Saturday, August 01, 2015

“I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.” - Alexis de Tocqueville

What makes this quote so jarring is that it comes from such a famous book - Democracy in America - and that it's the opposite of what we (in the United States) like to think about ourselves.

Entertain with me the idea that it might be true.

Our national debates aren't thoughtful, they are for the most part sensationalist and argumentative. Cross political or philosophical lines and there's an epithet waiting for you. Ask reasonable questions and you're labeled a "denier," "skeptic," or "conspiracy theorist."

Why are we so averse to deep, careful, and thoughtful civil dialog? Perhaps because it's hard work that requires a willingness to see from another's perspective and to forgo easy answers.

My wife and I have been, as parents, "independent schoolers." We've done what we thought, at any given point in time, was best for our children. Sometimes that was regular public school. Sometimes it was homeschooling. Sometimes it was a chartered or private school.

Take it from me, most conversations about homeschooling are not rational. Want to really talk about what your child or family needs and why you're homeschooling, and don't be surprised to actually hear people say, "why can't you just do things the way other people do?" Now there's a thoughtful response... The pervasive, knee-jerk distrust of anything homeschooling is just not rational. You can probably hear the anti-homeschool arguments in your head as you're reading this: you must be trying to shelter your children from the world, or are religious zealots, or think it's OK for your kids to just run wild. Ummm... maybe we just were trying to help them to learn?

Does our system of schooling really create citizens capable of sustaining a free nation, able to think independently, to articulate ideas carefully, and to work with others to bridge different viewpoints on complex issues? We tell ourselves that it does, but what we tell ourselves and what is reality are often different--especially in a world of marketing and propaganda. H.L. Menken said:
The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed a standard citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. 
How do we react to such a quote, or to de Tocqueville's above? Are we willing to consider that there might be truth to them, and/or that they are worthy of discussion? Or, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says , do we have defensive mechanisms in place that overwhelm us?
To prevent its annihilation, the ego forces us to be constantly on the watch for anything that might threaten the symbols on which it relies for identity. Our view of the world becomes polarized into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – things that support the image, and those that threaten it.
Likewise, from Bertrand Russell:
If people are offered a fact which goes against their instincts or their cultural programming, they will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, they are offered something which falls in accordance to their cultural programming, in accordance to their conditioning, they will accept it, even on the slightest evidence.
I think part of the reason these quotes might scare us is because if we allow the possibility that they could be true, they have the potential to shatter the illusions that give us comfort. Big important issues are big important issues because they are big and they are important, and reducing them--and those on either side of the issues--to sound-bite caricatures may make us feel emotionally good, is not real freedom of discussion, and harms our ability to make good decisions.

So, is this uniquely American? And if so, why? The next paragraph is for the brave only.

In countries and cultures where the divisions of power and privilege have historically been more overt, perhaps it's easier for people to recognize and discuss the different ways that individuals and groups manipulate others for their own purposes and gain. Those discussions may be seen as radical and subversive, but they are not ridiculed and are often driven by the educated class. But in a nation founded on the very idea of citizens governing themselves, with checks and balances on power, an education which keeps that narrative illusion of virtuous self-rule alive makes us uniquely susceptible to marketing and propaganda, and to a system of schooling which claim to be creating independence while doing exactly the opposite.
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