Live Until You Die (on the house)

This is an improved version of an essay first published in 1999

“I grow old learning many things,” said Solon, a poet well-known for his wisdom and for his longevity: He lived to be almost 80.  Although, as my old teacher Douglas Young pointed out, Solon’s statement might be interpreted to mean “too much education makes one prematurely old,” the point is clear enough and as true today as it was 2400 years ago when the Athenian poet-statesman lived long enough to see his beloved city acquiesce in the rule of a tyrant: A wise man never ceases to learn new things.

Mimnermus, who celebrated his love of women, had written that he hoped to die at 60, but Solon suggested that he should correct the age to 80. He may have concluded that while Eros was a god, surely, he was not the only divine force in human life.

What, after all, distinguishes Homo sapiens from other predatory mammals, if not his curiosity?  All mammals, to be sure, go through a process of education, as they are taught to hunt or forage and obey the rules of the pack or pride.  For tigers and wolves, the process lasts a few years (rodents have even a shorter time to find the wisdom that will enable them to survive), but the higher apes continue to learn up to perhaps the end of junior high school age, which beats the average American who attends public schools.

In the wild, many human beings seem to reach maturity, that is, the point at which they stop learning, by the age of 21, and until recently the government recognized the fact by making 21 the age at which boys and girls were considered obedient enough to vote and sufficiently dull-witted to want to drink themselves unconscious in a public place.

Humankind is unusual in prolonging all the stages of development (except for in utero development: Our over-sized heads require premature delivery), and the higher types of humanity--poets, and mystics, aristocrats, warriors, and composers--are noted for preserving a certain juvenile openness to the end of their careers, if not of their lives.  Mozart died young, but there is no reason that he would ever have grown up, any more than “Papa Haydn” or Sophocles or G.K. Chesterton really grew up.

Animal trainers and primatologists know that every species has its limits.  You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and a gorilla that has learned sign language in its youth will, upon reaching maturity, adamantly refuse to play along, even if he can get a treat every time he flashes the correct sign.  But even when an ape is still docile, he will not be taught so well by intimidation as by persuasion.  In training dogs and horses, care must be taken not to destroy the animal’s spirit.  Vachel Lindsay’s “broncho that would not be broken” died rather than allow itself to be turned into a machine, and the mad poet apostrophizes the colt in the glory of his freedom:

“As you dodged your pursuers, looking askance

With Greek-footed figures, and Parthenon paces,

O broncho that would not be broken of dancing.

America is full of high-spirited boys who will join gangs or follow the Grateful Dead from town to town before they will permit their souls to be destroyed in a government school.

I can almost hear the latter-day Gradgrinds objecting: “Boys must be disciplined and prepared for careers in the 21st century.”  It is true.  Every society, whether of rats or Rotarians, has its rules and its system of discipline, and part of everyone’s education must be the trial-by-ordeal in which we learn the penalties for robbing the neighbors or chewing with the mouth open, and a nation whose business is business must enforce the code of the Rotarian, will-nilly, upon the children of Zenith and, more recently, of Yoknapatawpha.

It is no accident that American education first emulated the techniques of the factory and then passed them back again, suitably streamlined, to the efficiency experts.  The inventor of “Taylorism” confessed that he had been inspired by the routinized assembly-line instruction he had observed in Massachusetts schools.  Leftist and libertarian historians--Joel Spring (The Sorting Machine) and Michael Katz (The Irony of Early School Reform) have traced the symbiosis of school and factory, which in more recent times has spawned such mind-deforming programs as “school to work” and the thousand-and-one proposals from national and local groups of illiterate businessmen who think they know how to reform education.  If the CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies wanted to do something about education, it has always seemed to me, they might begin with themselves.  The same goes for secretaries of education, presidents—and presidents’ wives.

But if every society needs its workers and team-players, its sports fans and robots, it also needs a class of leaders, of warriors and dreamers who will fight for something grander than the GI Bill and sing the songs that make life seem, if only for the moment, worth living.  We all know, even the CEO’s, that the U.S. has failed to train its robots and worker-ants in the habits of diligence, punctuality, and thrift; and some of us are even aware that our math instruction is so poor that we have to import Asian students to fill the places in our engineering schools (something like half the engineering graduates are foreign born).

