I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. -- Thomas Jefferson

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The World We Have Lost

All of us homeschoolers have rejected, to some degree, the modern, bureaucratized society in which we live, simply by the fact that we have chosen the alternate path of homeschooling.

But, I think, most of us still do not realize how unthinkingly we are caught up in the values and attitudes of the modern world and how radically, and often disastrously, that world differs from the world of our forebears.

My great-grandmother was born in 1883: she passed away when I was a senior in college, so I knew her well throughout my childhood. It is very revealing to compare the world she grew up in to the society and culture we ourselves, our parents, and our own children inhabit.

Child-rearing and education

The most obvious difference, especially in the context of homeschooling, is in the area of child-rearing and education.

My great-grandmother only finished fourth grade. Yet, unlike many high-school graduates today, she had acquired basic skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic.

There was no “teen-age” rebelliousness, no “teen-age” youth culture, in her generation simply because there were no ‘teenagers.”

There were of course young people whose ages lay between thirteen and nineteen, but there was not a general expectation and acceptance of young people’s having a unique “culture” that took an adversarial stand against the adult world, intentionally creating music, dress styles, etc. calculated to annoy or outrage adults.

“Teenagerhood” – both the word and the idea – was an invention of the first half of the twentieth century, largely a result of the “consolidated” high school created in the first half of the twentieth century. Partly because of a desire to keep adolescents out of the workforce so that they would not compete with working fathers during the Depression, partly out of the “progressive” belief that more schooling was better for everyone, American adolescents were forced to spend twelve years in the school system.

As Grace Palladino explains in the first chapter of her comprehensive Teenagers: An American History:
The Great Depression had finally pushed teenage youth out of the workplace and into the classroom.... a shift that helped to create the idea of a separate teenage generation. When a teenage majority spent the better part of their day in high school, they learned to look to one another and not to adults for advice, information, and approval.... they revolutionized the very concept of growing up. This remarkable transformation had as much to do with the high school experience as with raging hormones or adolescent insecurity...
(It is interesting to recall that Golding's dystopian novel, Lord of the Flies, involved a group of schoolboys left on their own.)

Since many of the kids forced into the new comprehensive high schools lacked either the desire or the ability to engage in serious academic work, the curriculum was dramatically “dumbed down” (for a non-polemical, scholarly study of this “dumbing down,” see Kliebard’s The Struggle for the American Curriculum: 1893 – 1958), forcing kids to pursue pointless make-work until they could “graduate” from high school.

Is there any surprise that this has created anger, rebelliousness, and a youth culture based on contempt and resentment towards the adult world?

In the nineteenth century, there was a real purpose to the lives of most adolescent kids: they were working, on the farm, in the home, or at outside jobs, doing things (or learning to do things) that actually needed doing.

That is not true of most “teenagers” today.

Thomas Hine, in the final chapter of his The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, a broad-ranging study of youth through American history, concludes:
By looking at history as we have done, we see that the teenager that emerged in the mid-twentieth century was but one of many ways in which American young people have responded to the circumstances of their times... If we are going to persist in our notion that all young people should spend their teems simply waiting for adulthood, we have to find ways of making this teenage experience more satisfying and effective.

Alternatively, we can decide that the idea of the teenager is one that has outlived its usefulness, then move on to other possibilities
Hine does not deny that serious, rigorous, challenging academic work makes sense for those children willing to pursue it and able to benefit from it. But does it make sense to warehouse kids who are unable to or unwilling to pursue serious academic work in “schools” that serve only to artificially prolong adolescents' period of irresponsibility and dependency?

Our forebears were not convinced that Lord of the Flies was inevitable adolescent behavior.

Culture and the attitude towards learning

American (and British) culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was imbued with the ideal of intellectual self-improvement: to recognize that, one need only read Franklin or Emerson or recall Lincoln’s eagerness to acquire learning however he could. To be truly well-educated before the twentieth century was at least to know Latin (and, ideally, ancient Greek), and also a modern language (French or German).

There is a story that Lincoln, as a lawyer riding circuit, took a copy of Euclid’s Elements with him so that he could sharpen his reasoning powers.

How many American adults today seriously try to learn an intellectually difficult subject – a new area of mathematics, a new foreign language – unless they are required to do so for their job?

In fact, the idea of actually doing proofs – the axiomatic method of axioms / theorems / proofs – that has dominated serious mathematics since the time of the Greeks – has been largely eliminated from American high schools in recent decades (see this lament published in the LA Times, written by then-chair of the math department at Caltech, the most selective science university in the country).

We live today in a society that despises learning.

  • How many living sports stars or entertainers can the average American name off the top of her head?
  • How many living scientists, mathematicians, or medical researchers can the average American name off the top of her head?
  • How many American teen-agers can identify who Babe Ruth was vs. who Jonas Salk was?
We have more leisure today, more access to tools of learning such as books, libraries and the Internet than ever before in history, and, yet, there is active contempt, bordering on hatred, for the idea of learning simply for the sake of learning.

