Narcissism, Ignorance, and Bureaucracy: A Vicious Combination

NarcissismVitium. St Augustine helped us to understand Paul’s doctrine of sin by using the word vitium. It denotes a powerful corrupting force. We’ve translated it into English with the word “vice” but that word long ago lost its force. We refer to drinking, gambling, and smoking as vices, the abandonment of which would leave us morally or physically improved. In that way vice has come to refer to something rather less damaging than vitium. The same thing is true of “vicious.” We speak of “vicious” dogs. To be sure, no one wants to be attacked by a vicious dog but that damage is from the outside in and here I’m thinking of damage that begins on the inside and works its way out.

What is it that is so damaging? The terrible combination of Narcissism, ignorance, bureaucracy. I am particularly concerned by the confluence of these destructive powers in modern education.

Narcissism refers to the story of Narcissus who, upon seeing his reflection in the water, drowned as he fell over to get a closer look at himself. The moral of the story is that self-obsession can be fatal. Many writers have credibly described our age as a Narcissistic age. Who can doubt it? We Facebook, Pinterest, Tweet, YouTube, Yelp, and Instagram where we are and what we’re doing at all times. The NSA and CIA and FBI hardly need the metadata from our phones to find out what we’re about. It’s not that these media are evil in themselves. You may have found this post via one of them but their principal use and prevalence does tend to Narcissism.

Ignorance refers to a state of not knowing. There are at least two kinds of ignorance: willing and unwilling. The willfully ignorant doesn’t want to know. One who is unwilling to be ignorant will do something to overcome his ignorance. We can also distinguish between those who are aware that they ignorant and those who are unaware. The worst combination is to be unaware and willing to learn. If one has never before walked a certain treacherous mountain path a sensible person is apt to be more cautious lest he fall and be killed. The ignorant person who walks the same path careless of the danger is at much greater risk. This is the sort of ignorance that concerns me most. In the first instance, when one is aware that one is ignorant, one is likely to take remedial steps (read, listen, and learn). When one thinks that all is well, one doesn’t even know that a problem exists. This is blind ignorance. The question is, why are some folk blindly, willfully ignorant?

Part of the answer lies in the terrible combination of Narcissism and blind ignorance. The sort of Narcissism I have in mind isn’t actually self-inflicted. In this case it’s been practically injected into the subject from the earliest age, in schools. In the 1960s and 70s there was a quiet revolution in education. I saw the beginnings of the transition. It was the self-esteem revolution. I sat in meetings with counselors and other boys that were designed to help create a “positive peer culture.” For us it meant an hour out of class, where we didn’t have to study or learn. It was a lark. It was a waste of time. Outside of PPC meetings we laughed at our counselors who meant well but who were naive.

Jean Twenge, Thomas de Zengotita and others (e.g., Tom Wolfe) have chronicled the self-esteem revolution. We live in a culture of scoreless games, participation ribbons, and T-ball trophies. Children born in 1980 and after have been taught that they are the best and brightest. They’ve been taught that they cannot fail—that whatever they do is success. Failure is increasingly being defined out of existence.

This is not to praise the “good old days.” Some of my teachers, all of whom were the product of or influenced by the World War II/Korean War generations, barked orders and used ridicule in a way that would have pleased the toughest drill sergeant. Our coaches “broke us down” and only sometimes built us back up. They did not always seem to have a clear sense that they were dealing with humans made in the image of God. That regimented, close-order approach to education probably helped to fuel a reaction toward the self-esteem movement.

Ignorance. Nevertheless, at the same time ignorance and Narcissism are exalted, academic standards are being lowered. Teachers feel forced to “teach to the test” in order that no child may be left behind. Topics that were once covered in Junior High/Middle School have been postponed to High School. What was once covered in high school is now postponed to university and what was once done in university must now be done in graduate school. It’s a chain of regression. The sad reality is that undergraduates are leaving high schools and universities with a strong sense of self-esteem and a weak sense of objective reality. Many of them don’t read, write, or think as clearly as their predecessors but they cannot be told this because they’ve been programmed since pre-school to believe that they are the brightest and the best. Further, the general turn toward the subjective (“it’s true because it’s true for me”) in late modernity only reinforces these trends. Who needs objective reality (2+2=4) when we can create our own, virtual reality onscreen?

Bureaucracy. There have been social-structural changes that have facilitated the flourishing of ignorant self-esteem. The Department of Education was created in 1979. There is a connection between the influence of federal funding (direct and indirect), the rise of another (armed!) bureaucracy, and the decline of educational standards. Bureaucrats measure things. They deal in quantifiable data. Increasingly schools have become dependent upon federal dollars and thus they must play by federal rules. They must quantify. Thus, the testing regime has gravitated toward models that can be measured on the basis of quantifiable “outcomes.” In the same period students have increasingly become clients and, as such, judges of schools and teachers. Why not? They see themselves as consumers and education as a service. Because the quantifiable trumps all, student evaluations have become increasingly important to the bureaucrats in evaluating teaching and teachers must adjust their classes in order to satisfy students who, presumably don’t know the subject, which is why they are in the class and yet those who don’t know are determining what should or shouldn’t be taught and how. Because the quantifiable rules, teachers face even more pressure to publish, because that can be measured. It was not that many years ago when a university professor might spend his entire career as an Assistant Professor or Associate Professor. He might publish only a few articles or perhaps only one or two books in an entire career. Some profs were writers and some were teachers and there was no shame in being a teacher. Mark Schwenn has described very well what has happened to undergraduate education in the modern period.

One great problem with the shift to outcomes is that it contradicts the nature of education which, in its nature, is not an outcome as much as a process. There are outcomes but they aren’t as easily measured as some (many?) imagine. E.g., I hear occasionally from students 3 or 4 years after graduation. They say that they are just now beginning to understand some of the things they learned in school. That is education.  Outcome based exams are quantitative.  They reward that which is quickly and mechanically measurable. Such exams cannot measure the gradual realization of truth. Certainly there must be measurement but exams and papers in the old liberal arts tradition measured qualities rather than quantities. True education imparts skills, wisdom, and a desire to learn. Schools hire the learned to lead, cajole, and induce others to learn, to begin the process of becoming intelligent, thoughtful persons. No bureaucrat can measure qualities.

The current mess was predicted. Jacques Barzun and Mortimer Adler and others were warning us in the 1950s about what we’re now seeing. Reading these works written 60 years ago, it’s as if they’re standing right next us, as if they’re describing what we’re seeing. We did not listen and now our educational system is disordered. It is corrupted by bad, modernist theories which have led us to bad practices and bad outcomes. The educational establishment has subscribed a false view of humanity and consequently inadequate and de-humanizing approaches to education has come to dominate. We’ve moved from Parrot, Pert, Poet to No Child Left Behind and congratulated ourselves for our enlightenment.

There is a way forward. It is so radical, however, that it is almost frightening to contemplate. We must admit that the modern, post-WWII, mechanical, factory approach to education has failed. We must tell the truth to parents, that, as hard as it is to say and hear, neither they nor their children have been well educated or well served for decades. Schools are no longer citadels of learning, they are laboratories for social engineering. What then? Close the Department of Education. Abolish the teacher’s unions and start over. It seems clear that neither the DoE nor have done anything to make students more literate, more intelligent, more thoughtful.

Whatever we do, we must begin by recognizing these three vices that are destroying from within the very possibility of education.

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