Teaching ignobility

stairs downIt’s harder for teachers now than it once was to get students to consider what Odysseus turns his back upon and what he opens his heart toward. The classics teacher has always faced the intellectual docility of youth, but the work of revealing and naming the ideals that formed this civilization was once backed by the authority of a culture.

However, we now live amid something of an anti-culture–which is what sociologist Philip Rieff called the society that developed through our release of desire from sacred interdictions or prohibitions. Those interdictions once guided human desire–educated it. However, champions of a therapeutic view have argued that human happiness lies in the liberation of desire from precisely such prohibitions.

One of the noisiest popularizers of the therapeutic was Abraham Maslow. With his “hierarchy of needs,” he promised to provide a “scientific” basis for the study of motivation–though his method was closer to cocktail party musings than to scientific research, consisting of hanging out with people in his social milieu and contemplating how much superior they were to the masses. Maslow argued that the old “regime” with its concern for “discipline” should be replaced with a new therapeutic regime: “If therapy means a pressure toward breaking controls and inhibitions, then our new key words must be spontaneity, release, naturalness, self-acceptance, impulse awareness, gratification, permissiveness.” He promised liberation from what many felt were stifling orthodoxies.

He suggested a new type of human, which he called “healthy.” People with “unmet needs” were “unhealthy.” He used “needs” to refer to everything from the body’s dependence on oxygen, to the soul’s desire for a mate, to the addict’s desire for a cigarette. In his thought, anything that anyone might desire became a need. Once a therapeutic regime was in place, he said, all religious or moral disciplines could be dismissed as “sick-man-created” gratuities.

For the superior persons–i.e. Maslow and his liberated friends–were truly superior, i.e., healthy, and doing what they wanted to do made all the sense that needed to be made. “Education, civilization, rationality, religion, law, government, have all been interpreted by most as being primarily instinct-restraining and suppressing forces. But if our contention is correct that instincts have more to fear from civilization than civilization from instincts, perhaps it ought to be the other way about–perhaps it should be at least one function of education, law, religion, etc., to safeguard, foster, and encourage the expression and gratification of the instinctoid needs.”

The tale Maslow told was the dream of self–indeed, it’s a theory of selfishness packaged with a smattering of jargon. For him, the “self-actualizing human” was at the apex of creation, which left love of others as a mid-level appetite. He seemed genuinely puzzled by what other writers said about love. For example, he mocked Erich Fromm for saying that love implies “responsibility, care, respect, and knowledge.” This annoyed Maslow. It “sounds more like a pact or a partnership of some kind rather than a spontaneous sportiveness,” he said. Healthy lovers, he urged us to believe, “can be extremely close together and yet go apart quite easily.” “Healthy” people are “lusty animals” who don’t make commitments.

If Maslow is right, it may be that Odysseus on the enchanted island might need therapy more than he needs to return to Penelope. But if Homer was right, then a good life is not simply one’s own. Humans have responsibilities, duties, obligations, and debts.

When the “New Left” made the “sexual revolution” a mainstream phenomenon in the sixties, they believed that releasing eros from capitalism was key to “the revolution.” Without sexual repression, guilt and the work ethic would melt away, and individual satisfaction of instincts and desires could become the proper goal of the collective. The sixties, to those who defended the cultural revolution, represented a “widespread shared feeling” that a new world was dawning. The pursuit of individual virtue gave way to a euphoric emotion of virtue, fed by mass meetings, marches and street protests. Individual development of character mattered less than social development of policies to support the liberated individual.

The psychological release of the individual from the sacred didn’t destroy capitalism, but it has succeeded at creating a deeply divided nation, with the social cleavage fundamentally organized around ideas of religion and sex–on one side, people who believe the old understanding of the sacred helped form character and encouraged commitments necessary to family and community, and on the other people who see them as superstitious sources of guilt and judgment.

David Lapp recently made a quite old-fashioned observation about shifts in America’s moral vision. He had been visiting a small Ohio town, which include attending an ice cream social. His comments and the responses on his blog illustrate the rift that characterizes America today:

An elderly married couple sat across from us at the ice cream social, and they described to us how, like many of their neighbors, they moved up from Kentucky when they were young, in search of better jobs (we’ll call them Bob and Kathy). Bob grew up on a small dairy farm—“we milked the cows by hand”—and his family didn’t even have electricity until he was a teenager.

The elderly married couple sitting to our right were self-described “hillbillies” from the coal mines of West Virginia (we’ll call them Ernie and Wanda). Wanda’s family in West Virginia was dirt poor: they didn’t even have a car, and her father, a coal miner, would arrive home caked in coal and take a bath in the kitchen tub (“I don’t know how he ever got clean!”).

Their humble origins notwithstanding, both couples insisted that life today is worse than it was when they were growing up. “I feel sorry for you kids, ‘cuz you don’t get to live in those good ‘ole days,” Wanda remarked.

“What were the ‘good ‘ole days like?’” I asked.

“Families were close,” Wanda remarked without a moment’s hesitation.

