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.

 

Plumbers and Teachers

What is a teacher? A hired hand?  Or an independent scholar?  A functionary enrolled to help parents?  Or a professional charged to form young minds as she or he best sees fit?

Students of conservative educational activism like me often list the same litany of complaints made by conservatives about public schooling in the past century.  Schools, conservatives often complain, must not warp their students’ minds.  Schools should teach patriotism.  Schools should teach respect for religious values and traditional notions of right and wrong.  Some conservatives believe schools must not teach atheism and call it science.

But there remains one hugely important conservative issue that rarely gets the same amount of attention: conservative concern with the overweening authority of teachers and educational experts.

As part of his recent series on education at Front Porch Republic, Anthony Esolen articulates this traditional conservative frustration.

Esolen frames the question in a provocative fashion: What if teachers were plumbers?

Here is one of Esolen’s scenarios:

“Jones pokes his head into the basement. He hasn’t done that in two years. He’s told himself again and again that they must know what they are doing, they are the experts and he isn’t, they are from the government, and he must mind his own business. But the devil gets into him.

“‘What is that?’

“‘What is what?’

“‘That – that tangle of pipes! Why so many? It’s a maze! It takes up half the room. In some places you can’t stand up straight. It’s like what happens to a hundred foot extension cord. The whole contraption is in knots!’

“‘I fail to see what you are so concerned about. Presumably you wanted us to do your plumbing. Well, so we have. We’ve done a great deal more than you expected.’

“‘But it’s leaking all over the place! Why didn’t you just do the simple but necessary thing? Why didn’t you do what I hired you to do?’

“‘Hired, Mr. Jones?’”

In the research for my current book about twentieth-century conservative educational activism, I’ve seen this argument repeated with a variety of emphases.  For generations, conservative activists have argued that schools and teachers have taken too much authority over children.

For instance, during the 1920s school controversies, William Jennings Bryan famously argued, “The hand that writes the paycheck rules the school.”

A generation later, in 1951, Ernest Brower, a conservative leader from Pasadena, California, complained to a state senate investigating committee that “progressive” education had seized too much control.  In their citizen investigation, Brower reported,

 “Well, you might liken public education, in Pasadena at least, and I think probably in other sections of the country as well, to a patient who is very sick, and so, naturally, the proper thing is to start looking for symptoms, and we found several symptoms of the disease. . . . we noticed there was a definite elimination of parental authority, undermining of parental influence.”

For Brower, as for Bryan and Esolen, this undermining of parental influence signaled the underlying “disease,” of which other educational problems were merely symptoms.

In 1968, conservative California school superintendent Max Rafferty agreed.  “Children,” Rafferty warned,

“do not belong to the state.  They do not belong to us educators, either.  They belong to their parents and to nobody else.  And don’t you forget it.

“Because if you do forget it and let the kids become wards of an all-powerful government, you won’t have to look forward with fear and trembling any more to that dread year 1984.  It will be here, considerably ahead of schedule.”

In 1980, free-market economist Milton Friedman lent his considerable influence to this central conservative notion.  “Parents,” Friedman wrote,

“generally have both greater interest in their children’s schooling and more intimate knowledge of their capacities and needs than anyone else.  Social reformers, and educational reformers in particular, often self-righteously take for granted that parents, especially those who are poor and have little education themselves, have little interest in their children’s education and no competence to choose for them.  That is a gratuitous insult.”

We could multiply examples of this sentiment almost endlessly.  From the early years of the Heritage Foundation’s work, Connie Marshner insisted,

“A parent’s right to decide the direction of his child’s life is a sovereign right, as long as the child is subject to his parent.  Educators have no business creating dissatisfaction with and rebellion against parental wishes.”

Similarly, Texas school watchdog Norma Gabler echoed this sentiment in the 1980s,

“Number one, my sons belong to my husband and I.  They do not belong to you and the state—yet.”   

For all these leading conservative intellectuals and activists, one foundation of schooling is that it is a service provided for families by educators.  It has long been a source of intense frustration that progressive educators presume glibly to arrogate total control over children’s lives.

As Professor Esolen reflected in his recent essay series, this arrogance is all the more exasperating when it seems utterly unaware of its own ridiculousness.  We would not accept the fact that a plumber would ignore our wishes and have his way with our pipes.  Why, Esolen asks—echoing generations of conservative intellectuals—why do we accept this brazen arrogance from teachers?

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).

Traditionalist Education I: Discovery…of What?

TRADITIONALIST EDUCATION PART I: DISCOVERY…OF WHAT?

Underlying the standard teaching that goes on in most American schools are some fundamental philosophical assumptions about what it means to be a person and the nature of right and wrong.    Beginning in the early twentieth century, progressive educators, led by John Dewey, voiced a vision of humanity that resonated across
American culture.  They recognized that the modern era demanded a new understanding of humanity.  This was a question with ramifications beyond the rarified air of academic philosophy.  Progressive educators took these modern notions of the nature of humans and spelled out their meanings for classroom education.  In brief, modern philosophy recognized that ancient understandings of humanity no longer made sense.  In the traditional view, humans were essentially different from the rest of the animal and vegetable world.  They had a soul, a connection to a transcendent plane of being.  The modern view saw people as one example of life on earth.  One that had evolved into some highly specialized forms, to be sure, but not essentially different from other animals.  There were no transcendent truths out there somewhere; there were no ideal forms casting shadows down upon humanity.
Rather, truths were generated by people, for people.  This did not mean that there were no values, no meaning to notions of right and wrong.  But it did introduce the modern intellectual dilemma: those values could no longer be left unquestioned; they could no longer simply be accepted as givens in a universe dedicated to unrelenting change.

Traditionalists invariably point to a document from 1933 to illustrate this pernicious philosophy.  Signed by John Dewey and an A list of other progressive personalities, the Humanist Manifesto  declared in stirring tones “The time has come for widespread recognition of the radical changes in religious beliefs throughout the modern world.  The time is past for mere revision of traditional attitudes.”

What difference did these notions make to everyday classroom teaching?  At the most fundamental level, they suggested that learning should no longer be seen as the simple transmission of eternal truths from an older generation to a younger.  Young humans must not be seen as empty vessels to be filled with the wisdom of the ages.  Instead, the leading intellects of the progressive education idea argued that young humans, like humans of every age, construct their knowledge based on bits and pieces from their own lives.  In this understanding of humanity, education must not consist of mere lists of knowledge to be acquired, more or less successfully.  Rather, education must be built by each student, based on the experiences that student has already acquired.  In order to facilitate that construction of knowledge, schools and teachers must guide students in their educational process.  The role of the educator is no longer to simply dump knowledge into the young.  Rather, it must be to help those young people build their own knowledge.

For those who advocate traditionalist education, these changes meant a distressing shift in America’s assumptions about the proper role for its public schools.

FURTHER READING: Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of American Education (1995); Mel and Norma Gabler, What Are They Teaching Our Children? (1987); Tim LaHaye, The Battle for the Public School (1983); Sam Blumenfeld, Is Public Education Necessary? (1981)