I would like to say I was alarmed by these developments, but I am not, because this country has already failed in a far more important, indeed the primary task of education, which is to form the mind and character of an intellectual, moral, and social aristocracy that is the only excuse for all the dirty business that a nation does.  Other societies have fouled the water and slaughtered the innocent at the same time they were producing the younger Cato or Walter Scott or George Patton.   Yes, America did once produce men who were both warriors and dreamers, men of action (like Robert E. Lee and Douglas Macarthur) who lived by a higher code than can be contained in a Dale Carnegie handbook or an inspirational lecture by Tom Peters or “Pastor” Rick Warren.  What the U.S. grinds out year after year, however, are post-human androids, the likes of Bill Gates and the joint chiefs of staff.

If Gaetano Mosca was right, that every nation’s character is defined by its ruling elite, then USA, Inc., must be set several notches below the Assyrians who were, at least, colorful in their butcheries and distinctive in their art.  Next time you visit Chicago, go to the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago and see what is left of Nineveh and Tyre.  (The collection, by the way, owes much to the exertions of by far the greatest man ever to grow up in Rockford, J.H. Breasted, whose name is forgotten in his home town which like most home towns has tried to eliminate its historical memory.)

As uncongenial as the worlds of Hammurabi and Senacherib are to an American, the freshness and vitality of their art (much of it creatively borrowed from the Sumerians) is disconcerting to people dulled and blunted by the endless line of products pitched at weary K-Mart shoppers.  The Assyrians were as nasty and fond of slaughter as Madeline Albright and Hilary Clinton, but they were no hypocrites: They exulted in brutality and boasted of it in their monuments.  It is not our victims’ blood that should be gagging Americans but the pious lies that are used to cover them up.  We swallow them, though, and for all their bitterness we keep down the poisons that are killing us.  Better to be an Assyrian.

I have taken my children to the Oriental Institute twice, once when they were being taught (not schooled, if you please) at home and once when they had some private school education under their belts.  On the first visit they were, despite their silliness and immaturity, still open to experience, but by the second they were exhibiting the signs of the bored resentful products of a religious school doing its best to ape the public schools of 1962.

Their parochial high school, while it succeeded in teaching them to sit still and work out algebra problems (which they never could do at home), had also poured cold water over the glowing embers of their youthful curiosity.  Their religion classes taught them the faith of Voltaire and Martin Luther King; history and literature amounted to a series of documents in the progressive struggle against European Christian patriarchy; and their manners and dialect were reduced to the patois and gestures of delivery-boys at the bottom end of Rockford’s famous “Pizza Connection.”

Back in the 1960’s, the Yippies used to say “your children belong to us.”  They were right, in a sense, but my kids don’t belong to Grace Slick or Tom Hayden, but Mr. Hayden’s children (if he had them) and mine both belong to McDonalds and Disney and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, whether they have ever eaten a cheeseburger or turned on the television.

Buffy’s skull-numbed fans, by the way, were desolate, when the network, in the wake of the Columbine shootings, decided to postpone the final episode, in which the fearless vampire-killers kill the principal who has taken the form of a 20 foot snake demon.  Demons are apparently still safe in public schools; it is only students and teachers who have to worry about getting shot.

My primary fear, however, is not for the dangers our children’s bodies are exposed to in schools but for the sterilization of their minds

Too much the baked and labeled dough

Divided by accepted platitudes,

Across the stacked partitions of the day...

that Hart Crane observed two generations ago.  Better to plunge them again into the chaos of a household where Solon is no stranger, Solon who is still learning more in his grave than their fellow-students will ever learn in their school.

At this point in the argument, Dr. Gradgrind, E.D., plays his trump card: social necessity and the common good. “If you don’t send your kids to school, they will never learn to get along with other people.”  In other words, the real purpose of school is to socialize the little barbarians.

