The life of the mind. This lovely phrase states what education is supposed to be about. All things bright and cerebral. Play chess. Write a story. Devise a plan for any goal. Weigh evidence for and against any proposal. Note that you could be perfectly still. These activities occur inside the brain.
Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) wrote a book about the contemplative life, about thinking itself. Her title was The Life of the Mind. The phrase provides an elegant way to gauge the success of our public schools. Good schools enlarge the life of the mind. Bad schools do the opposite.
Perversely, and to a startling degree, our K–12 schools encourage the death of the mind. The strategy is straightforward. Discredit and eliminate the traditional basics — reading, arithmetic, knowledge, and the discipline to use them.
Reading is taught in confusing and counterproductive ways. Similarly, arithmetic is undercut by dismissing mastery and memorization. Foundational information, including geography, history, and science, is scattered about like parts from an IKEA project you don’t know how to assemble.
Allen Tate, a famous poet, said: “The purpose of education is … the discipline of the mind for its own sake; these ends are to be achieved through the mastery of fundamental subjects which cluster around language and number[.]”
Progressive educators seem to have reached a deep insight. If they can limit “language and number,” everything else is limited. Taking no chances, they also seem intent on limiting fundamental knowledge. There are now hundreds of videos on the internet where people on the street are asked simple questions, a quick way of showing how ignorant our society has become. Look at a half-dozen videos by Jay Leno, Jesse Watters, Mark Dice, Jimmy Kimmel, and a new one called “my world is getting dumber.” Yes, it is.
The life of the mind has become disconnected from the life of children in our public schools. It’s like talking about the athletic life of people confined to their beds. The death of the mind may be more commonplace than the life of the mind.
One literary metaphor might be a neighborhood built on toxic waste. But the malignancy in public schools seems more intentional and personal. Imagine homes built on an Indian burial ground. Angry spirits roam the neighborhood. They are malevolent — grabbing at your feet, pulling you down. The professors who design classroom methods seem hostile toward children, academic achievement, and their own country.
If there are constraints on all things cognitive, mental, intellectual, or academic, what happens to the life of the mind? It shrivels.
The best way to prepare children to do all these things is simply to do them, every day, starting early. If you want your children to ski, put their boots on and take them to a beginner’s slope. Kids should start with the simple version of everything. If they cannot play chess, they play checkers. If they can’t play checkers, they play tic-tac-toe. School should feel easy for children. That’s how you entice them into learning, unlike Common Core, which tricks them into giving up.
The pretenders in control of our public schools start with elaborately difficult things. Or they don’t start at all. There you have the secret for destroying the life of the mind.
The Education Establishment can get away with its intellectual infantilization because there’s little criticism. There is only an all-enveloping silence and apparent acceptance of what the ideological extremists demand. Foundations, universities, and the media appear to agree. Well, you know what liberals used to say: if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. That’s especially true in the case of our newspapers and other media.
This article is intended to help everyone pretend you are a child in our public schools. You have been taught very little. You can hardly read. You cannot multiply and divide. Academically, you’re the walking wounded. Finally, the life of the mind is a half-life. How does it feel?
The Education Establishment fills the air with new verbiage, new programs, new initiatives, new goals, new jargon, new marketing plans. These people really do seem to hate clarity and transparency. Their ideas have nothing to do with curing the problem; their ideas are the problem.
They should stop doing the same counterproductive things they have been doing for years. From now on, do what the song suggests: teach the children well.
Here are some examples of how it probably feels to have no life of the mind: extreme forgetfulness. Dementia. Near drowning. Alcoholism. Amnesia. Oxygen deprivation. Traumatic brain injury.
Concussion — it’s probably a lot like that. The best people never tire of lamenting the violence of football even as they support educational policies that achieve the same results.
Bruce Deitrick Price’s new book is Saving K–12: What happened to our public schools? How do we fix them? A good gift.
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