A couple of posts below I linked to An Infuriating Man, an essay by Leo Rosten about economist Milton Friedman. In the post between this one and that one, I mentioned that I fairly recently read the book Conversations with Eric Sevareid: Interviews with Notable Americans. It so happens that Leo Rosten was one of Mr. Sevareid’s guests, and that transcript was one in the book. Taped on August 24, 1975, Sevareid introduces Rosten:
“Wisdom,” according to Leo Rosten, “is only the capacity to confront intolerable ideas, with composure. Most men debase the pursuit of happiness by transforming it into a foolish pursuit of fun. But where was it promised that the purpose of life is to be happy? To me, the most important thing in life is to matter, to count, to stand for something. In short, to have it make some difference that you lived at all.”
Leo Rosten has taught at Yale, Stanford, Columbia and the University of California. In addition to all else, he’s an astute economist trained at the University of Chicago and the London School of Economics. He belongs to an interesting intellectual mutation. He was a New Deal liberal in Franklin Roosevelt’s day; today he’s a neo-conservative. From old liberal to new conservative is paradoxically a function of aging and changing society. Neo-conservatives don’t believe that education or government can determine the total picture of American society.
This is the earliest reference I have seen of the term “neo-conservative.” I was a little surprised that it dates back to at least 1975.
The interview begins:
Rosten: We didn’t assume thirty years ago that the schools could solve all our problems. We never assumed that politics could solve them. In fact, this country was based on the commanding idea that the politicians should do and what the government should do is make it possible for people to pursue happiness. Now the disenchanted say, “Make me happy!” Schools can’t make anyone happy.
Sevareid: What happened? Some of the Supreme Court decisions, some of the rules from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, from the federal government, are going to instruct every high school in every local community what boys and girls can do, what sports they can play at together, and what can or can’t be done in the locker room. (Title IX passed in 1972.) This would have made Alexander Hamilton and Ben Franklin turn in their graves. Why shouldn’t local communities have something to say about how children are educated?
Rosten: I think the tide has to turn. The story of the growth of federal power is one of the most lamentable in American history. I think historians of the future will mark 1932 as one of the black years of American history – not that Roosevelt was a bad President, not that he didn’t do extraordinary things. His greatest talent was that of a politician. He cemented a society that was falling to pieces in very ugly ways. But what he did was start the pattern by which instead of fixing your community’s bridge you wrote to your Congressman and asked him to get Congress to appropriate $28,000 for your bridge – a pattern by which everything is taken care of by federal money. What’s wrong with this is that it prevents the most powerful engine mankind has ever known, the free market, from working.
I think we are now beginning to learn that it is foolish to assume that people in Washington know better how to run Alameda County that the men who are farming in Alameda County.
I don’t think the lesson stuck.
Rosten on the press:
Sevareid: A long time ago, during the 1930’s, you wrote the first real sociological study of the Washington press corps. A lot has changed since then. It’s now a vast herd of people. The tone has changed. The press has itself become a great controversial issue. What’s the big difference now?
Rosten: The decline of newspapers, the decline of local papers, the pabulumized news leads me to read weekly journals more than ever because they at least put things into perspective. The kind of person who now goes into journalism may also be different.
Now even the weeklies are pabulum, and the dailies are dying from decreasing readership.
Sevareid: The Watergate adventures have something to do with it. Press people have been lured and forced out of their normal roles to a degree. They’ve become actors in the play themselves. They’re writing about each other. There also is a new level of howling monkeys at news conferences. They’ve given the press a pretty bad image with lots of people. Some reporters seem to think they’re prosecuting attorneys at every encounter with officials. They don’t understand that civility is not the enemy of freedom; it’s an ally.
Rosten: I have the feeling that the editorial pages of this country, with the exception of the Wall Street Journal, are repeating the cliches of the 1940’s and 1950’s. “If a government program fails it’s because not enough money was put into it. Let’s put more money into it!” And more and more money is poured down the rat hole.
Or, as Steven Den Beste put it, cognitive dissonance leading to “escalation of failure.”
And, finally, Leo Rosten on education:
Sevareid: Leo, you’ve written about everything, thought about everything, studied everything. You’re a great generalist, which is not much in fashion any more. What’s happened to the knowledge industry? Sociologists, economists, psychologists, psychiatrists, seem rather bankrupt. Have we overburdened the human mind with too many facts? Vocabulary seems to have outrun knowledge, which has outrun wisdom. Where do we turn?
