I began this examination of the meaning, sources, and history of public education with the young Benjamin Disraeli’s famous description of state schooling as “tyranny in the nursery.” Should we not be surprised, then, that Disraeli himself, barely a generation later, became a leading player in the development of his own nation’s compulsory school laws, relenting at last before the global push to “insure implicit obedience” to paternal government, as he had once put it?
No—or no more surprised than we should be to see what has gradually become of the entire civilized world since German idealism began its siege against Western thought and classical liberalism. Philosophical ideas are that potent. Politics and public sentiment, history’s proximate movers, are merely the playthings of ideas. Powerful thoughts, gradually disseminated, create societal waves whose impetus may be irreversible until they have exhausted themselves, perhaps only after having eroded much in their path that had once seemed immovable. Disraeli’s eroded principles on government schooling are a microcosm of the fate of late modern man. We have collectively given up the ghost—human nature—before the promise of a tidily micromanaged life, slowly trading away reason, freedom, and morality for the comforting, enslaving, protective embrace of the state.
In calling for private action against public education, I have made a special appeal to the Hamlets among us, and particularly to those inclined to object, “But it’s too late to save civilization now.” Allow me to say more directly, here at the end, that I do not disagree with that sentiment. It may truly be too late, a judgment some will regard as fatalistic, but only because they have been trained to political near-sightedness, as have we all, to some extent. We may be living modernity’s final scene. The main action having come and gone, our loss complete, we merely await a Fortinbras to issue his final lament on our fate.
Europe, the spiritual fount of modernity itself, and of the era’s defining glories—political equality, economic liberty, the dignity of the individual, all supported by the twin miracles of unleashed science and ennobling art of unprecedented sophistication—has been eagerly pursuing its own demise for a hundred nihilistic years. Today, the continent that bequeathed us this civilization, with its elevating religion, its novels, its symphonies, and its philosophies of freedom, subsists as a crumbling café for aging pseudo-intellectuals. Having gradually devised and disseminated the theoretical means to its own and the world’s undoing, our global-benefactor-cum-pompous-hothouse-flower, in its impractical vanity and its socialist self-emasculation, has placed itself at the mercy of any slightly militarized nation, faction, or household that should happen to form designs on its territory, geographical or mental. As medieval Islamism rears its fanatical head, and resumes cutting off those of the infidels, the European café’s leading big thinkers and big-thinking leaders seek to outdo one another with eloquent declarations of surrender. Europe, home of the Christian enrichment and elevation of women, now responds to uncivilized hordes of men molesting and mutilating girls in the name of religion by warning its own daughters not to provoke the madmen, and certainly not to complain about their actions. (That the most prominent voice in Europe’s world-historical cowering before Islamism is a German, a woman, and the leader of a Christian political party, is powerful proof that God enjoys a good joke.)
Meanwhile, Russia, somewhat foolishly thought tamed by the brutalities of three generations of Marxist internationalist leadership, lives in thrall to a thuggish demagogue whose smug self-assurance has captured his humbled nation’s hearts and hopes. Though a lifelong member of the very establishment that destroyed their country, he has nevertheless subverted their nascent democratization with romantic imagery of renewed greatness, and has begun to encroach upon his neighbors, and to seize the global initiative from an America neutered—economically, militarily, and spiritually—after several years of fundamental transformation by, of all things, its own homegrown cadre of Marxist internationalists.
China, the only major one-party state willing to learn from its mistakes, has temporarily forsaken the failed Maoist methods still idealized by many Western intellectuals and activists, in favor of adopting a facsimile of the corporatist economic model of the New World’s progressive century. Hence, paradoxically, as the totalitarian state slowly conditions its population to the subtler enslavements of soft despotism—a “free market” without private property rights, consumerism without self-ownership, freedom of movement without genuine self-determination—so the ostensibly free world is racing headlong in the opposite direction, right into the oppressions of full-on Maoist tyranny: effective one-party rule, with elections orchestrated as public performance only; government regulation of, and retribution against, politically undesirable speech and thought; university reconstituted as society’s attitude-correction cooperative and government activist training center; and the aggressive fostering of moral and political self-censorship, achieved through ubiquitous surveillance and social exposure, micro-management of public pieties via government child-rearing and state-compliant mass media, and the constant threat of public ostracism for those accused of displaying any of an ever-growing list of attitudes deemed unprogressive.
Throughout the so-called democratic world, from East to West, men have been conditioned, through generations of progressive ideology, propaganda, and coercion, into accepting what we might euphemistically call an instrumentalist view of their own lives and significance. That is to say, they have grown to accept that they are merely someone else’s tools, and that this is as it should be—in fact, that there is no conceivable alternative.
