February 25, 2019

Res-Idiotica

Timothy Birdnow

Here is the must-read essay on "education" in modern America by Patrick J. Deneen. Daneen is a professor at Notre Dame.

Here are a few excerpts:

My students are know-nothings. They are exceedingly nice, pleasant, trustworthy, mostly honest, well-intentioned, and utterly decent. But their minds are largely empty, devoid of any substantial knowledge that might be the fruits of an education in an inheritance and a gift of a previous generation. They are the culmination of western civilization, a civilization that has forgotten it origins and aims, and as a result, has achieved near-perfect indifference about itself.

It’s difficult to gain admissions to the schools where I’ve taught – Princeton, Georgetown, and now Notre Dame. Students at these institutions have done what has been demanded of them: they are superb test-takers, they know exactly what is needed to get an A in every class (meaning that they rarely allow themselves to become passionate and invested in any one subject), they build superb resumes. They are respectful and cordial to their elders, though with their peers (as snatches of passing conversation reveal), easygoing if crude. They respect diversity (without having the slightest clue what diversity is) and they are experts in the arts of non-judgmentalism (at least publically).

[...]
They are not to be blamed for their pervasive ignorance of western and American history, civilization, politics, art and literature. It is the hallmark of their education. They have learned exactly what we have asked of them – to be like mayflies, alive by happenstance in a fleeting present.

[...]

Our students’ ignorance is not a failing of the educational system – it is its crowning achievement. Efforts by several generations of philosophers and reformers and public policy experts whom our students (and most of us) know nothing about have combined to produce a generation of know-nothings. The pervasive ignorance of our students is not a mere accident or unfortunate but correctible outcome, if only we hire better teachers or tweak the reading lists in high school. It is the consequence of a civilizational commitment to civilizational suicide. The end of history for our students signals the End of History for the West.

[...]

We have fallen into the bad and unquestioned habit of thinking that our educational system is broken, but it is working on all cylinders. What our educational system aims to produce is cultural amnesia, a wholesale lack of curiosity, historyless free agents, and educational goals composed of contentless processes and unexamined buzz-words like "critical thinking,” "diversity,” "ways of knowing,” "social justice,” and "cultural competence.” Our students are the achievement of a systemic commitment to producing individuals without a past for whom the future is a foreign country, cultureless ciphers who can live anywhere and perform any kind of work without inquiring about its purposes or ends, perfected tools for an economic system that prizes "flexibility” (geographic, interpersonal, ethical). In such a world, possessing a culture, a history, an inheritance, a commitment to a place and particular people, specific forms of gratitude and indebtedness (rather than a generalized and deracinated commitment to "social justice), a strong set of ethical and moral norms that assert definite limits to what one ought and ought not to do (aside from being "judgmental”) are hindrances and handicaps.

[...]

My students are the fruits of a longstanding project to liberate all humans from the accidents of birth and circumstance, to make a self-making humanity.Understanding liberty to be the absence of constraint,forms of cultural inheritance and concomitant gratitude were attacked as so many arbitrary limits on personal choice, and hence, matters of contingency that required systematic disassembly.Believing that the source of political and social division and war was residual commitment to religion and culture, widespread efforts were undertaken to eliminate such devotions in preference to a universalized embrace of toleration and detached selves. Perceiving that a globalizing economic system required deracinated workers who could live anywhere and perform any task without curiosity about ultimate goals and effects, a main task of education became instillation of certain dispositions rather than grounded knowledge – flexibility, non-judgmentalism, contentless "skills,” detached "ways of knowing,” praise for social justice even as students were girded for a winner-take-all economy, and a fetish for diversity that left unquestioned why it was that everyone was identically educated at indistinguishable institutions.At first this meant the hollowing of local, regional, and religious specificity in the name of national identity.Today it has came to mean the hollowing of national specificity in the name of globalized cosmopolitanism, which above all requires studied oblivion to anything culturally defining.The inability to answer basic questions about America or the West is not a consequence of bad education; it is a marker of a successful education.

[...]

Above all, the one overarching lesson that students receive is to understand themselves to be radically autonomous selves within a comprehensive global system with a common commitment to mutual indifference. Our commitment to mutual indifference is what binds us together as a global people. Any remnant of a common culture would interfere with this prime directive: a common culture would imply that we share something thicker, an inheritance that we did not create, and a set of commitments that imply limits and particular devotions. Ancient philosophy and practice heaped praise upon res publica – a devotion to public things, things we share together. We have instead created the world’s first res idiotica – from the Greek word idiotes, meaning "private individual.” Our education system excels at producing solipsistic, self-contained selves whose only public commitment is an absence of commitment to a public, a common culture, a shared history. They are perfectly hollowed vessels, receptive and obedient, without any real obligations or devotions. They have been taught to care passionately about their indifference, and to denounce the presence of actual diversity that threatens the security of their cocoon. They are living in a perpetual Truman Show, a world constructed yesterday that is nothing more than a set for their solipsism, without any history or trajectory.

End excerpts.

Do read the entire essay; it is absolutely brilliant!

Posted by: Timothy Birdnow at 10:08 AM | Comments (1) | Add Comment
Post contains 1009 words, total size 8 kb.

1 Ah. Now I think I begin to understand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Posted by: Dana Mathewson at February 25, 2019 09:07 PM (rIYC+)

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