From a WSJ op-ed: “As Tennessee expands possibilities for new charter schools, critics are assailing classical education. Some of these schools teach students about the sages and scoundrels of ancient Greece and Rome.” In The New Republic, a public school teacher from New York seems concerned that classics-focused schools promote “retreat from the public sphere” along with sundry bad things such as “nationalistic exaltation of Western civilization.”
Now, a little thought and historical reading will demonstrate that study of the classics is entirely consistent with participation in the public sphere, including participation at very high levels–in the US and in other countries as well. But the issue is more fundamental than this. Is participation in the public sphere–which I read in this context to largely mean political activism–really the only thing that matters in life?
In his superb memoir, the Russian rocket developer Boris Chertok mentions a friend who was a Red Army officer and was also an excellent poet. It was understood that he would never be promoted. Why–did the Red Army have something against poetry? By no means. Did this man write poems that criticized the regime? No–he did not mention Stalin, did not mention political affairs at all. And that was his offense. Writing good poetry was not sufficient, every poet had to sing the praises of Stalin and of the regime. Unfortunately, we have people in America today who believe that every subject, whether poetry, history, science, or music, must be viewed only through the lens of an endless group-against-group struggle for power. And education in these–and all–subjects should focus on that power struggle and on what is perceived as the urgent need to put everything in a form that will be ‘relevant’ to the daily lives of students and to whatever are the hot topics and issues of the time.
The University of Oklahoma recently ran a job ad for an Assistant Professor of Musical Theatre Performance…which includes the following:
We are seeking an acting teacher/stage director in musical theatre who, through their work and mentorship, can equip our majors with the skills to develop their unique artistic voice, explore and expose oppressive structures and power dynamics within our culture and artform, and increase the incorporation of inclusive pedagogies in our classrooms.
The same trends apparently exist in the UK. Here’s a story from 2005:
Instead of learning science, pupils will “learn about the way science and scientists work within society”. They will “develop their ability to relate their understanding of science to their own and others’ decisions about lifestyles”, the QCA said. They will be taught to consider how and why decisions about science and technology are made, including those that raise ethical issues, and about the “social, economic and environmental effects of such decisions”.
They will learn to “question scientific information or ideas” and be taught that “uncertainties in scientific knowledge and ideas change over time”, and “there are some questions that science cannot answer, and some that science cannot address”. Science content of the curriculum will be kept “lite”. Under “energy and electricity”, pupils will be taught that “energy transfers can be measured and their efficiency calculated, which is important in considering the economic costs and environmental effects of energy use”. (The above is from John Clare’s article in the Telegraph.)
According to Melanie Phillips: “The reason given for the change to the science curriculum is to make science ‘relevant to the 21st century’. This is in accordance with the government’s doctrine of ‘personalised learning’, which means that everything that is taught must be ‘relevant’ to the individual child.”
2005 was a long time ago–I don’t know whether or not this curriculum is still in place in the UK; I use it as an example because it makes a certain kind of thinking very clear. The class is not really about Science, it is about ‘Society’, and everything that is taught must be ‘relevant’ to the child.
It is a natural human characteristic to be curious about the universe you live in. Schools should encourage this curiosity, not smother it in the name of a fake “relevance.” It is not wise or wholesome to turn all subjects–from math to history to physics to theatre arts–into ‘social studies’.
In A Preface to Paradise Lost, C S Lewis contrasts the characters of Adam and Satan, as developed in Milton’s work:
Adam talks about God, the Forbidden tree, sleep, the difference between beast and man, his plans for the morrow, the stars and the angels. He discusses dreams and clouds, the sun, the moon, and the planets, the winds and the birds. He relates his own creation and celebrates the beauty and majesty of Eve…Adam, though locally confined to a small park on a small planet, has interests that embrace ‘all the choir of heaven and all the furniture of earth.’ Satan has been in the heaven of Heavens and in the abyss of Hell, and surveyed all that lies between them, and in that whole immensity has found only one thing that interests Satan.. And that “one thing” is, of course, Satan himself…his position and the wrongs he believes have been done to him. “Satan’s monomaniac concern with himself and his supposed rights and wrongs is a necessity of the Satanic predicament…”
One need not believe in a literal Satan, or for that matter be religious at all, to see the force of this. There is indeed something Satanic about a person who has no interests other than themselves. There do seem to be a lot of people today whose interests are largely restricted to themselves and to the endless struggle for power.
The University of Oklahoma job ad that I referenced above also includes this:
This artist should be an inventive storyteller, innovative teacher, and joyful colleague prepared to inspire our majors to become leaders in a more equitable theatre industry for the 21st century.
Somehow, U-Oklahoma’s job ad doesn’t make me think that their Theatre Arts department is going to be a very joyful place. Most emotionally well people do not seek to subordinate all aspects of life to ideology and its ever-changing enforcement of The Current Thing.
But some people actually like living that way. In his memoir of life in Germany between the wars, Sebastian Haffner describes a period under Weimar when some degree of economic and political stability was achieved (which accomplishment he credits to Gustav Stresemann), and most people were happy about it:
The last ten years were forgotten like a bad dream. The Day of Judgment was remote again, and there was no demand for saviors or revolutionaries…There was an ample measure of freedom, peace, and order, everywhere the most well-meaning liberal-mindedness, good wages, good food and a little political boredom. everyone was cordially invited to concentrate on their personal lives, to arrange their affairs according to their own taste and to find their own paths to happiness.
Most people were happy, but not everybody:
A generation of young Germans had become accustomed to having the entire content of their lives delivered gratis, so to speak, by the public sphere, all the raw material for their deeper emotions…Now that these deliveries suddently ceased, people were left helpless, impoverished, robbed, and disappointed. They had never learned how to live from within themselves, how to make an ordinary private life great, beautiful and worth while, how to enjoy it and make it interesting. So they regarded the end of political tension and the return of private liberty not as a gift, but as a deprivation. They were bored, their minds strayed to silly thoughts, and they began to sulk.
To be precise (the occasion demands precision, because in my opinion it provides the key to the contemporary period of history): it was not the entire generation of young Germans. Not every single individual reacted in this fashion. There were some who learned during this period, belatedly and a little clumsily, as it were, how to live. they began to enjoy their own lives, weaned themselves from the cheap intoxication of the sports of war and revolution, and started to develop their own personalities. It was at this time that, invisibly and unnoticed, the Germans divided into those who later became Nazis and those who would remain non-Nazis.
We seem to have a lot of people today in the US–and elsewhere in the West–the entire content of their lives delivered gratis, so to speak, by the public sphere, all the raw material for their deeper emotions.
See also my related post, Life in the Fully Politicized Society.
Previously posted at Ricochet.