Education in America: 6. The Perpetual Adolescent
MARCH 01, 1969 by GEORGE CHARLES ROCHE III
Dr. Roche is Director of Seminars for the Foundation for Economic Education. He has taught history and philosophy in college and maintains a special interest in American education.
By way of a decline in standards, in intellect, and in discipline, we have bred a new sort of social animal, for whom the educationist’s aim is not achievement but "adjustment." That word has come to mean a number of things. To some educators, "adjustment" originally meant the provision of a modern "functional" program of high school education for those who would not receive college or vocational training beyond high school. Roughly 60 per cent of American high school children were assumed to fall into that category. But, as one of those educators, Dr. Harl Douglass, has commented, "It is coming to be believed by more and more people that a good program for that 60 per cent might well be an excellent program for all American youth." Dr. Douglass appears to be suggesting that "adjustment" is now aimed at slowing those of college caliber to the mental pace of the majority.
Our American educational ideal is being molded more and more to that image. We now place special emphasis upon training the dropouts, upon making the curriculum so soft that no one can flunk. Thus, we are caught up in one of the fundamental "democratic" dilemmas of our age. It is no longer enough merely to provide schools for all; today we must determine what purpose those schools are to serve. If we make our schools sufficiently mindless to accommodate those least able, we run the grave risk of turning out a totally mindless graduate. Such a solution should be unsatisfactory, unless we wish democracy to mean the rule of the uniformly ignorant and incompetent. Perhaps we’ve toiled unduly over defects and weaknesses and shortcomings, to the grave neglect of talents and virtues and achievements. If we wish our schools to be only shelters for idle youth, we must recognize the frankly revolutionary premise which underlies such a system. The logic of such "democratic" pedagogy implies a total structural change of traditional American society.
The American Adolescent
The American child is famous throughout the world for having never confronted authority in his entire life. He typically is raised by parents who are permissive beyond belief, is educated in a school system in which the teacher is known to have no power to compel order, and is entertained by a television set whose programming and advertising constantly cater to the most childish of fads. Perhaps the poor parents of such children should not be held fully accountable. Not only are they contending against the spirit of the age in any attempt to assert discipline, but in late years parents have been informed by the child psychologist that attempts to impose standards of discipline on their children will interfere with proper "development."
Not only are we bending every effort to make spoiled brats of our young people; we carefully prolong this anti-training period by keeping our children in school far longer than do most other societies. The nature of that schooling seems to aggravate further the whole situation, directly interfering with the transfer of ethical and cultural traditions from one generation to the next. The parents are told that the schools will do the job, and then the schools do nothing of the kind.
Often, the hardest working and most intelligent parents have the greatest difficulty in raising their children. Many of the most financially successful people in our industrial society are busied by virtue of their success. They have a great deal of money, but very little time to offer their children. All the advantages of work discipline, which the fathers learned so well, are denied the rising generation largely because of the affluence, success, and hurried pace of the fathers. A road without challenges or responsibilities becomes the road too easily traveled by many of America’s young people. Here, again, the temptation is to delegate the responsibility to professional educators whose underlying philosophy makes its proper discharge impossible.
Once the family was bound together through working at common tasks, often including the tasks of feeding and clothing and housing the family. What comparable experience is available to the young person of today? In the absence of meaningful moral experience and hard work, today’s young are directed toward material gratification of their passing interests. The promises of our technological civilization and the philosophy of our educational system both contribute to the malady.
To pin one’s hope for happiness to the fact that "the world is so full of a number of things" is an appropriate sentiment for a "Child’s Garden of Verse." For the adult to maintain an exclusive Bergsonian interest in "the perpetual gushing forth of novelties" would seem to betray an inability to mature. The effect on a mature observer of an age so entirely turned from the One to the Many as that in which we are living must be that of a prodigious peripheral richness joined to a great central void.1
That great central void to which Babbitt refers is painfully evident in the breakdown of family and the collapse of social standards. Still, we continue the "protection" of our young from any responsibility or reality. Teen-agers are not to be punished as adults, though they commit the same crimes. The open warfare between weary adults and abusive teenagers continues on all fronts and has today been elevated into a pseudo cultural movement. We bribe our children with far more money than we would ever have believed possible to spend, and then are amazed when their childish tastes, backed with these immense amounts of purchasing power, set standards of taste in entertainment at steadily lower and lower levels. We expect no responsibility in our children and all too often get what we expect.
In the name of "progressive education" we have emancipated the young from all traditional authority. We label the result "freedom," completely forgetting how difficult it is to be responsibly free. We have encouraged a revolt against standards and against discipline by the young people, who ultimately will be asked to pay a high price for their incapacities.
One of the worst culprits in consigning these young people to their lifelong fate has been our system of formal education. Many educationists insist that the mediocre standards in today’s schools are "set by an intellectual aristocracy" and are far too high! They regard the minimal standards of literacy imposed by industry or by higher education as unwarranted demands. Reading, writing, and arithmetic have become suspect in the minds of many. Consider, for example, the sentiments of one junior high school principal:
Through the years we’ve built a sort of halo around reading, writing, and arithmetic. We’ve said they were for everybody….
