Esolen: Life Under Compulsion

August 4, 2022

Life Under Compulsion
Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of your Child
Anthony Esolen
(ISI, 2015)
224 p.

Anthony Esolen, a few years before publishing this book, wrote one called How to Destroy the Imagination of your Child. It was a wonderfully diverting, sometimes trenchant satire written in the tradition of Uncle Screwtape, giving evil counsel in seeming-earnest. This newer book seems, based on the subtitle, to be something of a follow-up, but the Screwtape-ish aspect is gone. Here Esolen gives it to us straight.

The main thesis underlying the book’s various and sometimes sprawling arguments is that much of our modern society, especially though not exclusively as it affects children, is one that lacks freedoms that previous generations enjoyed. Our children, and we, live under compulsion in a variety of respects, sometimes because of how we have organized our lives, sometimes because of our habits of thought, sometimes because of our spiritual condition. That this is so despite our culture’s allegiance to individual freedom is just one of life’s little ironies.

Esolen is drawing here on an oft-made point about the vacuousness of the characteristically modern concept of freedom. “It is an extrinsic condition, and a negative one at that. It means that there are no strings upon the autonomous self.” This seems to promise a certain kind of freedom, but, paradoxically, ends up boxing us in. If we are truly autonomous, we have no natural telos that would give our life shape and direction, and we stagnate. If we are truly autonomous, there is no good or truth beyond us to which we are beholden, and we drift in meaninglessness.  This is in contrast to the older view, which was also paradoxical: constraints bring freedom. “Man’s nature compels him to love what is beautiful and to seek the truth. That drive for love and truth is itself his liberty.” We are only free if we can truly be what we are by nature.

Most of the book is devoted to exploring the implications of this false freedom in education, sex, family life, work, social life, and so on. Sometimes the pertinence of the subject matter to the main argument was obscure to me, and the book occasionally threatened to disintegrate into a hodge-podge, albeit one comprised of good things.

Much of the book, given its special interest in children, is devoted to matters of schooling. Esolen tackles, for instance, the historicist approach to the study of history, in which people of the past are conceived of as doing this or that primarily because of their having been conditioned to think and act in certain ways by historical forces. Moral judgement is out, and context and social construction are in. This seems, superficially, to be a cosmopolitan and tolerant approach to history, one that frees us from the need to bind ourselves to any particular moral judgements. But through the back door comes our jailer, for “the corollary to the lie that Shakespeare had to be that way is that we have to be this way“.

In contrast, when we study history in earnest, encountering people of the past as people like ourselves, failing and succeeding, as the case may be, but fundamentally inhabiting the same moral world that we do, we experience a variety of things not likely to occur to the historicist: we experience wonder at the immemorial, we rejoice at what is truly great, and we experience humility. The ambiguity of history sets our judgement free to praise or blame as we think best, we gain a perspective from which to see our own time and place in contrast, and in so doing to pass judgement on ourselves, and we do so in freedom.

He does not remark on the “woke” phenomenon which has overtaken historical studies in certain quarters. Superficially this seems much like what he admires: benign toleration and moral reticence are out, and righteousness is in. But “wokeness” is curiously one-sided; it seems capable of seeing evil in the past, but not excellence, and it is wedded to a view of social power relations that shackles people of the past — and the present — as thoroughly as historicism did.

Later he makes some provocative comments on how our public schools are organized. In his previous book, if memory serves, he remarked that they actually look, architecturally, like factories, and though the comment might seem kind of grumpy, it’s true! At least, it’s true of the schools in our neighbourhood: they are flat-roofed, non-descript, largely walled instead of windowed, lacking any sort of elegant embellishments. They look like those strip-malls one finds in industrial sections of the city.

Well, in this book he contrasts a typical public school of this kind, “built by contractors and staffed by people largely unknown and with purposes of their own, for whom parents are either compliant clients, no-shows, or pests” with the one-room schools of a hundred years ago:

“Why do people invariably enjoy visiting old one-room schoolhouses? I think it’s because they are human places, on a human scale, for the education of little humans… The school looks in part like a home, or a small town hall, or a chapel. Appropriately so, since it is a public extension of the home, in harmony with the virtues encouraged by the church.”

I do find one-room schoolhouses attractive, don’t you? Though I find them more attractive, even, than our little homeschool, so perhaps in addition to being like a home, the public character of the one-room schoolhouse is also an important part of its appeal.

Be that as it may, what about the ways in which schools organize time? Esolen is not a friend of the clock and the bell:

“The chief lesson that the bell teaches is that all things must serve a utilitarian purpose… The bell says, “Nothing is of ultimate concern, because all things end when I determine.” There are only two reasons why one would study a thing that is not of ultimate concern or that does not bring delight that carries us out of ourselves, as experiences of love and beauty do. One is that it is useful, a means to a farther end. The other is that we have no choice. We are compelled to do it.”

This is quite interesting, as are his comments on that other canard of public schooling: the benefits of ‘socialization’ (“as if it were describing a chemical process”). But in the time of COVID this seems rather backwards; now if you want your kids to be socially well-adjusted you must consider keeping them out of school.

*

If John Dewey is not your hero, Esolen is ready with some cheering rhetoric that I can’t resist quoting. Dewey, he writes, was

“as narrow-minded a reformer as the world has ever been plagued withal… He was what Arnold would have called a philistine with a hypertrophied brain… a man suffering an exaggerated case of intellectual myopia… He had no poetry in his heart, and he never noticed the lack.”

I don’t know Dewey well enough to know if this is fair, but … but … Damn you, John Dewey!

*

It’s a fine book, though I confess I did not enjoy it as much as the previous one. Esolen is incapable of writing a dull sentence, but I missed the mischievous energy of the earlier upside-down-ery, and I found the argument here a bit scatter-shot. But the book’s motive is an admirable one, and the cultural criticism he offers is learned and serious and bracing. I conclude with some brief quotes.

***

[Education and silence]
“Proper education and proper teaching are based on the substance of silence.” (Max Picard)

[Equality]
“[Alongside a] manly and lawful passion for equality … there exists also in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to attempt to lower the powerful to their own level and reduces men to prefer equality in slavery to inequality with freedom.” (Toqueville)

[Tolerance]
Tolerance is that important but subordinate virtue by which, instructed in our weakness, we bear with what is bad without pretending that it is good.

[Crowds and compulsion]
It is often easier to compel a hundred people to do what you could never compel one person to do. The lone man must consult his conscience, that stern and unflattering arbiter. A man in a crowd, though, can turn to the others, as the others turn to one another, each justifying the deed by referring to the next man, or to the force of all the men together.

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