The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Skepticism and Independence: Bad!

Posted on | May 9, 2010 | 72 Comments

That’s the essential thrust of Mark Lilla’s lengthy essay in the New York Review of Books:

[W]e need to see [the Tea Party movement] as a manifestation of deeper social and even psychological changes that the country has undergone in the past half-century. Quite apart from the movement’s effect on the balance of party power, which should be short-lived, it has given us a new political type: the antipolitical Jacobin. The new Jacobins have two classic American traits that have grown much more pronounced in recent decades: blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing—and unwarranted—confidence in the self. They are apocalyptic pessimists about public life and childlike optimists swaddled in self-esteem when it comes to their own powers.

Lilla cites an interesting example of what he means:

A million and a half students in the United States are now being taught by their parents at home, nearly double the number a decade ago, and representing about fifteen students for every public school in the country.11 There is nothing remarkable about wanting to escape unsafe schools and incompetent teachers, or to make sure your children are raised within your religious tradition. What’s remarkable is American parents’ confidence that they can do better themselves.

Remarkable, perhaps, but not mistaken. What almost every beginning home-schooling parent quickly discovers — by accident — is how much that goes on in the modern public education system is simply wasted time. Mom at the kitchen table can generally accomplish more with three hours of direct instruction as a public elementary school does in an entire day.

What few critics (or even advocates) of home-schooling fail to grasp is the extent to which its popularity reflects the democratization of education. More Americans are college-educated than ever before. Why should a mother with an Ivy League MBA suppose that she is less capable of teaching her children arithmetic than a state-school graduate with a BS Ed.? (As a proud alumnus of Jacksonville State University, I don’t intend this as a put-down of state-school graduates.)

Studies indicate that home-schooling parents generally have higher-than-average levels of education, and might therefore presumably are qualified to judge the adequacy of the education provided by public schools. If these parents reject the public system as inferior to what they can provide their own children at home, why should Lilla presume them incompetent to make that decision?

Yet Lilla’s more general target is libertarianism:

We are experiencing just one more aftershock from the libertarian eruption that we all, whatever our partisan leanings, have willed into being. For half a century now Americans have been rebelling in the name of individual freedom. . . .
Now an angry group of Americans wants to be freer still—free from government agencies that protect their health, wealth, and well-being; free from problems and policies too difficult to understand; free from parties and coalitions; free from experts who think they know better than they do; free from politicians who don’t talk or look like they do (and Barack Obama certainly doesn’t). They want to say what they have to say without fear of contradiction, and then hear someone on television tell them they’re right. They don’t want the rule of the people, though that’s what they say. They want to be people without rules . . .

An exaggeration, of course, but you sense the source of liberal Lilla’s frustration. What was the point of the Left’s “long march through the institutions” if, having captured those institutions, they can’t use them to tell everybody else what to do?

UPDATE: An excellent rejoinder to Lilla at Red State.

UPDATE II (Smitty): Insta-lanche!

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Comments

  • http://www.haemet.blogivists.com Roxeanne de Luca

    but surely Mr. McCain (if not his readers) is familiar with conservative critiques of individualism?

    I missed the part wherein we were required to believe anything any self-appointed intellectual told us, rather than reading those critiques, pondering them, and deciding to accept or reject them (either in whole or in part) on their merits.

  • http://www.haemet.blogivists.com Roxeanne de Luca

    but surely Mr. McCain (if not his readers) is familiar with conservative critiques of individualism?

    I missed the part wherein we were required to believe anything any self-appointed intellectual told us, rather than reading those critiques, pondering them, and deciding to accept or reject them (either in whole or in part) on their merits.

  • http://conservativetimes.org/ S.L. Toddard

    I suspect you have me confused with someone else, Mr. Bilwick. I have only commented on this blog once before today, I believe. As for “so what”, individualism of the type referred to in the piece in question (which is to say extreme individualism as opposed to merely self-sufficiency, which I expect most people mean when they refer to “rugged individualism”) is antithetical to conservatism. The atomized individual is the enemy of ordered society, and the end of both liberalism and libertarianism (the latter of which I myself often sympathize). So, my point is that “Skepticism and Independence: Bad!” is not the “essential thrust” of the piece. The essential thrust of the piece, if we were to reduce it to an easily-lampooned headline, would be “atomistic individualism: bad”, which good conservatives should applaud. That is not to say that I agree with all of the piece – I should think homeschooling is a reaction to ideological individualism rather than a symptom of it. Homeschoolers are trying to prevent their children from being stripped of their identity, i.e. from being reduced to a mere “individual” severed from the ties that bind men to their country and to each other.