Kathy elaborated that “People had more time for each other,” and described how people would leave their doors unlocked and neighbors would come over to visit unannounced. Families had regular meals with each other, she said, and they sat on their front porches and visited with other families.

Lapp mused on the fact that although times had been harder economically, lives had been better. There was more happiness, and this happiness was related to morality. “How do we square that [economic] explanation with Wanda and Kathy’s insistence that family life was better for dirt-poor Kentuckians and West Virginians than it is for today’s relatively better-off working class men and women?” he asked.

This reminded him of an earlier conversation, when he asked an old woman to describe marriage and family life in her childhood compared to now. The woman said life used to be better. “They don’t marry today,” the sixty year old woman answered. “They just live together…. You didn’t live with someone back then—it was disgraceful. They had morals.”

They had morals. If that sounds like old-fashioned morality from a hillbilly in Middle America, well, I say, chalk one up to hillbilly wisdom. It seems to me like a fairly succinct explanation of why, a couple generations ago, families could thrive in poverty-stricken communities of Appalachia and why they’re falling apart in a time of relative abundance. I don’t mean at all to minimize the seriousness of the Great Recession, and how it is no doubt putting a strain on working class marriages. However, at least today even many unemployed working class men have big-screen TVs with a Dish Network attached to their house—the point being, most of us aren’t living in the kind of poverty that Wanda and Kathy’s parents experienced in Appalachia. However, what many working class folks don’t have today are norms against easy divorce and having children outside of marriage. So I think my elderly friends are on to something: marriage and family life is not necessarily always at the mercy of “economic forces”—norms make a difference.

Such an observation of course provoked the usual anger from people who hate the old morality. These are some of the comments the post triggered:

“My experience growing up as a Southern Baptist in Louisiana is that these people have very narrow ideas of morality. . .There is a lot of social pathology that informs ‘hillbilly wisdom.'”

“I rather doubt these norms produced much happiness, at least not for many people. The stultifying effects of small town ‘morality’ is an abiding theme of American literature, as is the need to escape small towns and provincial attitudes in order to discover happiness. You don’t have to be Richard Florida to know that the brightest young people feel stifled and trapped in cultural backwaters.”

“My objection to this kind of nostalgic vision of the past, especially when it is coupled with such a subjective and nebulous concept as ‘morals,’ is that it tends to reify some of the worst aspects of American life and history. In general whenever people start talking about their superior morals, I begin watching my wallet because I suspect that they are either hypocrites or hucksters or both.”

“I don’t think the ‘hillbilly wisdom’ version of morality was actually very moral. I’m pretty sure it involved ostracizing everyone who didn’t conform to unsophisticated people’s notions of sexual morality. . . I suspect this ‘hillbilly wisdom’ contributed to a lot more unhappiness than happiness.”

“One problem is that the ‘norms’ you are celebrating, even the ones I agree with, are so tied up with ignorance, hypocrisy, and hatred, that it is hard to take them seriously. They have been besmirched by being captured by right-wing ideologues who are more interested in manipulating people than improving the lives of even those they manipulate.”

Most adults are well aware of the cleavage that now runs through American life, that is quickly visible if the topic of morality comes up. We do not inhabit a shared sacred order, and no one has authority to sustain any rival order. We maintain an illusion of serene harmony by avoiding, in mixed company as it were, the discussion of moral questions. That might work for many social situations, but how does it work as the educational philosophy of a people? The apostles of sexual liberation, such as Herbert Marcuse and Wilhelm Reich, were clear that such a liberation would have profound consequences.

Marcuse contended that relaxing sexual morality would lead to a relaxing of social morality generally. Without psychological moral inhibitions, the individual would enjoy a “loss of conscience,” becoming less able to make moral judgments about political and social functioning. “Marcuse refers to this ‘loss of conscience’ as a ‘happy consciousness,’ meaning that since the individual is ostensibly incapable or differentiating between truth and falsehood, justice and injustice, good and evil, his ignorance is a passive contentment” (Bernstein, Frankfurt School: critical assessments, Volume 5). The pacified consciousness is content with its material and social situation.

For a teacher still concerned with justice and injustice, this pacified consciousness appears as little more than moral stupefaction. According to the eminent Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, moral stupefaction is an accurate description of many of today’s young people. Smith led a research team that conducted in-depth interviews with 230 young adults from across America. What they found was that when “asked open-ended questions about right and wrong, moral dilemmas and the meaning of life, many young people grope “to say anything sensible on these matters.” They lack the mental categories, the vocabulary, and the inclination to engage in moral thought.

Here’s a typical exchange between the interviewer and a young respondent:

I: Do you think people have any moral responsibility or duty to help others or not?

R: Um, if others are your family and you see someone in danger, yeah. But I don’t ever stop when I see somebody on the side of the road, so I guess somewhat sometimes. Maybe if someone is burning in the car, you should try and pull them out, but, no, not really.

I: Are there some other examples of ways we’re obligated to help other people?

R: I mean, I really don’t donate money, and even if I had money I don’t know if I would, so.

I: What about helping people in general? Are we as a society obligated to do something?

