Monday, August 04, 2014

Don't know much about history

Don’t know much biology.  Don't know much about a science book. Don't know much about the French I took. But I do know that I love you ...

So, what do you know after a public school education? Here is a little quiz.

Consider the following two groups of historical figures and events:

1.    Adam Smith, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, American Revolution

2.    Jean Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche, Woodrow Wilson, French Revolution

Compare and Contrast (a favorite Common Core instruction) the political philosophy of the two groups.

If you think that Locke was a locksmith and Rousseau a French baker, stop reading and go back to watching “The View.” If you recognize the names but know little about any of these guys, thank your teacher. Sure, it’s unfair to the millennials; on Water’s World they don’t recognize the Vice President and they think that the Cold War was fought in Siberia. Sadly, even the baby boomers have difficulty with this sort of test, reflecting the steep decline in the quality of American education over the last 50 years or so.

I chose the two groups to illustrate the difference between (1) classical liberals and (2) radical liberals (liberalism run amok, which is what prevails today). 

Classical liberals (from the Latin for freedom) stressed the autonomy of the individual. “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” (John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859)

Classical liberalism gave birth to the “natural rights” of the individual that exist independent of government. Indeed, limited and constrained government was seen as a requirement of a free society, as understood by the American Founders and codified in the Constitution.

Classical liberals embraced reason as a gift from God, raising man above the animals. At the same time they understood the limitations of reason and the wisdom of revelation and traditional knowledge. They believed in natural law, a universal (God-given) understanding of right and wrong.

Radical liberals such as Rousseau and Nietzsche rejected received wisdom and believed that truth and morality must be constructed from the exercise of reason alone. They rejected theology and grounded morality on secular criteria alone, especially the principle of equality. Rousseau believed that culture dictates behavior and that one could reform behavior by transforming culture. “Social Engineering” was born in Rousseau’s writings, especially The Social Contract.

Rousseau postulated the “general will” of society as binding on individuals. He justified coercion to achieve consensus and approved of the “state” as the authoritarian instrument of coercion. All who know of Robespierre’s “despotism of liberty” will understand the danger of radical liberalism that led to the French Revolution and “the Terror.” 

President Wilson attacked the very idea of natural and individual rights. “No doubt a lot of nonsense has been talked about the inalienable rights of the individual” wrote Wilson, taking dead aim at the Declaration of Independence.

Rousseau and his followers also had a profound impact on education, and not for the better. They believed that man once lived in a state of peaceful equality – the “noble savage” - but was corrupted by society and ill-advised innovations such as tool making and property rights. It was necessary, therefore, to discredit those responsible for filling the world with prejudice, superstition (ie. religion) and bad laws.

Transformation – reform - of education would be required. Thus the immediate objective of education was “to erase from one’s mind all the false principles that parents, teachers and preachers had infected one with.” Rousseau’s prescription for education reform was laid out in his novel Emile which “acquired a ‘Dewey-eyed’ following in America because of its wondrous impracticality.” (Roger Scruton, “Rousseau and the Origins of Liberalism.”)

“Let us begin by laying facts aside” and the books that contain them. “I hate books,” Rousseau declared. “They only teach one about what one does not know.” Rousseau also anticipated the modern hostility to memorization: “Emile will never learn anything by heart.”

For Rousseau the task of the educator was not to tell the child what others have discovered, but to induce him to discover things for himself. Thus the labor of discovery would have to be endlessly repeated and each generation would know less than the last. Child-centered discovery learning became all the rage in America, encouraged by John Dewey and his disciples.

And so,

Don’t know much about geography. Don’t know much trigonometry. Don’t know much about algebra. Don’t know what a slide rule is for. But I do know 1 and 1 is 2…  


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Rousseau justified coercion .... OK! How do the conservatives justify coercion and don't ell me that, either they don't justify it or that their justification is reasonable or moral.


2:19 PM  

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