CLVIII – The War Against Learning

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Never
let school interfere with
your education.
~ Mark
Twain

A
recurring theme in my writing
is that the most important
question confronting mankind
is the epistemological one:
how do we know what we
know? If we are to live
well, we must learn not only
about the nature of our world,
but how to function effectively
within it. How do we organize
our experiences, and who helps
us to do so, and by what criteria
do we seek reliable patterns
of understanding for living
in a complex world?

In
an institutionally-dominated
world, it has largely been
taken for granted that institutions
should direct the education
of children, so that they
will grow up conforming their
lives to the interests of
the established order. Chapter
12 of my book, Calculated
Chaos
, provides a
detailed exploration of the
processes by which government
schools help to politicize
young minds.

Beyond
the more obvious rituals and
catechisms by which children
are conditioned in the religion
of statism (e.g., saluting
the flag, reciting the u201Cpledge
of allegianceu201D), there lurks
an even more sinister premise
that is utterly destructive
of personalized learning:
the idea that knowledge is
a quality bestowed by some
(i.e., teachers) upon others
(i.e., students). Learning
becomes not something you
do, but something done to
you. Your purpose in being
in school is not to enhance
your creativity and understanding
of the world, but to adopt
u201Csuccessu201D as your motivating
standard. u201CSuccess,u201D of course,
is measured in terms of how
well you have internalized
the institutional mindset.

Children
who stay away from school
because they do not find it
consistent with their interests
are labeled u201Ctruants,u201D to
be hunted down and — along
with their parents — criminally
prosecuted. Children who attend
school, but find the teacher's
pedantically-delivered agenda
of less interest than a subject-matter
of their own choosing, are
diagnosed as having an u201Cattention-deficit
disorder,u201D the remedy for
which may include behavior-modifying
drugs. In trying to figure
out why so many children find
forced-schooling not to their
liking, the child becomes
the focus of the problem.
It is never the school system
that is at fault, or whose
underlying premises need questioning.

Recent
news stories illustrate the
problems that can arise when
the state — or any other institution
— presumes to direct the course
of learning. One report focuses
on the policies of a Virginia
middle school that prohibit
students from having any u201Cphysical
contactu201D with one another.
The rule includes not only
fighting, but shaking hands,
hugging, patting a friend
on the back, holding hands,
and giving one another u201Chigh-fives.u201D
One school official defended
this u201Cno touchingu201D policy
on the ground that, while
schools can teach students
an abstract principle of u201Ckeeping
your hands to yourself,u201D there
is not always an adult present
to direct the student as to
how to implement the rule
in a given situation.

No
more telling admission of
both the absurdity and the
failure of vertically-structured
learning can be offered. No
better expression of the need
for children to learn how
to negotiate their relationships
with one another on their
own, without state-licensed
school teachers and administrators
patrolling the halls on the
lookout for u201Cdelinquentsu201D
who hug! (Will the offense
be refined to include u201Csuspicion
of intent to show affectionu201D?)

One
of the most important things
children have to learn in
growing up is how to deal
with one another. If Mark
goes too far in giving Lisa
an unwanted hug, he might
get his face slapped, a consequence
Mark will register in his
thinking about how to deal
with girls. If Sally becomes
too gossipy about her friends,
she might discover a dwindling
number of peers who want to
associate with her. Through
the responses youngsters make
toward one another's conduct,
they learn to distinguish
a friendly push from a more
aggressive shove and, in the
process, modify their behavior.

But
the institutionalized enunciation
of precise rules eliminates
this negotiation process.
Like economic transactions,
the presumption is that external
authorities must direct conduct.
Once the policy has been announced
— as the aforesaid school
administrator tells us — there
must be someone (i.e., school
officials) to tell the students
how to implement the rule.
To think otherwise, is to
put upon individual students
the burden of discriminating
among various behavioral
options. Discrimination involves
the making of individualized
distinctions, a practice which,
by its nature, involves personal
choices to be made in the
face of concrete circumstances.
But, as we know, u201Cdiscriminationu201D
— being an individualized
act – has become one
of the cardinal sins in the
statist religion. In a collectivistic
society, all expressions of
individualism must be eliminated;
general rules, applicable
to all — no matter their absurdity
in given circumstances — must
be rigidly enforced, lest
even the faintest impression
remain that there be some
realm within which individuals
are responsible only to themselves.
As I write this article, a
blogger informs me that in
the grocery store where he
shops, he saw a checkout clerk
ask a man — in his mid-60s
— for identification. A state
law makes it unlawful to sell
alcohol to a minor, and this
clerk was unprepared to distinguish
a teenager from a man of retirement
age! Perhaps this clerk had
learned, through his school
experiences, the importance
of making robotic responses
to abstractions. People are
not to be allowed to discriminate
as to which criteria are appropriate
grounds upon which to discriminate.

In
a collective world, u201Clibertyu201D
and u201Cfree choiceu201D represent
u201Cloopholesu201D needing to be
filled with more rules.

This
war against learning infects
virtually all areas of childhood
activity. Even play is being
taken away from children.
I have long been a critic
of adult-organized, adult-run,
adult-coached, sports for
children. Play is an important
activity of childhood, and
yet most adults think it appropriate
for them to usurp and manage
this otherwise spontaneous
and autonomous activity. I
was fortunate enough to have
grown up before the days in
which u201Clittle leagueu201D baseball,
football, soccer, basketball,
etc., took over children's
parks and playgrounds.

