Saturday, August 7, 2010

Valedictorians Without Chests

This speech is now infamous, I do believe. It has made the rounds on the internet, and everyone has an opinion on it. Don't believe me, look at the endless string of comments on the blog where it has been posted.

In case you don't know what I'm talking about, a young lady named Erica Goldson used her valedictorian speech at her high school graduation to - for lack of a better word - deconstruct the idea of education and higher learning.
I have no clue about what I want to do with my life; I have no interests because I saw every subject of study as work, and I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling, not learning. And quite frankly, now I’m scared.
I wouldn't dare tell this girl she's wrong, for my part. This moment where we find ourselves in American educational history is a pretty terrifying one because in my estimation, it is the culmination of the warnings made by C.S. Lewis in his book The Abolition of Man. If you will remember, Lewis claims in Abolition that an educational system which refuses to acknowledge the possibility of values judgments will have dire long-term consequences. Specifially, he says that it will create synthetic men - men without chests. Whoever wrote the article on Abolition on Wikipedia did such a brilliant job that I will let them explain in summary, Lewis' prediction of what this would lead to.
a distant future in which the values and morals of the majority are controlled by a small group who rule by a perfect understanding of psychology, and who in turn, being able to "see through" any system of morality that might induce them to act in a certain way, are ruled only by their own unreflected whims. The controllers will no longer be recognizably human, the controlled will be robot-like, and the Abolition of Man will have been completed.
What this young lady says in her valedictorian speech is a full expression of someone who has seen through, in my opinion, an educational system with no telos. Secularized education has made it a goal to distance itself from any system of ideals, and therefore cannot tell us why it educates. We have in the American educational system the perfect example of Sisyphus, pushing the boulder up the hill only to see it roll down on the other, repeating the task ad nauseum. By stripping itself of any ultimate purpose, modern education has simply become education for its own sake, and this girl can see it.

Why was she being educated? To make her into a good citizen? Well, that leads to a problem, because who can tell anyone what a "good" citizen is? They cannot even account for goodness, let alone the imperative of conformity to that goodness. This girl admittedly lived a purposeless existence and was trained for nothing, ultimately.
I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling, not learning. And quite frankly, now I'm scared.
So she thinks learning should have been her goal, but that still would have left her in the same situation. Her nihilistic outlook is consistent with the worldview which lay behind her training. When we divorce ourselves from our purposes, we end up chasing our own tails.

In the end, she chooses to believe with H.L. Menken that the telos of the American educational system is "to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality." That is why I actually still consider this girl somewhat optimistic. At least she is willing to genuflect a bit to her educators paying the backhanded compliment of assigning purpose to what they have been doing - even if it is a malevolent purpose. I consider this erroneous, because the truth is much more devious. Education long ago eschewed any possibility of a purpose beyond simply "education" itself. Students today are like the dog who catches the truck because it's parked, and now it has no idea what's next.

As I said, and as Lewis predicted, this is only the beginning of the Men Without Chests. They are on the march; they just don't know where they're marching. But I can tell you that based on my knowledge of human nature, the destination looks like something of a cross between Hollywood, Rome, and Las Vegas.

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