Sunday, August 23, 2009

Notes Toward A Restoration of Conservatism

Intellectual conservatism as a conscious social philosophy has long been a minority position, and most believers never hope to convert the proletariat or the bourgeoisie en masse; in our current social crisis, true representatives of old European-style bourgeoisie culture are relatively few: rather, there has been a mass proletarianization of society; proletarian "culture" has become the normative culture. As a conservative, I reject the notion of "vox populi, vox Dei" as utter nonsense. Conservatism as I define it is chiefly moral and social, and only derivatively political and economic; and if my definition is adopted (and many individuals, friendly and unfriendly, will be loath to adopt it), then we realize that what society needs is not a new tax code but a conversion.

I speak here not primarily of a conversion to Catholic and Apostolic Christianity (though as a practitioner, I can only but desire it), but of a conversion to humanism. And by humanism, I mean a way of thinking about mankind that recognizes both the limitations and the transcendence of human nature: first, mankind's innate disposition to disobedience and disorder (figured in the book of Genesis by Man's Fall), and second, the latent disposition to enter into communion with the transcendent (not necessarily a religious disposition: men grossly irreligious, indeed blasphemous, have produced works of art, music especially, that seem to transcend all material experience). These axioms should have a consequential effect on the conservative's vision of the good life and of the good society: if these axioms are widely accepted as true, then an ideal of man will begin to emerge. Man, not material or technological progress, will again become the proper study of mankind. The recognition that man's development is not illimitable and that our nature is immutable should encourage an attitude of reverence towards the past, reverence particularly towards the moral wisdom of philosophers, pagan and Christian.

Composed in unequal measure of sin and sanctity, man ought to live in such a way that he is directed towards the Good, the Beautiful, and the True and away from disorder and sin. This is the life of philosophy: and this should be the conservative's goal, first for himself, and then, for others. Is this life possible to the proletariat? Of course, but only when they cease to be a proletariat. And to unmake the proletariat is to move against the immense weight of social momentum. The vast bureaucracy of education and the social services buttress the ennui and lethargy of the proletariat, and even the Church can no longer be relied upon to preach the spiritual ideal that would aid in the de-proletarianization. What then is left to us? Only personal example.

The conservative who wishes to vivify an enervated society must become a man of moral imagination, knowledgeable in the humane and liberal arts: a spiritual aristocrat. That properly is the work of a lifetime, and it must necessarily mean many shortcomings (a conservative cannot afford to be too sanguine about man's prospects for the life of philosophy), but if we can again recover the ideal of a spiritual aristocracy, we might begin to work for the restoration of order in our society. We must abjure the well-intentioned but fallacious populist conservatism: to appeal to the people's better judgment means that the people must become better, and that requires first the work of the aristocracy. Their work would be intellectual but also astutely journalistic, though never condescending to sloganeering; for what "slogans" as we possess, Tradition, Order, Authority, are none too popular with the hoi polloi.

Aristocratic conservatism is not necessarily political; in fact, what we need the least at present are "conservative" politicians; far more urgent is the need for writers, philosophers, historians, theologians, artists who can defend vigorously the "permanent things," men and woman possessed of a moral, indeed a sacramental imagination.

In an ordered society, a spiritual aristocracy would be naturally small, but it would possess an influence greater than the sum of its members. And by influence, I do not mean political power. I have in mind here something like S.T. Coleridge's "clerisy," men and women without political power but possessing moral or spiritual Authority. That, I suggest, is the role that young men and women of the renascent conservative movement should have in mind as our goal: not the achievement of political control but the the dissemination of philosophical ideas and ideals that see their apotheosis in works of the imagination, such as literature and art. The contemporary fascination with the works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien bodes well for the future: these twentieth-century writers have achieved a popularity and widespread appeal that has done much to teach a knowledge of the Good Life. The twenty-first century demands men and women of their ability to renew and develop an artistic and literary tradition that can rival, perhaps, even surpass their achievement.

Finally, we must again discover the necessity of the common life: men must again be taught by example to love and honor the "little platoons": the divinely-ordained micro-communities where man is encouraged in his virtues and dissuaded from his vices: I speak here of the family, the parish, the village-town or neighborhood, all institutions of the common life where little things like manners and customs (not especially little, after all) encourage decency, respect, and charity among kinsmen and neighbors. The real work of dignifying and re-humanizing must finally be accomplished most perfectly in the common life, among intimates. The restoration of the family is the restoration of civilized society. It is, at once, our most daunting and our most immediate task.

What life have you, if you have not life together?
There is not life that is not in community,
And no community not lived in praise of God.
--- T. S. Eliot

Homework and the Rise of the 12-Hour Schoolday

Permit me to relate a little anecdote.

