Reverting to Spiritual Savagery

What follows is the concluding paragraphs of a three-part series written by Thomas Bertonneau for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy web site. Thomas Bertonneau teaches at SUNY-Oswego, and he offers insight into where education is failing today (from the editor’s note).

Read this, then click on the links below to read the whole three-part series.

 

Reverting to Spiritual Savagery

The disaster lies beyond the control of any individual (although one nevertheless does what he can) and it accelerates asymptotically. Perhaps the only thing we can do is laugh, laugh at the irony of a society that was once the most literate that ever existed now reverting to the spiritual savagery of tribal existence. The fateful joke is that the technical gewgaws that fascinate children and prevent them from maturing intellectually—from becoming readers, for example—could only have been invented in a science-saturated, massively literate society.

I see in the resentful incapacity of so many students a not-so-dim “Shape of Things to Come” whose characteristics will be theirs: perceptive obtuseness, expressive coarseness, extreme limitation of language and therefore also of concept, radical unfitness to judge complicated technical or moral problems, complete disconnection from any meaningful past and, to borrow a term from Oswald Spengler, in a condition utterly “historyless.”

The world soon to be dominated by such people (their world is already rapidly consolidating itself around us) will be awkward and ham-fisted; it will respond slowly and in all likelihood badly to the complicated problems that will impose their contingency on it. Petulance will characterize it universally: people who find it hard to think straight or to sort out complexities will balk at doing so and become adept at finding reasons for ignoring urgent social, moral, and political challenges. They will be even more amenable than many people already are to pandering, “magical” solutions to emergencies offered by cynical politicians who are interested solely in re-election.

Secretly aware of their limitations, they will also be susceptible to flattery designed to boost their all-important self-esteem. The level of commercial culture will descend even further than it already has to placate the taste of people who have rejected humane education and who do not really understand adult issues. As a student wrote in response to Iphigenia by Euripides, getting the tragedian’s message exactly backwards, people “must trust their leaders and things will be fine in the end.” Many older, genuinely educated people surviving into this not-too-distant future will find the new world infantile and exasperating.

William James wrote that the role of the intellect is to resolve into a comprehensible image the raw perceptual blur of reality. When the educational system rejects cultivating intellect as its primary goal and dedicates itself instead to fostering feelings, opinions, and baseless pride, it will discharge at the end of twelve years young people for whom the Jamesian “buzz” of phenomena cannot resolve into a comprehensible image. I mean to argue, in citing the student passages given above, much more than that contemporary undergraduates are poorly educated and lazy, even though they are those things in spades. I mean to argue that a deficient but entrenched pedagogy based on “progressive” theories of education has betrayed students by refusing to grant them the dignified status of real mentality, of adult awareness, and of literate sensibility.

Part 1    Part 2    Part 3

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