No doubt part of this is due to memories of the “twelve-year sentence” that most Americans were forced to endure in the public schools.

But there is also a positive respect for delinquency and irresponsibility: the “trend-setters” of our popular culture are often the dregs of our society. It is not just the kids who are enraptured by “gangsta rap” or whatever the latest symbol of youth rebellion happens to be, but also adults who hold up failed human beings as objects of emulation or even veneration, whether “celebrities” such as Michael Jackson or fictional characters such as Holden Caulfield.

This is not the historical norm. Our forebears did not model themselves on petty thugs, juvenile delinquents, and people who clearly lacked the ability to live a normal life.

Rather than publicly honoring real, substantive achievement based on serious intellectual effort, we accept as our public “role models” the products of our “cult of entertainment”: professional sports is, of course, a prime example of modern entertainment. Again, this is not the historical norm: sports heroes and popular entertainers were not national icons throughout most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

One result of our modern obsession is such an exaltation of style and personality over character and substantive achievement that even the Presidency is filled not on the basis of actual ability but rather on how well the candidate can theatrically play the role of being President on television (“he looks Presidential,” as we say).

During the recent 2010 Winter Olympics, General Electric ran a funny commercial in which physicians ran into a stadium and were cheered by a crowd of thousands. What makes the ad funny – and poignantly sad – is that we all know that the cure for cancer, the replacement for fossil fuels, etc. will be found by some studiously nerdy drudges who will never be cheered by tens of thousands in a stadium in the way football players and baseball players are normally cheered.

On the contrary, we all know the insulting terms and jokes aimed at those who strive to develop their intelligence. To spend hours and hours every day training for athletic competitions makes one a hero, but to put similar effort into developing one’s intellectual abilities makes one a “nerd, “a “geek,” etc.

Have Americans acquired so much hatred for serious learning, due to their experiences in the public schools, that they cannot admire those who develop the intellectual skills needed to move the world forward?

There is far more to learn than there has ever been in human history, yet, paradoxically, most of our children are learning less than educated people learned a century ago.

During the course of the twentieth century, more was discovered about the nature of the natural world via science and about the possible structures of space and number in mathematics than was discovered in all of human history prior to the twentieth century. Even in learning about the human past, archaeologists and historians have dramatically expanded our knowledge during the last hundred years.

And, yet, those who pursue serious intellectual effort, especially as adolescents, are now denigrated in much the way that drunkards or tramps were despised when my great-grandmother was a child.

The loss of middle-class independence

The old middle-class ideal was self-sufficiency and independence: a self-respecting person would not let himself be on the government dole and would plan for his and his family’s long-term personal and financial needs.

That is no longer true: most Americans believe they are “entitled” to Social Security, Medicare, public schooling for their kids, etc. – all at taxpayers’ expense. A large number of Americans believe they are “entitled” to government-provided daycare, to government-provided medical insurance, etc.

Government policies have systematically engineered this culture of dependency: during the last ninety-seven years, since the government founded the Federal Reserve System, the inflation of the currency by the “Fed” has destroyed more than ninety-five percent of the value of the dollar, according to the government’s own statisticians.

Combined with a plethora of new taxes never paid by Americans before the twentieth century, notably FICA (“Social Security”), and the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment (legitimizing the federal “income” tax), this has made it much more difficult for families to become financially independent by saving the money they have earned, and has therefore encouraged dependence on the state.

Even what is now considered a “modest” rate of inflation of, say, three percent per year, will eat away half of one's savings in less than a quarter century. And any rise in interest rates that partially offsets the price inflation will be taxed as “income,” making it even more difficult to keep up with the inflation created by the ongoing expansion of the money supply by the government.

These financial depredations against the American people have also encouraged both spouses to join the workforce. This “liberating” of mothers (how odd that women being forced to enter the workforce to make ends meet is considered “liberation”!) has meant that the functions traditionally provided at home by a parent are increasingly expected to be filled by government.

This loss of middle-class independence is of central importance to all the changes I am discussing. Specifically, when middle-class families no longer have the financial wherewithal to allow one parent to stay home with the kids, it is inevitable that responsibility for the kids is handed over to “experts,” to the schools, and to a barbaric “youth culture.”

More broadly, citizens who feel that it is neither necessary nor even possible to take personal responsibility for their own retirement, for possible periods of unemployment, for health care, etc. are taught the lesson that they are not responsible and competent adults in general. It is no wonder that such adults doubt their ability to tend to their children's education and child-rearing and instead abdicate those responsibilities to irresponsible “experts.”

Bureaucractization and the rule of experts

We have entrusted “experts” with everything from education to the criminal-justice system to the proper approach to child-rearing to regulating the nation's financial system.