We’ve made some progress in getting rid of that slogan. But every now and then some mother with a Phi Beta Kappa award or some employer who has hired a girl who can’t spell stirs up a fuss about the schools… and ground is lost….
When we come to the realization that not every child has to read, figure, write, and spell… that many of them either cannot or will not master these chores… then we shall be on the road to improving the junior high curriculum.
Between this day and that a lot of selling must take place. But it’s coming. We shall some day accept the thought that it is just as illogical to assume that every boy must be able to read as it is that each one must be able to perform on the violin, that it is no more reasonable to require that each girl shall spell well than it is that each shall bake a good cherry pie.²
There in capsule form is standard-less education carried to its logical conclusion!
Such an attitude, at first glance, is hard to understand, that is, if one assumes that the purpose of education is to educate. But if one believes that the purpose of education is to achieve only "adjustment," then much of the educationist mumbo-jumbo begins to fall into place. Mortimer Smith also quotes a letter from a state department of education informing parents who plan to teach their children at home that under no circumstances will they be allowed to do so:
No matter how competent the parents may be, the child who obtains his schooling at home is not having an experience equivalent to that of the child who goes to an authorized school. The school program does not consist only of mastering the 3 R’s and the various content subjects. Perhaps the most important part of the school program is the association in a group…. Practically all American living today is a cooperative affair. Children have to learn to take turns and to share. Group discipline and group loyalties have to be developed.3
"Adjustment" rather than learning would appear to be the wave of the future!
All self-discipline leading to independence is denied the young person in such a system. The institutions of higher learning in this country constantly complain of the quality of material they are given to "educate." It seems that the knowledge of geography, history, grammar, spelling, arithmetic, science, or what-have-you, as achieved by the products of our public school system, is so slight as to be a constant embarrassment to them and to the institutions of higher learning and business firms where the well entertained but poorly educated young people eventually go. I use the phrase "well entertained" with good reason.
On reading about the uninhibited conduct of certain grade-school classes, with free discussion, finger painting, group games, or whatever the youngsters want to do, an older man said: "That’s not a new feature of education. They had that when I was a boy. They called it ‘recess."4
The "Old-Fashioned" Way
Meanwhile, some educationists insist that obeying the teacher or striving to master a difficult subject is negative in its impact upon the child. What an older society viewed as sound mental, moral, or intellectual training is today dismissed as "old-fashioned." Indeed, some of the "progressive" educators have carried their non-education to lengths that are increasingly repudiated by more and more people concerned with education. Today the term "progressive" often is held in bad repute. Yet, many educational policies stemming from the same philosophic roots continue to dominate much of our educational structure.
The same problem continues to face us. How do we lead a child toward maturity except by initiating him into the demands and standards of adult life? The old-fashioned answer to that question rested upon definite standards, enforced through definite discipline.
During my boyhood in the mountains of Colorado, I was privileged to attend a one-room, one-teacher school that met the needs of children in all eight elementary grades. Admittedly, I was fortunate to have a remarkable teacher of great character and strong personality, who was then and remains a profound influence on my life. Yet, without the benefits of swimming pools, guidance counselors, of the 1,001 other such items now assumed to be "essential" to education, we children of that school (incidentally, a cross section of well-to-do and very poor) managed to learn our reading and writing and arithmetic, while learning to respect adults, respect one another, and finally to respect ourselves. Throughout, the standards we were expected to maintain were never in doubt. We also knew at all times who was running the school!
Such schools and such teachers have been the tradition rather than the exception in this country. In fact, much of what we now call "juvenile delinquency" would have been subject to quick solution in the woodshed of an earlier day. But then, such a system as I am describing was based upon standards and discipline, viewing children as individuals, individuals important for their own sake, individuals destined to assume a responsible place in the community. Today, we extend no such courtesy to our young people.
Necessity for Individual Discipline and Standards
The development of the individual presupposes the development of a strong capacity to judge the world around him and a genuine self-commitment moving the individual to act on the basis of that judgment. As Nietzsche described the process, what is required is self-mastery, the individual’s imposition on himself of a style, a restraint, a proper form of behavior.
When the educationists announce their intention to teach the young "adjustment to life," the first question which arises is how "life" might be defined. If by "life" the educationist means only adjustment to a pattern of political conformity in which man no longer has problems because he no longer has aspirations, then such a definition must be dismissed. A truly individual adjustment to life must reflect not mere conformity, but good and bad, tragedy and comedy. Without room for man to be a hero, to pursue an ideal, to become uniquely himself, there is no opportunity for the individual to be truly human. When men drift rather than strive, the direction of that drift is always toward barbarism, toward a decline of that sense of style and self-discipline which makes for the civilized man.
Thus, a great civilization is no more enduring than are the proper conventions among its citizens. The child in whom good habits are not inculcated becomes the child in whom bad habits have filled the void. Often, the basis for right conduct is less a reasoned position than it is a matter of habit. Habit in this sense is a reflection of the wide experience of the race, passed on by disciplined and demanding standards to each generation as they grow toward maturity.
