Self-Doubt: A Saboteur’s Solvent or a Saint’s Hair Shirt?

Education is supposedly corrupting our kids into doubting their cultural heritage and the very reality of moral truth; but did not the Founding Fathers know well that the cost of blind trust is subjugation for the governed, and that self-assurance is first cousin to tyranny in the governing?

I try always to obey the writer’s rule of thumb that one stay within what one knows.  (Not bad advice for anyone, really.)  For me, at least in the Intellectual Conservative’s forum, that often means discussing our miserable education establishment and the young people I see trying to navigate it.  This week was not short of material.  Yet as I was about to start pecking out my weekly reflections (or enjoying my weekly therapy, I should probably say), a workplace incident threw me back on my heels and has continued to preoccupy me.  Once my ideas had fermented for a day, I realized that the two topics—my original choice and my moment of “office shock”—were two sides of the same coin.  I’ll see if I can credibly present them as such.

Not that anyone, let alone a career academic, should be shocked when an English professor speaks in bigoted stereotypes of any person or organization not tethered to the progressive juggernaut… but you can indeed be shocked, all the same, when you see these monkey antics in a personal friend.  I had been years getting to know the figure in question, for she wields some little bit of power on my campus, and I try to keep powerful people at arm’s length (a significant cause of my “odd career path”, I suppose, as one dean called it: I just don’t like boot-licking).  The person’s story, however, is compelling.  She came to the U.S. from an oppressive society, and she knew in growing up many privations that we spoiled Americans can scarcely imagine.  Of course, I never discuss politics on campus: if my career path has been odd, I have at least succeeded in steering it away from a suicidal nosedive.  In fact, we were discussing on this occasion the irony of English majors turning rigidly straight-laced when they become teachers, all of their noise in grad school about liberation and revolution notwithstanding.  My theory is that, having had no social life as kids for one reason or another, these waifs took refuge in reading and writing; they enjoyed academic success as a result, since normal adolescents read and write only in response to threats of weekend confinement; they collected academic awards and praise because of this success—the first time in their lives they’d ever won at anything; and they proceeded through higher education wanting only to be spoon-fed the necessary information that would earn them more A’s after they regurgitated it on a test.  If B.F. Skinner had known anything about English departments, he might have spared whatever resources he squandered on lab rats.

Somehow or other, this discussion veered from teaching styles to autocratic management styles to… politics, that forbidden garden.  Not really such a strange association of ideas, come to think of it.  But it was my long-suffering, newly American colleague who volunteered from nowhere that the Tea Party was ruining all our lives.  I executed the tidiest rhetorical barrel-roll I could, commenting that I cared for neither political party since both had little respect for our essential liberties; and the conversation quickly went elsewhere, soon dying a peaceful death.

I have remained a little numbed, however, at the Tea Party blast’s appearance out of the blue.  I hadn’t sent up any target to draw such fire.  It was a fraternal gesture, I’ve decided.  Since the two of us had never actually talked about politics, my friend tossed me a line that was certain to fall right into my hands—for everybody knows that everybody up and down these hallowed corridors hates the Tea Party!  In the same way, one GI who bumped into another at the bottom of a foxhole during World War II might have remarked, “How ’bout them Bums?”—knowing that every American male followed baseball.  Tea Party hatred is a shibboleth in academe.  Little wonder that these people never hire anyone of heretical beliefs: their search committees screen out anything vaguely smacking (in their lingo) of the “patriarchal” or the “racist” or the “sexist” in a thousand understated ways, without the subject of politics ever being formally raised.  Creating a monolithic, lockstep intellectual environment never occurs to them as a possible result.  Why would you want strychnine in your cabinet of condiments?  Why would you want a gorilla suit in your wardrobe?

It’s depressing.  An educated, accomplished, intelligent person who has experienced first-hand the brutality of an oppressive statist regime subscribing to this kindergarten game of whispering against the new kid who speaks in a strange accent or wears strange clothes… for Tea Party defamation has all the earmarks of the crudest, most elemental scapegoating.  No need of facts, no need of questions: “everyone knows.”  And this, of course, is the very kind of behavior that our avant-garde educators insist we must eradicate from kindergartens as we “fight bullying” and “celebrate diversity”!

In fact, I’ve made my freshmen write quite a bit about culture and the realities of cultural diversity this fall (if I may proceed to the second stage of my ramble).  There’s no doubt that college students need help understanding reality; few eighteen-year-olds have ever been fully equipped for that task.  There’s no doubt, further, that this generation is especially unequipped, and that the inclination of their fantasies runs distinctly leftward on issues like gay marriage and the minimum wage.  (“If guns were outlawed, there would be no more shooting,” declared one of my brighter coeds openly in class last month, with the most winsome purity written across her unfurrowed brow.)  Yet to associate this evident indoctrination with rabid ideologues in the professoriate is naïve, I think.  The kids already have deficient parts when they reach the college assembly line.  I wrote a few weeks ago about how great a role their K-12 teachers and the culture at large play in rigging them for inane utopian pipedreams.  As I implied just above, they’ve probably weathered a half-dozen Diversity Days by the time they enter junior high school.