  • http://conservativetimes.org/ S.L. Toddard

    I suspect you have me confused with someone else, Mr. Bilwick. I have only commented on this blog once before today, I believe. As for “so what”, individualism of the type referred to in the piece in question (which is to say extreme individualism as opposed to merely self-sufficiency, which I expect most people mean when they refer to “rugged individualism”) is antithetical to conservatism. The atomized individual is the enemy of ordered society, and the end of both liberalism and libertarianism (the latter of which I myself often sympathize). So, my point is that “Skepticism and Independence: Bad!” is not the “essential thrust” of the piece. The essential thrust of the piece, if we were to reduce it to an easily-lampooned headline, would be “atomistic individualism: bad”, which good conservatives should applaud. That is not to say that I agree with all of the piece – I should think homeschooling is a reaction to ideological individualism rather than a symptom of it. Homeschoolers are trying to prevent their children from being stripped of their identity, i.e. from being reduced to a mere “individual” severed from the ties that bind men to their country and to each other.

  • http://conservativetimes.org/ S.L. Toddard

    “I missed the part wherein we were required to believe anything any self-appointed intellectual told us”

    Roxanne, no one is implying anything of the sort. Conservatives should at least be familiar with them though, and with the fact that “individualism” is more a libertarian ideal than a conservative one.

  • http://conservativetimes.org/ S.L. Toddard

    “I missed the part wherein we were required to believe anything any self-appointed intellectual told us”

    Roxanne, no one is implying anything of the sort. Conservatives should at least be familiar with them though, and with the fact that “individualism” is more a libertarian ideal than a conservative one.

  • Bilwick

    Er, okay, SLT . . . thanks for stopping by.

  • Bilwick

    Er, okay, SLT . . . thanks for stopping by.

  • http://youhavetobethistalltogoonthisride.blogspot.com/ keyboard jockey

    SLT

    Fear the Libertarian, nice try at herding folks back into the RINO fold.

    B+ ;)

  • http://youhavetobethistalltogoonthisride.blogspot.com/ keyboard jockey

    SLT

    Fear the Libertarian, nice try at herding folks back into the RINO fold.

    B+ ;)

  • section9

    There is also a generational thing going on, methinks.

    Remember, the Student Demonstrators who opposed the Vietnam war eventually rose to power in the 1980′s and 1990′s. This Boomer Generation is now exercising power and is now decidedly liberal.

    Their kids, along with them, voted for Obama once. I don’t believe that their kids will make that mistake again. Their kids will rebel and go libertarian. Their grandchildren, facing bankruptcy and debt, understand the broken promises of the Boomer generation, and are now distrustful of Government.

    Liberals do not get this at all, and never will, because modern liberal assumptions were shaped by the notions that there would always be money around during the postwar era.

  • section9

    There is also a generational thing going on, methinks.

    Remember, the Student Demonstrators who opposed the Vietnam war eventually rose to power in the 1980′s and 1990′s. This Boomer Generation is now exercising power and is now decidedly liberal.

    Their kids, along with them, voted for Obama once. I don’t believe that their kids will make that mistake again. Their kids will rebel and go libertarian. Their grandchildren, facing bankruptcy and debt, understand the broken promises of the Boomer generation, and are now distrustful of Government.

    Liberals do not get this at all, and never will, because modern liberal assumptions were shaped by the notions that there would always be money around during the postwar era.

  • mojo

    If they keep screwing around, the left is likely to get a taste of the Jacksonian wing of the libertarian political strata.

  • mojo

    If they keep screwing around, the left is likely to get a taste of the Jacksonian wing of the libertarian political strata.

  • http://www.stomachgasbloating.com Leo King

    Home Schooling is also nice since you got to always see your kids.”*’

  • http://www.stomachgasbloating.com Leo King

    Home Schooling is also nice since you got to always see your kids.”*’

  • http://howardfrant.blogspot.com Howard

    You really need to get over the idea that everyone who disagrees with you is a liberal. Even a cursory reading of Lilla’s article should have made it clear that he doesn’t like the 60′s any more than the 80′s. (You also need to get over the idea that every liberal is an idiot, but that’s another story.)

    Oh, and here’s what Lilla said about home schooling: “There is nothing remarkable about wanting to escape unsafe schools and incompetent teachers, or to make sure your children are raised within your religious tradition. What’s remarkable is American parents’ confidence that they can do better themselves. Many of the more-educated ones probably do…” You really didn’t read very carefully, did you?

  • http://howardfrant.blogspot.com Howard

    You really need to get over the idea that everyone who disagrees with you is a liberal. Even a cursory reading of Lilla’s article should have made it clear that he doesn’t like the 60′s any more than the 80′s. (You also need to get over the idea that every liberal is an idiot, but that’s another story.)

    Oh, and here’s what Lilla said about home schooling: “There is nothing remarkable about wanting to escape unsafe schools and incompetent teachers, or to make sure your children are raised within your religious tradition. What’s remarkable is American parents’ confidence that they can do better themselves. Many of the more-educated ones probably do…” You really didn’t read very carefully, did you?

  • http://www.keralagirls.org Jesus Ross

    i was also home schooled when i was younger and it is also a great weay to get your education.~-;

  • http://www.keralagirls.org Jesus Ross

    i was also home schooled when i was younger and it is also a great weay to get your education.~-;

  • http://www.metallicsandals.org Jacob Patel

    i was home schooled too but i would still prefer regular schools..*~

  • http://www.metallicsandals.org Jacob Patel

    i was home schooled too but i would still prefer regular schools..*~