“Of course the state should have first claim on the fruits of my labor, and the right to determine how much I shall be permitted to keep for my own use; after all, I work for the collective. Of course the state should decide how and whether I may pursue medical treatment for my physical ailments or those of my loved ones, and control the timing and limits of such treatment; after all, I live at the whim and mercy of the state. Of course my exchanges of goods and services with my fellow citizens must be conducted according to state directives regarding how and with whom I may engage in such transactions; after all, my choice to partake in ‘economic activity’ is a tacit relinquishing of all private conscience and preferences to the state, which owns and operates the ‘market.’ Of course the ends and means of all child-rearing—that is, of the development and dissemination of knowledge, morality, and life goals throughout my society—must be determined and overseen by the state; after all, only the state has the expertise and resources to manage the vitally important task of cultivating cells for the social mind and workers for collective progress. For who else but the state itself would know best how to prepare people for the lives it requires of them? And who else but the state should have final say in the use and disposal of its own rightful property, namely us?”
Such is the reasoning of very late modernity, civilization on its death bed. Finally too tired to fight, bereft of noble aspirations or desires, she craves only the ease of non-resistance, while she drifts gradually into the semi-conscious haze of the peaceful, collective, mutual parasitism of today’s progressive totalitarian world—our brilliantly conceived artificial substitute for the war of all against all that Hobbes believed would result from the breakdown of civil society. To be more precise, the great coup of progressivism’s reversal of nature is precisely that civil society did not break down; rather, it was incrementally starved until it withered away, leaving in its wake only the omnipotent state itself—the antithesis of civility—to stand, with the reassuring smile of a palliative care doctor, between aging modernity and the prospect of a painful struggle for survival. Civilization, weary of life, is willing itself to sleep.
But what of The United States of America, for generations the final spiritual home of all people of any nation who believed in liberty and the promise of modernity? Her fate was perhaps sealed in a manner befitting a land built on the principle of self-determination. In 2012, a major world-historical shift was, for the first time, propelled by a democratic election, as America put liberty itself to a plebiscite. Faced with the choice of re-electing or rejecting a Marxist president supported by the Communist Party, who had promised to “fundamentally transform” (read “eviscerate”) her, and then spent his first term aggressively fulfilling that promise, America opted, in a free vote, to let him finish the job. With that vote, modern civilization’s last sentinel officially stood down. As of this writing, she faces an upcoming presidential election in which one of the two mainstream parties staged a nomination contest between a seventy-four-year-old socialist whose voter base consisted of radicalized youth protesting for free tuition, free abortions, and free drugs, and a sixty-nine-year-old authoritarian elitist despised and distrusted even by most of her supporters. Meanwhile, the other major party, in its zeal to crush its hated constitutionalist minority—liberty’s dying voice—has pursued a devil’s gambit, ceding whatever remained of its conscience to the personality cult of a narcissistic sociopath, a lifelong supporter of the governing establishment who, like the Russian strongman he admires, has rebranded himself as an outsider promising to renew the country’s greatness. The party leaders calculated that if this lunatic candidacy imploded, they would be able to sweep in with a handpicked savior who could not have won the support of the party’s freedom-loving grassroots through normal channels, while if it survived, they would still have achieved their primary mission of quashing the last-gasp constitutionalist uprising, in defense of their beloved progressive status quo.
In short, the nation of Washington and Jefferson, modernity’s great political achievement, is being roughly shepherded by its bipartisan ruling establishment into the false trichotomy of progressive mobocracy, progressive plutocracy, and progressive suicide cult. America’s long, slow descent appears to be accelerating into a death spiral.
Neither exceptional foresight nor exceptional pessimism is required to observe that the world’s short-term political prospects—and by short-term I mean at least the next three or four generations—are bleak. Our age’s foundation, which may still have felt solid as recently as 1900, when post-idealist progressivism was just beginning to gush freely from its academic hegemony down into political dominance, is now, to adapt a Churchillian construction, a mire resting in a bog within a swamp. Today, with self-erasure masquerading as philosophy, infantilism as morality, animalism as love, and fantasy IOUs and indoctrinated serfdom as a global economy, there appears to be no traversable path back to reason.
All, however, is not lost. Civilizations do decline and fall; to believe ours will be the exception is to give credence to the defining folly of progressivism. But the death of a civilization is not the death of mankind. Humanity continues, and a fresh round begins. The intervals of decay and tilling that inevitably occur between history’s peaks of cultivation and discovery are not mere empty spaces. They are spanned by the lives of real human beings. We are, so it seems, the first generation in such an interval. This unfortunate position in no way absolves us of the responsibilities of carrying on with life to the best of our abilities, regardless of immediate practical efficacy. Someone must do the tilling.
