Friday, February 04, 2011

Education as Social Darwinian Death Match?

I was going to offer some commentary on the recent brouhaha over the Tiger Mother and her unimpressed evaluation of what passes for child rearing among Americans more than a generation or two removed from their immigrant roots, but, as if to further hammer home the point, this has proven a task that at this point may be too overwhelming for me to carry out, at least in the space of a week. So my comments are going to appear in much truncated form.

My intention, like that of probably most people who felt compelled to weigh in on the topic, was a weak attempt to justify--mainly to myself--my own comparatively lackluster approach not only to my own life, but to those of my numerous children as well. The young ones may yet develop in such a way as to justify themselves, but it is likely that any credit I might claim for such a happy event would be purely incidental, and certainly I have no conception, not having been able to do so for myself, of being able to will the children to great heights of tangible accomplishment, the understanding of how to do which is but another of the many built-in advantages our various overclasses now have over the perpetually confused and disorganized legions of the population.

Before I had children, I had actually envisioned subjecting them to a similar program of my own of deep learning, high culture, etc, though without quite the same take-no-prisoners spirit as the tiger mother. Didn't there used to be an ethos, or at least a faction, in intellectual culture which held that constant emphasis on economic competition was in fact mentally, not to mention spiritually, enervating, and that one of the purposes of education was actually to provide the mind with an alternative and defense against a purely materialistic understanding of the world? Obviously whatever interpretation I made out on these lines was hopelessly simplistic and naive. Nobody in the upper reaches of this scoiety has been promoting this kind of worldview, successfully anyway, for thirty years. But getting back to my program of instruction: my models for the kind of intelligence and conception of the world I thought I would like my children to have were still primarily English, especially the 18th century humanists, with flourishes of the energy of the Victorians and the wit and artistic sensibility of the 1920s Evelyn Waugh crowd, some of the rigor and penetration of the Germans, the eye for the telling detail and sense of exquisite as well as precise thought of the French and Russians, and the sense of self-possession and confidence of the humbly-born but irrepressible old Americans, people like Franklin, Lincoln, Mark Twain and so on. These were just notable models, not specific goals; the idea was not really to take the most prestigious institutions and professions of the present moment by storm but to have a mind that is neither complacent nor thrown into a flutter by every unforeseen question or challenge that presents itself. One hopes this kind of training would help promote economic and formal academic success, or at least render one capable of achieving these if he desires, but I could not bring myself to set out with that as the main end in view. I am still held back by a sense that there is something base in it, which is really a very foolish way to go about it, since, at least if you have any ambition, determination, capacity, etc, it is the expected and approved attitude, while my attitude suggests nothing but evidence of personal failure and a lack of the qualities necessary to compete in and master the conditions of life. Whatever elevating effect the mental strength and culture of the current best and brightest men is having on our society and its institutions as a whole, is somehow not speaking to me, who should be receptive to it more than most individuals.

Anyway I have not, of course, as yet followed through on more than a few token gestures of my own intended program. And why not? Well, first of all it was never more than a vague conception of some things I wanted to do, which I saw myself introducing naturally into the routine of life at such time as it would be apparent to me that the children were ready. Life does not really work that way unless you have extreme control over the various circumstances of it that play on you, however, which I do not. Secondly, a good number of these areas of study, such as classical languages, math and science at a level approaching seriousness, and the tiger mother's own pet discipline, classical music, I had intended, even if an advanced state of mastery of them was impossible, to attain a passable knowledge of certainly by the time I was thirty, which I failed to do. I suppose I could still reasonably be of some help to an intelligent child in a few areas, French grammar and reading comprehension, introductory poetry, literature, and history, and the rudiments of logic, rhetoric and other properties of formal philosophy, and probably some outline versions of these subjects will be introduced into the general family discussion in time. However, even from this shaky level, my mind suddenly and severely imploded right around the time the children were born--the children, the internet and the ascendance of George Bush and his friends all occurred around the same time and I suspect all three factors contributed to this crisis--and ever since I have barely been able to maintain even a loose control and direction over the day-to-day workings of my life, especially because this dimunition of capacity coincided with a precipitous drop in my level of mental energy, which was also not phenomenally high to begin with. So while we may make some forays into the wider world of humanistic learning, it does not at this time anyway form the solid core of how we understand and approach the world, which would be the main object in undertaking such a program of study.

