Monday, April 02, 2018

Deneen: creating the res idiotica

Here is Patrick Deneen on why the education system no longer aims to connect students to the Western canon:
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.


  1. About the only positive step a Traditionalist can make is to become a teacher or if that's impossible to help support a fellow Traditionalist to take up that career.

    It's a small thing but it is a positive act. Enough positive acts over a long enough time frame will make a difference even if it seems a mammoth task right now.

    1. Are there openly traditionalist conservative teachers who are free to teach traditionalist conservatism, and do, as such, as an element of a liberal arts curriculum or even as a token elective?

      Is Mr. Deneen actually teaching traditionalist conservatism, or his version of it to his students?

      Or, does he write and think out of school, and teach to the rule in class?

    2. The point is to have them teaching at all. A teacher can craft the lens his students see their subject matter through (be it ever so vile).

      Changing the curriculum means next to nothing without changing the teachers.

    3. James, that fits with my experience as a teacher. I have a lot of control over what happens in my own classroom. The problem is that so many English/History teachers in particular are leftist indoctrinators, with the middle-aged female English teachers being the worst offenders, so that students get tightly indoctrinated into a leftist world view by the time they leave school.

    4. I’ve lived 70 years near the Chesapeake Bay. Around 1900 the bay was the most productive estuary on Earth. Each year it supplied 10s of millions on tons to much of New England. They used to calculate the harvest by plunging a long rod down through the depth of oysters until you hit earth. Now they visually count what can easily be seen spread out within a square yard. One oysters filters and cleans 50 gallons of water a day. The critical grasses are gone and the water is dead. The Bay will never come back to life. Only if all humans completely abandoned the north eastern U.S., might the Bay restore in a few hundreds of years.

      Mark, you must feel like a very lonely oyster.

    5. Yup. Which really proves that ultimately the culture war is won or lost in the classroom.

      Which is why I say that if you're a Traditionalist the best thing you can do with your life is either become a teacher or encourage like minded people to take up the profession.

      The left wins because they choose careers (such as education) which allow them to further their politics inside and outside of work hours. Right wingers in general don't do this and then whinge on the internet about how all these leftist activists must be on the dole since they don't seem to be at work.

      Generally speaking right wingers in Australia are dumb, which is why we lose.

    6. We really do need more teachers, I couldn't agree more. I'm more of a Libertarian than a Traditionalist but any fool can see that one of the best things culturally that could happen in this country is more strong, male, right-wing role models in classrooms.

      I'm currently studying as an undergraduate and looking into the possibility of doing a Dip Ed. Mark do you have any advice on how best to proceed if I do choose to go into teaching?

    7. Generally speaking right wingers in Australia are dumb, which is why we lose.

      Right wingers operate to a large extent as individuals. It has to be admitted that many right-wingers who worship the free market are selfish. Those right-wingers who are not selfish tend to mistrust collective action. This is partly because many on the right incorrectly identify being conservative with being a classical liberal. As a result right-wingers end up fighting as individuals and are very easily destroyed one at a time.

      Left-wingers operate in tight-knit self-supporting groups. When they fight they don't have to fight alone.

      This is why right-wingers always lose.

      Those with traditionalist beliefs should have more sense and should understand the importance of social responsibility. And many, like our esteemed host, do understand that and do accept that responsibility. But sadly most right-wingers will continue to fight, and lose, alone.

    8. Andrew,

      First, on your decision whether to go into teaching or not, there are a lot of advantages to becoming a teacher, but I do think you should be aware of two disadvantages. One disadvantage is that it doesn't rank very high in terms of perceived status when it comes to attracting women. The other is that you have to limit how openly you can engage in political activism outside your workplace (although that is true of most professional careers).

      If you do decide to become a teacher, you might consider the following.

      1. I'm pretty open now about taking on colleagues on political issues. But that's because I've been at the same school for 15 years and have some seniority. Even so, I choose my battles carefully. As a new teacher I would focus on building friendships with colleagues and not worry too much about challenging the politics of other teachers. You can still have a very positive influence simply in how you teach the curriculum within your own classroom.

      2. You will have more influence if you choose to teach at a relatively academic school, whether that is a private or a government school. If you teach at a less academic school, the students will be friendly, but less interested in/receptive to ideas and less likely to pursue further studies. A position at a private school also has higher status, though there is more pressure from parents to achieve results.

      3. As I've mentioned before, English and history teachers tend to have the most influence, as these subjects deal with ideas/issues more than others. However, these are also the subjects with the highest supply of teachers, so jobs aren't necessarily easy to come by. You will also be working mostly with strongly opinionated women in a feminine work environment - you'll need some patience and self-control.

    9. dfordoom, excellent commment. It's a frustrating aspect of being part of the right. Leftism has a dissolving effect on the larger society, but despite this leftists have a kind of genius for combining together, whether to dominate institutions, or to campaign for causes, or to create their own communities/places. Someone wrote recently about the dissident right being in its adolescence. I think there's some truth to this and that a measure of our coming to maturity will be our ability to match it with the left in coming together to pursue our own vision of society.

    10. All your points of advice to Andrew may be true Mark but he shouldn't let himself be dissuaded.

      The reasons why it will be hard to get a large group of Traditionalist or dissident rightist teachers into the system are the same reasons why it is important to do so.

      I think most intelligent right wingers in Australia are aware of the need for some measure of self censorship in the professional environment. The aim should be to create an atmosphere, even if only at one school, where there are enough right-thinking teachers that it is the left that feels that pressure.

      If that takes a decade or two of being relatively quiet then so be it.

    11. The aim should be to create an atmosphere, even if only at one school, where there are enough right-thinking teachers that it is the left that feels that pressure.

