The Wares of Knowledge: Traditional Versus Transformational Education
I had read and heard about changes in higher education, but did not understand how formidable they were until I went back myself, 33 years after I began, to complete my college degree. Although I had sought some academic knowledge on my own in those years, there were large gaps that needed filling. I reentered the halls of learning hoping to acquire a wider general understanding of history, literature, math, and science, and to learn basic skills such as how to write a persuasive and reasonable essay or correctly-cited research paper. Therefore, it’s been a disappointment to discover for myself a thick vein of what feels like indoctrination running through Utah Valley State College. This new way of teaching pumps radical and emotion-based ideologies into students in place of the traditional transmission of academic knowledge and skills based on facts, merit, quality, and usefulness.
Perhaps I can illustrate my findings. Many times during this first semester back at school I have wanted to raise my hand in my American Literature Since 1865 class and ask such questions as: Can we please use this time to study the apolitical Robert Frost’s 1914 New England poem “Mending Wall” from a literary perspective in keeping with the time it was written rather than using it as a platform to criticize America’s controversial resistence to illegal immigration today? Did Booker T. Washington, who quite incredibly taught himself to read as small boy, really grow up to be just a shrewd and manipulative politician/fund raiser? Are these contemporary works really the best literature America has produced or are we studying them because they are written by feminists and ethnic minorities? And in my American History Since 1865 class: Were the unfortunate Japanese American internment camps used during World War II really identical to Nazi concentration camps? Do racial problems really make up most of American history since the Civil War? We are constantly being taught that white America is hypocritical and greedy and imperialistic, but will there be a time when we might learn about some positive aspect of our country and its heritage? Unfortunately, the few times I dared to carefully shape and ask such a question in a specific and appropriate manner, it proved to be more than unwelcome in the stifling, politically-charged atmosphere I experienced in these classes.
Besides my personal disappointment, I feel a deep concern for the young students I see all around me who seem to blindly agree with and parrot their professors’ views. Of course this is a natural reaction. Young people look to those in authority for knowledge, trusting that they have their best interests at heart; in the case of higher education this would be their ability to acquire useful knowledge and think critically and independently. But what if teachers do not have their students’ best interests at heart and use this position for other reasons, such as to push their personal views, become popular, or achieve tenure?
Way back in ancient Greece, Socrates thought deeply about good and bad teaching. “[K]nowledge is the food of the soul,” he said, with the following warning:
". . . there is far greater peril in buying knowledge than in buying meat and drink
. . . when you have paid for them you must receive them into the soul and go your way, either greatly harmed or greatly benefitted . . . if therefore, you have an understanding of what is good and evil, you may safely buy knowledge of Protagoras or of anyone, but if not, then my friend, pause, and do not hazard your dearest interests at a game of chance (Plato 385-86)."
On Socrates’s premise that “the soul is of far more value than the body,” and that those still young are not equipped to determine the intellectual integrity of their teachers, more questions can be posed (Plato 386). What type of educational wares are being offered in America’s education systems today to young impressionable minds, most specifically at colleges and universities? And are these wares harmful or beneficial? In this paper I hope to show that students in America’s colleges and universities are being inundated with inappropriate, false, and harmful ideologies under the guise of academics, and that this development is counterproductive to education, the antithesis of freedom, and a threat to American ideals. Allen Quist, in his book America’s Schools, calls this phenomenon “transformational education” (10).
In a small group discussion in preparation for this paper, a fellow student expressed the belief that all education is indoctrination. This statement indicated that definitions of these terms for the purposes of this paper are in order. To me, the word education creates the image of an altruistic and beneficial tutorial exercise, while the word indoctrination represents a sort of selfish “tyranny over the mind of man,” against which Thomas Jefferson swore eternal hostility as inscribed on the famous Washington D.C. memorial that bears his name. Of course indoctrination is not always bad. According to my 1990 Webster’s Dictionary, indoctrination means “to instruct in doctrines, theories, beliefs, etc., to teach,” which would include many good types of teaching. But here I will refer to the particular type of indoctrination going on in colleges as distinct from education in that it seeks to unfairly push a nontraditional world view, which world view is subversive and harmful in the long run. Some background may be helpful in order to understand what I mean by this.
In his book The Abolition of Man, How Education Develops Man’s Sense of Morality, C. S. Lewis says Aristotle had it right about the aim of education being “to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought”(26). Lewis notes that Plato before him said the same. “The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful” (27). Maybe the question now is, how do we know the value of things? Lewis goes on to explain that there exists a standard of value, beauty, goodness, rightness, and truth that has been sought, studied, and taught as far back as human writing can take us, including from the ancient Egyptian, Chinese, Hindu, Greek, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Jewish, and Christian cultures. Examples of these standards include that it’s generally wrong to lie or murder or beguile another man’s wife. Another standard belief is that human beings have certain obligations toward their posterity. Another is that freedom is worth fighting and dying for. Lewis claims that if this time-tested, universal, objective standard is neglected or weakened, another standard will ease into its place. He says, “Traditional values are to be ‘debunked’ and mankind to be cut out into some fresh shape at the will (which must, by hypothesis, be an arbitrary will) of some few lucky people in one lucky generation which has learned how to do it, ” referring to these lucky few as “the Conditioners” (85). In this slender volume Lewis goes on to explain that, unfortunately, given human nature, a new, arbitrary standard for human behavior will most likely prove non-benevolent and manipulative towards mankind, eventually resulting in the disaster his main title indicates.