There might be some truth in this.  With no authority more objective than an adoring mother to pass judgments on their performance, the typical product of home-schooling may be an unbearable monster, even more spoiled and self-centered than his public-school counterparts.  The problem lies not so much with the actual fact of studying at home as with the character of home-schooling parents, who are just as ignorant, just as self-indulgent, and just as muddle-headed as anyone else born since 1940.  They cannot discipline their children (They can’t even train their dogs), because they refuse to discipline themselves.

Many home-schooling parents are aware of the problem and send their children to music classes and tutors or club together into a cooperative school (where they can spoil each other’s children.)  But, granting the worst case that my children’s grandmother can make against home-schooling, we only need to point to the public schools of America, where teachers are held hostage by violent students or, worse, have sex with the kids, where drugs are sold and used openly, where bad manners and perversity are deliberately inculcated in the classrooms, and where “counselors”--the bane of modern life--try to drive out every vestige of decency and modesty the children might have brought from home.

Home schools do not fail because they do not teach their children more and better things than they could learn in public schools; they fail, ultimately, because there is no common culture to sustain them.  It is all very well for a literary eccentric to bring up a fourth generation of literary eccentrics--that is all I ever aspired to; but most mothers do not want their babies to grow up to be cowboys or Indians or specialists in Greek lyric meter or translators of Pasternak.  They want their sons to be doctors or lawyers or real estate magnates, men who will settle down and raise a family in some town where they can put down roots for 20 years, at least until their kids are in college, when they can move to Arizona or Costa Rica.

Some parents also want their children to grow up to be real men and real women, not simply employees (or entrepreneurs) and tax-payers.  This is the only purpose of education--to teach us what to do with the half of our life-time we do not spend on sleeping and working, and such an education inevitably entails a common culture based on books. Each family could make up its own curriculum, of course, if it lived in the wilderness and had no historical memory to preserve.  We have come along too late in the world for that.  To make sense of our own lives, we have to know who are people or, or were, and learn to think as they thought, even if we some day come to reject their conclusions.

There are no secrets to what constitutes a “good education” for an American: it is the Greek and Latin classics (preferably in the original), the Renaissance literatures of France and Italy, the best books written in Britain as well as our own provincial contributions to English literature.

There is a revival of sorts of the classics, not in the Ph.D. programs of major universities but in alternative colleges such as Thomas More in Ft. Worth (doomed to be destroyed by self-seeking traitors), Calvinist academies like Douglas Wilson’s in Moscow, Idaho, and in some of the sunnier spots of the home-school movement.  At this point these projects in classical renewal are so many straws in the wind, not enough, perhaps, to make a dozen bricks in Goshen.  The Hebrews, we should remember, were bitter, because an evil and repressive government that killed their children was denying them the straw they needed for making bricks.  They had to find their own straw, and we have to find our own bits of learning to make the bricks and mortar of our selves.  Our dream, ultimately, is their dream, that we and our children will some day be freed from bondage to worship God and save our inheritance.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

3 Responses

  1. Allen Wilson says:

    I assume J.H. Breasted is James Henry. There should be a fifty foot tall statue of him in the center of Rockford. Any student or enthusiast of Archaeology will encounter the legacy of this giant of the golden age.

    It has been said that the Assyrians perfected the scroll as an element of decor on carved stone, and so we see the source for what became an essential decorative element in the Aeolic, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite orders. Would it not have been nice if Americans could have come up with a classical order of their own? “What, after being public schooled? Are you kidding?”

    When I first encountered John Taylor Gatto’s talks on you tube, I wondered if he hadn’t gone too far in his conclusions, and also too far into the realm of conspiracy theory, but after several years of reflection it does not seem to be the case. If we are not freed from the bonds of public schooling it will be the end of our civilization.

  2. Ben says:

    And I assume that eccentric is Navrozov – it will be very interesting to see how far that fourth apple falls from that translating tree.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Yes, of course, to both. We always take visitors to see the block of Aswan granite, sent by the Egyptian government, that marks Breasted’s grave here in Rockford. I suppose I could take people to the cheap German restaurant where Navrozov shocked Rockford Institute employees simply by being Navrozov.