R: I really don’t think there’re any good reasons, nope, nothing.

I: What if someone just wasn’t interested in helping others? Would that be a problem or not?

R: No, I don’t see why that would be a problem.

I: And why is that?

R: Because I mean is that really our duty, to help others? Is that what we’re here for? I mean, they can help [themselves], if they’re just getting by, doing what they do by themselves, then do they really need anyone else? So if they don’t need help from anyone else, if somebody’s asking for some other people all the time then they’re not giving in return.

I: So if someone asks for help, we don’t have an obligation to them?

R: Yeah, it’s up to each individual, of course.

According to Smith, to understand these young people it’s necessary to understand that they “do not appeal to a moral philosophy, tradition, or ethic as an external guide by which to think and live in moral terms.” They see the world as consisting of individuals, each of whom comprises his or her own moral universe. This makes it impossible for them “to rationally evaluate or criticize any moral wrong, including the horrific destruction and violence that helped drive them to this tolerant position in the first place.” Even when the topic is murder done by terrorists, they cannot form a moral judgment: “I don’t know that people, like terrorists, what they do? It’s not wrong to them. They’re doing the ultimate good. They’re just like, they’re doing the thing that they think is the best thing they could possibly do and so they’re doing good. I had this discussion with a friend recently and she’s like, ‘But they’re still murdering tons of people, that just has to be wrong.’ And I was like, ‘But do we have any idea if it is actually wrong to murder tons of ‘people?’ Like what does that even mean?” Fully of third of the young people interviewed said that “they simply did not know what makes anything morally right or wrong.”

Even more sobering, many of them could not make sense of the questions–could not understand what a moral question was. They did, however, have a social sense, and they vaguely felt that what others thought of them was the basis of what was right or wrong. “About four out of ten (40 percent) of the emerging adults we interviewed referred to how other people would think of them as (at least partly) defining what for them would be morally right and wrong. To the extent that emerging adults feel morally lost in their own minds, looking to the reaction of others (who they presumably trust) may provide what they consider to be mostly reliable guides to determine right from wrong.” Thinking about right and wrong, for them means “how you want yourself to be known, to be looked at.”

Smith says “we are letting them down, sending many, and probably most, of them out into the world without the basic intellectual tools and basic personal formation needed to think and express even the most elementary of reasonably defensible moral thoughts and claims. And that itself, we think, is morally wrong.” Though the blame for the moral stupefaction of young Americans is widespread, the researchers believe schools in particular should think about what they are doing:

Schools are one of the most powerful socializing institutions of youth in American society today, along with families and the mass media. . . . One big theme that stuck out. . .was the fact that the schools, especially public schools, that our younger respondents attended studiously avoided talking about potentially controversial moral issues. Over and over again, these teenagers we interviewed reported that their teachers always sidestepped and evaded questions and problems that might generate disagreement or conflict in the classroom. “No, my teachers avoid controversies like that like the plague,” they would typically say. “Anytime anything that might make trouble or hurt someone’s feelings come up, they say we aren’t going there,” others confirmed. “Nope, we can’t talk about religion or them hot-button moral issues in school, ’cause they don’t want to open up that can of worms” was a typical report. In short, it appears that most schools, especially public schools, are not teaching students how to constructively engage moral issues about which people disagree. Quite the contrary, schools are teaching students that the best way to deal with difficult moral problems and questions is to ignore them. The moral pedagogy of most middle and high schools clearly seems to be: avoid, ignore, and pretend the issues will go away. Needless to say, that is naive and impossible. It actually resembles highly dysfunctional families that have sets of issues that nobody is allowed to bring up or discuss and that are instead carefully tiptoed around.

The sociologists suggest that young Americans “are a people deprived, a generation that has been failed, when it comes to moral formation.” They point out that the young people are pleasant and that their desire to please and to go along probably masks the extent to which they do not think of themselves as moral beings. ” They have had withheld from them something that every person deserves to have a chance to learn: how to think, speak, and act well on matters of good and bad, right and wrong.”

Such is the social context in which many of us teach today. The intentional corruption of eros was at the heart of modern ideology’s assault on capitalism. The stated goal was to undermine capitalist society by dissolving the psychological orientation our which traditional society had flowed. Sexual liberation was always a liberation from tradition, including from family–-from husbands, from children. It was a liberation from shame and guilt, from the expectations of others. Its success was enough that we are now in position to see that in myriad ways, some unintended, it was also a liberation from right and wrong in general, leaving the self to operate alone in a cosmos of desire.

In Symposium, Diotima told Socrates that eros is “desire of all good things and of being happy.” It is a divine force that permeates all of being. It is vast–much more than genital sexuality–and it initiates every action we take. Socrates understood that it is eros, James Rhodes tells us, that lies “at the heart of who we become–how we use food and drink; how we love spouses, children, friends, and sexually attractive beauties; how well we perform our jobs; and how much we involve ourselves in the great scramble to gratify the acquisitive instinct.”

The sexual revolution was never mainly about sex. It was about burning an ancient bridge from individual desire to realities beyond the self.

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