Modern education and culture, or, what did you think would happen?

I. Modern education and culture

Look at where we are in education and culture today. Let’s catalog the main issues, shall we?

School children are often not taught to read properly, and too many fall behind and grow up functionally illiterate. Yet students are kept in schools practically all day and are made to do endless amounts of busywork, and then they have to do even more busywork at home. The efficiency of the work they do is appalling, as their textbooks and assignments are all too often ill-conceived, being repetitious, deadly dull, and designed without any consideration for what individual children already know (or don’t know). Generally, they aren’t taught classics (but more on that below). So despite all that work, despite graduating at rates as high as ever, the average child emerges into adulthood shockingly ignorant. The educational process is regimented; little humans have essentially become cogs in a giant, humorless, bureaucratic machine. The whole process is soul-killing.

Growing up in these bureaucratized intellectual ghettos, it’s no wonder that rebellion has become de rigeur, that everyone calls himself an individualist although few really are. Popular culture with each passing generation is more dumbed-down, delivering entertainment that can be effortlessly consumed by maleducated conformist rebels, increasingly avoiding any scintilla of intellectualism, any uncool and boring reference to any of the roots of Western culture. On TV, popular music, and the Internet—the ubiquitous refuges of the young from the horrors of the educational machine that dominates their young lives—one can navigate content of all sorts without any exposure to the classics of literature and the arts, or the root ideas of Western religion and philosophy. If a few lucky students are exposed to these things at their more academic high schools, most are not, and the taste for “the best which has been thought and said” is ruined by the presentation in a system that “critiques” and renders dull as much as it celebrates and usefully explains. It’s a wonder if any students emerge with any taste for the classics of Western literature, art, and thought at all.

A problem about Western culture, for the modern world, is that it is intensely critical and challenging. The classics are beautiful, but hard—both difficult to appreciate and presenting lessons that require us to take a hard, critical look at ourselves. Although the classics can be profoundly inspiring and sublime in beauty, they require time, attention, intelligence, seriousness, and sincerity to appreciate. In the context of today’s soul-killing schools, students are too exhausted and overworked to meet these challenges. Many students are also too narcissistic—having been told by their parents and teachers that they are already brilliant, having been idolized by popular culture for their cool, attractiveness, and cutting-edge thinking about everything—so the classics require a kind of self-criticism that is wholly foreign to many of them. It is no wonder the classics simply do not “speak to” the youth of today.

Moreover, almost all of the classics were created by white Western men. Spending much time on them is politically regressive, or that is what school teachers are trained to believe. Instead, the left at universities have been building a new kind of more critical culture, at once holding up the grievances of historically marginalized groups as a new gospel, while actually revering popular culture. Teachers and administrators marinade in this left-wing culture of criticism at universities for six or more years, before they make the choices of what pieces of culture are worth exposing to children. So, again, it’s a wonder if any students emerge with any taste for the classics.

At the college level, matters have become dire in other ways. Everyone is expected to go to college, and at the same time universities have become corporatized, so that the students are now treated as “customers” whose evaluations determine how professors should teach. So, naturally, grades have inflated—which would have been necessary to coddle the “self-esteem” or narcissism of youth—and the courses themselves have been dumbed down, at least in the humanities. But who needs the humanities? Degrees in the liberal arts generally are held to be a waste of money, especially since college has become so expensive, and fewer people are pursuing such degrees. Even if one believed the knowledge gained through liberal arts degrees to be valuable enough to warrant spending $60,000/year, one spends much of the time, in most of the humanities, marinading in that same left-wing critical culture that produces our schoolteachers—so one wouldn’t be exposed to the classics in the way that would incline a student to sign up for one of these degrees in the first place. So it’s no wonder if students and their parents are finding it increasingly plausible to skip college altogether. This is a sad mistake, considering that young adults today, navigating a rapidly-changing world, are more in need of the wisdom and intellectual skills inculcated by a liberal arts education than ever before. And most recently, the consequences of our failure to pass on two of the ideals essential to Western thought—free speech and freedom of inquiry—has led to thoroughly illiberal efforts to “shut it down,” i.e., prevent politically unpopular ideas from getting a hearing on campus at all. This is all in the name of intersectionality, empowering the disempowered, tearing down bad old ideas, and protecting the sensitive feelings of coddled students.

II. The once-radical ideas that got us here

Our education is degraded, and we are falling away from Western civilization. So how did it come to this? I put it down to a perfect storm of terrible ideas.