      Exactly. It's an achievable aim. You would need to encourage someone supportive to apply for the principal position and then have half a dozen teachers apply for English/history positions. You would then be in a position to shape the school in a particular direction.

    12. It would take years, perhaps even a decade. But it is possible and if done with care the result would be the creation of a small but defendable redoubt in the culture war.

      I sometimes wish there was some sort of support structure to help right wing males get into teaching, but since there isn't we may just have to create one!

  2. while the current fad of “diversity” signals thoroughgoing commitment to de-cultured and relentless homogenisation.

    Yep. The aim of diversity is to eliminate all diversity. It's the sort of nasty little paradox Orwell would have appreciated.

  3. Probably the most poignant point made in the quote referenced above is how modern education is engineered to prepare young people for a market economy that penalizes deep commitments. I see this all too often when a parent - or both - cannot support their children's extra curricular activities, like sports or a recidal, because work always beckons more from them. What if I decided to ignore my employer's denial for vacation to see my family back home in North Carolina? I would be jobless. But the penalty doesn't end there, because the hiring process is investigative and as soon as I interview for a new job that prospective employer will reach out to my previous employer and then interrogate me as to why I decided to put family above work. He'll then ask "Why should I hire you?" I can be confident at this point that my chances for hire are now nil. This never goes away. I'll have to take poorer quality jobs and less pay which, in turn, encourages me to want more time away from the mind numbing drudgery. But, having been comditioned by previous employers I'll sink deeper into work and despair.

    1. Nick, this is a huge issue. Men, in particular, are sometimes limited to just one aspect of a masculine role in life, namely the provider role. It's not that this isn't a legitimate aspect of what a man does, but it's not supposed to dominate as much as it sometimes does today. There are other important aspects of a father's role within the home (e.g. building relationships with his children and then socialising his children toward a successful adulthood) and men should ideally also have some opportunity to contribute not just to their own family but to the wider society (the civilisational role). I think too that when men are too pressed by the provider role, so that the work/life balance shifts too far toward work, that the spiritual life is stifled - and that then hollows out a society. The pity is that modern societies should be wealthy enough to allow men to have a more balanced life, but much of the wealth is squandered by the state, or else (here in Australia anyway) by artificially high house prices.

  4. I see it a little differently to deneen. He sees market-readiness as the end of education, and a deliberate eradication of natural loyalties as the means. I agree that market-readiness is the goal, but loss of natural loyalties is more a side effect that no one worries about. I don't think a majority of educators think to themselves 'i must detach them from their heritage to prepare them for work'. Its just that priority A is work readiness and priority Z is understanding of ones culture. And that was always going to happen when education ceased to be the privelege of the elite (non-pejoratively) and became mandatory for all classes.

  5. This sounds like a recipe for a slave, not a free person.

    Children are not subjects to be prepared for mass obedience and servitude in the economic collective.

    Education should teach basic skills to think for yourself, and develop an understanding and appreciation of your heritage and past.

    Anything else is either coercive indoctrination or slavery. Unfortunately there's a lot of this in the West.

    My nephews Grade 10 history teacher in Newmarket Ontario started the course with the statement that she is a feminist and socialist and will tailor the course to reflect that.

    This really happened. ITs obscene. At least my nephews are very awake to this agenda.

    1. My nephews Grade 10 history teacher in Newmarket Ontario started the course with the statement that she is a feminist and socialist and will tailor the course to reflect that.

      At least she's open about it. At the school I teach at, all of the English and history teachers (except me) are lefty feminists. There's no escaping it for the students - they are indoctrinated to within an inch of their lives. It becomes absurd at times, such as when a student asks you for help to write "a sonnet on racism" that an English teacher has set them for homework.

      My strong advice to parents is to teach your children your own values at home. By which I mean actually sitting down with your children and discussing what you believe and why and explaining the bias they are likely to experience at school and in the media.

    2. My strong advice to parents is to teach your children your own values at home. By which I mean actually sitting down with your children and discussing what you believe and why and explaining the bias they are likely to experience at school and in the media.

      Agreed. The problem is that all the nonsense the schools tell them is backed up by the media and all the nonsense the media tells them gets backed up by the schools. So you're fighting a war on two fronts. Even worse in the case of the media is that it's not just the news programs and documentaries you have to worry about - it's every single program on TV including sitcoms, it's every single movie, it's every social media outlet.

      So no matter how hard you try your message is likely to be swamped by the ocean of politically correct propaganda. And that propaganda is packaged very attractively and it's designed to push emotional buttons rather than appeal to reason, which is a problem since kids are always going to respond to emotional manipulation.

      To combat that propaganda is an awesome task. Which reinforces my earlier point - we can't hope to win if we fight as isolated individuals. We must develop strong support networks. We must learn to fight collectively and to fight in an organised manner with coherent long-term goals.

    3. So no matter how hard you try your message is likely to be swamped by the ocean of politically correct propaganda.

      Yes, that's true. We have to push back as best we can, which means, as you point out, learning to develop networks and using them to either influence or build institutions (schools, churches, newspapers, media companies etc.).

  6. As a retired high school history teacher I have long made a similar critique of the modern education system. The difference is I'm politically left... well left. I'm in the midst of reading the book and despite finding some of his writing about the past somewhat romanticized I find it very informative and I feel like I could have written large parts of it. Of course it is important to note he calls modern "conservatives" liberals if a different stripe and that they have played a big role in debasing education as you describe. I think something socialists and conservatives may have in common is a belief that it isn't all about the individual and that being part of society is essential for human development.

    Anyway, I enjoyed your article.