TCS Daily

American Lower Education

By Lee Harris - April 7, 2003 12:00 AM

America is not the first society in which children have been systematically taught to despise their parents' values, but it is the first one in which the parents have been willing to pay large sums for the privilege.

The first educators who believed that their mission was to root out traditional values, rather than to implant them, were those Jesuits who set up their schools in Brazil and Paraguay in the sixteenth century.

Previously, the whole point of education had been quite the opposite-to pass on tradition and not destroy it. Which was how the Greeks raised their children, and the Romans, and the Chinese, and the Hindus.

The Jesuits saw education differently. They believed that they had a monopoly on the truth, in which case, what good could come from permitting the parents to exercise any control over the content of what their children were taught?

But even the Jesuits drew the line somewhere, and they prudently did not ask the Indian parents to sacrifice large chunks of their savings in order to alert the children to the parents' cultural inferiority.

Which is where the American system of education is unique. Here parents fall all over themselves to send their children to the most expensive universities, knowing full well that it is only in such special environments that their children can be properly taught to look down their noses at everything their parents hold sacred.

Why is this?

Some of it has to do with simple snobbery, since many parents send their kids to expensive schools to obtain the bragging rights that always come with such an education.

But this fails to answer the real question, Why does such an education confer bragging rights on anyone other than the person who has received it? Why is your son's or daughter's education a source of class and cachet for you?

Is it like the Polynesian island custom of potlatch, in which the big man shows his superiority over the other contenders for his position by killing more of his pigs, and in general destroying more of his property than the next guy? "Hey, look at me! I'm so rich I can even support a son at Cornell who wants to be a poet!"

There is a bit of this, as there always is when people have money. Though it is harmless, and from time to time even results in a good poet.

But it fails to explain why an expensive education must also ridicule the parents' own values. Can't we have equally pricey schools that teach our children to respect our values? In which case, what is the basis of this peculiar inverse relationship between educational prestige and contempt for the values of one's indigenous society? (And don't say it is natural, because French Stalinists like Louis Althusser have adored their own culture just as much as French Monarchists like Charles Maurras.)

No, it is something most definitely unique to us. And here is my explanation for it.

The American people, even the most successful and best adjusted of us, still suffer from a horrible cultural inferiority complex, and we are acutely sensitive to any charge that we are not as sophisticated or as well-educated as the rest of the world, and we believe-quite erroneously-that the way to remedy this defect is to admit it openly, and to ask others to show us the light. Which is why the CEO of a Fortune 500 company sees no problem in having his children raised to think he is barbarian-because he half believes he is himself.

In short, we Americans believe we are not as civilized as we should be.

And we are right.

If we were as civilized as we should be, we would not allow people to take our children and tell them that our own beliefs and values are contemptible. That is something, as the Jesuits well knew, that only backward savages would permit.

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