Book Notes: Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed

The only thing in Deneen’s book I disagree with is his prediction that the soaring inequality of (neo) liberal societies will bring some sort of a revolt that will take the form of a populist dictatorship or something of the kind. As long as there are screens and UBI (that, once again, already exists under different names), there will be no revolt.

The rest of what he says I have been retelling pretty faithfully in my “Individuals” posts. It’s really fascinating that Deneen, who is obviously very conservative, says the exact same things almost verbatim as the Marxist Zygmunt Bauman.

Individuals #11

Actually, the story about Mayor DiBlasio in one of the previous posts is a great example of the individualist ideology I’ve been discussing here. He proceeds in accordance of his deeply individualistic view of human beings. He sees humans as completely identical and ahistorical objects on a shelf. If anything goes wrong, they simply need to be moved to a different shelf.

The possibility that human beings are a part of something, that they don’t come from a conveyor belt, that they can’t be extracted from everything that went into their making is deeply alien to him.

Liberalism is about freedom. The greatest freedom it seeks is freedom from what an individual hasn’t chosen. Since nobody chooses their family, in order for this philosophy to be sustained it has to pretend that family’s impact either doesn’t exist or can be erased.

The question is, though, whether it’s an honest mistake or a desire – unarticulated and unacknowledged as it might be – to widen the gap between oneself and the losers in the neoliberal economy.

What Is a Good School?

A good school, for me, is the one where kids who love reading, who love learning, who enjoy accumulating new knowledge are in the majority. As a result, nobody can say, “Ha ha, look at this freak, he likes to read books. Let’s beat him up!” because there isn’t anyone like this at this school. The teachers there don’t have to spend any time or energy on getting the “ha ha, let’s beat him up” kids to stay in place and listen to the material, so they can introduce more material and study it more in depth.

We are all former smart kids here on the blog. Honestly, isn’t this the definition of the good school that we’d all die to attend back in the past? A place where we could just be ourselves with our stacks of favorite books and our nerdy hobbies? Where it wouldn’t be a mark of losership to be us but would be the norm?

What else can a good school possibly be? A place with a huge new gym and tons of the shiniest gadgets? A bunch of teachers who have some really uncommon, life-changing pedagogy [that doesn’t exist, by the way]? A different way to teach school subjects that is unknown to everybody else? When you were a kid, would you choose the school I described above or the gadgets and PhD-holding pedagoguess?

When I say I had a great class this semester, what can I possibly be referring to if not the students who were there to make it great? Same me, same material, same pedagogy would produce a completely different result with different students. A school doesn’t make students good. Students make a school good.