Those “experts” insisted on “whole-language” reading instruction instead of phonics, on “rehabilitating” violent criminals instead of punishing them, on a “permissive” approach to child-rearing, and on economically insane policies for the nation's financial system.

None of that has worked.

We all know this, and, yet, we continue to entrust such “experts” with enormous power in education, the criminal-justice system, the “helping” professions, and even business management.

Numerous jobs that, fifty or a hundred years ago, did not require a college (or even high-school) diploma now require applicants to be college graduates. Sadly, there is evidence that college graduates today are only about as literate as the average high-school graduate of a half century ago. In 2002, the Zogby polling organization, at the behest of the National Association of Scholars, carried out a study to test the general academic knowledge of Americans today compared to a half century ago by repeating questions used in a series of polls taken at mid-century. The result was:
The overall average of correct responses for the entire general knowledge survey was 53.5% for today’s college seniors, 54.5% of the 1955 high school graduates, and 73.3% for the 1955 college graduates.
In short, although college is demanded for more students today, it seems to be accomplishing no more for most of those students than high school accomplished half a century ago: we are insisting on educational credentials that are in fact meaningless. Our “experts” are not experts; our “educated” college graduates are not in fact educated.

We have a society based on credentials that guarantee knowledge and expertise, but those credentials are in fact fraudulent (see sociologist Randall Collins' classic work The Credential Society.)

The issue of turning over large fractions of our lives to bureaucracies goes beyond the enormous economic waste and the everyday frustrations of dealing with bureaucracies. Millions of reasonably intelligent Americans spend decades of their lives acquiring a meaningless “education” to get themselves “jobs” that are utterly pointless, often positively destructive: for example, simply pushing paper to comply with (or, worse, create) meaningless, often economically destructive, regulations. Anyone who doubts this should look, for instance, at the huge salaries paid to those who wrecked “Fannie Mae.”

The rule of experts, the dominance of bureaucracy, a society of paper-pushers engaged in meaningless, pointless jobs – this is not the America that once existed. It is not a society that produces free and independent human beings that live meaningful, purposeful lives.

Regimentation, militarism, and the dominance of the “group”

The twentieth century was the century of “total war”: hundreds of millions of human beings died horrifying deaths as the result of the numerous wars and “civil terrors” pursued by the world’s governments during the last century.

War means militarization, and the results of that militarization has spilled over into society at large.

The traditional middle-class virtues – prudence, caution, independent thinking, planning for the long-term future – are not the military virtues.

A military high command does not want its “cannon fodder” to consist of thoughtful, cautious, calculating individualists.

Combat soldiers, whose life might end tomorrow on the battlefield, tend to have short “time horizons”: “Eat, drink, and be merry, for, tomorrow we die.” There is truth in the stereotype of the hard-drinking soldier or sailor; it makes sense that soldiers are known for short-term sexual liaisons formed without concern for long-term consequences.

Furthermore, a military runs on “esprit de corps,” which, pragmatically speaking, boils down to “submerge yourself in the group.” “Individualism” is not a military virtue.

The majority of Americans of course have never served in the military, but the never-ending wars in which the U.S. government has chosen to involve the United States for more than a century have resulted in a widespread acceptance of the military mindset, even among those (perhaps especially among those) who consider themselves not to be militarists.

This is evident not only in the contempt for cautious, prudent, middle-class behavior, but, above all, in the fervent belief in the need for “group activities” and “socialization” for children to teach them to “fit in” with the group.

To put this “groupism” in a historical context, recall that Thomas Jefferson never played on a Little League team; Abe Lincoln was never a Cub Scout.

Indeed, as Robert H. MacDonald explains in detail in his Sons of the Empire: The Frontier and the Boy Scout Movement – 1890-1918, Lord Baden-Powell created the Scouting movement in imitation of his own wartime experience as an actual military Scout. Scouting employs military rituals such as uniforms, bugle calls, salutes, etc. because one of its major purposes was to accustom young boys to military attitudes so that they would be prepared to “do their duty” as soldiers to advance the imperial cause when they became adults.

Progressives who stress the need for “group activities” and “socialization” may not consciously think of their goals as being militaristic. But, the military is in fact the very model of a bureaucratic, regimented institution. To raise children to think of themselves not as independent individuals but as members of a group is to encourage in them a militaristic mindset.

Of course, there are some worthwhile activities that can only be achieved by being part of a group: one cannot perform a symphony, play a basketball game, or dance the Nutcracker without being part of a team. I am not suggesting that it is wrong to be part of a team when that makes sense to achieve a common goal. But all of human history shows that it is not necessary to be immersed in formal group activities throughout one’s childhood in order to become a happy and productive adult.

