In my last — admittedly lengthy — post, I explored the difference between the constrained and the unconstrained vision of humanity outlined in Thomas Sowell’s classic 1987 book, “A Conflict of Visions.” Since then, I’ve taken up reading several other, related works that touch on similar themes, either explicitly mentioned as sources by Sowell (Friedrich Hayek’s “Law, Legislation, and Liberty”) or which explicitly mention Sowell (Stephen Pinker’s “The Blank Slate”).
Hayek’s book, volume II of the series, is focused specifically on the question of social or distributive justice, which Hayek considers “a mirage”: an impossible, ephemeral goal usually requiring the total sacrifice of liberty and freedom, as well as an insensible anthropomorphism of a non-human process (the capitalistic economy).
Pinker’s book is a an analysis — historical, political, and scientific — of how the social constructivist vision of humanity came to dominate our understanding of human nature. In a sense, it’s an explanation of how the unconstrained vision won out over the constrained — and an attempt to push back and to argue for a more sensible position.
I’m only partway through both books (don’t ask why I’ve attempted both at the same time), and I’m eager to write about both once I’m finished.
In the meantime, I’ve been thinking quite a lot since I finished Sowell’s book about what it means to be someone who holds the constrained vision of humanity — while at the same time being a professional educator. Although I’ve thought a great deal about this question, my musings have led to little clarity, and I thought it time to drive toward some real understanding by way of writing this blog post.
To believe in the constrained vision means, first and foremost, to believe in a notion of human nature that is relatively fixed. To believe this is to believe that human beings inherently act in certain ways, think certain thoughts, have certain tools at their disposal, and share the same positive and negative traits. There is tremendous variation among humans, yes, but only to a certain point. A good example is the belief that all humans are subject to similar temptations and to being corrupted. Given enough power, all humans are inherently self-interested and will seize power at the expense of their fellows. All human beings, beyond a certain point, care little about those they do not know.
One telling example that Sowell cites is when he writes that the authors of The Federalist Papers simply took it for granted that without a carefully written constitution, the thirteen American colonies would of course spend their time warring with each other.
That is why, whenever I hear someone invoke the Marxist evil of “hegemony” — the notion that the ruling class is attempting to protect their interests via subtly means of manipulating the culture — I think to myself, “Isn’t that just inevitable, given human nature?” Why, after all, should one spend one’s time railing against this “injustice” when that’s what human beings are fundamentally set up to do?
That sort of frustration with human beings as they are reminds me of the old “Wade Blasingame” SNL skit: Will Farrell plays an attorney who sues *dogs* for unwanted behavior (humping legs, sniffing crotches, even pooping in yards). It’s a hilarious premise, and it’s clearly making fun of trial lawyers and their commercials, but the real comedy lies in the notion that anyone would expect dogs to be held to the same standards as humans — in other words, for dogs to act like something they’re not. It’s the point that both Sowell and Hayek are making about human beings: If there is an inherent human nature, evolved from a certain set of evolutionary requirements (as Pinker seems to argue) but largely incapable of transcending these relatively constrained capabilities, then what sense is it really to expect all humans to suddenly act like something they’re not?
Most postmodern critical theory that I read marries some form of real insight about injustice and oppression (which I appreciate and have learned from) with a misplaced belief that humans can somehow be trained to be what they are not. Whether the practices of various societies or groups represent “hegemony” is in itself a complex debate, but to what extent it’s possible to have a society that exists without a ruling group that tries to protect its own interests first and foremost is an entirely different question. I don’t think it is possible. And I agree with both Sowell and Hayek (so far) that the attempt to construct such a perfect society will create even worse problems than the original inequality or injustice that was set out to be fixed.
So what does it mean to have this belief as an educator? What does it mean to believe, as one vested with the power of teaching and shaping the next generation of young people, that these students are operating with a fairly constrained human nature?
The temptation with this position, of course, is to hold low expectations: since humans are inherently limited, there’s no sense in expecting much. But that’s clearly not what the constrained vision is saying. The constrained vision says that humans are capable of great things, even miraculous things, but that you can’t expect them to simply accomplish them out of nowhere. In this sense, actually I think most teachers are inclined toward a more constrained vision, if only because they work directly with human children every day and they quickly learn both to expect certain types of behavior, as well as not to expect miracles without doing a great deal of work. That’s the key: it takes work and careful developmental knowledge of human beings and their nature in order to move the dial as an educator. Whenever you read about a great teacher or a great coach, you always read that this person has “such a great understanding of his players” or “such a great understanding of children/teenagers/college kids).” Any great motivator, manager, manipulator, or educator must have this strong working knowledge of the beings before him. This knowledge, it is strongly implied, is not a knowledge that is begun anew with each student based on that child’s personal, cultural influences. It’s a more fundamental understanding of human nature, human desires, human wants, human strengths and weaknesses.