Rosten: We’ve always gone on the assumption (a good one) that education will liberate the human mind or the human spirit. There’s a second assumption that’s forgotten. Some people are meant to be educated and to learn and to enjoy the uses of the mind. Some people are meant to paint. Some people are meant to draw castles in the sand and make them into sculpture. Some people love to prune trees and gardens. What we have done is assume that everyone can potentially become an intellectual. We’ve confused learning with schooling.
It’s absolutely absurd that in this country today there should be seven million youngsters going to college. There are not seven million people who want to read Plato or Aristotle or Montesquieu. And there’s no reason why they should. We have failed to see that there aren’t enough jobs for those who learn esoteric things. For a while there was a big fling on learning Swahili in New York. Lots of kids were studying it because it was part of the Black movement, the idea of Black identity, Black liberation. It so happens that Swahili was the language of the Arab slave traders. In any event, what good does it do to know Swahili? I don’t mean “good” simply in terms of economics. What sort of good does it do?
When you’re young, when your mind and spirit are like a sponge, there is no better time to learn certain things and there is no worse time to learn certain things. I would abolish the study of some courses except for students aged thirty and above.
I was lucky as a child of the depression. I couldn’t get a job for three years. I was lonely and miserable. At the end of those three years, because I was desperate, I went back to school. I was older than my classmates, I had learned something. I had learned how hard it is to walk all day long, trying to earn a dollar. I had learned how important it is to save, to appraise people, to figure out if this or that guy can be trusted or not trusted. This is what life and the world are about.
We’re practically using the colleges as a dump into which to put youngsters we do not know what to do with. There are today 45 million people between the age of roughly 7 and 24. Their parents don’t know what to do with them. They want them to go to college and they often think that they’re being trained for jobs. But they’re not getting training for useful employment.
Someone has said that education is what remains after everything you’ve learned is forgotten. The purpose of educating young people is not only to illuminate their spirit and enrich their memory bank but to teach them the pleasures of thinking and reading. How do you use the mind? As a teacher, I always was astonished by the number of people in the classroom who wanted to learn as against those who just wanted to pass. I took pride in my ability to communicate. Generally “communicate” meant one thing. Now the young think “communicate” means “Agree with me!”
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
But here’s the kicker:
Rosten: The student rebellions of the 1960’s exposed the fact that our entire educational system has forgotten the most important thing it can do prior to college: indoctrinate. I believe in the indoctrination of moral values. There’s a lot to be said for being good and kind and decent. You owe a duty to those who have taken care of you. You owe a duty to whatever it is that God or fate gave you – to use your brain or your heart. It’s senseless to whine, to blame society for every grievance, or to assume that the presence of a hammer means you have to go out to smash things.
The young want everything. They think they can get everything swiftly and painlessly. They are far too confident. They don’t know what their problems are, not really. They talk too much. They demand too much. Their ideas have not been tempered by the hard facts of reality. They’re idealists, but they don’t sense that it’s the easiest thing in the world to be an idealist. It doesn’t take any brains. This was said by Aristotle 2300 years ago. Mencken once said that an idealist is someone who, upon observing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, assumes that it will also make better soup.
To some extent, Rosten sounds like all elders complaining about youths:
Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders, and love chatter in places of exercise. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. they contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers. – Socrates
I am ambivalent on the topic of “indoctrination.” My problem is with what that indoctrination entails. Rosten objects to the failure of the educational system to indoctrinate moral values. I’d say it still does. It just doesn’t indoctrinate goodness, kindness, and decency anymore. It indoctrinates “multicuturalism,” “tolerance,” “sensitivity,” “fairness,” “socialism,” and “self-esteem.” It fails to instruct in history, civics, ethics, mathematics, English, or for that matter, job skills. The education system receives “young skulls full of mush” and processes them right on through, sending them into the world with what Ayn Rand described as “a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears.”
The reasons for this are myriad. Diane Ravitch puts part of the blame (convincingly) on the textbook companies who are loath to put anything in a text that someone, anyone, might find offensive. I put a large part of the blame on the influx of socialist True Believers into the ranks of educators since the time of John Dewey. As far as public schools are concerned, we’ve abandoned the idea that education can liberate the human mind or human spirit. Schools are now warehouses, run by administrators terrified of lawsuits and too many teachers who are literally tyrannized by their charges and their parents. Indoctrination still goes on, though. Read this lovely little op-ed by Mark Bradley, a history teacher from Sacramento. I bet his classes are popular!
It would seem that if you want some good indoctrination, your only choices are homeschooling or private – often ecumenical – schools.
Indoctrination of children is not necessarily a bad thing, but somewhere along the line we stopped paying attention to what was and what wasn’t getting poured into their heads, and it started long before 1975.