Can Liberal Education Be Saved?
Jeremy S. Adams. Hollowed Out: A Warning about America’s Next Generation. Washington, DC: Regnery, 2021.   The 1989 classic coming-of-age film Dead Poets Society follows a simple formula that, in essence, reveals how many (left-leaning) members of the Baby Boomer generation envision the educational and wider cultural changes that the West and the later the… The post Can Liberal Education Be Saved? appeared first on VoegelinView.

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Jeremy S. Adams. Hollowed Out: A Warning about America’s Next Generation. Washington, DC: Regnery, 2021.

 

The 1989 classic coming-of-age film Dead Poets Society follows a simple formula that, in essence, reveals how many (left-leaning) members of the Baby Boomer generation envision the educational and wider cultural changes that the West and the later the wider world undertook in the 1960s. The film famously features the late Robin Williams as John Keating, a progressive and spontaneous new teacher at the formal and traditionalist Welton Academy. Keating’s unconventional approach to teaching is quickly eaten up by many of the young boys in this fictional WASP preparatory school. The older establishment and some parents resist Keating’s radical pedagogical methods. This clash eventually leads to a tragic death of a student and the eventual termination of Keating.
The message of the film is that the old, rigid Anglo-Saxon methods were fundamentally oppressive and cruel, stifling the creativity and individuality of young people. As chronicled in works such Mary Grabar’s Debunking Howard Zinn: Exposing the Fake History that Turned a Generation Against America, this critique was the germ of the eventual “March through the Institutions” of the New Left in which the bulk of American colleges and schools were hollowed out, flipped, and then retooled to fit a progressive model. This progressive movement, or what some have called (with some imprecision) “Cultural” or “Frankfurt School” Marxism, sought not only to promote individuality and creativity among students, but further wanted to “widen” the college canon to include authors, movements, and schools of thought that allegedly been neglected by the Eurocentric structure of the American education system. Perhaps most importantly, this progressive New Left push hoped to make education more tolerant and less harsh.
At the same time these progressive educators did not, as a whole, seek to completely destroy or “cancel” Western civilization or eliminate any sort of grading or sense of respect or hierarchy in the classroom. However, over the past sixty years, this revolution has only intensified, creating classroom environments from pre-K to graduate school in which the goal is not simply emphasizing freedom and individuality or expanding the canon, but rather the creation of classrooms that are so “decolonized” and “deconstructed” of formality and rigor that they resemble daycares in which students are taught not simply to critique the West but to destroy it. What began as an attempt to expand and include has degenerated into a philosophy of desecration and destruction.
There have been several books lamenting the collapse of American higher education. There is, of course, Allan Bloom’s famous 1987 The Closing of the American Mind as well as Mark Bauerlein’s two works, The Dumbest Generation (2008) and The Dumbest Generation Grows Up (2022). As a welcome compliment to these works, California educator Jeremy S. Adams’s Hollowed Out: A Warning about America’s Next Generation carries on this conservation and observation. While there are some similarities to previous laments of the decline of American education, there are a number of unique qualities that make a Hollowed Out a worthy read.
In parallel to the famous “Ronald McDonald” scene (in which a group of children are only able to recognize Ronald McDonald from a cast of world politicians), Adams begins his book with an exercise that he gives to his students in which they are much more likely to identify an “eceleb” than they are a contemporary politician. This is one of the key arguments of Adams: books that gives it a unique “post-millennial” twist. While people have been obsessed with “stars” and “celebrities” since the rise of newspapers in the late Enlightenment, there are two unique qualities of contemporary celebdom which both have a negative effect on youth. The first is the notion of “famesque” or the notion that many celebs today are known simply for being famous. People adore Kim Kardashian but never have seen any episode of her television show. Kanye West is the topic of daily conversation, but many who know him have not listened to his music. Nonetheless, they are famous and worthy of both praise and scorn in the digital global village.