In short, the goal is to squeeze as much as you can from human potential, which requires understanding both how much you can expect and how best to squeeze.
Another key point that I think Sowell is getting at is that humans together, working in concert under a system that’s set up to incentivize their best attributes, are actually capable of way, way more than individual human beings alone. Smart systems get us safe, effective COVID vaccines at lightning-quick speeds, with teams of researchers around the globe competing and collaborating . . . where even the most genius individual scientist might have taken decades in isolation. Smart political systems get us the outlawing of discrimination, the advance of rights, the protection of minority viewpoints from persecution. There are historical achievements beyond the wildest dreams of even our own countrymen just a hundred years ago . . . but it was smart systems set up with a realistic understanding of how to channel human energies that achieved it, not some misplaced moral belief that humans should simply do better, act more moral, adhere to the rational planning of elite policymakers, or self-sacrifice to unheard-of degrees.
So I see a real optimism inherent in the constrained vision. It’s a more realistic one, a more measured one if you like, but still an audacious one. What’s more important is that it’s a more effective one, in my belief. If you truly understand the human creatures that you’re working with, you’re better able to diagnose the reality of complex problems — be they social ones, political ones, or educational ones. If you really believe that humans are chess pieces, you’re going to be frustrated and angry. If you begin your career as a teacher — which you probably will — expecting that students are going to respond to your carefully calibrated lesson plans by acting exactly as you expected, you’re in for a surprise. But if you’re able to more realistically understand where your students are, if you acknowledge that they’re human beings possessing free will and apt to respond to your plans with their own intentions, often largely focused on their own interests and no more, you’ll have a lot clearer an idea of what you can do and what you can’t. You’ll be better able to design lessons that anticipate their needs, to pen them in so that they can’t wriggle free, and to provide them with the correct instruction and incentives to drive them forward.
So in that sense, I think that being a teacher, precisely because it does not incline one to expect miracles, because it’s focused, incremental work with unwilling participants more than happy to sidetrack your plans for their own causes, more than lends itself toward the constrained vision.
But these are questions of methods. What about goals? How does being an adherent of one of the two Sowell visions affect one’s educational goals?
Within the unconstrained vision, I see two possibilities.
First, I see the romantic tradition, expressed in Rousseau’s belief that man is born free, but everywhere in chains. It is only institutions that constrain humans, while inherently humans are good, noble savages. This is the school of “natural” pedagogy that wishes to see children develop naturally, with as little corrupting influence from schools as possible.
It seems to me that this can be but is not necessarily the same as the unconstrained vision. The unconstrained vision says that humans are capable of achieving great things through the rational planning of a well ordered society run by those who are born extraordinary or who have advanced to become extraordinary. Or perhaps that by being inspired by those who are extraordinary, normal humans can transcend the boundaries of normal human limitations. Does this simply mean that the rational plans of the elite simply involve removing the corrupt institutions and getting humans to be allowed to develop more naturally? I’m not sure that it does. It’s very different to say that humans, developing naturally, will be at their best, versus saying that humans do have the capacity to end lasting problems forever, if only they could be more than they are. Perhaps those two perspectives could align, but not necessarily.
And yet, the noble savage ideal, insofar as it is a utopian belief in the perfectibility of man, is certainly an “unconstrained” vision, no matter what. So the noble savage and the unconstrained aren’t the same, but surely the latter includes the former.
The second possibility that I see under the unconstrained vision is the “blank slate” ideal — the social constructionist idea of human beings as blank slates who can be inherently “written upon” and molded from a young age.
This is really the other vision that I was referencing just above — not natural development, but government-run everything — all in the name of equality (or perhaps, “equity”). This view of education inclines toward a fairly strong educational system that takes an activist role in explicitly promoting specific social values and attitudes. This view says that complex social problems can not only be managed, but completely solved — through education. It is the view that Hannah Arendt discusses in her classic essay, “The Crisis in Education.” For Arendt, American is a country that was conceived in perpetual “newness” — new immigrants — and which itself was founded in — if not quasi-utopian ideals, certainly then at least the idea of building a new order. In her view, any utopian order is based on the idea that it’s simply easiest to start by, as Plato did, throwing out the old and beginning with entirely new human beings, whom the wise rulers can simply indoctrinate into the new ideals.
And it is this same impulse that is still with us today in all matter of social reconstructionist, reformist, high-minded idealism that sees not only education as a way of staving off ignorance, but a bona fide way to dramatically reshape society.
Perhaps the extreme vision at the other end is the cynical old educator who believes that all children are inherently wicked and must therefore be civilized at all costs. Perhaps this is the Hobbesian view.
Anyway, this post has already gotten too long, and I’m not sure if I’ve attained any of the clarity I sought. I’ll have to keep thinking about Sowell’s formulation and its implications for an educator.