Prime Wisdom

January 22, 2010

Anything that begins with a quotation from Upton Sinclair is likely to be worth reading, and this is no exception. From Front Porch Republic:

Prime Wisdom


13 JANUARY 2010

Rock Island, IL

In 1923 Upton Sinclair published a book on education titled The Goose-Step. It began thus:

“Six hundred thousand young people are attending colleges and universities in America. They are the pick of our coming generation; they are the future of our country. If they are wisely and soundly taught, America will be great and happy; if they are misguided and mistaught, no power can save us.”

I am interested in these words not in relation to their own context, for much of it was blather, but in relation to ours, for much of it is dire. I am interested in them not in relation to what Sinclair considered wise and sound teaching but in relation to what Reality–our stern preceptor–considers sound and wise teaching.*

To be specific: I wonder whether I am alone in thinking that Sinclair’s opening sentences describe our “chief economists” and many of our “leading scientists” and most of our “political leaders” exactly.

For no one seems to have taught the economists that they live, and always have lived, in a land-based economy, notwithstanding their delusions about an industrial or post-industrial or service or information-technology economy.

No one seems to have taught the scientists that the history of their own discipline is filled with whole chapters in which one error replaces another—that, to paraphrase Hawthorne, their most splendid successes have almost invariably been failures. **

No one seems to have taught the politicians anything about that threadbare doctrine of man that underwrites their public jerry-mandering. They went to college, these elected officials, but no one thought to give them a proper dose of theology.

And now, as the curtain falls and the lights fade on the age of growth—economic growth, scientific “advance,” and political expansion—none of these great public intellectuals, the unwisely and unsoundly taught, seems to care much about what our stern preceptor is saying.

But what she’s saying is this: the world as you have known and enjoyed it is over; make other arrangements.

Make arrangements to live locally, to scale back, to get used to less.

Do this voluntarily and cooperatively before catastrophe forces you to do it in a panic.

Make arrangements to be kind and useful to one another, to be competent at fundamental tasks, to be willing to do actual work, to help those who can’t do it and to encourage those who won’t.

Make arrangements to stay home more often, to occupy yourself in useful endeavors, to make birdhouses rather than hand money over to Hollywood at the Celebration Cinema.

Love your place. Guard your liberty. And remember: you are free not insofar as you are able to pay; you are free insofar as you are able.

As a teacher in one of those disciplines we’re not going to be able to afford much longer, I have spent some time thinking about what sorts of arrangements are going to be required of me—supposing that a few liberal-arts colleges, my own included, will still be around in ten years, which supposition I more often doubt than hold.

This thinking has been aided by such passages as the one ripped from Upton Sinclair—and from others as well.

For example, these lines from Book VIII of Paradise Lost have seemed to me endlessly ponderable:

to know
That which before us lies in daily life,
Is the prime Wisdom; what is more, is fume,
Or emptiness, or fond impertinence,
And renders us in things that most concern
Unpractic’d, unprepare’d, and still to seek.

I can’t think of a single “chief economist” who has any clue about what “before us lies in daily life.” (No one who is well-fed but who treats agriculture as nothing more than 3.5% of the GDP knows the first thing about daily life.) But I can think of several economists—to say nothing of “leading scientists” and politicians as well—who, in place of “prime Wisdom,” offer “fume, / Or emptiness, or fond impertinence.”

And, as I look about me, I see the wretched unsuspecting multitudes unpracticed in, and unprepared for, and still seeking the things “that most concern.” I number myself among them.

Milton had it exactly right. He wasn’t thinking about CSAs or food pantries, but he had it exactly right.

I was dipping about in Paradise Lost the other night when I came once again upon these lines from Book VIII, and they sent me back to another work by that same blind old scold: his treatise, Of Education.

Pupils thrown too soon into “fathomless and unquiet deeps of controversy,” said the myopic bard, “do for the most part grow into hatred and contempt of learning, mocked and deluded all this while with ragged notions and babblements, while they expected worthy and delightful knowledge.”

Grow for how long—and in what occupations?

“Till poverty or youthful years call them importunately their several ways and hasten them with the sway of friends either to an ambitious and mercenary, or ignorantly zealous divinity.

“Some allured to the trade of law, grounding their purposes not on the prudent and heavenly contemplation of justice and equity which was never taught them, but on the promising and pleasing thoughts of litigious terms, fat contentions, and flowing fees.

“Others betake them to state affairs with souls so unprincipled in virtue and true generous breeding that flattery and court shifts and tyrannous aphorisms appear to them the highest points of wisdom.

“Others, lastly, of a more delicious and airy spirit, retire themselves—knowing no better—to enjoyments of ease and luxury, living out their days in feast and jollity; which indeed is the wisest and the safest course of all these, unless they were with more integrity undertaken.

“And these are the fruits of misspending our prime youth at the schools and universities as we do, either in learning mere words or such things chiefly as were better unlearned.”

Were it not for the style and diction, we might suppose these words were written yesterday.

As a teacher in one of those disciplines we’re not going to be able to afford much longer, I have also spent some time not just thinking about but also making other arrangements. I will spend some ink on those actual arrangements in a future piece. But, for now, a little more Sinclair:

“Six hundred thousand young people are being taught, deliberately and of set purpose, not wisdom but folly, not justice but greed, not freedom but slavery, not love but hate.”


* “What I like about experience,” said C.S. Lewis, “is that it is such an honest thing. You may take any number of wrong turnings; but keep your eyes open and you will not be allowed to go very far before the warning signs appear. You may have deceived yourself, but experience is not trying to deceive you. The universe rings true wherever you fairly test it.”

** They have imagined themselves, said Hawthorne, “to have acquired from the investigation of nature a power above nature.”


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