Blank Slates

A great article by the great Patrick Deneen (whom we discussed on this blog in the summer) on why students are so ignorant. I was mentoring a young colleague recently and I said, “To spare yourself needless suffering, just assume they are blank slates. Teach everything like you’d teach extraterrestrials who arrived on this planet 10 minutes before class, and you’ll be very successful.”

Deneen explains that this ignorance is not a by-product of a faulty education system. It’s the desired result:

We have fallen into the bad and unquestioned habit of thinking that our educational system is broken, but it is working on all cylinders. What our educational system aims to produce is cultural amnesia, a wholesale lack of curiosity, historyless free agents, and educational goals composed of contentless processes and unexamined buzz-words like “critical thinking,” “diversity,” “ways of knowing,” “social justice,” and “cultural competence.” Our students are the achievement of a systemic commitment to producing individuals without a past for whom the future is a foreign country, cultureless ciphers who can live anywhere and perform any kind of work without inquiring about its purposes or ends, perfected tools for an economic system that prizes “flexibility” (geographic, interpersonal, ethical).

This flexibility is what I refer to as fluidity fostered in service of globalizing capitalism.

More Deneen:

My students are the fruits of a longstanding project to liberate all humans from the accidents of birth and circumstance, to make a self-making humanity. Understanding liberty to be the absence of constraint, forms of cultural inheritance and concomitant gratitude were attacked as so many arbitrary limits on personal choice, and hence, matters of contingency that required systematic disassembly. Believing that the source of political and social division and war was residual commitment to religion and culture, widespread efforts were undertaken to eliminate such devotions in preference to a universalized embrace of toleration and detached selves.

This is absolutely spot-on. Good teaching is considered to be the kind that produces precisely this kind of self-referential, isolated individuals who don’t see any reason to put any intellectual, moral, philosophical, or religious constraints on the endless desires of an uncontrollably emoting self.

Deneen seems to have only worked at elite colleges, so he has had no opportunity to find out that most students (and young people in general) are not happy with this. They crave knowledge and are desperate for guidance that the existing education fails to provide.

Above all, the one overarching lesson that students receive is to understand themselves to be radically autonomous selves within a comprehensive global system with a common commitment to mutual indifference. Our commitment to mutual indifference is what binds us together as a global people. Any remnant of a common culture would interfere with this prime directive: a common culture would imply that we share something thicker, an inheritance that we did not create, and a set of commitments that imply limits and particular devotions.

The saddest thing in teaching is when you ask things like “what do you consider a good life? How do you define a friend as opposed to an acquaintance? Does it make sense to help people who haven’t asked for help? If you see that a friend is getting himself into self-destructive habits, would you tell him or pretend not to notice?” and see them leafing through the lecture notes in search of the correct answer.

It’s a great article. I recommend reading the whole thing.

One thought on “Blank Slates”

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