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How To Be A Rich Barbarian

When we think of the term “barbarian,” we imagine wild-eyed savages who live on instinct, versus those who have mastered their instincts (relatively speaking) and have learned how to live in civilization. But that is only a partial definition. In Dark Age Ahead, her final book (and not, it must be said, as good as […]

When we think of the term “barbarian,” we imagine wild-eyed savages who live on instinct, versus those who have mastered their instincts (relatively speaking) and have learned how to live in civilization. But that is only a partial definition. In Dark Age Ahead, her final book (and not, it must be said, as good as it might have been; I can’t recommend it to you), the urban theorist Jane Jacobs defined barbarism as a state of ignorance. We become barbarians when we lose a sense of history, and come only to believe in the Everlasting Now. She believed that we were entering a new Dark Age, in part because we had given ourselves over to instinct, and in part because we were forgetting who we are. She writes about the condition of sliding into barbarism from civilization as a process of forgetting:

During a Dark Age, the mass amnesia of survivors becomes permanent and profound. The previous way of life slides into an abyss of forgetfulness, almost as decisively as if it had not existed.

A key part of the process, Jacobs argued, is coming to see education wholly in instrumental terms — that is, in terms of how useful it can be to one. Useful in what way? In creating material affluence. She decries how education has become a matter of credentialism. Like I said, this is not a very good book, only because it’s a mess. But it does have good insights.

Anyway, I thought of Jacobs when I read this blog entry about education, by Howard Ahmanson. The key lines:

The philosophy behind ‘good’ school districts is the same humanistic, Deweyan philosophy that underlies bad ones.  For the vast majority of suburbanites, whose primary values, as Francis Schaeffer pointed out more than 40 years ago [and it hasn’t changed] “personal peace and affluence” are primary, trumping free expression on the one hand and character on the other, excellence in schools is defined in terms of the ability to empower children economically, and ‘character’ is defined as those qualities that will help children succeed economically.

…  Here’s another good one from the Daily Beast, entitled “Do Good Parents Send Their Kid to Public School?”  In the comment thread, it is made clear that in a technical society it seems to be a lot more important to know STEM [which I think means Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math] for one’s future than it is to know when the Civil War was.  I don’t like that myself, but it adds to my suspicion that the real reason ‘Western Civ has got to go’ is not white male guilt, but that it is perceived as having no cash value.

That’s an important point. Many middle-class or wealthy people don’t consider themselves barbarians at all. But if they see the passing on of wisdom and knowledge of higher culture not as the heart of education, but rather as a useless appendage, then they are barbarians, no matter how nice their lawn looks.

An example: this year, when our local school district had to cut staff because of a budget shortfall, they gutted the arts faculty. It wasn’t because the school administration are bad people; it was because the state tests for a narrow band of knowledge — mostly in math and biology — and thereby declares that the arts are ancillary to what it means to be educated. Local school districts’ hands are tied. Look, for example, at how the state evaluates 8th graders in US history: there’s nothing there about the ideas behind the founding of America, our constitutional order, or anything like it. Look at its standards for evaluating high school English: it’s entirely about technical skills. According to the state of Louisiana, the highest achievers in its English evaluation will be able to:

1. develop essays that integrate well-chosen evidence to support the central idea;
2. produce essays that contain varied and fluent sentences;
3. revise sentences for correct use of subjunctive mood;
4. determine the main idea when it is implicit in a complex text;
5. develop conclusions based on information synthesized from the text;
6. analyze an author’s use of complex literary elements in a text;
7. evaluate arguments in a complex text;
8. demonstrate an understanding of persuasive techniques;
9. evaluate claims in information resources using evidence; and
10. synthesize information from multiple information resources.

Important skills, for sure! But this is not knowledge; this is the mastery of technique. The state does not test for whether or not a student knows anything about the content of the tradition of English literature. The content does not matter to the evaluators; technique is all that matters. Students could learn how to succeed on this test if they were fed a diet of literary junk food, as long as they grasped how to manipulate the symbols.

You can graduate from a public high school in Louisiana having read nothing significant in our culture’s literary tradition, knowing nothing about our musical tradition, or visual arts tradition, being completely ignorant of basic Western philosophical concepts, and so forth — and the state of Louisiana will consider you to be educated, as long as you can show mastery of math, biology, and the techniques of historical analysis (as well as basic historical facts) and the techniques of understanding textual interpretation.

This is a sophisticated kind of barbarism, if you ask me.

UPDATE: A reader e-mails:

This was exactly my complaint about Harry Potter: the wizarding educational system (and the wizarding world more generally) was completely lacking in anything but the empty manipulation of symbols and words. No literature, no art, no philosophy, no history, no civics. Why was anyone surprised Hogwarts turned out so many death eaters?