Friday, 25 December 2009 00:00
As the father of a 3-year-old contemplating his daughter’s future educational opportunities, a recent encounter with some parents who home-school their kids has gotten me thinking about the difficulties of educating a child in a country of such profoundly disquieting intellectual shortcomings.
We live in an America where a quarter of the adult population are unaware that earth revolves around the sun (National Science Foundation), where one-third of voters don’t know that the U.S. government is divided into three branches (Zogby), and where 37 percent surveyed believe an ancient Hebrew/Babylonian creation myth should be taught in science classrooms instead of a scientific evidence-based theory of evolution (CBS).
What’s the greatest obstacle to providing American children with a decent education? Is it the Tammany Hall-style politics of some educational bureaucracies or the Mafia-esque behavior of some teacher’s unions? Is it the presence of drugs, guns, gangs, and armed security guards that make some public schools indistinguishable from prisons? Is it that promoting social causes, alternative lifestyles, and pop culture psychobabble is now usurping science, mathematics, the arts, and languages? Is it that an honest dialogue about politics, race, religion - the very forces that shape society - is seen as too controversial or likely to “offend” someone? Or maybe the post-modern anti-philosophy, which states that all truth is subjective and nothing can be known (which doesn’t stop them from teaching it), has displaced the free inquiry into learning which was the very humanistic spirit of the Renaissance, the Age of Reason, and the Enlightenment.
It’s all of these things to varying extent. But the greatest obstacle, I believe, is the lumpenproletariatization of learning: the loss not of middle class income or working class job security - which occurred during the Great Depression and is occurring today because of globalization - but, rather, the loss of bourgeois cultural and intellectual values which emerged in the 18th century, came to dominate the Westernizing world in the Victorian era, and became as American-as-apple-pie in Leave It to Beaver suburbia. These values are of such great intensity because of their inextricable connection to modernity, industrialization, and rising living standards as to be embraced even in societies whose ideologies are rhetorically antithetical to them. When Russians over 50 reflect on their Soviet childhoods, for example, they are remembering the same stable and wholesome environments their American counterparts recollect in 1950s nostalgia: schools that didn’t look like something out of The Lord of the Flies, working class neighborhoods that weren’t drug-infested tribal war zones, and parents whose careers ended in pension and retirement rather than in outsourcing, lockouts, and a security guard escort from the building.
If bourgeois standards of normality, aesthetics, and morality came to define the notion of civilized conduct from the store clerk in New York to the engineer in Leningrad, than the working class has historically existed in the most literal sense and the lumpenproletarian is a creature conjured by Marxist folklore. And, too, its recent evolution is a product not of industrial capitalism (which expanded bourgeois tastes and sensibilities via the “protestant work ethic”) but of the popular culture of post-industrial societies, which, as with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Lost Generation, have found “all gods dead, all wars fought, and all faiths in Man shaken” and, like the citizens of the late Roman Empire who did not embrace the introspection of the Christian faith, has arisen out of narcissistic hedonism.
“If thrift, prudence, sobriety, industry, cleanliness, and independence were middle class values,” asked Gertrude Himmelfarb in Poverty and Compassion, “is it to be assumed that profligacy, imprudence, drunkenness, idleness, dirtiness, and dependency were indigenous working class values?” Indeed, she continued, “attributing to the poor a contempt for ‘bourgeois’ culture is more congenial to intellectuals [who hitherto lived thoroughly bourgeois lives] than to workers aspiring to that culture and the material and social benefits associated with it.” She, of course, was writing of the 19th century.
During the Victorian era - and well beyond its Edwardian afterglow - working class people flocked to zoos, lyceums, museums, libraries and exhibitions; lecture halls and mechanics’ institutes were packed with factory laborers and railway workers anxious to hear of the latest scientific discovery or philosophical theory courtesy of the likes of Michael Faraday, Robert Owen, and Thomas Henry Huxley. Many great Victorian figures in science and letters began their intellectual careers as persons of modest means inspired by this learning for the Common Man - just go read the biographies of such notables as Alfred Russel Wallace or H.G. Wells.
That was Victoria’s realm but it’s not contemporary American society. Prudent, sober, industrious Ward Cleaver, like his top-hatted and white-gloved grandfather before him, is being replaced with the belching, flatulent, crotch-grabbing, six-pack guzzling, tattooed 45-year-old adolescent who cares more about the career of his favorite NFL quarterback than the academic performance of his text-messaging, dope-smoking teenager. The late Christopher Lasch observed in The Revolt of the Elite that even the upper crust of American society, with fame increasingly deriving more from tabloid celebrity than achievement or inherited wealth and breeding, has begun to assume the slavishness previously deemed characteristic of street rabble and just as the refined tastes of the gentry and aristocracy trickled-down to the Victorian middle and working classes, so too, the value of dysfunctional pop culture glitterati are seeping ever downwards. The young person exposed to a gadget-cluttered, celebrity-worshiping, violence-prone, pornographic popular culture that lionizes incivility, idleness, and self-centeredness is little likely to become an adult who appreciates the eloquence of literature, the wonder of scientific discovery, the grand epic of human history, or the beauty of art and philosophy.
Far from combating these cultural trends, acting as a civilizing agent, public education - for reasons alluded to previously - is beginning to re-enforce them.
As with all of life’s great and cruel ironies, this egalitarianism and anti-intellectual intellectualism sires its own elitism and privilege: In the early and middle decades of the 20th century, public schools in blue collar neighborhoods provided a level of education to immigrants and to the poor that is now only available to more affluent families through private academies and parochial schools. Perhaps – all the evangelical Christians with their phobias about secular humanism aside -this is why home schooling is increasingly becoming the only viable alternative to a public schools system that can’t teach their kids and an American society that won’t teach their kids. This better explains the home schooling folks I encountered, in all of their cynicism for the public school system, than the stereotype of eccentric reactionaries with which they are oftentimes characterized.