Like
the government school system,
adult-run sports use children
for adult purposes — however
well-intended those purposes
might be — to which the children
are expected to be subservient.
The official motto of Little
League Baseball is u201CCharacter,
Courage, Loyalty.u201D Is play
now intended as a means for
reinforcing the pledge of
allegiance upon the minds
of children? Is this why uniforms
are consistently adorned with
American flags? In my youth,
we played our games purely
for the fun of it. None of
us thought that, when we gathered
for a game on Saturday morning,
we were making a political
commitment.

Nor
did we play in order to satisfy
any expectations of our parents.
Indeed, our parents would
not have dreamed of invading
our playtime by showing up
for our games and, had they
done so, we would have been
humiliated. We played for
our mutual enjoyment and,
in the course of doing so,
we learned the subtle arts
of negotiation that make civil
society possible. We organized
our own teams, scheduled our
own games with other teams,
and even hired impartial umpires
(i.e., older kids) for the
u201Cimportantu201D games. If such
an umpire was not available,
we were honest enough to acknowledge
u201Cballsu201D or u201Cstrikesu201D or u201Coutsu201D
with one another knowing that,
if we did not, the game would
quickly end. How well we did
this may have contributed
to the development of our
u201Ccharacter,u201D but only as an
unintended consequence of
what we were doing, not as
a purpose.

Jean
Piaget and others have written
of both the nature and importance
of children's self-directed
play. You may recall from
your own childhood — assuming
you grew up without adults
dominating your every activity
and defining your experiences
for you — how the games you
played with others were conducted
on quite informal, ad hoc
rules upon which you agreed.
Learning how to adapt — spontaneously
and autonomously — to the
inconstant conditions of the
world, provides us with a
far more reliable basis for
our behavior than do institutional
mandates, crafted and enforced
upon young minds by updated
versions of the Code of Hammurabi.

How
do our adult lives get influenced
by how we grew up? If we failed
to learn an individualized
basis for judging the propriety
of our actions; if the development
of a character that was unable
to discriminate between what
was factual and what was only
fashionable became stunted;
if our behavior was directed
by abstract propositions formulated
and interpreted for us by
external authorities, how
might our adult lives be affected?

The
much reported — and little
examined — case involving
lacrosse players at Duke University
provides some insight. By
now, even those addicted to
Faux News know that
phony accusations of rape
were made against three young
white men by a black woman.
Absolutely no evidence supported
the charge other than the
accusation by the woman, whose
story underwent constant change.
A dishonest district attorney
— seeing the opportunity of
exploiting the situation on
behalf of his re-election
campaign — failed to disclose
exculpatory evidence to defense
attorneys, and made inflammatory
press conferences his principal
prosecutorial tool. His conduct
was so outrageous that even
the North Carolina bar stripped
him of his license to practice.

What
was most telling about this
so-called u201Ccaseu201D was not the
dishonest nature of the prosecution
— criminal defense lawyers
can provide a litany of prosecutorial
misconduct to match Mr. Nifong's.
It was the artless response
of most members of the mainstream
media, along with the knee-jerk
reaction of the Duke University
administration, as well as
large numbers of Duke faculty
and students, that showed
a complete collapse of rational
thinking. People who had grown
up with an appreciation for
being able to discriminate
between an allegation and
a fact, would have quickly
asked for a showing of the
evidence for this charge.
Such skills were at the base
of what, in my youth, was
one of the highest compliments
one could pay to another:
u201Cyou have a discriminating
mind.u201D In today's marketplace
of collective madness, a u201Cdiscriminating
mindu201D stands as an accusation!

Duke
University — long respected
for its intellectual excellence
— suffered a blow to its reputation
from which it may not soon
recover. While a number of
intellectually honest and
courageous students and faculty
members insisted upon an evidentiary
basis for the charges against
these three students, others
showed little attraction to
the niceties of due process.
Sadly, many members of the
black community — whose electoral
support Mr. Nifong cynically
relied upon during this sordid
affair — failed to see how
their willingness to equate
an accusation with fact played
by the same vicious and depraved
rules that led some whites
to lynch blacks within this
same state generations earlier.

One
might have hoped that, within
the Duke University community,
reason and an appeal to fact
might have prevailed. Such
was not the case, however,
as these three men — as well
as other lacrosse team players
who had not even been accused
— had to endure slurs and
threats from others as they
walked across campus and sat
in their classrooms. Discriminatory
thinking was abandoned long
ago by the oracles of u201Cpolitical
correctness.u201D In its place
was erected the monolith of
the abstract principle, whose
application to a given set
of circumstances was left
to the interpretation of self-appointed
authorities — and certainly
not to ordinary folk who had
been carefully nurtured to
distrust their own capacities
for making distinctions. And
so, like the denizens of Orwell's
Animal
Farm
, many Duke faculty
members, students, and administrators
began parroting the crude,
collective catechism u201Cblack
female good; white male badu201D
which, to their reactive minds,
provided a sole and sufficient
basis for their thinking.

In
the aftermath of Michael Nifong's
disbarment, it may be time
for intelligent minds to ask
if others ought not be defrocked
of their licenses to competently
and honestly pursue their
trades. If Duke University
seeks to rehabilitate its
reputation, it might want
to consider revoking the tenure
of those faculty members and
administrators who so woefully
failed to exercise the barest
attributes of intellectual
proficiency: the recourse
to reason and evidence as
the basis for drawing conclusions.

If
civilized society is to be
possible, children — whether
in their pre-teenage or college
years — need to learn from
themselves and one another
how to negotiate for the kind
of conduct which, alone, makes
decent society possible. In
the course of doing so, they
require the loving assistance
of adults who teach best by
the examples they set for
their own lives, and who appreciate
the importance of staying
out of the way of children
as they struggle for their
own independent development.

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