(1) To be effective in a fast-changing society, we need up-to-date know-how, not theory. American society developed out of a frontier mentality that placed a premium on a “can-do” attitude, an ability to get things done, with theorizing and book-reading being a waste of time. That might be understandable for the pioneers and peasants of a frontier or pre-industrial society, it is a terrible idea for the complexities of industrial and post-industrial societies, in which wisdom, trained intelligence, and sensitivity to nuance are essentials. Nevertheless, American parents and teachers alike generally seem to agree that practical knowledge and know-how are more important than book-larnin’. You would think that this might have changed with more people than ever going to college. But it has not.

(2) Books are old-fashioned in the Internet age. When, in the 2000s, the Internet came into its own as the locus of modern life, we began to ask, “Is Google making us stupid?” and to “complain” that we lacked the ability to read extended texts (long articles were “tl;dr” and books boring, old, and irrelevant). I think many of us took this to heart. Educated people still do want their children to read, but the habits of adults are slowly dying; you can’t expect the children to do better.

(3) Western civilization is evil. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western civ has got to go,” chanted those Stanford students in 1988, which became a watershed moment in the development of Western culture. At the time, it might have seemed a bit of left-wing excess, and just one side of the complex Culture War. But, in fact, it proved to be a taste of things to come. Many Western civilization requirements are long gone. What was once the province of the newly-created Women’s Studies and Black Studies departments, and a few left-wing professors, gradually become the dominant viewpoint in all of the humanities. Why study the classics when the classics simply represent the point of view of the oppressor?

(4) Social justice is the new religion. Hand-in-hand with criticism of Western civilization came an increasing respect (which is good), then celebration (which is fine), and finally a veneration (which is undeserved) of everything that has traditionally been set in opposition to Western civilization, especially the usual identity groups: women, races other than white, ethnicities other than Western, religion other than Christianity, sexual orientation other than straight, etc. At universities, making these identity groups equal to straight, white, male, Christian Europeans has become nearly the only thing—apart from environmentalism and a few other such causes—that is taken really seriously. For many academics, intersectionality has replaced both religion and any apolitical ethics to become an all-encompassing worldview.

(5) Psychology is more scientific, accurate, and credible than philosophy and religion, and self-esteem must be cultivated at all costs. The gospel of self-esteem came into being in the 1970s, right around the time when the self-help publishing industry became fashionable. With the collapse of traditional (especially Christian) belief systems, people cast about for general advice on how to live their lives, and psychology delivered. As self-esteem was a key element of much self-help psychology, it was only natural that the parents of Generations X and Y would pull out the stops to protect the feelings and sense of self-worth of their precious darlings.

We have changed. Despite their education, too many of our children cannot read well, and fewer and fewer of us read books. Whatever we do teach or read, it is rarely classical literature. Classics have become an unexplored country, dull and reviled, to many of us. Recent generations are the first in centuries in which the upper echelons of society are quite shockingly ignorant of their own Western heritage. And here I don’t just mean books, I mean also basic Western principles, ideas, and values. For many young people, social justice, psychology, and especially popular culture have replaced religion and wisdom literature. Popular culture may be a crass wasteland, yet it guides our youth more than ever, as being the only kind of culture that most of them have preparation and taste for.

We have declined. In past generations, this analysis would have sounded like scaremongering. Today, the analysis has come true; it is a postmortem.

But—and here I speak to the older generation, especially educated old liberals—what did you think would happen? This is precisely what some people did predict in decades past, because society’s leaders were teaching a certain set of ideas to the leaders of the next generation:

European civilization colonized and exploited the world; it is irredeemably racist and the main source of the suffering in the world today.

Inequalities are deeply unfair, and white men have the best of everything; so we should celebrate everyone else and take white men down a peg or two.

We must be avoid saying anything that might even be thought to be offensive to disadvantaged identity groups.

Christianity is completely irrational and doesn’t deserve a role in public life.

Science, and psychology in particular, studies all we need to know to live and be happy; philosophy and religion are based on muddle-headed superstition.

The self-esteem and sensitivities of young people are precious and must be protected from the buffets that life threatens to give them.

Even today, some of these ideas might sound ridiculous to some of us. But if you’ve been paying attention, you can’t deny that these once-radical ideas have become increasingly mainstream.

III. The radical ideas that might guide our future

The desperate state of education today is predictable, given former trends and earnestly-expressed convictions. It was called scaremongering to say that these ideas were hacking away the roots of Western civilization—and yet they did. So one wonders: What can we predict about the future, based on ideas now growing in popularity, ideas that it is quite reasonable to believe will guide the education and enculturation of the next generation?

Here are some controversial ideas that are in vogue at universities today: 

Free speech is a dangerous idea, and it certainly doesn’t include hate speech and harmful speech.

