I came of age during what might be considered the flowering of the American educational system. The Lockean ideals dominated. The purpose of education was to help us learn how to think. Whether it was a civics class, English studies or science, our high school and university teachers were almost uniformly focused on developing our ability to think critically and question what we were told. We were individuals and the educational system saw, as its primary purpose, to help bring out those unique qualities within each of us that would make us exceptional members of society.
But there was a counter vision of the purpose of education which was rising towards hegemony. A group generally referred to as the Hegelians put forth an entirely different vision of the role of individuals in society. Unlike Locke, who believed that every individual is unique, that their value lay within themselves and each had a potential that should be cultivated, the Hegelians believed that the value of most individuals to society is measured by their utility – their suitability as draft animals.
The difference in the two perspectives is stark. But the implications of their flowering are even starker. While the Lockeans contended that the purpose of education was to teach people how to think, the Hegelians countered by saying that the purpose of education was to teach them what to think. The Lockeans saw each individual as an eagle in training. One that could be taught to soar. Hegelians saw everyone, or at least the vast majority of them, as just another member of an ant colony – as draft animals in training.
One of the most notable assaults on the Hegelians’ agenda came in 1940. In that year Robert Heinlein, the American science fiction writer, published a short story titled The Roads Must Roll. He pointed out the inherent limitations of teaching people what to think rather than how to think. But the deep insight was lost – over mastered by the self-appointed masters of the herd.
So, the Hegelians prevailed and the entire educational the system became, except for the schools dedicated to serving the needs of the aristocracy, simply an extended series of trade schools.
But in the late 90s something unexpected began to happen. A rule, when it comes to complex systems, is that unintended consequences are most likely to over-master primary goals. As the information age began to flower, the Hegelians began to lose control over the ‘what to think’ agenda. Their educational system had produced an entire population of individuals who had never been taught to think critically and who expected – no, needed – to be told what to think.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them,
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie
The assumption on the part of the Hegelians was that they would be the people who did the telling. Hegemony was nearly within their grasp. The Hegelians, allied with Randian advocates of the new world order, saw themselves as the equivalent of the Dark Lord from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Puppet masters of the Universe. But the rapid flowering of the information age consigned that pretense to the dustbin.
The founders of the internet were children of the middle of 20th century America. They were Lockeans who believed that their creation would extend the ability of everyone to flower uniquely. But the creation of the children of light was used by the children of the undifferentiated herd – the Hegelians’ spawn. And, as they experienced the vast openness of the information super highway, the vertigo they felt drove them to towards simple-minded ideologies and explanations.
For the first time in American history, most of the population was ripe for addiction to fortune cookie ideologies and demagoguery. They desperately needed someone to tell them what to think but found even thinking about who that might be as beyond their abilities.
So, many of the children of the Hegelians became cult followers. Unable to think for themselves, these undifferentiated members of the American ant colony drifted towards anyone who would reduce the world to a finite set of fortune cookie sayings and, as a messiah, promised to lead them out of the wilderness of their own in-capacities.
With such yearnings so prevalent among a growing segment of the population, it came as no surprise that there were individuals who sought to take advantage of an opportunity for both self-aggrandizement and enrichment. The first waves were mostly snake-oil salesmen selling one or another form of religion. Evangelism emerged as a highly profitable scam. People who felt lost and disconnected would readily send most, if not all, that they had to be ‘saved’. Unthinkingly they would train their money for a bit of ‘holy wood’ that had been chipped from the evangelist’s outhouse – or for a piece of cloth clipped out of his discarded underwear. Unable to think for themselves, they were prepared to sacrifice all that they had in exchange for the illusion of certainty and salvation.
The success of the evangelists was not lost on many political operatives and advisers. The dumbing down of the American population presented an opportunity for demagogues, and their media consultants, to manipulate the beliefs and allegiances of a large percentage of the population. Much like Madison Avenue developed and exploited the idea of manufactured demand during the middle of the 20th century, these actors developed and exploited the idea of manufactured belief.
At the same time, those who had benefited from the increasing divide between the wealthy and the rest of the population saw an opportunity. By backing shallow-minded demagogues who could induce individuals to act against their own self-interest, they sought to increase their advantages, power and wealth. As one of these individuals told me, “If I am going to back someone, the first requirement is that they be fundamentally stupid. The second is that they must be so in love with themselves that they can be convinced that they are necessary. The third is that they must be controllable in important areas and unpredictable and others. And finally, I have to have a rope connected to a ring in their nose that I can jerk hard in order to get their attention.”
This strategy can clearly be observed in the evolution of the fourth estate. After Watergate, the establishment decided on a strategy that would make sure that Woodward and Bernstein never happened again. Newsgathering was defunded and investigative reporters were replaced with talking heads. The job requirements were relatively straightforward. You had to be so in love with the sound of your own voice that you insisted on dominating any conversation. And so, in order to take full advantage of the opportunity that the Hegelians had given them. Those that controlled the media dumbed down the press to the point of self-indulgent irrelevancy.
So, what does it mean to be a child of the Hegelians in modern America? It means that you are prepared to go to a political rally and chant “lock her up” and be completely oblivious to the fact that the individual leading the chant has absolutely no intention of doing so. It means that you can support a demagogue when every proposal that is made eviscerates the social safety net that you and your family rely upon while delivering massive benefits to the wealthy. It means going on and on about “fake news” while dining on a constant flow of news that is clearly fake. And it means not having the ability to think critically about what it is you are being fed. In short, it means being a useful idiot.
So, Johnny can read – but he can’t think! As the US falls behind in one category after another, the Hegelians are beginning to realize the true implications of turning what was the most intellectually alive society on the face of the globe into a flock of sheep. Generations are going to be lost because of this stupidity. And it’s going to take decades to return the American educational system to its true purpose. In the meantime, other countries are going to take advantage of the opportunity. As with climate change, the detractors can only spread their lies for so long and then the sea rises and washes them away. In this case, the sea is not rising; it has risen.
© Earl R. Smith II, PhD