The radical change from the traditions of our forefathers is not that we encourage our kids to do some activities that may involve them in groups. Rather the change is the belief that doing things in a group is good in and of itself, conveying to our children the belief that submerging one's individuality in the consciousness of group membership is proper and desirable.

That is the heart of militarism.

Can Homeschoolers Repeal the Twentieth Century?

Haven’t I grossly oversimplified?

Sure – I am talking about very broad social and cultural changes spanning a century. To blame the insistence on “group socialization” solely on the need to get everyone to share the proper group attitudes in our never-ending wars against never-ending enemies (first the Kaiser, then Hitler / Tojo, then Stalin / Khrushchev / Brezhnev / Mao, promptly followed by Qaddafi / Saddam / bin Laden, etc.) is of course over-simplifying.

After all, “group socialization” was also a key part of the “progressive” agenda, which in turn was one of the main sources for the cult of “experts.”

These cultural changes are indeed intertwined in many, very complicated ways.

But these changes are nonetheless very real: most Americans have come to accept regimentation, bureaucratization, control of their lives by “experts,” dependence on government, a collapse in education, a collapse of the currency, a punitive tax system, and a strange new approach to child-rearing that would have stunned and outraged most Americans when my great-grandmother was born in 1883, much less the American Founders.

My central point really is the inter-linking and reinforcement among these different changes. The contempt for serious learning produces “citizens” who are willing to be controlled by bureaucrats and by self-proclaimed “experts” and who are willing to accept the multiple lies of our “Commander-in-Chief,” whoever he may be. The emphasis on “fitting in” with the group discourages people from becoming self-reliant, independent individuals who can think for themselves. The collapse of parental responsibility for raising their own kids means that those kids are turned over to the tender mercies of the self-proclaimed “experts.”

Let me emphasize that I have said nothing about the explosion in crime, or illegitimacy, or broken homes in the last one hundred years. The social changes I have discussed have occurred even among normal, stable middle-class American families: most of what I have described is not even viewed any longer as “social pathology.”

What I have described is now taken for granted as “normal” American life. And yet it differs radically from the life and culture into which my great grandmother was born.

This transcends the hackneyed liberal vs. conservative political divisions. Liberals may be the ones insisting on “group learning” in the schools, but it is conservatives who focus on the Pledge of Allegiance to insure that we are all part of one “indivisible” nation (officially “under God,” ignoring the fact that God might have His own opinion on the matter!).

If there is any single source for these changes, it is probably the “progressive” movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. We tend to forget that progressivism was a bipartisan movement (Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, was the first “progressive” President) and that it was the two “progressive” Presidents, Wilson and Roosevelt, who initiated the policy of never-ending wars to fight never-ending enemies.

Why should all this matter for homeschoolers?

First, because if we think that our homeschooling is a response simply to the failure of the schools, we are missing the broader picture. The collapse of education in the U.S. is just a small part of a much broader web of social change.

Second, if we do not understand those changes, we risk replicating much of the worst aspects of present-day society in our own homeschooling: e.g., a belief in the need to be “socialized” in order fit in with the group, or to swear our “allegiance” to the government, or to trust in “experts,” or to take “celebrities” and contemporary “entertainment” seriously.

Finally, the changes I have sketched out are the history of the United States during the last century. Understanding these changes matters far more than understanding the historical influence of John F. Kennedy, or Ronald Reagan, or Bill Clinton, or Newt Gingrich.

Indeed, one of the most important things to understand about Gingrich and Reagan is that they accepted and perpetuated this disaster in American society just as much as Clinton or Kennedy.

Why should our kids bother to learn this history?

Primarily because learning is, despite the contrary spirit of our time, a good thing in and of itself; but also because our kids cannot understand where we are unless they understand where we have come from.

Those who do not understand the past are prisoners of the past.

Can we repeal the twentieth century and simply turn the clock back to 1883 when my great-grandmother was born?

No, of course not, and no one really wishes to do that – no one wishes to give up antibiotics or airplanes or weather satellites. The point is not to “turn back the clock”; the point, rather, is to recognize that the changes that have happened during the last century in American society were not inevitable: they were the result of human choices.

We can consciously judge those changes and actively make decisions as to what our own values should be. We can welcome antibiotics and yet reject “gangsta rap.” We can fly on airplanes but also reject the present-day contempt for serious learning.

One of the first step towards helping our kids to avoid the mindset in which most Americans are trapped, so that our children can make serious, conscious choices for themselves, is to help our kids to understand that the contemporary American mindset is, in so many ways, a historical aberration, that most of our ancestors did not think this way, and that our kids can themselves choose to reject the attitudes and values that now pervade our society.

But to reject those attitudes and values, we must identify them and understand their source.

We must look back at the “world we have lost,” and help our kids to do so, in order to understand the values that were once taken for granted by most Americans and to understand how those values were so catastrophically lost.