What is the origin of the divide between today’s political Left and Right in the United States? It’s a fascinating question, and according to Yuval Levin, in his book, The Great Debate, which I’ve just read, the modern Right-Left debate originates in the conflicting worldviews of two non-Americans: Thomas Paine, representing the origins of the Left, and Edmund Burke, representing the origins of the Right.
Thomas Sowell’s contention in his book, A Conflict of Visions, is that the origin of this division is a fundamental disagreement about the basic moral capabilities of human beings. Those who believe humans are fundamentally capable of great achievement beyond the ordinary scope of human behavior – especially in the form of moral sacrifice or altruism – tend to fall on the political Left, while those who believe humans are inherently constrained and limited tend to fall on the political Right.
One specific that I’m not sure Sowell touches on – but that Levin does – is the question of exactly why those on the “unconstrained” side view humans (or at least some humans) as being capable of extraordinary moral achievement. This is where Levin’s outline of the political vision of Thomas Paine, patron saint of the political left, according to Levin, is particularly useful.
Several years ago, I tried to read Emile, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s uber-classic and revolutionary book on education. I got about halfway before I had to abandon ship, and I managed only one short blog post about what I’d read. It was too much. Rousseau is a spectacular writer, but the book is long, formless, and almost too rich to digest all at once. Each chapter, each page, has so much on it; when I gave up finishing it two years ago, it was with the clear sense that I knew I’d return in a few years once I was more ready. Now it’s the time.
I just picked it up again the other day and read the preface and the first chapter – I’m taking it slowly this time – and I was absolutely amazed at how extraordinary this book is. It is completely mesmerizing and absolutely foundational as an educational text that influenced the way we conceive of schools down to this day. I once read a quote that said Plato’s Republic and Rousseau’s Emile are the only two books you really need to read in order to understand our modern educational controversies. After reading even this short section of Emile again, I think that author may be correct.
After spending some time reading first Freire and then Marx, trying to determine their understandings of human nature, I figured it was high time to read someone with a totally contrasting view, and who better to contrast with the sage of communism than the high priest of capitalism, Adam Smith? Instead of his more famous – and lengthy – work, The Wealth of Nations, I thought I might start with his lesser-known The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS). I made this selection not only because the title promised more direct access into Smith’s view of human conduct and human nature, but also because I’d encountered intriguing quotes from TMS in more than a few books I respect.
Even after last week’s lengthy post about Freire, I still have quite a bit more I’d like to say about his most famous book. I had originally wanted to write about his actual pedagogical method, which very few people discuss but which is fascinating. (Students look at pictures that have been purposely given “coded” themes which students are supposed to be able to tease out.) I would also like to write more about how self-consciously revolutionary the book is; Chapter 4 in particular seems to be explicitly written with the audience of political revolutionaries in mind.
While I’d still quite like to write about these topics in the future, after writing that last marathon post, I found myself so exhausted from such a long and in-depth study of Freire’s philosophic anchor points that I couldn’t bring myself to write any more.
A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about my first time reading Paulo Freire’s classic 1968 educational tract, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. This is surely one of the most influential books ever written about education, and Freire himself has been more influential on modern education than any other single figure since John Dewey. At the very least, it’s a text every educator should read and come to terms with.
After spending so much time recently reading books that help me understand the historical roots of modern critical theory, which is to say, works that are for the most part fundamentally deconstructive and fundamentally “unconstrained” in their vision of humans (to borrow Thomas Sowell’s phrase), I thought it was high time to read something that would help me to understand the roots of the other side: the constrained, the moderate, the conservative. And there it was — still sitting on my shelf from when I must have read it during college — the birthplace of modern conservatism:
“[I]t is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society, or on building it up again without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes” (54).
That’s Edmund Burke, in his famous and controversial Reflections on the Revolution in France: a hugely influential book both in its time and in the centuries since. The writer Russell Kirk once wrote, “If conservatives would know what they defend, Burke is their touchstone; and if radicals wish to test the temper of their opposition, they should turn to Burke.” It figured it was time to do the same.
(Note: I wrote this post some months ago, but had forgotten to publish it, during the lead-up to my extended series on identifying the goals of a good reading curriculum. I publish it now as a kind of belated preface to that lengthy series.)
In my continuing quest to understand the moral dimension of curriculum, I came across a fascinating journal article from 1988 called “Recalling the Moral Force of Literature in Education” by John Willinsky. Willinsky’s main point is that educators rarely make the moral import of literature a stated goal, which leaves them somewhat powerless in the face of calls for curricular censorship. He writes:
“We seem to have relinquished the language of moral fervor, the sense that literature can influence moral sensibilities, can shape views of the world, or that it can educate emotions . . . [W]e leave the rhetorical force of this moralizing language to those who would use it to restrict our choice of books from which to teach.”
What’s more, he adds, not only are educators abandoning ethical ground to the would-be censors, but they are also acceding it to the critics. For even if educators don’t put much stock in the moral curriculum, a variety of observers take it for granted: “
Now that I’ve finished Steven Pinker’s momentous 2002 book, The Blank Slate, I find it somewhat hard to write about. It’s not that I didn’t have a strong reaction. I did: I loved it. It’s that there’s so much: The Blank Slate is an exhaustive, many-avenued, in-depth, provocative work – friendly and caustic all at once – such a dense, rich mixture of such variety and depth that it’s almost hard to know what I think of it after one reading. There are small chapters – even halves of chapters – that could set me thinking for months. For example, one of my favorite recent books, Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions, comes up partway through one chapter, is given the most virtuosic analysis imaginable, and then stowed away, just one single prong in an extensive, many-layered argument that Pinker’s making in just one small quadrant of this tour-de-force. It’s a massive work, a memorable one, but a hard one to come away from with a coherent take.
Pinker’s main theory is that there are three pervasive cultural myths that we employ to deny the possibility of an innate human nature: the notion that humans are born as Lockean blank slates (with no innate capacities or predilections), the conception of humans as Rousseauian noble savages (innately gentle, peaceful, and only corrupted by social constructionism and civilization), and the belief in a Cartesian “ghost in the machine” – the belief that we possess a mind or a soul that is phantasmic in substance rather than biological, unbound by the dictates of regular physiology (and nature).
This post is the continuation of the (long, long!) series I’ve been writing about the goals of a good secondary-level reading curriculum. I left off a few posts back describing several initial goals, and below, I continue describing some further ones.
Moral Complexity and Values Clarification
As you can see from the last post in this series, I hit on a point that I think is important to keep in mind, particularly when one imagines encountering a book challenge: Even though it’s fairly uncontroversial to say that one is offering students books that are “windows” into alternative experiences, the question of which windows a teacher is providing is not necessarily an uncontested one. It is one thing to imagine providing “windows” into the experiences of those one’s community believes should be empathized with; it is quite another to provide students with windows into the experiences of characters of whom one’s community may not entirely approve. This is the classic case of the progressive teacher who wishes to expose students to literature that seems to question the status quo against a community’s wishes. My point is not that this is a new case, only that this teacher cannot easily defend himself simply by falling back on the notion of providing alternative viewpoints for students in order to broaden their perspective. In a sense, he needs a value deeper and more positive than mere exposure. The same goes, I believe, when one is in a liberal community and is attempting to get students to read books from the past that contain what are considered to be retrograde attitudes or viewpoints or even expressions. One cannot simply fall back on the notion of providing a “variety of perspectives” when some people so clearly believe that providing a variety of perspectives is a bad idea. Instead, one needs a more positive defense.