.  Discard the experience gained from thousands of years of Western civilization.  Instead, treat the students as primitive savages in the area of values.  Let them select their own from slanted, inadequate information.

By giving everything to our children, these conservative writers have insisted for generations, we’ve taken everything from them.  In the case of Steve Jobs, Frohnen argues, we see the perverted results that ensue from too much too soon.

 

Who Owns the Children with Guns?

Can a school tell parents what their kids can do outside of school?  On private property?

Conservatives say no.  But they seem to say no for very different reasons.

Conservative intellectuals argue that the state must not overreach.  The average conservative-in-the-street, however, seems to cling to ancient notions that children are not persons.  At least that’s the message we hear in one story from Virginia Beach.

This is a story that has attracted its share of media attention.  According to NBC News, a school district suspended three middle-schoolers for shooting other students with toy pellet guns.  The students were not at school with the toy guns, but rather waiting for the school bus.

Virginia Beach School Board Chairman Daniel D. Edwards defended the decision.  “This is not an example of a public educator overreaching,” Edwards insisted in a public statement.

Conservative commentator Charles E. Cooke demurs.  In the pages of The National Review, Cooke blasts the school decision as a typical and terrifying example of “tyranny.”  School, Cooke insists, has no role in punishing students for something that occurred outside of school, on private property.  “In free societies,” Cooke argues,

schools are not designed to serve as a mandatory means by which the Bismarckian state may seek to shape the young, but instead to act merely as a service to which parents can choose to send their kids for basic education if they so wish.

Cooke’s essay illustrates this key tenet of conservative thinking, a central reason why today’s conservatives are so keen on educational issues.  Many American conservatives these days yearn for a smaller government.  School is one of the most commonly encountered faces of government.  As a result, school becomes the target of conservative ire.  Even more complicated, schooling for the young is mandatory.  Along with taxes, schooling is one of the most common ways government tells Americans directly what they must do.

This story also dishes up a very different example of the complicated ways Americans tend to think of children and schooling.  According to WAVY.com, one of the parents of the children involved insisted that her child was her property, at least until he got on the bus.  “My son is my private property,” Solangel Caraballo told the local TV station.  “He does not become the school’s property until he goes to the bus stop, gets on the bus, and goes to school.”

Caraballo’s outrage doesn’t come from the same intellectual tradition as that of Cooke’s.  Cooke worries about an overreaching state.  Caraballo, on the other hand, is perfectly willing to have the state assert ownership of her child, but only once the kid gets on the bus.  Until then, the kid is private property, wholly owned by his parents.

What are we to make of this kind of thinking?  If children are private property, what does that mean about their rights?  If they are not property, how can they be kept from voting (not until age 18 in the USA), or driving (not until @ 16), or drinking alcohol (not until 21)?  If they are not property, how can they legally be forced to attend school if they don’t wish to?  What sort of legal twilight zone do children inhabit, not fully legal persons, yet something different from a washing machine or a pair of pants?

Most important, how common is this kind of thinking?  How many Americans continue the ancient tradition of thinking of their children as their property?  Of thinking of their children as property at all, property that they can transfer to the control of the school?

 

 

 

 

 

The Child in Fundamentalist America

A question for the parents and teachers out there: What are your kids like?  I don’t mean, do they like soccer, or are they picky eaters.  I mean: How are your kids not adults?  Besides simple lack of experience and physical maturity, how are they different from adults?

This question is at the root of many disputes over what schools should be doing with kids.  Many of us believe–often without even examining the assumption–that a child is mainly a sponge.  He or she will learn from his environment.  If he is surrounded by anger, violence, and hatred, those notions will fester inside him.  But if he is surrounded by love, happiness, and acceptance, he will develop a healthy strong personality.  In most cases, if protected from negative influences, children will develop healthy morals and values.

But this implicit understanding of the nature and needs of children stands in stark contrast to the vision of many cultural conservatives.  If we want to understand conservative educational activism, we have to dig into the implicit understanding of many conservatives about the nature of childhood.

Let’s look at some examples.  Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Mel and Norma Gabler exercised outsized influence on American education.  The Gablers lived and worked in Longview, Texas, and they made it their mission to clean up Texas’ textbooks.  For decades, the Gablers presented detailed complaints about the progressive bias in publishers’ textbooks.  They critiqued sex ed, anti-religious content, anti-patriotic content, and a host of other perceived problems.  Because Texas adopted textbooks for the whole state, and because the state represented such an enormous market, the Gablers’ influence in Texas meant they had influence nationwide.

Fueling the Gablers’ textbook activism was their vision of the nature of childhood.  Children, as the Gablers explained to the Texas Textbook Selection Committee in 1970, are not simply small adults.  They must not be allowed to make their own decisions about complicated moral questions.  Rather, left on their own, children will revert to the worst kinds of immorality: violent domination of the strong over the weak, unrestrained sexual license, and other throwbacks to pre-civilized humanity.

“It must be remembered,” the Gablers told the committee, “that qualities such as morality must be taught.  They do not come naturally.  Education without morality will result in a depraved society.”  By the mid-1980s, the Gablers warned that children must not be allowed to drift in a choppy and dangerous sea of contrasting moralities.  Instead, young children must be taught directly that some things are right and some are wrong.  “The school’s duty,” they insisted, “is to transmit the moral values held by the majority of Americans.”

Let’s pick apart these ideas about what makes children different from adults.  If children lack the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, then allowing them to develop their own moral beliefs becomes a cruel and dangerous strategy.  If children on their own will tend toward immorality, then proper moral ideas must be imposed on them by adults.

This vision of the nature of childhood stands at the core of much traditionalist educational philosophy.  If children will not develop healthy moral codes on their own, what must schools look like?  For one thing, each classroom should have a strong, authoritarian teacher.  And that teacher must impose a series of correct moral values on students.

With this understanding of the nature of childhood, it makes sense to impose tight restraints on children’s ability to make decisions on their own.  It makes sense to dictate a list of right and wrong ideas to children, and require children to memorize such lists.  With this understanding of the nature of childhood, it is not only uncomfortable but downright dangerous and irresponsible to encourage children to experiment with a variety of ideas.

So what are your children like?  Do they need to be taught directly that some things are right and others are wrong?  Or do they need to be allowed to experiment with a variety of ideas?

Further reading: James C. Hefley, Textbooks on Trial (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1976); Mel and Norma Gabler with James C. Hefley, What Are They Teaching Our Children? (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1986).