BRUCE LOGAN says that contemporary education is teaching its pupils to believe a fantasy; that they can make the world what they would like it to be. The authority so that desire may be fulfilled is nothing other than the individual ego. The consequence is that a great and liberating declaration of human freedom, without recognition of its roots becomes the worst of tyrants. It will permit no dissent because we have lost humility’s foundation and the reason for gratitude.
Less than a kilometre away from where I live there is a private primary girls’ school. On the gate there is an attractive plaque with the motto, “I am, I can, I ought, I will.” An innocent enough declaration although without any obvious context. One imagines that “I feel” has fallen off the plaque. By way of contrast my own boys’ state school had, and still has, non scholae sed vitae discimus; not for school but for life we are learning.
The Latin, which many of us were taught in those days, gave the motto of certain gravitas, but it also rooted the school in a specific tradition. We assumed that without being told. The motto originally appeared in an exchange between the Latin writers Seneca and Lucilius talking about the power of literature to influence character and the utilitarian nature of education. It was an issue still real enough when I was at school but quite impossible to consider today.
Whatever the case, the focus was on learning to accept the truth of life’s meaning and purpose not just the acquisition of skills for the purpose of self-realisation.
There are two possible ways to understand what it means to be human.
The prevailing view of 2020 would seem to be encapsulated in the private girls’ school’s motto. Indeed, following Tomorrow’s Schools, when the Ministry of Education insisted that every school write a mission statement, the way seems to have been cleared for state schools to write pretentious and banal mottos. The presumption being that they reflected something new about the human predicament. “We look for opportunities in life’s challenges”, “The future begins here”, “Reaching our full potential”, and the like. By and large the mottos echoed the fantasy of self-fulfilling values whatever they were thought to mean.
It is though we have no history anymore. Psychological theories of “human flourishing” swamp any moral clarity we once might have had about “the chief end of man”. Life, learning about it and for it, has become less a community and intergenerational enterprise than the fulfilment of the individual will. Everything except the authority of “self” is called into question. An entirely new vocabulary has evolved around a set of personal values divorced from the authority of classical virtue and Christian grace. For example, the moral concept of self-respect has degenerated into the psychological concept of self- esteem.
In the 1950s and even into the 1970s we knew we were beneficiaries of the ethical framework that shaped Western civilisation. We used the word civilisation not “culture”. At the core of that civilisation was the great insight, indeed revelation, that each person, male and female had dignity because he or she had been created by God in His image. That was the received truth that underpinned our understanding of the rule of law, limited government and the division of authority among the various bodies of restraining sovereignty we learned to call civil society. Rights and responsibilities were interlocking.
We shared the belief, a common aim that we should check the power of the strong over the weak because our grasp of human dignity was frequently compromised by a pervasive and common selfishness.
In the very heart of our understanding of human dignity, whether most of us understood it or not, we had the message of God becoming man in the person of Jesus Christ. We learned that in becoming man God had chosen to save us from our own folly. Consequently Christian belief in the Incarnation cannot be separated from what it means to be human. Transcendence and objectivity are inseparable.
It was this belief that gave to Western civilisation the liberating realisation that human beings can be confident in their humility. It is God who gives us our status. And the appropriate response to that is gratitude not the overarching hubris of self-realisation. One is free to choose but that freedom cannot turn choice into an absolute. Choice means at the very least you choose the best over the good, but most significantly right over wrong.
The most satisfying and enduring notion of human equality arises out of the biblical teaching that we are all sinners. No one can claim to be superior to another. All of us are subject to the same law and judgement. That realisation along with the declaration of human dignity demands that everyone, even the poorest and weakest deserves respect and justice.
It is these two insights of creation and fallenness that permit democracy to operate. Indeed without these fundamental truths shaping our hearts and minds, democracy cannot operate. It degenerates into tribalism and the struggle for ascendancy.
Which is where we are and why so many contemporary school mottos echo little more than wishful thinking. Neither boys nor girls can do everything. An act of will does not make it so. Reality is not any old social construction you might imagine. We do not create truth; truth creates us.
That is the point. Contemporary education is teaching its pupils to believe a fantasy; that they can make the world what they would like it to be. The authority so that desire may be fulfilled is nothing other than the individual ego. The traditional notion of dignity is taken hostage without the authority or recognition of the provider. Irony is always with us. The only identity that cannot speak its name is the one that holds up the roof from which all the others shout.
The consequence is that a great and liberating declaration of human freedom, without recognition of its roots becomes the worst of tyrants. It will permit no dissent because we have lost humility’s foundation and the reason for gratitude. The necessity and comfort of forgiveness is a foreign country. Everyone becomes a victim in search of his or her rights which are apparently inexhaustible. State education must become the contemporary tool of the state condemned to relevance.
Two hundred years ago JS Mill in chapter 5 of “On Liberty” had this to say, among other things, on education. “A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another; and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the dominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation, in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by a natural tendency to one over the body.”
It must be self-evident to the man or woman unseduced by the contemporary heresy of self-realisation that we are in trouble. We have recalibrated the old idea of dignity to mean autonomy. The hero is the autonomous self-realising social constructor while the villain is the man or woman who would remind the self-realising social constructor that his or her vision will produce nothing more than that kind of slavery we used to call narcissism.
Bruce Logan is a board member of Family First NZ.