And don’t forget the electronic gadgetry that certain free-market exponents promote as such a success story.  The wrong lessons learned from years and years of “easy access to information” don’t stop with, “Never do a job that takes more than ten seconds,” and, “Ultimate reality is what appears in your monitor.”  The whole process of shooting from page to page at the speed of light without any intervening effort to prioritize degrees of coherence or authority or tastefulness seems to say that no such degrees exist.  Reality is an endless desert plain, epistemologically speaking, with no peaks or valleys.  It’s all… information.  Often competing information.  And since all the rival claims cannot be equally true, all are equally dubious.  You’re probably being completely lied to much of the time, and almost certainly being a little bit lied to all of the time.  And you chip in with fables of your own to sustain your electronically published identity, naturally.  That’s what reality is: it’s people telling various kinds and degrees of lie.

The difference between these unfortunate “poor little rich kids” and my traumatized Third World colleague is that they are actually more mature in the game than she.  She chants her clique’s favorite refrains because she is so delighted to be where she is now rather than where she grew up.  Our children, however, inject little fervor or conviction into the narrow range of clichés served up with their grade-school Gummy Bears.  At some level, they seem to recognize that it’s all crap; but then, life is full of crap—“life sucks”—so what chance do you have of avoiding the garbage?  A few of them turn up their “obscenometer” dial till it smokes, blistering ears with every outrageous word and opinion they can imagine: the witty rebellion of “buying in” more than the thought-police ever wanted them to, of graduating from mere parrot to the saucy companion on a pirate’s shoulder.  The more idealistic, like my callow coed with her “Outlaw guns!” mantra, hunker down in a too-easy syllogism and ignore the pelting contradictions of experience, martyrs to a world they remember from kindergarten.  Perhaps they’ll be future English professors.

What occurred to me just this past week is that the profound cynicism underlying the naiveté in most of these kids has a healthy side.  The State wants complete trust and utter surrender from them… but in them I’m beginning to find a thorough mistrust directed at the State as well as everything else.  Our specific topic for discussion was whether one culture may fairly pass moral judgment upon the practices of another.  Of course, the universal response was “no”—but a more nuanced “no” than I thought at first.  I had challenged their denial with the case of our entering World War II in order to halt the Holocaust.  That stirred surprisingly little vacillation in most of them; and many a right-wing columnist, as I well knew, would instantly have concluded, “There you go!  Our relativist youth can’t even bring themselves to condemn the Holocaust!  There’s the dark fruit of your ‘cultural tolerance’ tree!”  Then I began to notice that Iraq was on the minds of many (many of that number, at any rate, who weren’t following Facebook on an iPhone hidden in the lap).  This generation is not impressed by our “make the world safe for democracy” adventure in Mesopotamia.  We didn’t find WMD, we didn’t leave peace behind, we didn’t keep the aunts and uncles of our younger children from coming home without eyes or limbs, and we don’t seem to have created a notably safer situation even here in the U.S.  That was the response I detected in bits and pieces.

Conservatives can call such parsing of recent events “demoralization” if they wish: I could name the names of several commentators I greatly respect who have done so.  I decline to see it that way.  Our Founding Fathers, after all, did not want us involved in foreign entanglements—and the history even of the Second World War’s consequences proves that our response to Hitler and Emperor Hirohito was lacking in judgment.  We created a power vacuum in both theaters which allowed communist dictators of immensely more bloodthirsty propensities to slaughter with a free hand.  (The case could be made that FDR and many figures in his cabinet deliberately connived at the ascent of communism… but that’s a story for another day.)  When we Americans presume to change things for the better in far-off cultures, we have a record of leaving them worse.  This is because of the strong utopian streak in our New World DNA.  We’re a “can do” nation, traditionally, that conquers frontiers and puts wastelands under the plow.  We applied science practically to technology, and did so in an economic climate that encouraged risk-takers to keep blazing trails.  So, naturally, we suppose that we can intrude upon inter-cultural tensions ready to erupt into genocide and fix things up, even though the tensions have probably been ongoing for centuries.  We’re upbeat.  We know we can do it, the way a high school football team knows that it can win every Friday night.

And we too often fail to notice, we conservatives, that such enthusiasm strays into the territory of progressivism.  We too often fail to notice, we Christians, that salvation is fulfilled in the next world—not in this one.  Human nature doesn’t change, though individual hearts may change: the naïve and often disastrous belief that evil may be definitively defeated by taking out a coterie of villains is, indeed, a plague upon our species that infects millions of every generation.  Our children, in some fuzzy way (and usually without the help either of a Constitutional grounding or of Christianity, alas), are figuring this out.  Their e-devices frighten me, since the single greatest obstacle to this new awakening seems to me the successful creation of round-the-clock, absorbing escapism.  If they do not text, tweet, and video-game themselves into a coma, however, the kids of this generation may just rediscover the danger of having so much “confidence” that you become the autocratic monster you most abhor.  Quis custodes custodiet?

Naturally, this is not the lesson that the placard-waving conformists of academe, like my colleague chased by her Tea Party bugaboo, intended our kids to imbibe from all their “diversity” training.  It’s too biblical, God forbid!  The idea was to overcome “conservative” utopians on their mission to defeat the “bad cultures” of the world by saturating Western society with non-Western cultures… and then every culture of any variety would grind away at every other culture, like a bunch of boxed stones rattling around in a centrifuge… and then the elite visionaries would extract the resultant sand for making the cement of an all-scientific utopia, and…

But that won’t happen, either.  The spoiled children teaching in the academy don’t understand.  When kindergarten is all you’ve ever known and all you allow yourself to know, you never really see what’s happening out the window.

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