The main problem with me, and I assume my children, in forging ahead in the world--I do not use the world compete, not because I do not understand that American life at least is competition, but because I truly think it is not useful to approach education in this mindset until one starts reaching extremely high levels in one's fields of study. People seem to perceive that there are fewer worldly prizes to be attained by traditional education, and that if they fail to gain any of these prizes, or such ones as they want, anyway, then their particular education, or that of anyone who failed to gain the prizes, or has not been able to produce new prizes either for himself or others, has no value or meaning. In any case I believe the entwinement in the majority of the public mind of economic competitiveness as the primary concern of schooling is unfortunate. But as I was saying, what I perceive to have been my own great problem in developing, and what I hope to correct in the children, was my poor work ethic, which even more than superior innate intelligence is the great advantage most people have over me and perhaps my children. We are all fairly well set up to thrive in the world if the conditions of 1950 still prevailed, but in 2010 and especially looking ahead to the 2020s and 30s, evidently not so much. I also believe I was hampered by a weak background in some important academic subjects as well as some significant, though I believe avoidable, personality/character issues. The personality issues I have tried to address by having more children so they will all be used to being around and dealing with other people their own age, providing greater stability and overall educational support in the family, giving them a mother and generally surrounding them with people who have more energy, optimism, well-developed intelligence, etc, than I was under the cloud of as a child. This is actually a lot, and it should make a big difference, though I suppose I could still get divorced. I am also confident that even if they are not to have the full John Stuart Mill/Wittgenstein treatment from age 3 onwards, that I can help point out the gaps in their learning, keep abreast of useful opportunities to gain exposure to smart people, social polish and so on, better than my parents did. But inculcating the kind of work habits you seem to need today to indicate to people that you are worthy of their respect/patronage I do not know how to do. I read and write a lot, it is true, and from about the age 14 to 30 I found these to be generally improving habits in myself, though obviously it did not raise me to any very high level vis-a-vis other people, and since I reached 30 while I am still occasionally able to find pleasure in these activities, the sense of any kind of forward transformation of my intelligence or character has largely ceased. In other words, while I can provide an example of a fair amount of activity, in me it is not especially productive activity that ever leads anywhere, which is not, I don't think, the way that successful people work.

Of course the largely unspoken crisis of confidence in the gentile white middle class, exacerbated by the unstable economic situation, are the increasing signs that its children on the whole may not just lack the work ethic but the innate intelligence to compete with the most talented of the Asian ethnic groups as well as Jews. It is not a secret that the top universities and professional schools are already around 40% Jewish and Asian, and would be more so, probably much more so, if these schools were to select their students purely on test scores and grades. The political implications of this are pretty staggering, and indeed the effects are already being seen, as the populist white right desperately seeks an alternative source of political and economic power outside the current structures that they increasingly have no prayer of dominating. Many of these same people, burdened with debt and disappointed in their own outcomes and places in society, and deeply confused about their function in the same, have begun to sour on traditional college and the whole system of expensive credentialing and are groping around for which direction to go in. It is very difficult to convince most people that they are not as intelligent, do not have as much potential, etc, as they think they are/do; and contrary to popular belief, the middle class is actually told this by conventional wisdom, economists, college professors and so forth, all the time. The schools are atrocious, your kids are not special, don't get your hopes up (because we all know, if you aren't special anymore, there probably is nothing to hope for) we need to import talent from foreign countries to keep the economy running because there isn't enough in the native population, and all the rest of it. It is very hard to accept it even when the evidence that it is true is overwhelming, because other virtues, apart from physical beauty, do not generate much respect/status in current society, in large part because they too are seen as undeveloped compared to what they were formerly/ought to be.

All right, it has been a week. I have to end this post. I have believe the current conditions which are so terrifying to parents--shortages of jobs/income opportunities, college & housing costs, the outrageous debt system--will be overhauled within the next 15 years, as the baby boomer elect's death grip on society finally starts to slack. My own generation is largely hopeless--I don't think they are actually evil, but they do strike me as rather mean-spirited and very stupid--but the people ten and more years younger than us will be hitting their 30s and 40s exhausted, stifled, having lived most of their lives in precarious and what they will more easily perceive to be unfair (people my age have I feel largely internalized the Republican propaganda that has been drilled into us for thirty years, that taxes, government intervention, high wages, health care benefits, etc are unreasonable demands to make on productive, i.e., rich people) economic conditions. They will address income disparities. They will address the inflated costs (relative to median income) of basic needs in a strong modern society, whatever form it is going to take--housing, medical care, education for such people as will benefit/are needed by society to benefit by it, and strengthen the institutions, public and private, which support these goods. Even if there is to be a downscaling of economic life, as some predict, I do not see why it must necessarily fall brutally and with no societal organization/support on the mass of the population while a sliver of the upper crust maintains all of their privileges. This may well be the result but I don't see it as inevitable.

All right, I have to stop now.

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