I know an individual who rises each morning at 6:30 a.m. He dresses, brushes his teeth, combs his hair, eats his breakfast. He then commutes to his place of work, a commute of an hour’s duration. Once he arrives, he is subject to a routine of work, occasional rests, and a short lunch before then departing for the day, 8 hours after he arrived. He commutes home, arriving at roughly 5:00 p.m. A day thus begun at roughly 7 a.m. ends 10 hours later. Hardly unusual, you might retort. Ah but you see, the individual I’m describing is a young boy, his place of work a school. His name and age are unimportant and of little consequence: he could be any number of boys at any number of schools. And this little boy’s day is not over yet. At the conclusion of his 10-hour day, he now faces the prospect of a further 2 hours of homework, making his grand total of work a blistering 12 hours (or put more strikingly, 3/4 of his waking hours).

When added up, these numbers are formidable, and although the situation I describe may be extreme, it is not necessarily unique. In too many schools, there is a cult of homework, where teachers have an almost touching faith in its usefulness. By virtue of their authority, wielded with the blunt force trauma of a stack of textbooks, they intend to “learn” their students. Homework is a means towards that end, its usefulness apparently unquestioned, its effectiveness unstudied. The cult of homework, however, is but an unfortunate aspect of a wider problem, whose import I hope to show by relating a personal experience.

I was, not long ago, horrified to hear an education expert unwittingly refer to students as “products.” Her ‘slip’ gave me some insight into the bureaucratic, technical mind. For my expert, education could be reduced to schemes, schedules, calculations: appeals could be made to cognitive research to justify such endeavors, as if the student was bodiless mind, or worse, soul-less mind. Intuition and inspiration were banished: education was now the realm of sophists and economists, who had calculated to a nicety the procedures and routines of a successful teacher and an efficient classroom.

This view of education might be best defined as education-as-an-industrial-process. Students are products, their minds receptacles, empty until filled by cheap labor. This process should be conducted with maximal efficiency and minimum cost, and the product should be duly delivered on time. Homework is but one of the ploys of industrial education. It greases the wheels of inefficiency, and it can serve the illusion, in the worst scenarios, that real learning is taking place.

I am not, however, taking aim at all homework. In fact, I believe homework can and occasionally does serve a salutary purpose. But it must have a purpose that is transparent or at least accessible to the teacher, the parent, and most importantly, the student. Homework as a mechanism for learning is not, so far as I can tell, particularly efficient, and it rarely is self-evidently purposeful. Too often, it can be reading-for-reading’s-sake or as bludgeoning 20 more long division problems into a beleaguered student’s mind. Lest I be misinterpreted, I am not an academic anarchist. There should be order to learning, students should be assigned challenging work, and learning should be constant. But there should be limits to the reach of a school or of a teacher. The tentacles of homework, stretching from school to home, too often bespeak an absorption into the industrial-education process, whose uniformity and predictability serve only to confirm the student’s suspicion that learning, after all, is a terrible thing.

I encourage teachers to allow fate, or Providence, some role in education. Little Billy may very well choose to spend his three hours of freedom watching television or surfing unsavory sites, if his teacher doesn’t load him down with homework. But he might, just might, read a good (and unassigned) book, play a musical instrument, take a karate lesson, help his dad fix the lawn-mower. These experiences are worthwhile and should not be overlooked as important contributions to the education of the young. There is a sheer and unalloyed delight in the unpredictability of learning: I needn’t rehearse the litany of scholars, writers, scientists, artists, saints, who found joy in learning only after their schooling was finished, when education could be had for 35 cents in library fines. The experience of reading a great novel can be ruined merely by being assigned, its content reduced to a host of irrelevant or unworthy questions, while the real substance, its philosophical or religious ponderings, its investigations into human nature, are ignored or rejected as unfit for student consumption. Homework can never ask (or answer) the questions really posed by the reading of a great book. It is hopelessly individualistic, solitary, unredeemed by the spark of intellectual curiosity and mutual comprehension that can only happen in the company of others equally interested.

A century and more ago, liberal experts rightly campaigned for the restriction of child labor; their present-day successors seem intent on undoing their work, replacing the child’s 12-hour workday with a 12-hour school day. The industrial wheel has come full circle.

I am everywhere and always the opponent of education as process, as a machine. I’m disgusted by it, and I find it insulting to human dignity. There is an older, wiser tradition, represented by the likes of Aristotle, Confucius, and Christ. For them, education is a way of life that is above all characterized by a penetrating insight into the realities, limits, and possibilities of human nature, an insight impossible to industrial education.