A Device for Binding the Intellect – Michigan Quarterly Review

A Device for Binding the Intellect

Last summer, the 2012 platform report released by the Republican Party of Texas came under scrutiny for the wording of a particular subsection, titled “Knowledge-Based Education”:

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

There’s a lot to be troubled by here. The vilification of critical thinking skills, the disingenuous conflation of higher order thinking skills and outcome-based education, the dizzyingly strange implication that belief formation ought to occur entirely outside the classroom—take your pick. (As a teacher of English, I’m also concerned with the passage’s inconsistent and confusing deployment of commas.) Over the summer, the platform report was widely criticized in venues as disparate as Forbes Magazine and The Colbert Report. However, these critiques generally didn’t recognize the manner in which this passage, when considered in context, lays bare fundamental inconsistencies in the conservative thought that birthed it. It is the child of a grossly divided intellectual legacy.

A few pages past the subsection in the platform report that has drawn so much attention is another whose content—given the source—is less obviously remarkable. Titled “Traditional Principles in Education,” this subsection calls for “curricula that are heavily weighted on original founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and Founders’ writings.”

Now, this clarion call should come as no surprise. It is sounded under the assumption that the values enshrined in America’s founding documents are identical to the “Judeo-Christian principles” touted by conservative ethical thought. (Indeed, this subsection explicitly references “the Judeo-Christian principles upon which America was founded.”)

Never mind, for now, that the common conservative understanding of just what values and beliefs constitute “Judeo-Christian principles” is deeply flawed; it depends upon Scriptural cherry-picking to distort the political ramifications of the New Testament virtue ethic and Mosaic law. That, however, is the subject for another essay—and in any case, Marilynne Robinson has beaten me to it.

Instead, I’d like to point out that this assumed link between ancient Judea and an eighteenth-century outpost of the British Empire overlooks the clearest intellectual lineage of the Founders.

In 1822, James Madison, former president and author of the Bill of Rights, wrote a remarkable letter to William T. Barry, the lieutenant governor of Kentucky, praising the measures that state had recently taken to establish a system of public education. Madison opens the letter with a striking assessment of the general role of education in a democracy:

A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

Madison goes on to defend taxation—and, one may reasonably infer from his language, progressive taxation (“for the poor to have the aid of the richer”)—as a means of providing public education to all income classes: this is not, in our modern conception, a particularly “conservative” piece of fiscal thought. In addition, he recommends to Barry a Virginia law passed in 1779:

It [a committee of lawmakers that included Thomas Jefferson] made part of a “Bill for the more general diffusion of knowledge” that wherever a youth was ascertained to possess talents meriting an education which his parents could not afford, he should be carried forward at the public expence, from seminary to seminary, to the completion of his studies at the highest.

“At the public expence”: it is both necessary and just, Madison argues, for “the rich man” to “contribut[e] to a permanent plan for the education of the poor.” Moreover, there are times when the financial burdens generated by such a program will fall entirely upon the rich.

Madison’s sentiments, which are largely in line with the other Founders’ beliefs regarding education, would surely come as no surprise to any serious scholar of the era. After all, they are clear examples of Enlightenment thought. The Continental Congresses and the first constitutional convention were Enlightenment salons, and the “original founding documents” that the Texas GOP’s platform so reveres are all artifacts of the Enlightenment.

Which is to say, they hearken back less to ancient Judea than to ancient Greece.

In Book VII and Book VIII of his Politics, Aristotle turns to education: what is the relationship between education and just governance? With whom ought the responsibility of establishing a system of education lie? Again and again, Aristotle’s commentary prefigures Madison’s and that of the Founders in general.

“That education should be regulated by law and should be an affair of the state should not be denied,” Aristotle argues. And why should this be so? Because “to be a virtuous state is to be a state in which those citizens who share in the government are virtuous; and in the state we are now discussing, all citizens will share in the government.” In Aristotle’s conception, then, a state’s polity is indistinguishable from its citizenry—which is precisely Madison’s meaning when he writes of “a Popular government” and “people who mean to be their own Governors.”

Madison describes “a constant rotation of property” in a democracy: “every class must have its turn of benefits.” Similarly, Aristotle writes, “all must alike share in government by ruling and being ruled by turns.”

Madison emphasizes the need to educate “those who are to frame the laws” in order to maintain a democracy; Aristotle seeks to teach “the kind of rule which a lawgiver should value” in order to “rule over freemen.”