In accordance with Lewis’s treatise, Quist asks, “Are all ideas equal? Are all moral systems equal? Are all cultures equal? They are not. History has shown that ideas do have consequences, and the damaging consequences can be so immense that they are virtually incomprehensible” (10). Writing in 1947, Lewis refers to mankind’s most recent injurious Conditioners, the Nazi rulers of Germany, while warning that the same sort of tyranny can come from “many a mild-eyed scientist in prince-nez, many a popular dramatist, many an amateur philosopher in our midst” (85).
While all education seeks to get people to conform to certain values, at UVSC I have seen that traditional values are being replaced by nontraditional values. Here, it is important to understand that dramatically opposing world views cannot peacefully co-exit. “In order to prefer certain groups it is necessary to harm others” (Bork 235). As far as I can see, in America’s institutions of higher education traditional values are being discarded by a lucky few with a great deal of influence, namely, to expand Lewis’s colorful, hypothetical list: anti-establishment flower children of the late 1960s turned college professors. As Lewis feared, the academic world, among others, is making a clean sweep of values based on the laws of nature and God, and starting with a new set. Given the rapid and unprecedented advances in communication technology, it hasn’t taken long. Age-old standards are as washed-out as a modern-day professor’s jeans. I believe they’re being replaced by a long list of radical “-isms” which I have been collecting during this semester: moral relativism, constructivism, historical revisionism, a reverse sort of racism, extreme feminism, unlimited sexualism, politicized environmentalism, pantheism, New Age religionism, multi-culturalism, globalism, anti-Americanism, and Marxism, which perhaps may all be put under the heading of Postmodernism.
Evidently, I am not alone in my assessment. I wrote to an assistant professor of English at Southern Utah University on another matter, mentioned my adventures in modern-day academia, and found it quite validating to receive this email in return: "
I wish I count contest your view that the modern -isms have taken over the academic world. But I cannot. I don't know about history, but English is deluged with toxic ideologies. Good luck in your own studies. Try to keep your sanity. It's a challenge! (Christensen)."
In addition, Elizabeth Kantor in The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature writes,
"The fact is, even if you sign up for a course with ‘Shakespeare’ or ‘Faulkner’ in the title, there’s absolutely no guarantee that you’re going to be taught English or American literature. On the contrary, the professor is all too likely to make use of the literature to indoctrinate you in some ideology that’s worse than irrelevant—that’s positively hostile—to the literature you’re ostensibly studying
. . . The professor’s own politics will be the real content of the course (xv)."
One may ask, what is the least that should be expected of education in America in order to distinguish it from this type of indoctrination? David Horowitz, activist and author of the Academic Bill of Rights wrote, "All higher education institutions in this country embrace principles of academic freedom that were first laid down in 1915 in the famous General Report of the American Association of University Professors . . . The Report admonishes faculty to avoid ‘taking unfair advantage of the student’s immaturity by indoctrinating him with the teacher’s own opinions before the student has had an opportunity to fairly examine other opinions upon the matters in question. . . . ’ In other words, an education—as distinct from an indoctrination—makes students aware of a spectrum of scholarly views on matters of controversy and opinion, and does not make particular answers to such controversial matters the goal of the instruction . . . Answers to such questions are inherently subjective and opinion-based and teachers should not use their authority in the classroom to force students to adopt their positions. To do so is not education but indoctrination (qtd. in Arrn 3-4)."
I have found, as have others, this type of indoctrination is all too often the case. The world of academia has become a hot-bed of transformational, rather than academic, education. I believe transformational education was the usual fare in my American History class. One of the main themes of this course was that history is merely a subjective interpretation of people and events. We seemed to do more speculating, contrasting, and comparing than studying historical people and events. Besides many such lectures and discussions, we watched two films. One was The Confederate States of America, a 2004 mockumentary that shows a fictional alternate ending to the Civil War, and which I thought grossly disrespected perhaps the most reverenced people and most tragic events in American history. The other was a portion of Oliver Stone’s motion picture JFK, a highly fictionalized Hollywood production about a conspiracy theory surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy which amounted to a platform to broadcast highly anti-American sentiments. Surprisingly, the instructor presented the film to the class as historically accurate.
