Friday, June 23, 2017

Vapid but haunting

Gloria Swanson sadly strums the ukulele in Cecil B. De Mille's Don't Change Your Husband (1919). From Fritzi.
Two score and thirteen years ago, the social critic Paul Goodman brought forth a book titled Compulsory Miseducation, in which he argued that school was an overrated way of dealing with childhood and there was too much of it for most kids, especially in the horrible, oppressive and embarrassing, petit-bourgeois moral code within which it was conducted in those days. It was pretty thrilling at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, but to be honest the whole treatment seems a little callow nowadays, in its willful ignoring of the economic realities that meant the kind of education he had in mind could be very attractive to some among the very privileged, but look like an insult to everybody else. Indeed, what's developed is a two-tier system where the wealthy have the option of a creative, flexible education and the periodic dropout period, while the non-wealthy must apply themselves to the grimmest old-style grind.

Unless you're former New York Times columnist David Brooks, who offers his own critique of contemporary schooling in a column he calls "Mis-Educating the Young" (first time that hyphen has been used in The Times, as far as I can learn, since 1933, demonstrating once again that David Brooks has no editor). To him it's the very privileged who have gotten the worst deal:

We pump them full of vapid but haunting praise about how talented they are and how their future is limitless. Then we send them (the most privileged of them) to colleges where the professors teach about what interests the professors. Then we preach a gospel of autonomy that says all the answers to the deeper questions in life are found by getting in touch with your “true self,” whatever the heck that is.
"Vapid but haunting" sounds like a self-description. I have no idea what kind of school he's talking about, let alone whether it exists, except it's clear that the future really is limitless for "the most privileged among them" who are being given an opportunity to study with intellectuals who get to do what they love instead of being shoehorned into rote teaching with PowerPoints, the kind of meaningless repetition that everybody else will have to make a career of. So that one day, even when you're a millionaire opinionator for the world's most important newspaper and writing that stupid educate-the-spirit column for the 20th time, you'll probably feel really sad. It's all the fault of your high school.

I think it's telling that he's baffled by the concept of a "true self". Brooks doesn't have one, or the one he has is vapid and ghostly, looming in the peripheral vision but too faint and shuddery to grasp. He wants an education that will give him a soul, and get him at last out of the psychic uncertainties of 8th grade:

I’d say colleges have to do much more to put certain questions on the table, to help students grapple with the coming decade of uncertainty: What does it mean to be an adult today? What are seven or 10 ways people have found purpose in life? How big should I dream or how realistic should I be? What are the criteria we should think about before shacking up? What is the cure for sadness? What do I want and what is truly worth wanting?
Please, teacher, I have a couple of questions! Give me some techniques for finding a purpose in life! Give me a pre–shacking up checklist! (Let's see, "Kids, before shacking up, ask yourself how much do I have culturally in common with my potential partner? Is she 25 years younger than me?") What is the cure for sadness? What do I want?

(The spelled-out vs. numeral "seven or 10" is, in fact, Times house style, suggesting that maybe there is an editor, but one who only enforces the paper's bad decisions.)

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