We have, first of all, a responsibility to our own souls, which in the long run is a duty more pressing than any historical struggle, for the eternal outweighs the temporal in significance as surely as the material outweighs the immaterial in bulk. But to care for your soul means to pursue the happiness suited to human nature to whatever extent is possible within your practical circumstances. In a more rational time, that pursuit might include direct political action aimed at supporting or strengthening the institutions of earthly freedom and justice. When general social deterioration has reached levels that seem to render such action futile, however, we are forced to retreat from the failed apparatus of common welfare to the private task of attending to the well-being of those souls within our immediate range of effectiveness and affection. In other words, we turn to education, which is both our noblest natural means of caring for ourselves and one another, and the only plausible path to any future restoration of civilized life.
A man sentenced to an indefinite prison term can do no better than use his period of confinement to set about improving his mind and character. If he is never released, he will nevertheless have made the happiest use of his time and energy. If he is released, he will reenter society a better man, more prepared to live well. Such is the standard of life and choice before us today—and by “us,” I mean those who refuse to relinquish their minds to tyranny, whatever may be imposed upon their bodies.
I have just given a capsule account of the death of modern politics. But politics, however inescapable in practical fact, is not the essence of life, a heartening truth never more apparent, nor indeed truer, than when one has the good fortune to encounter another human being in the one realm most capable of transcending our contemporary political ruins, namely the realm of thought and learning. For all the hopeless moral collectivism, economic despotism, and irrational progressivism definitive of our age taken as a whole, there always remains the unique individual, at least in theory touchable beyond all those barriers our ruling establishments have created to prevent or dilute natural human contact.
Socrates, in the hours before his execution by poisoning, sat in his cell discussing the immortality of the soul with his friends. The pleasures of rational thought and the enrichment of the beautiful souls in his midst were his final rebuttal to the (democratic) state that, by condemning him to die, had exerted its ultimate power over his physical existence. His soul remained unharmed, and his final efforts were aimed at ensuring that his students might achieve a similar victory.
Modern political injustice may be more insidious and pervasive than anything conceived of by our ancient predecessors. For today’s authoritarians have solved the riddle of Socrates, discovering that true social control requires imprisoning the souls, rather than merely the bodies, of one’s victims. They have learned that if a true man may never be completely subdued, then the key to lasting power is to subvert the natural development of true men. And yet even now, nature is capable of prevailing to some degree, in however diminished a form. I have enjoyed friendly relations with individuals, including students, from every region of the world I have just described as fully or incipiently tyrannical. When I teach John Locke to Chinese graduate students, help a Russian military reservist improve the logic of his argumentative writing, or advise a French girl struggling to adjust to life as a foreign student in Asia, there is no political abyss between us, no death of civilization thwarting our conversation. Such direct human contact, the most natural thing in the world, is still somewhat possible, even during a moment of political decay, and though always filtered through the nature-suffocating veil of universal educational suppression.
Souls, in their highest nature, are apolitical. The specific threat of government schooling, as I hope to have shown, is that its founding purpose and practical effect is to restrict access to that highest nature, precisely in order to prevent the emergence of the most liberating thoughts, and the most spiritual community, which belong to that realm beyond politics. The danger of that realm, to the paternalist, is that it reveals to men their natural aim—the true human good—and therefore clarifies for them the proper uses and limits of political power, which in turn exposes progressive authoritarianism as the unnatural scheme it has always been. This is why all progressive states feel the urgent need to curtail or filter the most intimate natural contact between human minds, particularly as this contact might affect the young. Children must never be exposed to pleasures that form habits of private virtue and intellectual longing, for such habits may become insurmountable obstacles to the complete social control the totalitarian craves. The oppressive fetters of which Humboldt wisely warned, and which he predicted would “compress men together into vast uniform masses,” were, and are, specifically fetters on the mind.
There will be no large-scale political revival for this age until a substantial plurality of minds have broken free of the artificial spiritual restraints of government schooling, and rediscovered the natural world of intellectual freedom which is our birthright, but which has long been concealed from us. To cultivate that revival, we must first prepare the soil, a task which, though requiring patience, is most rewarding. To teach a young mind over the head of the state is implicitly to reassert the proper hierarchy of social existence, in which government is our servant, rather than our master. This, in fact, was the great wisdom of modern political philosophy before progressivism overturned it to make way for unrestrained will to power. A return to nature in this all-important regard demands, above all else, families prepared to deny the state’s claim on the souls of their children—not to deny it merely in theory, but to deny it in practice.
Copyright © 2016 by Daren Jonescu
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, contact the author through the web address below.