This same professor also taught that, in the past, history has been so incredibly biased toward white Anglo Saxon males that it’s perfectly right and reasonable to revise history in a way that is incredibly biased in the opposite direction. In other words, it’s acceptable to misrepresent events and people in order to clean up, or rectify, all the garbage that has been touted as truth in the past. The professor introduced this idea by referring to a woman who refuted white Anglo Saxon history of the Wild West by writing an extremely sexually graphic lesbian version. Of course it's all crazy and exaggerated, admitted the professor, but, he told us, this is what is necessary in order to train us to think fairly. Interestingly, he seems to be giving his approval to the use of blatant propaganda, which Webster defines as “deceptive or distorted information that is systematically spread.” Jacques Ellul in Propaganda, The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, points out that, “Finally, propaganda will take over literature (present and past) and history, which must be rewritten according to propaganda’s needs . . . furnishing it with contexts and explanations designed to re-integrate it into the present” (14). In other words, according to my American History professor, facts do not exist and are not necessary.
Contrary to the transformational teaching methods I have witnessed, traditional education, Quist points out, is founded on the belief that “intellectual disciplines such as history contain real knowledge even though no historian is totally objective . . . history is knowable, teachable, and testable” (131-32). While traditional education is ideally carried out founded as nearly as possible on that age-old objective standard of truth, goodness, and reality in order to conserve that standard, the kind of indoctrination this paper refers to is a force-feeding of lies purposefully mixed in with facts, and figures “given without reference to anything, without correlation or a percentage or a ratio” (Ellul, 55) in order to change the status quo. Indeed, Quist refers to dealers in transformational education as “change-agents” (13).
Katherine Kersten described the two opposing views of education. “Most Americans see the public school as an institution dedicated to the transmission of knowledge . . . [Others] view it as something quite different: an agent of radical social change” (qtd. in Quist 13). We must remember that such arbitrary change is dangerous. Ellul’s intense super-analysis rings true as far as I understand it, reading like a sort of nonfiction version of Orwell’s 1984 and ending up as a severe warning of the many dangers of nonbenevolent propaganda to the freedom and progress of human beings and civilized society, undoubtedly referring to those same dangers to which Socrates, Lewis, and Quist allude. I like how Quist takes us back to basics: "The free world has been successful largely because it subscribes to right ideas. The free world recognizes that some ideas are better than others. The free world also understands that nations can be taken over by forces of evil. At the same time, free countries know that the primary purpose of government is to protect its people and to subdue evil so that the God-given, unalienable rights of innocent people are protected. (10)."
The other day I happened to be reading Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, All the King’s Men, and came across the salient line,“I discovered that there is an education for vice as well as for virtue.” As such, American professors would do well to consider the quality and type of wares they are selling. As authorized dealers in something so precious as knowledge, they are obligated to recognize the existence of both virtues and vices, traditional values and arbitrary values, and ask themselves which have been shown to be best for humankind and which they will transmit to their students, the rising generation. Postmodernism, which includes all the -isms I have mentioned, sometimes called by conservatives “the dumbing-down of America,” is devastating the already struggling institution of higher education. But its problems need not be exhaustive according to Larry P. Arnn in his speech,“The Crisis and Politics of Higher Education.” He said, “Any recovery of excellence in education will entail a recovery of this older idea of education” (5), meaning traditional values-based academic education. He goes on to suggest two things that must be done: return control of colleges to private people and recover “the tradition of liberal and civic education that has helped to keep us free by teaching us the purpose of freedom” (6).
It is no wonder that despair and lassitude exist among many young Americans today. I have seen my younger fellow students being taught that America represents nothing to be proud of or grateful for, that of all men white man is the most evil, that no facts or absolutes exist, and that young people must somehow construct their own reality in the crazed, foundationless world their professors portray. Higher education instructors should follow Abraham Lincoln’s prescription for education: “that every man may receive at least, a moderate education, and thereby [be] enabled to read the histories of his own and other countries, by which he may duly appreciate the value of our free institutions . . . ” and in so doing preserve what has made Americans safe and free (qtd. in Arnn 6).
Arnn, Larry P. “The Crisis and Politics of Higher Education.” Imprimis 35 (2006): 1-7.
Bork, Robert H. Slouching Towards Gomorrah, Modern Liberalism and American Decline. New York: HarperCollins/Regan Books, 1996.
Christensen, Bryce. Email to the author. 4 February 2008.
Ellul, Jacques. Propaganda, The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (1965). New York: Random House/Vintage Books, 1973.
Kantor, Elizabeth. The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature. Washington D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2006.
Lewis, C. S. The Abolition of Man, How Education Develops Man’s Sense of Morality or Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools. New York: MacMillan, 1947.
Plato. Essential Dialogues of Plato. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2005.
Quist, Allen. America’s Schools, The Battleground for Freedom. Chaska, Minnesota: Ed Watch, 2005.
Warren, Robert Penn. All the King’s Men (1946). Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 1974.
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