Category Archives: Musings
I came across this hit piece at the New York Times recently, that uses guilt by association to demonize White House Chief Strategist Stephen K. Bannon and scare its readership into questioning the Trump administration’s motives and legitimacy. The headline itself begins with dark and ominous tones. “Taboo Italian Thinker Is Enigma to Many, but Not to Bannon.”
Uh oh, who is this obscure Italian, and why is he taboo? And how can an obscure Italian philosopher be an enigma to many, when most Americans have never heard of him?
Those trying to divine the roots of Stephen K. Bannon’s dark and at times apocalyptic worldview have repeatedly combed over a speech that Mr. Bannon, President Trump’s ideological guru, made in 2014 to a Vatican conference, where he expounded on Islam, populism and capitalism.
But for all the examination of those remarks, a passing reference by Mr. Bannon to an esoteric Italian philosopher has gone little noticed, except perhaps by scholars and followers of the deeply taboo, Nazi-affiliated thinker, Julius Evola.
The first sentence passes off opinion as fact, and sets the tone for how the reader is supposed to feel about the rest of the article. “Bannon’s dark and at times apocalyptic worldview.” (Cue ominous organ music.) The second paragraph delves deeper. It tells us Bannon made a “passing reference” to Julius Evola, a 20th-Century Italian occultist and fascist intellectual. What was this reference? You’d have to dig to the bottom of the article to find it.
Mr. Bannon suggested in his Vatican remarks that the Fascist movement had come out of Evola’s ideas.
As Mr. Bannon expounded on the intellectual motivations of the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, he mentioned “Julius Evola and different writers of the early 20th century who are really the supporters of what’s called the Traditionalist movement, which really eventually metastasized into Italian Fascism.”
As the article points out, Bannon was actually incorrect. Evola used the fascist movement to promote his ideas, not vice versa. The real intellectual architect of Italian fascism was Giovanni Gentile. But so what? Bannon’s crime is having a passing knowledge of obscure philosophers and interwar European history? That’s like saying anyone who has read about terrorism is a proponent of terrorism.
Over the past several years, education reformers (as well as parents) have come to ask fundamental questions about the nature of our public school system. Why, for example, despite the ever-increasing amount of tax dollars spent per pupil in grades K-12, have increases in test scores virtually flat lined since the 1970s? Why has improvement in the quality of K-12 education not kept pace with technological and scientific development? Why have public schools failed to properly prepare so many students for entering the workplace?
One answer is that public schools lack any incentive to produce results, innovate, to be efficient, and to make the kinds of difficult changes that private schools operating in a competitive market must make to survive. If a private school is performing poorly, or they find the curriculum lacking, parents can enroll their children somewhere else. Currently, the high property taxes that fund public schools insure that many parents are not able to afford to have that choice.
Some have advocated a voucher system as a solution to this dilemma. Essentially, voucher advocates argue that tax dollars set aside for education should “follow the child” to the school of his or her parents’ choice. A check or coupon worth roughly the amount we currently spend per student in grades K-12 would be given to each child. That way, parents who want to send their children to private school, but could not afford to under the current system, would be able to use their voucher to pay for their child’s tuition.
Few institutions in the United States create more cognitive dissonance than its public school system. Complaints about the cost and quality of American schools fill newspaper opinion pages, and the rhetoric of “improving education” is a staple of every political campaign. Missing from this debate, however, is the role each and every person plays in his or her own education. This responsibility is much more important in determining quality of education than how much money is spent. Even the poorest among us, by embracing a return to the fundamentals of school, can take advantage of all being an educated person has to offer.
The time is ripe for a new way of looking at school. A Wall Street Journal and NBC poll taken in September 2010 found that 58% of those surveyed think public schools need “major changes” and only 5% believe they “work pretty well.” The pessimism of these respondents is justified. In 2005, for example, a study called “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” led to a twofold increase in Federal funding for science education. A recent Congressional review of the results, however, found little improvement in U.S. elementary and secondary science education. More public funding and more Federal interference in science classrooms had virtually no effect in raising test scores, because simply doing more of the same thing is not going to solve the problem. We not only need to challenge what it means to be “educated” in the U.S., we need to recognize the limits of publicly funded or government-controlled education.
Proponents of publicly funded education are correct in insisting that education empowers, but their arguments in favor of continued government intervention in schooling can only be sustained as long as “being educated” is defined by the state. Currently, a person who is educated in the eyes of the state is a person who has passed all required exams, meaning that he or she has memorized certain facts and is able to recite them with over 70% accuracy. Multiple studies, surveys, and “man on the street” interviews have shown, however, that even among those who have graduated a public high school in the United States, there are many who lack critical thinking skills and basic knowledge of logic, math, science, history, and geography, as well as other markers of “intelligence.”
Previously, in “Education and the Individual,” I discussed how the two competing educational methods in the public education system in the United States both presuppose a state monopoly on education, and how both seek to impose a uniform purpose and set of standards for all children. In this article, I will lay out the fundamental premises of individual-oriented education and will propose a few examples that illustrate what individual-oriented education might look like.
There are three basic premises of individual-oriented education: 1) All children are not born with the same innate talents and abilities. 2) A child who develops his or her own unique talents and abilities has more to offer than one who does not. 3) Each individual has a right to develop his or her own talents and abilities in a manner of his or her own choosing.
The third premise is contingent on a) an individual’s ability to pursue his or her own destiny, and b) social need. Social need can limit this in many ways. A person may want to make a living selling paintings, for instance, but if the market is saturated by painters at the moment, he or she may have to settle for something else. Premise three is sometimes described as the “pursuit of happiness.” In relationship to education, I argue simply that a person has a basic right to pursue his or her own destiny with the aid of unrestricted access to information on which to base those decisions. There is no guarantee of being successful in that pursuit.
Libertarians and proponents of other individual-centered philosophies have all but surrendered the subject of childhood education (1-8th grades) to their intellectual opponents. This is largely because they are more willing to “opt out” of state schools and leave the intellectual development of children up to parents and families. Statists, on the other hand, have no qualms about investing resources (their own and others’) in molding and shaping future generations through compulsory childhood education. How is an individual-centered education different from a statist education? What are their competing values?
In the United States, two ideas currently dominate childhood education: what is called (derogatorily) the “factory model,” and the “child-centered” approach. The difference between the two, however, is in their method and not their purpose. Picture a typical classroom with rows of desks, bells announcing the end of periods, and a teacher lecturing at the chalkboard, and you have the factory model. Child-centered theorists argue that the factory model stifles creativity, discourages working with others, and promotes excessive focus on competition and grades. Some, like Kirsten Olson (author of Wounded by School) and Parker J. Palmer, believe the factory model even emotionally and spiritually injures students.
So far, while it has made some inroads in individual classrooms and is the reigning paradigm in university education programs, the child-centered approach has yet to replace the factory model as the dominant educational method in public or private schools. The child-centered approach, however, remains—at its heart—about educating children for particular ends. Its proponents are not fundamentally opposed to the public education system—they simply want to impose their own vision on that system. Many, like William Ayers (former Weather Underground leader and current professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago), seek to use public education and the child-centered approach as arms of their own political battles.