The second problem of contemporary celebrity culture, according to Adams, is the youthful desire to become an “eceleb”—something even the kid next door is able to do thanks to the worldwide reach of the internet. The problem with this second form of celebrity, even more than the first, is that it grants honor where honor is not necessarily due. In premodern human cultures, people received praise and blame for what they did—honor was conferred for actions seen as laudable by broader society. Today, however, young people receive tremendous praise simply for acting a character and simply presenting “themselves” to internet society. “Live your best life” or “Live your truth,” as the famous sayings on social media now go. Adams argued that such phenomena lead to a sense of entitlement and arrogance and young people in the classroom. While in previous generations, an intelligent or athletic student might throw his or her weight around at school, in contemporary education, many students demand praise (and high grades and awards) simply for being there. This problem is compounded, Adams argues, by administrative and school district policies that encourage educators to coddle students and even to put up with horrifying verbal abuse and intimidation by students.
The students themselves often come from difficult home situations. However, while earlier generations of Americans–especially Americans from immigrant backgrounds–were told to labor and learn their way out of poverty and marginalization, contemporary students from marginalized backgrounds are often told that their educators must conform to their demands and that hard work and erudition are expectations of white privilege. It is not just disadvantaged students who have a passive (aggressive) approach to education. Late millennials and members of Generation Z as a whole do not want to form relationships, settle down and get married and own a home. Rather, they are taught to be (extreme) individualists who are gods in their digital kingdom constantly creating themselves anew. This sense of being a king or queen of what French philosopher Jean Baudrillard called the “hyperreality” of the digital world is ultimately empty as late millennials demonstrate high rates of mental health issues, substance abuse, and suicide. Too late, as the older millennials are revealing in their reflections on life, do they realize they want a family and settle down but no longer have such prospects.
In Hollowed Out, Adams further notes that while many late millennials are withdrawn and solipsistic, there is a culture of workaholic #hustle young people who prize work for works sake and have completely thrown themselves into money making. As a paradoxical counterweight to the stereotypical millennial laziness, this hustle culture is all engrossing of young peoples, lives leading to burnout and unhappiness despite some rare spectacular successes. Adams’s point is that young people seem unable to find a happy mean between the “great resignation” and hustle-til-collapse. Adams further notes that this hustle culture is fundamentally a religion used to fill the emptiness of late millennial life.
While presenting a strong critique of late millennial culture, Adams speaks in the voice of a concerned educator, who, although now “middle aged,” is nonetheless not entirely different from his students. He himself has a Twitter account and admittedly struggles with questions of faith and meaning. However, as he notes, what has helped him bring meaning and purpose to his life is his deep education in Western classics. The loss of this education among young people is perhaps Adams’s biggest lament in Hollowed Out. Without the classics of Western civilization, which teach value lessons of wisdom—not simply “facts”—students are left only in the void of the internet in which there is mostly (but not entirely) chaos and anxiety.
Ultimately, there are two uniquely unsettling qualities to Hollowed Out. The first is that the work is written by a well-seasoned educator at the midpoint of his career. It is not, like other books lamenting the toxicity of millennial education, a “bon voyage” to education by a retiring professor. Jeremy Adams is still on the ship as it is sinking, and he is calling out that the ship can be still saved. However, this desire to preserve post-Civil Rights American liberal education, having now reached its logical and destruction conclusion, is itself the second unsettling point. The world of the educated American citizen who loves his country and desires its continuance is largely becoming a thing of the past. The Democratic Party is no longer the party of liberals who desire free inquiry and a reform of the American system. It is increasingly the party of an uncompromising radical authoritarianism that seeks to wipe the slate of the country’s historical memory clean – a return to the truest liberal metaphysic of the “blank slate” and absolute “self-creation.”
It is difficult to know what the future holds for American education. However, Jeremy Adams’s Hollowed Out is a strong argument for a way of teaching and learning that gave birth to American educational excellence (think Harvard, Yale, and Princeton before their embrace of cancel culture when a humanistic education around the Bible and Western classics and literature alongside science was the forte of their educational philosophy). We who still see the goodness and power of education have much to learn in reading Adams.

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