What makes a person successful hasn't changed much over time. Successful people have ability to learn, to adapt, to communicate and to work hard. Beyond that, to make a real difference we all need an ability to love, to be passionate, and to reflect on the world around us — be it the physical world of nature and technology, or the metaphysical world of ideas and the unseen but possible.
As we think specifically about our young children or grandchildren, we will find that even these skills will not be enough. An ability to learn, for many, will be learning what government employees and bureaucrats are teaching that day, and that year, and that decade, in an environment of authoritarian smarm. To learn here means to learn dependency on governments and fear of change, and to embrace boredom as the normal human condition, to be relieved chemically.
An ability to adapt, for our youngest little "citizens" means to adapt to arbitrary rules of not only parents, but policemen, teachers, government workers, and even international do-gooders. A child adapting to this environment learns to use the overbearing system of government inspections and demands, the inconsistency of government justice, crime and punishment, and the lack of fundamental truth contained in government pronouncements for his or her own benefit. Adapting to socialized systems, be they Soviet or Chinese style communism or the corporate nanny statism of the United States, means learning to selectively maximize and minimize compliance with arbitrary rules for personal gain. It is a very complex and complicated world, but it is largely unrelated to and completely unhinged from fundamental economics, the natural world, or a spiritual universe. When asked how the soon-to-be-elected President of the United States was going to pay for her mortgage and her car, the young woman in the infamous video of 2008 said, "I don't know! His stash!" This idea of government as an infinite source, a real-life perpetual motion machine unsupported by logic, science or common sense, is a widely embraced way Americans are taught to see government and the state, and certainly, it is the way American government has behaved at the federal level for decades, borrowing from the future with no intention of paying anything back. To adapt to this current non-sensical "reality" is how many of our young people will exercise this otherwise critical and creative survival skill.
The next generation must also have a highly developed ability to communicate. Technology allows new levels of communication, and it is often noted by older generations that the young are constantly "communicating" with each other via ever tinier devices and more powerful technologies. Information has never been more accessible, and this accessibility is taken for granted by the younger generations who have grown up using it. But where does thumb texting your reactions and emotions, and glancing at those of your immediate peer group, fit in the human scale of communication? I cannot speak for my children and grandchildren, many of whom will indeed sit and read a book on occasion, and enjoy philosophical discussions. But I have noticed that the immediate accessibility of information has made me personally less likely to memorize material, less likely to read a long article or an entire book, and more likely to scan everything around me for interesting bits rather than entire messages. In itself, for me at age 50, already interested in many things and informed on several things, this shift in the way I acquire information is probably not harmful. This way of acquiring information, facilitated by the Internet and television, tends to reinforce and focus my past knowledge, rather than broaden my knowledge in any new way. I am interested in what I am interested in, so to speak. Pre-existing interests shape my use of the vast world of information available, and I suspect it does so for other people as well. What many consider the moral and cultural depravation of mainstream media (including the Internet) is just a reflection of what a great many people are interested in — and much of that is puerile and juvenile rather than thought -provoking.
With so much already said and written and filmed, it may be that young people feel less of a need to say something new, and rather, see themselves as atomic observers rather than participants in this world of communication. Communication is becoming more comment and command, rather than exploration of ideas and careful articulation with others, who may see things quite differently. Certainly, what is fast and easy is what gets read and talked about. Our communication skills — in spite of the explosion of blogs and individual validation via the Internet — are becoming narrowed, and subject to manipulation and framing, based on what is easy to discuss, gratifying to see and learn about, and immediately accessible. Were our government not so large and integrated into our lives, this would be a purely educational and social problem. As it stands, government has its own interest in and ability to shape and manage what we think we know, what we gravitate towards in style and content, and the technical availability and usability of the communications network upon which we depend to acquire information. We hear of a centrally controlled on-off switch for the Internet, but we are philosophically and socially unprepared for what this may mean to younger generations who are integrated into this information network. Can we think, adapt and communicate without it? Will they?
