All Commentary
Saturday, March 1, 1969

Education in America: 6. The Perpetual Adolescent

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!

Competition Unwanted

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 

  • George Charles Roche III (1935 – 2006) was the 11th president of Hillsdale College, serving from 1971 to 1999.