What determines whether speech is harmful is whether it causes its listeners to react with emotional pain.

But we can disregard the pain of “privileged” people—”male tears,” “white tears,” and all that.

Those who are really plugged in know that books aren’t really what’s important. Know-how is what’s important. You can just look up things online that you need to know.

Popular culture is worth careful academic study, at least as much as “the classics” or “high culture.”

Higher education isn’t important except as a credential to become a corporate drone and in some fields.

Grave inequalities persist, and our very civilization is racist. We ought to tear down and malign all the productions of white men.

White society, and white people (whether they know it or not), are all racist, and all men (whether they know it or not) perpetuate a sexist patriarchy.

Religion isn’t just irrational and wrong, it’s evil, and we should take steps to stamp it out and perhaps prohibit it.

Reproducing does great harm to the world. Life is an evil. Babies are not to be celebrated. We should stop having them.

All of these ideas have plenty of adherents on campus today. They might well shape the next generation. If so, what might our brave new world look like? Let’s listen in to the monologue from a typical, center-left future student, shall we?

“It’s 2047. The way some people talk, you’d think it was, I don’t know, 2017 or something. Check this out. I heard someone, and I don’t care if she was a black woman, actually citing the Bible in class? That triggered a lot of people, and she was kicked out, of course. I doubt they’ll let her back in. It just goes to show you how many people still believe that superstitious bullshit, even though it’s revolting hate speech. But you know what, I was kind of impressed about what she was reading, before I realized what she was reading. It sounded like Old English. Who reads crap like that these days? Well, I guess she can. But it’s still bullshit. You don’t have to be able to read it to know that.

“It’s not just superstitious bullshit, it’s totally irrelevant. Books are so lame! My favorite professors don’t teach books, they teach modern media. When I started this major, I swear, I had no idea pop music and movies were so deep. Seriously! So why do we require students to read so many books at all? Last year I was required to read three books for required Communications courses. Everyone knows that books aren’t really what’s important; knowledge is free for the taking online. Everything’s there, instantly! Besides, the most influential thoughts of the last forty years are all in the form of briefer texts online. I’m thinking I might want to drop out. Half of my friends didn’t even go to college and are just being trained by their employers. But you know, I think those tend to be the more conservative people, you know? So…

“Anyway, at the very least, it’s time to stop requiring that we read any books written before 1970, or maybe 2000, especially if they were written by white men. I mean, of course white people and men are still welcome at our universities, it is perfectly fair that they wait their turn in classroom discussions. I hate it when some white man just starts talking first. You can hear some people hissing when they do. After all, everyone knows that less privileged people have more valid and relevant perspectives, and hearing white people and men—and on some issues, let’s face it, hearing ignorant, insensitive white men at all—causes the marginalized great pain. We can’t forget that white Western civilization persists even today, despite our best efforts. We renamed the state of Washington, but not the capital of our country—it continues to be named after the very embodiment of a white, slave-owning, breeding patriarch! That pisses me off so much!

“And speaking of breeders…don’t get me started on the breeders. We had to fight tooth and nail against the misogynist, patriarchal society just to make it possible to license parents. But now we’re allowing almost everyone to be licensed. What’s the point? Surely we’ve got to prevent so many people from breeding. We don’t let just anyone drive, right? We need to start imposing some restrictions. I know it’s a little simplistic, but sometimes, simple is the best way: we could just, for a while, restrict the number of children white people could have. I know it sounds shocking, but look—everybody knows they use the most resources, they’re the most racist, they create the most inequality. And they’re still a plurality in this country. So it’s really a no-brainer. It’s 2047!”

Maybe that sounds over-the-top. But that’s the point. There are cutting-edge activist types who would find all of this commendable or at least very plausible. And just think: the cutting-edge ideas of 1987, which would have sounded totally bizarre and radical back then, are totally up-to-date today, in 2017. I’m similarly extrapolating, from the “cutting-edge” ideas of today on the same topics to how those ideas might be evolve in another 30 years.

Also, of course, it could get much worse. Illiberal societies have been much worse at different times and places in history.

Am I predicting that the monologue is what awaits us? No, my crystal ball isn’t that accurate and history never unfolds smoothly or predictably. What I’m saying is that it’s a natural extrapolation from ideas about education and culture today. Is that what we want? If not, then what kind of thought world are we trying to build?

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About the author

Larry Sanger had written 163 articles for Larry Sanger Blog

I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started Wikipedia.org, Citizendium.org, WatchKnowLearn.org, ReadingBear.org, and Infobitt. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.

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