Our students are the achievement of a systemic commitment to producing individuals without a past for whom the future is a foreign country, cultureless ciphers who can live anywhere and perform any kind of work without inquiring about its purposes or ends, perfected tools for an economic system that prizes “flexibility” (geographic, interpersonal, ethical). In such a world, possessing a culture, a history, an inheritance, a commitment to a place and particular people, specific forms of gratitude and indebtedness (rather than a generalized and deracinated commitment to “social justice), a strong set of ethical and moral norms that assert definite limits to what one ought and ought not to do (aside from being “judgmental”) are hindrances and handicaps. Regardless of major or course of study, the main object of modern education is to sand off remnants of any cultural or historical specificity and identity that might still stick to our students, to make them perfect company men and women for a modern polity and economy that penalizes deep commitments. Efforts first to foster appreciation for “multi-culturalism” signaled a dedication to eviscerate any particular cultural inheritance, while the current fad of “diversity” signals thoroughgoing commitment to de-cultured and relentless homogenization.
The intention is to fit students into a certain technology - a "rational" system based on the logic of the market, in which it makes sense to strip individuals of attributes and loyalties that have no relevance to their function within the system.
I see this all the time as a school teacher. When I go to a professional development day, the message is usually that:
1. The job of teachers is to fit students to the workplace.
2. The workplace requires students to be flexible learners.
3. Therefore, content does not matter at all, only certain learning skills (e.g. ability to work in a team).
It's not that this is entirely false. It's true that students should be prepared for future careers and that learning skills are an aspect of this. But Deneen is surely correct that it is wrong to treat students as if they were placeless, history-less. deracinated individuals, without an inheritance of culture and knowledge to help cultivate and elevate their minds and to connect them more deeply to their own tradition and identity.
Personally, if I were the education czar I would want education to be an immersion in the best of Western culture, history and learning, so that students would feel anchored within their own tradition and inspired to a love of knowledge and the arts (with the caveat that some students are going to be more suited for this than others).
Deneen has a similar critique of liberal modernity to my own. He sees the problems that arise when liberty, understood to mean individual autonomy, is made the overriding good in society:
My students are the fruits of a longstanding project to liberate all humans from the accidents of birth and circumstance, to make a self-making humanity. Understanding liberty to be the absence of constraint, forms of cultural inheritance and concomitant gratitude were attacked as so many arbitrary limits on personal choice, and hence, matters of contingency that required systematic disassembly. Believing that the source of political and social division and war was residual commitment to religion and culture, widespread efforts were undertaken to eliminate such devotions in preference to a universalized embrace of toleration and detached selves. Perceiving that a globalizing economic system required deracinated workers who could live anywhere and perform any task without curiosity about ultimate goals and effects, a main task of education became instillation of certain dispositions rather than grounded knowledge – flexibility, non-judgmentalism, contentless “skills,” detached “ways of knowing,” praise for social justice even as students were girded for a winner-take-all economy, and a fetish for diversity that left unquestioned why it was that everyone was identically educated at indistinguishable institutions. At first this meant the hollowing of local, regional, and religious specificity in the name of national identity. Today it has came to mean the hollowing of national specificity in the name of globalized cosmopolitanism, which above all requires studied oblivion to anything culturally defining. The inability to answer basic questions about America or the West is not a consequence of bad education; it is a marker of a successful education.
Above all, the one overarching lesson that students receive is to understand themselves to be radically autonomous selves within a comprehensive global system with a common commitment to mutual indifference. Our commitment to mutual indifference is what binds us together as a global people. Any remnant of a common culture would interfere with this prime directive: a common culture would imply that we share something thicker, an inheritance that we did not create, and a set of commitments that imply limits and particular devotions. Ancient philosophy and practice heaped praise upon res publica – a devotion to public things, things we share together. We have instead created the world’s first res idiotica – from the Greek word idiotes, meaning “private individual.”
If you like Deneen's analysis then I would recommend his new book, Why Liberalism failed (from Amazon America here).
A note to Melbourne readers. If you are sympathetic to the ideas of this website, please visit the site of the Melbourne Traditionalists. It's important that traditionalists don't remain isolated from each other; our group provides a great opportunity for traditionalists to meet up and connect. Details at the website.