Not Power Over Others, but Self-Control
The acquisition of such habits is never easy, since it demands much from both pupil and teacher. In fact, many men never seem to learn the lesson. "Experience keeps a hard school, but fools will learn in no other." Yet, most of us have a hard time learning from self-experience, let alone the experience of others. The business of being human is never easy, and our young deserve all the help they can get as they strive for maturity and the formation of civilized habits. What that striving has taught the Western world is that the really valuable power in this universe is not the power over other men, but the power over oneself. This power reflects not only knowledge, but restraint; not only energy, but will. To maintain standards means to develop the capacity to choose and reject, to have so disciplined one’s attitudes as to have established an ethical center uniquely oriented to self, producing right conduct in the individual no matter what the conduct of the world around him might be.
If the child is to grow toward such self-discipline, the formation of proper habits must, as Aristotle says, precede reason. No child is truly free to choose until he has become sufficiently disciplined to see the full implications of his choice. When we limit the formation of proper habit, we blunt the power of discrimination in the young, thus binding rather than freeing. It becomes clear that genuine learning and civilization of our young is a process which takes place only when the proper exercise of authority, the authority of standards and discipline, is present in education.
The necessity for such discipline is especially apparent when we consider the unique attribute which human beings call mind. The word "mind" implies far more than the human brain. All patterns of thought, all moral and aesthetic judgments, are the work of this amazingly individual quality possessed by each of us. All value judgments, all civilized behavior, stem from the individual’s mind within which symbols are understood, evaluated, and applied in one’s behavior. The idea of education is to enlarge that process, not merely by the passive reception of ideas, but by the mind’s development of the capacity to sort out, choose between, and evaluate those symbols and ideas. In short, all meaningful knowledge is knowledge which we have "made our own"; until the individual acquires the necessary discipline of mind to do so, he has not been truly educated.
Disciplined Teaching and Learning Essential to Self-Mastery
Some authority must be present in education in which the superior capacity of the teacher demonstrates subtle distinctions to the relatively untrained and undisciplined mentality of the student. In this sense, values are constantly recreated in the mind of each individual. That process of re-creation is education, and demands that the teacher be sufficiently disciplined to have mastered the concepts and the processes, also demanding that the student be sufficiently disciplined to achieve the same ultimate self-mastery.
In the old academic term for various subjects, "disciplines," the idea is implicit that the mind must be sufficiently developed and trained to think before it can recognize what is of value and what is valueless. True development of the individual rests on that capacity to distinguish and choose within his mind and heart. It is that capacity to choose which makes us human. It is the removal of that disciplined capacity to choose, as fostered by modern education, which would make of us mere "adjusted" automatons.
Such choice is never easy. Life itself is never easy, demanding obedience, renunciation, and the expenditure of great effort if it is to be truly meaningful. Throughout the ages philosophers have demonstrated the necessity for sacrifice, for self-mastery. Yet, we are now told that man need not master himself to be "happy." Apparently more material goods and politically controlled "security" are to make self-discipline no longer necessary. True happiness lies upon a different path. We must learn to put ourselves into our work, to master ourselves, if we will be truly civilized.
It must not be the business of the teacher to teach the young only what the young wish to learn. Instead the experience of the human race must be offered to the young while proper habits are developed, allowing these young individuals to assume their own self-disciplined place in civilized society. In this connection, we are all the teachers of the young. The churches as well as the schools have an obligation in this regard, and the primary obligation must rest with the parent and the home. The idea must be conveyed that good hard work is preferable to "getting by," that people receive from life exactly what they put in, that privileges and obligations go hand in hand.
As the schools pursue this general disciplinary function, they also must pursue the disciplines of form, number, and language. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are far from out-dated, no matter what the opinions of the professional educationists. When these disciplines are set aside in favor of "personality development" or "group adjustment," the school is no longer serving its function. The school must be far more than an elaborately contrived and terribly expensive baby-sitting facility. It must first and foremost be an institution designed to impart sound moral and intellectual discipline to the citizens of tomorrow. Such discipline must be a discipline of both mind and heart, reflecting an external discipline leading to more important, internal, self-imposed discipline. Such a system would produce true individuals, complete human beings.4
The next article of this series will ask, "Why Institutionalize Our Errors?"
1 Irving Babbitt, Rousseau and Romanticism, p. 277.
2 As quoted by Mortimer Smith, The Diminished Mind, pp. 36-37.
3 Ibid., pp. 49-50.
4 Calvin D. Linton, "Higher Education: The Solution—Or Part of the Problem?" Christianity Today, Feb. 16, 1968.
The time has come for us to re-establish the rights for which we stand—to reassert our inalienable rights to human dignity, self-respect, self-reliance—to be again the kind of people who once made America great.
Such a crusade for renewed independence will require a succession of inspired leaders—leaders in spirit and in knowledge of the problem, not just men with political power who are opposed to communism, or to diluted communism, but men who are militantly for the distinctive way of life that was America. We are likely to find such leaders only among those persons who teach self-reliance and who practice it with the strict devotion of belief and understanding.
J. OLLIE EDMUNDS, That Something