I could go on. For the purposes of this blog, however, two things are worth noting: first, that the kinds of policies actually advocated by a prominent Founder are radically unlike those advanced by the Texas GOP’s platform report; and second, that this difference is at least partially attributable to a difference of scale and intent. For Aristotle (not to mention Plato, Cicero, Quintilian, or any of a host of other thinkers from Greek and Roman antiquity), as for the Founders, education is a societal concern, best discussed as a large-scale civic and social project; their language is peppered with such phrases as “the public mind,” “the public liberty,” “the Community” (Madison), or “the virtuous state,” “the education of citizens,” “the character of democracy” (Aristotle).

In this context, the platform report’s privileging of “parental authority” in the classroom ought to appear strange. The only scale at which the Texas GOP consistently considers education policy is the familial. The document references parents twenty times in three pages, ceaselessly subordinating classroom content to parental will.

Aristotle, meanwhile, mentions parents largely to warn them against encouraging behaviors that would “vulgarize” their children—in other words, to restrain parents, rather than to empower them. Madison mentions them not at all, except to remind “the rich man” that a general system of education benefits not only the current generation, but also “their posterity.” Like Aristotle, then, he subordinates parental will to civic need.

This difference is not coincidental. The platform report of the Texas Republican Party represents a deliberate rearrangement of priorities. It is a reaction to—a reaction against—the Founders they so lionize and the intellectual heritage that those Founders inscribed into this nation’s founding documents.

Why subvert what has classically been considered a large-scale civic and social project to the wills of individual parents?

“Family values,” the “defense of marriage,” the importance of “respect for tradition”—these old saws are not merely politically conservative; they reflect an effort toward cultural conservation. And this effort is not an invention of the Republican Party. Rather, it is ancient—literally prehistoric; it can be traced to tribal patterns of thought. Writing in 1961, at the outset of a decade of cultural upheaval, the anthropologist Jules Henry turned his attention to the American classroom in his book Culture Against Man:

Culture Against ManThe function of education has never been to free the mind and spirit of man, but to bind them; and to the end that the mind and spirit of his children should never escape Homo sapiens has employed praise, ridicule, admonition, accusation, mutilation, and even torture to chain them to the culture pattern. [Note the Texas GOP’s explicit endorsement of corporal punishment.] Throughout most of his historic course Homo sapiens has wanted from his children acquiescence, not originality. It is natural that this should be so, for where every man is unique there is no society, and where there is no society there can be no man. Contemporary American educators think they want creative children, yet . . . the classrooms—from kindergarten to graduate school—in which they expect it to happen are not crucibles of creative activity and thought. It stands to reason that were young people truly creative the culture would fall apart, for originality, by definition, is different from what is given, and what is given is the culture itself.

In Henry’s analysis, then, “the cultural pattern” is merely “a device for binding the intellect,” and education is merely the means by which children are imprinted with the cultural pattern.

The Republican Party has simply carried this line of reasoning one step further. It has granted the authority for setting the cultural pattern—for defining the terms of indoctrination—to individual parents. Stephen Colbert’s sarcastic retort is dead-on: “As a parent, I expect my children to act and think exactly as I do.”

Central to Henry’s argument—and the Republican Party’s platform—is the conception of school as a purely reactionary organ: it is shaped by the concerns of the culture whose needs it serves. Yet Aristotle and James Madison clearly believe just the opposite. For them, education is proactive, a vital force through which a national culture is defined.

Thus, not only does the Republican Party’s way of thinking spring from an intentional undervaluation of creativity and original thought—once again, consider the platform report’s antagonism toward anything that might “challeng[e] the student’s fixed beliefs”—it also represents an extraordinary cheapening of our American heritage.

The Republican Party’s doctrine recalls Aristotle only in a tendency toward prescription. The Texas GOP is suspicious of evolutionary theory, abiogenesis, and climate change; Aristotle is suspicious of flute-playing and music written in the Phrygian mode. In this way, the platform report echoes the fussy restrictiveness of Aristotle without his redeeming social vision and trust in pluralism.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party wishes to exalt the Founders—but only after it has defaced them. Deprived of their Enlightenment context, their connection to classical thought submerged, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and the other Founders are reduced to mascots for a bowdlerized set of “Judeo-Christian principles.”

James Madison’s final piece of advice to William T. Barry is to adopt curricula that will “weaken local prejudices, and enlarge the sphere of benevolent feelings” between Kentuckians and foreign cultures. In stark contrast, the Republican Party’s platform deliberately empowers local prejudices. And why? All because of a simple truth: if our children are taught to think critically, to examine the evidence behind all our old assertions—“to be their own Governors,” as Madison believed they must—who knows what they might choose to believe, and how they might change the world?

Here is an ideology that shrinks in fear even as it pretends to swell with pride.

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