Of the basic requirements for human success, to learn, to adapt, to communicate and to work hard, it is the latter that concerns me the most. Certainly, our own memories of hard work have been embellished by time. But it is clear that the physicality of work in the United States has diminished, and the necessity for physical work to satisfy ones' basic needs is greatly reduced. Electricity, not exercise, is fundamental. The interest in and ability to sweat, to get dirty, to be unfashionable, to be physically frustrated, to never give up, and even to bear minor aches and pains is unacceptable unless it is in organized play. And for our children, even such play is confined to the indoors, often staring at a flickering screen and gripping a remote control.
How well our children and grandchildren love, become passionate about ideas and efforts, and reflect on the world around them depends on how they learn, how and to what they adapt, how well and completely they communicate with others, and their practiced tendency to face down mental and physical challenges, time and time again, without quitting. If we want the younger generations to be successful, they must have these skills.
We can turn off the TV, replace passive learning and computer-aided entertainment with active investigation and experimentation, and get our kids away from government schools. We can teach by example, as we ourselves continue to learn, to adapt, to communicate and to work hard. We can create opportunities for children to work hard, to struggle and to overcome — in fact, all of this is simply good parenting and certainly not controversial. We can ensure that our children and grandchildren are capable of self-education, and we can push them and lead them gently to practice that self-education in directions that are wise and beneficial, peaceful and productive.
But if we want to facilitate their success in dealing with what is coming next, we would attempt to foster in them a certain attitude of fundamental skepticism. Most young people and even young children do understand the difference between good and evil, and between the real and the unreal. They understand computer games and television entertainment are not reality, and they recognize the illusion of "reality TV" far more quickly than do their parents. But often, this "Show me" and "Prove it" mentality does not extend to the more fundamental illusion of statist benevolence. Subjected to constant messages of the prevalence and positivity of "government," our independent-minded children have subconsciously accepted that faceless bureaucrats actually work in their interest, for the good of the community, the state, the world. They do not question the contradictory concepts of government charity, or peace through warfare. As with all of us, they are not interested in things they take for granted, and for many of the coming generations, this includes all things government. They have learned to go along to get along when dealing with state "authority." In this, they are no different than people in past generations, including past generations who walked willingly onto government trains taking them to a place they were told by authorities would be safe.
We ourselves, like the coming generations, need personal attitudes of hardy and bold skepticism. We need to be able to bravely switch channels, and to recognize and reject sales pitches and lullabies of our own government. We need children who say "No!" not only to things they don't want, but to many things that they think they do want. Our collective "No" to a government operating without our consent, as our current government does, should be reactive, automatic, and instant. We must as parents and grandparents, create environments that develop this skepticism. We must teach them that what is presented to us by government is often a false choice, the wrong questions, and unrelated to our fundamental interests. We must encourage them to practice and experience struggle and hard work and disappointment — not everyone gets a trophy! We should show them that to challenge state authority doesn't mean alienation, and that love is all-powerful and forgiving. We must ensure that they understand communication between people need not be command-delivered and control-oriented, but rather it is a complex and innovative pathway to a future we consent to and embrace side by side. We must teach them to reason, and to act.
This approach to parenting and grandparenting is radical, by contemporary standards. "Got attitude?" should become the rallying cry for how we ourselves must live, and code for our parenting priorities. Etienne de la Boetie, in the 1500s, wrote that, "…custom becomes the first reason for voluntary servitude." He goes on,
There are always a few, better endowed than others, who feel the weight of the yoke and cannot restrain themselves from attempting to shake it off: … These are in fact the men who, possessed of clear minds and far-sighted spirit, are not satisfied, like the brutish mass, to see only what is at their feet, but rather look about them, behind and before, and even recall the things of the past in order to judge those of the future, and compare both with their present condition. These are the ones who, having good minds of their own, have further trained them by study and learning. Even if liberty had entirely perished from the earth, such men would invent it. For them slavery has no satisfactions, no matter how well disguised.
Our custom, passed through to upcoming generations, must be never be subservience. Always and forever, without compromise, in every way, our custom must be liberty. Our children and grandchildren are gifted and lovely — the best preparation we may provide them, as tyranny creeps and passivity is promoted, is the bold attitude of free men. Liberty in this country is shrinking. If we ourselves are less than successful in our lifetimes in seizing our birthright of peace, prosperity and freedom, it will be our children, in a custom we will have shared today, and with the bold attitude we must inculcate now, who will restore liberty and if necessary, invent it.
This was first published in Freedom’s Phoenix September E-zine.