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.
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival.