An interesting discussion over the dangers menacing our democracies was kicked off by our latest postWill Fascism Come Back? Easy, a Bit is There Already.

Most participants asked themselves whether democracy is at a turning point in many countries.

I am fortunate to have such great commentators.  I’m also glad I received additional insight on the American mind I always found fascinating also because elements of it are not that easy to be grasped by Europeans (the collectivism vs individualism thing, for example.)

I’ll freely transcribe here a few sentences of the said dialogue where the dear-to-me topic education in a democracy stands out a bit.

A scene from Videocracy, by Erik Gandini, an Italian Swedish film director

The idea behind this is a follow-up post on a work experience I had in Russia where I was sent in the year 2000 in order to carry out a TACIS* financed educational project for the integration of military personnel into civil society.

It seems very much to the point since it regards the topics discussed in the said conversation, ie individualism, collectivism, education in democracies or in flawed (or almost non existent) democracies.

[*TACIS was a programme financed by the EU for “grant-financed technical assistance to 12 countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia”]

MoR: Is fascism coming back in a way or another? We see “the contempt for the composed reason replaced by the reason of those who shout louder, by the hubbub that rages every evening in the televised debates etc.”

Paul: I’m afraid [fascism] has never been very far below the surface. [Paul’s blog]

Douglas: “I cannot think of any true democracies. Republics, yes, but democracies, no. [Douglas’ blog]

MoR: I agree. Demo-cracies are often aristo-cracies, ie the rule of the happy few. There is in fact a prerequisite imo for a democracy to work correctly: a solidly educated people. Without such prerequisite, demo-cracy degenerates into dem-agogy, ie a rule manipulative of the people via their emotions, fears, bias etc. The health care debate in America is an example of that I presume. Berlusconian Italy a much bigger one.

Andreas: Nobody actually fears fascism will win in America. But the rancor, the shrillness, the animosity obscuring reason and thought: that is everywhere. [Andreas’s blog]

Cheri: On both sides of the aisle, I might observe. [Cheri’s blog]

[Everybody seems to agree that it is not a Left or Right thing. The attack to freedom after all has historical roots in political ‘churches’ of any colour, and often in churches tout court (and, alas, especially in one Church)]:

ZeusIsWatching: Fascism is the kissing cousin of communism, the similarities are clear enough. [Zeus‘ blog]

Sledpress: Fascism [will live] with us as long as authority and submission are considered vital components of human culture … conditioning from birth onward … [cult of] “strong leadership” … We’ve all seen people bounce from Catholicism to Communism or whatever. [Sledpress’ blog]

Douglas: [he gets back to the educational thing] Do you really believe, MoR, that any country will produce a solidly educated people? …I think that as long as education is in the hands of the government ….there will only be people educated to support that government.

An image from the Italian TV. Click for credits

MoR: I understand America is suspicious of any state intervention in society …continental Europe, and possibly French Canada, have a rationalist, non empiricist, tradition (‘reason’ moulds society or kinda) so that a state should be ethical enough to try help the ‘losers’ of societal Darwinian competition, ie the poor, the uneducated etc

Portions of the sotosay winners’ income – a widespread mentality here, not necessarily leftist – should go to the less wealthy, without condoning tho those who take advantage of such a system (many of course do, tons of money gets wasted to the extent of foolishness).

While (almost) not spending a euro I have an excellent medical care, I myself once was a state school teacher trying to do something for the uneducated in the poorest districts of Rome.

And in Russia, a great but nightmarish place where I worked in 2000 (a moment when ALL was crumbling down there,) the masses were nonetheless amazingly educated in S&T and were reading Tolstoy, Pushkin in second class trains. Education didn’t save them from many forms of tyranny, big and small, which they accepted as their tradition, but I’m sure after these 10 years they are still bearing their tyrannies but must have copied the worst from us and are now reading crap in trains as well, as we do in moronic Berlusconian Italy.

Ana Téran: [a Mexican writer I just met at Andreas’.] Public will is a powerful weapon. Why in the hell don’t we use it MoR?

Lichanos: The “masses?” I wonder what percentage of people were reading Tolstoy and Pushkin. On the other hand, I meet lots of technically educated Russians who are surprised to find that I, an American engineer, know their history and literature, as they know ours. So, clearly there is a difference. [Lichanos’ blog]


The final twist of the conversation brings me then to talk about Russia a bit. A marvellous (but puzzling) place from any point of view. See you soon then.


Related posts:

[The 3 posts below illustrate – with really ample discussions – the notion of ‘personal knowledge’ related to what I mean by ‘solid education’, ie specialisation plus general knowledge. There is for example a difference (diminishing, alas) between the Latin countries plus Germany and Austria, on one hand, and the Anglo-Saxon countries on the other hand.

As Magister wrote, before the young are inserted into specialised activities they should first attain “a certain amount of maturity, of capacity of autonomy, orientation, initiative.” The last 30 years have seen in Italy the debacle of any effective education – both the Left and the Right having responsibilities, but Berlusconi added a big cherry on the pie by the propagation of a degrading culture in which he sincerely believes, it seems. I invite you all to get a copy of Videocracy. Here is the film’s official web site.

We had good ‘general culture’ orientation according to Italian traditions (but less specialization, a flaw, ok,) but now we have none of the two. AND Berlusconi has now convinced many Italians that priority num 1 is a reform of the constitution that will give him the power of a French (or American) President without any French or US counterbalance. And the economy? And unemployment? If this is not manipulation ….]

Culture, Kultur, Paideia

The Last Days of the Polymath

American Engineer, German Philosopher & French Politician: Gramsci’s Ideal Blend for the Modern Leonardo da Vinci

60 thoughts on “Democracy, Liberty & the Necessity of a Solid Education of the People

  1. You should work for Reader’s Digest. This is a good resumé of our conversations. There was some consensus amongst us center left types at least on the face of it.
    Should we dig further some subtle nuances would surely appear.
    But, as it stands, as the Brits would say:”Good show old chap.”


    1. What show man, I am not here for shows. Though I know what you mean. Yes, there are differences among us, which excite the debate instead of depressing it. Thanks amicus meus, amis à mois, ο φίλος μου.


  2. What a fascinating film that promises to be. And by posting the clip above this post it reframes our conversation. The question one invariably ponders is whether democracy — pioneered in Athens when literally all citizens (ie, the demos) could talk to one another in one place, the Assembly — is at all possible in the age of television and other modern media with their potential for demagogic distortion.


    1. Yes, the film is fascinating but, as Sledpress says, nightmarish also. Right, it reframes our conversations. Possibilities of demagogic distortion of democracy today are more powerful. Though lots of demagogues were present in the Athenian Assembly too, one of the reasons of the end of Athens.


  3. I don’t think this is something new in that bread and circuses have been used to pacify and placate the masses and provide diversions from states of disaster in government, but as mass media has become truly mass, and the control over the mass media is restricted while the technology becomes closer to “real time” then the risk and the abuse do get worse.

    Here are my thoughts about educated people and resisting a slide into authoritarianism of some sort. What kind of education matters greatly, in what esteem and those educated generally held, and what resources do those educated have to influence public policy away from authoritarianism?

    My belief is that our educated classes, at least in the U.S. are very large and impressive in the sense of university education. That is, of course, very good. The problem is that we educate and then train and establish careers in both industry and government with an eye towards technocratic specialization, a type of pigeon-holing of persons that can defeat the benefits of even a very broad educational background. The technocrat is taught and told that he is part of a team, and working as a participating member of that team, but in reality he is often isolated and prevented from exercising any real power or influence over things not directly within his given scope. That does not make for a powerful voice for democracy. Rather, it strips the individual of his voice by reducing him to a tiny element, a specialist servant with a role to play and a place to fill. Hmmm…we go back to feudalism and the notion that gave gave us each our place and lot in life and we are called to concern ourselves with that given role, not to demand more than is our due from above.

    That might not be quite the same today, but a technocracy, which is what I believe Western Societies are well into today, are not exactly encouraging or producing many Jeffersons, or Madisons, or Monroes today. I mention these three flawed by important men because they all lived within a fairly short drive of my house. Obviously, the discussions of polymaths and cultured persons have given us other wonderful examples.

    Mass media and communications, like this forum is working on incidentally, can be used for harm or good depending upon the willingness of a cultures people to embrace the base or the better using that technology. The same internet that brings smut to one home brings classical music and thousands of years of philosophy and literature to another. How the beneficiary of that higher learning is treated by society says much about what the prognosis of liberty against tyranny will be in the future.


    1. Yes, panem et circenses, an old formula still valid today to keep the people quiet, as so many things from the Ancients are, good or bad.

      Stupid, degraded culture (watching people eaten up by tigers, not that ethical and intelligent, like watching women just flashing boobs and buttocks, not like human beings but like stupid dolls, idiot & non ethical either)

      And, you are again evoking the polymath – monomath dualism discussed in this blog (and in much more sophisticated forums, like the Economist’s)

      “What kind of education matters greatly?”

      The replies to such question from our societies provide us a way of evaluating those same societies a bit.

      You reply by yourself: only technocratic specialization is appreciated, and, not by chance, these monomaths are “prevented from exercising any real power or influence over things not directly within their given scope.”

      *Because a monomath is weak politically*

      He is just a technician. He has no big picture. The big picture is for those on command.

      This is one reason possibly why “Western societies – as you say – are not exactly encouraging or producing many Jeffersons, or Madisons, or Monroes.”

      I am no revolutionary, I like our societies, I just want more ‘culture’, more wide ranging mass thought, and better schools to attain that. This could break things only a bit after all, and expand the power a bit for those who are out of it. Not the only prerequisite for enlargement of power, this polymathy. As my following Russian post will perhaps demonstrate.


      1. “What kind of education matters greatly?”

        The replies to such question from our societies provide us a way of evaluating those same societies a bit.
        … a monomath is weak politically … He has no big picture. The big picture is for those on command.

        I saw a news snippet about the failed Times Square Bomber today. He is a naturalized citizen degrees in business and computer science.

        I want to see the headline:

        Times Square Bomber NOT a LIBERAL arts student!


          1. Well, I was joking a bit. You can certainly point to tyrants and murderers who had a good, classic, liberal arts education. Stalin might fit that bill! But the news snippet seemed to be saying, “Look, this guy emmigrated, settled here, got educated, and look what happened!” Perhaps, his education was superficial, is what I am suggesting, sarcastically. And “liberal” is such a smear word in the USA now, that the idea that it is the “antidote” to terrorism is kind of a funny jab at the right-wingers, I think anyway…


  4. I’m still processing the notion of those half-naked women on Italian TV, none of whom resembled the fleshless stick figures that have represented the female ideal in America since the 1960s. They actually looked human.


    Education. Constellated education. Comprehensive, reflective education. May I genuflect to the notion? Robert Heinlein (who was pompous, but had the brains to excuse it) said “Specialization is for insects.”

    Very few people were paying attention, and a modern college education seems to be more of a vocational training than anything. Zeus mentions founders of the American republic, people with specialized skills who somehow had room left over in their heads for classics, philosophy, and contemporary science.

    Somehow, at least in America, the idea took hold that a person could only become accomplished in ONE field of endeavor. Hence we bestow degrees in Political Science. And I have seen such degrees awarded to men who, literally, could not figure out how to escape from wives who beat them. Not surprisingly, a lot of people who do not pursue such degrees are cynical and believe that politics is both over their heads and beneath their contempt.

    And they’re probably watching TV without a thought toward the manipulation involved.

    That is a very, very scary film website.


    1. Oh, Berlusconi is so powerful that he has imposed his outdated sexual tastes (he’s almost 80), not far from the taste of my generation after all (I’m 61).

      Unfortunately, young people in Italy like female sticks too, while to me a woman must be fleshy in the right places. Ah my home, where my 2 daughters still live not for long, is so full of damn charts on ALL that is diet ….

      Yes, let us genuflect to the notion of comprehensive education! A people of insects, puah!!

      Ah ah ah, your problem with political science, is that a mania?

      Yes, the film web site is *very* scary. But wait to watch the entire movie, that you can have in English. Much much scarier I’ll tell ya.


      1. My problem with political science is probably a result of living close to the capital of the US. And of having once, more or less on a bet, run the campaign of a lunatic seeking Federal office (I do not use the term lightly). You learn things you didn’t want to know.

        MoR: I very well understand


  5. Silvio knows what he likes in girls that for sure.

    Specialization has become an easy route to turn off one’s mind, just as gender roles were used to suppress women (and when one thinks about it men too). It is also a way to ignore ethical and moral wrongdoings by putting on professional, or academic blinkers. It isn’t a guaranteed route to tyranny, but it certainly is the road modern Western societies are on that seems dangerous.

    Machines, not people should be specialized and made into specialists. Our technology should allow us to explore and think in a wider, more integrated manner. for some, by choice too, the opposite occurs.


  6. Ho hum. In college, I called this Il Mundo Video. I thought the world was ending. It endured.

    People have time and money to spare – what do you expect them to do with it? Meditate? Read Proust. ALL the time?? Mass media are just that, mass. They reach lots of people. If you don’t like it, don’t watch it.

    As for the political implications…I’m not sure this isn’t just old wine in new bottles. Demogogues are inspearable from democracy, and democracy as we all know, is a failure. But the alternatives are much worse.

    If a film like this makes people think about the media stew in which they live, that’s a great thing. But that’s it. The start is thinking, and you want to or you don’t. Maybe it’s a temperament thing.


    1. @Lichanos

      I don’t quite get it. Of course they cannot read Proust all the time. Thing is, the vast majority they NEVER read it. It is all blockbusters, ‘panem et circenses’ ALL the time, idiot stuff ALL the time. Gosh I know alternatives to flawed democracy are much worse. But, I can speak for my country, the Italian state RAI television was much better in the past. ALL Mediterranean folks were watching our RAI TV (North Africa, Albania, Middle east etc. ) from the 50s until today but now they say it is just crap. I have travelled for my IT job a bit and have spoken with the people. Why BBC, which is a state thing, is still good? It has flaws, ok, but it is infinitely better than today’s RAI. America is different. I don’t think you have a Federal or states’ TV or anything. Should you have? Possibly not, it is not your culture to do that. But, at least, your private TV should imo be better. I think Berlusconi has seen Americans as mentors in that, except that he inserted much more sex, but that is Italy.

      A couple of (open-minded) American friends from the Boston Area came to stay in our house for a while in 1993. Their kids were stunned when they saw all the bodies displayed in our TV and the boy (13?) blushed at our magazines covers.


      1. So they never read Proust, big deal! Is that so different from how it was in the past? Is the world ending?

        So, there has been a change in Italian pop culture and naked women are everywhere in the media. Will it last? Maybe people will get bored. Maybe puritanism will become faddish. Maybe not…

        Our private TV “should be better?” Why? It’s a business, an industrial product. Nothing to do with critical perceptions of culture. If it has quality, that’s nice, if not, it makes money. BBC is so good? Because of Masterpiece Theatre? (In my house, we call it Masturbate Theatre! So much for high cultchah!) Things have changed here since 1993 too.

        So you and I are revolted by the shallowness and stupidity of what fills the mass media – who cares what we think? Why should they? Do you want everyone to spend their time blogging as we do? Boring world!

        I’m being extreme, but really, as Calvino says in Invisible Cities:

        The inferno of the living is not something that will
        be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the
        inferno where we live every day, that we form by be-
        ing together. There are two ways to escape suffering
        it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno
        and become such a part of it that you can no longer
        see it. The second is risky and demands constant
        vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recog-
        nize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are
        not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

        Give us space…that’s all I ask.


  7. One point on education: it is a very internally contradictory thing. On the one hand, education has been for millenia a powerful force for maintaining the status quo. To be educated meant being part of the elite, and more often than not, one’s skills, reading writing, arithmetic, were used to maintain the centers of power. The insane frenzy of college-bound students in the USA, desparately seeking places in the “top” schools, is an element of this, as they see education as a way to power, wealth, status, a secure niche in society.

    On the other hand, education, sometimes in spite of itself, always holds the potential for personal transformation, and sometimes even rebellion against the status quo. It feeds the desire to understand, irrespective of social norms. This is the dangerous, radical, unmentionable aspect of liberal education, the aspect that is rarely discussed in the palaver on education in the age of global competitiveness, blah, blah, blah. It’s totally unpredictable, too. Who knows – that kid destined for Wall Street may suddenly become passionate about Cicero and chuck all his upwardly mobile ambitions.

    You can’s separate the two elements. They were certainly present at the birth of western universities. All you can do is give space to the second element, which is easily crowded out and forgotten in the rush to keep up with rat race.


    1. @Lichanos

      On the one hand, education has been a … force for maintaining the status quo …it meant being part of the elite … on the other hand, education, sometimes in spite of itself, always holds the potential for personal transformation, and sometimes even rebellion …

      A very interesting reflection. I also think the two elements are present at the birth of western universities. During the middle ages university students were not only people who, as you say, aimed at being part of the elite but also goliards who composed poems lampooning the Church and any other power (such as 12th century Carmina Burana).

      The thing is, once you empower a mind (a young mind especially,) whatever is the reason you do that, it is not at all predictable which thoughts & actions such mind is going to carry out.

      This is why in many countries, even in democracies – many of us have agreed, or at least so it seems to me – intelligent substantial investment in really comprehensive education is possibly not considered apt to conserve the power of the ruling elite or caste. This is not Marxism, it is plain common sense.


      1. …intelligent substantial investment in really comprehensive education is possibly not considered…

        The lack of interest in it on the part of most people – what will it do for career, salary, advancement? – dovetails nicely with the lingering sense of unease in the minds of the authoritarian elements of the elite – Once they start reading, they start thinking, and making TROUBLE!


        1. The lack of interest in it on the part of most people “what will it do for career, salary, advancement?”

          This seems to me more … an Anglo-Saxon behaviour, pls do not take it badly, there are pros and cons in any behaviour. In Italy (France, Spain etc.) people I presume would discuss much more about non practical stuff, utopias etc. in cafés, pubs, pizzerias weren’t for the heavy doses of ‘bread and circuses’ (here Berlusconian starlets, sports and the rest). I mean, not all cultures are the same, but the ways to keep people quiet, yes, they are more or less the same.


          1. One difference might be that in Europe and some older cultures, education is still linked closely with class and culture. That is, to be upwardly mobile socially in the class system, means to acquire the patina of education and culture. In the USA, nobody cares how cultured or refined you are if you have lots of money. There is no strong tradition of “high-culture” elites anymore, I think. Don’t know about the UK or Canada.


          2. No dear Lichanos. This conversation is getting difficult for a non mother-tongue but what you’re saying seems to me a projection of your culture – more than of yourself, you are not like that, you blog is evidence of it -, since you once told me that in America what is cultured is perceived as snobbish, as a phoney patina.

            It can be like that here too. But – it could be the illusion of an old man – there are still people here that think differently. Call it cultural difference. Call it whatever you like.

            In the USA, nobody cares how cultured or refined you are if you have lots of money.

            But the world is much bigger than the USA! What are 300 million compared to the world population? Ok, it is starting here too, but many people here hate it and we see it as total decadence that will screw the West up. Being cultured, to many of us I believe, is not a social patina or a chic suit one can show off at parties so people say: “How cool!!”.

            Being cultured is a concrete ideal, is (trying to be) fully ourselves, is trying to know ourselves consciously (ie our roots), it is to be able to appreciate life and its complexities as much as we can since life is short and knowledge is fun, and compared to all this, compared to all this, Suvs, big watches, mercenary babes, Las Vegas, a magnificent penthouse over Central Park or Berlusconi’s villas in Sardinia are shit compared to this ideal, which implies harmonious development of our faculties, it being in short – maybe just a bit, maybe just a little vague scent of it – the ideal of the modern Leonardo da Vinci, we are so crazy and outdated and mummified as to still believe in such old things, yes we are.

            That Austrian Catholic priest Ana and you mentioned – I am not much into priests – I read in the wiki “he had Italian, French and German as native languages. He later learned Croatian, the language of his grandfathers, then Ancient Greek and Latin, in addition to Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi, English, and other languages. Thereafter, he studied histology and crystallography at the University of Florence (Italy) as well as theology and philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University in the Vatican, and medieval history in Salzburg.”

            Damn! Do you think he did that to show snobbish patina clothes in snobbish parties and have snobbish phoney people yell at him “Coooll!!! Cooolll”????



          3. It is worse than some notion that people might acquire culture in order to be impressive. In the US, and this is something that I think Lichanos and Zeus and I lament alike, if you care about history, philosophy, art, there is a large section of society that scorns you and finds you suspect. In a large segment of society here it seems almost required to scoff at Europe, at foreign films, at songs sung in languages other than English, at liberal-arts majors. But those same people seize on homogenized philosophy regurgitated from the mass media and think they have become “deep.”

            This is one reason I wonder if it’s good to waste education on people who are determined to resent it. It just makes them feel more hatred for those who appreciate it, and if you think “hate” is a hyperbolic word, just look at inarticulate Sarah Palin and the Tea Party people and the way that they howl for the blood of the erudite, literate Mr. Obama.


          4. This is one reason I wonder if it’s good to waste education on people who are determined to resent it.

            It is always good. People are people. A powerful and motivated teacher can almost do ‘anything’ to almost ‘anyone’. I know because I was like a savage and Sarah Palin a princess in comparison (I’m still a bit a savage) since I was so much against my father that I resented ALL the education and manners HE represented.

            Then I met Magister, like a sun in darkness. He moulded me even tho it was a bit late (I was 24). After such encounter I started studying with such enthusiasm I passed all 4-year Arts university exams with maximum marks in 8 months. My parents were stunned. And a fruitful relationship with my father’s knowledge kind of started.

            One problem is salary. A teacher here is paid like a postman. The real good ones leave after a while. Same problem everywhere (in the West, mind: not in mainland China, for example, not to mention India, where they add spiritual depth).

            This is one reason I am fascinated by Pythagoras. It may be a myth but I am starting to think he was a HUGE teacher, ie the Big Mentor of all that followed in the West (but he took a lot from the East: that all came from the Greeks is a lie, meant as evidence of the superiority of the Caucasian race imo). A weird mixture of Einstein, Christ, Bach, and a Big Statesman, Pythagoras. Plato’s Academy up to medieval schools -were they only pale imitations of Pythagoras’ learning places?


          5. Ah, but you see, you were 24 — the age at which people are usually assumed to have “finished” their education. At some point you stopped resenting, even if it was due to the magic of one person. I wonder if we just make a mess by trying to force-feed learning to people who for whatever reason object to the process.


      2. There is also the question of what happens to education when it becomes a universal fiat and hordes of people are swept into classrooms who do not and will never have the slightest interest in learning anything except, possibly, how to escape arrest.

        I have been called elitist and cynical in my life, but having weathered two private schools (because I was considered “too young” to attend the public system) and four locations in the local, reputedly superior public school system, I retain vivid 40-50 year old memories of Dumb Asses In The Classroom — the kids who, if asked to spell “Europe.” would utter “Y-E-R-U-P?” in a hopeful tone while hiding a car magazine.

        There are some people who just do not care to learn jack-sh*t. They will sit in the back of the classroom, harassing other students, looking out the window, drawing in their notebooks, or later they will cut classes, but they will do nothing for the classes they attend and take nothing away. You can wring your hands over their family background or whatever it is that makes them dumb and determined to be dumb, but after all is said they will take up an excessive amount of teacher time and drive the movement to eviscerate the curriculum.

        Universal education sponsored by the state is a pretty new idea in history and we are still getting out the bugs. Mean old Mama Sled thinks that if a grade-school student has demonstrated for long enough that he just does not give a damn about learning anything, he should be freed (before he starts skipping school and getting high all afternoon) from those hated classes in English, history, foreign languages, civics, and apprenticed to learn some concrete skill set. He might even turn out to be a damn good plumber or carpenter, professions I respect, inspired by the direct productivity of what he learns as an on-the-job apprentice. He might be spared the resentment of intellectual activity that results from twelve years of shame and boredom. He might not ever read Proust, but he might not scorn people who do read Proust so much (and if they need a good carpenter, they might not scorn him). He can always come back and get a G.E.D. certificate (showing mastery of high school material) when he is ready.

        Even if he isn’t willing to learn a useful skill outside of school, the American school system would stop having to teach around him. People who do have the potential and desire to learn could move much farther and into more intellectually complex material (and, my fond wish, become more socially subversive as a result…) 🙂


        1. I disagree a bit here Mama Sled.

          There are some people who just do not care to learn jack-sh*t. They will sit in the back of the classroom, harassing other students, looking out the window, drawing in their notebooks …

          My experience tells me the contrary. Romans are often very bad students. Even middle / high class Romans can be crass, lazy, braggart, uncaring to the extent I could use all possible 4 letter words to describe them. And I was a teacher in often difficult areas of the town.

          What I learned from my ‘difficult’ teenagers is that a teacher needs:

          1) to be strict & authoritative (not authoritarian)
          2) to love them (they feel it immediately)
          3) a good knowledge to pass to them (+ fun and humour) with an enthusiasm for that same knowledge that cannot but be contagious
          4) and to make them work quite a lot, ie to train them hard, a bit like a good sergeant does in any good army.

          I am not saying I always could do that (there were times I could not). But I tried, and when I succeeded the classroom was happy and learning, and returned the empathy in floods.

          Whenever a young person fails, or flunks, it is my opinion, the family and the teachers are to be blamed mostly (not uniquely of course), unless we have cases of serious mental problems, but there are schools for that, naturally.

          A young person in a poor and even violent district, more than any other kid – altho all kids are basically the same – needs guidance, mentors, gurus, love and comprehension together with severity, in the worst cases often strict tho humane sergeants.

          I saw *Freedom writers* 1-2 years ago, a good US film about very difficult LA schools. It may convey the idea I’m trying to express.


          1. You make excellent points here! Student are, after all, children!

            People tend to see and want to think of teaching as a mechanical activity. Time-in-class = education. To make things worse, the profession of teacher is regularly derided and degraded in our society – the USA.

            Whenever a young person fails, or flunks, it is my opinion, the family and the teachers are to be blamed

            Assigning blame is not so useful. Parents are often at a loss to control their children, and they are not responsible for everything they do. Teachers are only human, and they cannot bring funding and resources to schools that lack it, or decrease class size. Blaming students for poor performance is not, however, very useful either, I think.

            In the end, the entire discussion of fault or blame is (I speak of the US only) very cynical, I believe. Fundamentally, our society is okay with the situation in which a large portion of the population gets a mediocre or poor education. Politicians and citizens complain, but nobody cares really unless their children are at risk. There is little commitment to education as a pillar of democratic society. Of course, this has a lot to do with the state of our core cities as well.


          2. Well, I think there are just some people who are not going to be interested in anything that is not immediately relevant to them until they are grown and have had a few experiences that teach them the value of learning things.

            One young man I was thinking about as I wrote was the son of an MBA and grandson of a Hebrew instructor — not from a poor or uneducated, though certainly a chaotic family. He has a good job in the media after dropping out of high school because the only thing he loved and cared about was computer video. Concrete skills are more abstract than they used to be, but this is the kind of thing I mean. He spend two years failing, being berated, being the “identified problem,” when he could have just been apprenticing to learn what he loved and was going to do anyway as soon as he was old enough to get out of there. And he might not have spent so much time smoking dope during those frustrating years (as we became aware had been the case).

            When he wants to learn things, he does them. Now that he has to file tax returns he cares about the needed skills. One day he may be making films that require him to read books or learn something about history. Trying to make him care at age 14 was useless.

            And I remain really bitter at the time wasted by kids who just want to be mulish and irresponsible, whatever the cause — there is a point, I don’t know where it comes, when you have to stop sacrificing what the smart or motivated kids could become in order to get these kids to be anything. I recognize the value of a dedicated teacher, but some people are just never going to reward the bother.


          3. Then I met Magister, like a sun in darkness. He moulded me even tho it was a bit late…

            Education is something that happens between PEOPLE. And mostly, we educate ourselves: teachers just help and inspire us to do it. That’s why is is so hard to do it as a mass-thing. When only the rich and leisured could get education, the charismatic teacher could have a few students, and that was it. Even then, academies were probably more mediocre than not most of the time. The low standard of teaching and education at Oxford, for most of its history, is well documented.

            There is no way to institutionalize the ideal liberal education we all seem to value – you can’t mass produce it. All you can do is try to preserve a space for it for those who want it, I think. In universities, maybe it’s easier. How to do it at the secondary school level? That’s an enormous and insoluable problem!! I don’t know the beginning of the answer, except to say that good teachers are very special people, and when they come into the system, we need to do everything we can to retain, honor, and support them. I don’t even know if it’s possible to train them to be that way…


        2. Regarding “force-feeding” education:

          Well, a more flexible system would be good, wouldn’t it? But the needs of the economy rule! From what I hear, the USA is more flexible than much of Europe. One thing you can say for America and education – it’s the land of second chances, and even third!


  8. MOR, this is quite a conversation you’ve started, and I’d love to jump in. First, though, thanks for the visit. Tell me when you can fly over to Oregon and I’ll arrange your stay at beautiful, inexpensive places both in cities and in little towns. Oregon is a naturally beautiful place that supports outdoor activities such as biking, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, surfing, boating, and camping. When my youngest child visits with his friends they come up the coast of California all the way through camping accomodations and when they get to us, a couple of days later, they can camp on our lake as well as sleep in our guest rooms. They prefer this rough living.

    So, the invitation is open. Best time is summer, when the temperatures are moderate and it is sunny all the time, with very little rain.

    Did I mention I have guest rooms?

    Re the topic you and your devoted friends are discussing, I will have to read up and respond.


    1. We will be in California and possibly Oregon in the future. So I thank you con affetto. At the moment we are following from a distance our eldest daughter’s adventures, 26, who has abruptly decided to go live a work experience in Mumbai for some time. We are delighted at the idea. My wife and I spent our honeymoon there, you know, and our daughter, who knew absolutely nothing about India, has adapted very quickly to the climate and especially is starting to love Mumbai quite a lot. It must run in the family’s blood.


  9. I admire the insights and depth of this conversation. I’d like to add that public education in America has slowly decayed in the last forty years that it can’t be saved with simple slash and burn approaches. Here, k-12 education, the basis of our democracy, is punctuated by testing and artificial benchmarks to satisfy guidelines imposed by federal mandates meant to pull out of public education. When education is about testing it becomes a game. We are not educating; we are warehousing. Problems in inner-cities are grave enough to demand police presence at all times. Most teachers leave after the first year; most administrators transfer up and out as soon as they can. The problem is festering year after year.

    What complicates the situation is the American psyche of hating taxes. We pay less overall tax than any industrialized nation; yet, we moan and groan at any tax, even for education. The only levies approved by both parties with no exception are police levies. School bonds hardly ever pass. So, buildings are crumbling, and teachers are depressed and angry at the administration and at parents; and students don’t see the point of going to school in a rat-infested place where everyone is unhappy and the high-stake test is a joke.

    I know few public schools that succeed, and these are in small communities where parents and community invest extra hours and resources; or, in affluent communities where local levies supplement state revenues.

    You want knowledgeable voters? The media is not informing us; schools are not educating us; and our ethos is to hoard our monies and not pay for public services. We have a long way to go before we become voters who care to understand issues and sacrifice to improve the common good.

    Will better education improve our understanding of responsibility and civic duties? In time.


    1. Here, K-12 education, the basis of our democracy…
      So true, and so rarely discussed.

      When education is about testing it becomes a game. Amen to that.

      What complicates the situation is the American psyche of hating taxes. AMEN, AMEN!


    2. Dear Rosaria,
      you contribution as usual is a perfect complement to the debate. You seem to confirm what many of us – all of us actually – were saying, plus another thing: both in Europe and North America, a big part of the so-called West, education seems to be decaying since 30-40 years.

      Now, in my consultant job a bit around the world too, I have noticed that the brightest students were the Indians – both Hindu and Muslim – and the mainland Chinese (not the Hong Kong Chinese, a bit westernised).

      Should we get worried?

      Besides, since the real manufacturing has moved to these fast developing lands, more than ever it seems to me that a ‘comprehensive’ education capable of favouring greater creativity (and added value to our products) is badly needed in order better compete. I think Obama has understood the necessity of education today in the US, for example, but I have no idea 1) what type of education he is referring to and 2) whether he has real power (and money) to change things in a right direction.


  10. Perhaps Deschooling societey and Tools for conviviality, Ivan Illich’s, would enlighten us a bit. Too extreme, yes, but isn’t that what’s really needed? Pan y circo MoR mentions… what happens when we run out of bread? We all fear the answer.

    ps. Gracias MoR, the poem translated is a plus.


    1. By Ivan Illich’s you mean Lenin?

      Well, it was my duty to translate (well, more or less copy the translation of) that beautiful Mexican poem!


        1. …priest philosopher

          Essential reading for all counter-culture leftwing critics of public schools and lots of other institutions. My wife, who is deeply committed to education, feels his influence is, on the whole, destructive.

          Schools are factories! Down with school! We Don’t Need No Education! (Pink Floyd) Not a great basis for positive social change. At least, that’s what a lot of people take away from him…[Of course, he had an anarchist utopian solution for all this.]


          1. Possibly very well known in North and South America, but here in our little world, despite he being of Austrian origin, not much known, or maybe it’s just me, I’m not much into Catholic priest philosophers I’ll admit.


        2. Lenin? Haha!
          Colgó los hábitos. I think Ivan foresaw many of the things now happening. Look at our medical system… He was, still is, the greatest intelligence I’ve ever met. Personally I mean. I understand some might think of him as a devilish figure… But. You should read him, would be interesting to know your opinion.


  11. Obama’s response to the problem in public schools is to provide contests where schools apply for funds to change fundamental things as teachers’ tenure system, teachers’ pay, teachers’ evaluation. It doesn’t address what happens in many neighborhoods where schools have to be everything to a child, including feeding him and providing extended social services.

    For decades,schools have received money allotted to them based on the number of children. Meanwhile, less and less money has gone to maintain facilities, to provide services for mandated services such as those for children with special needs. When these schools also deal with immigrant children needing to acquire a second language, practically illiterate in their first language, with living conditions totally sub-par, then schools have a lot on their plates. Gangs and violence exist around these neighborhood.

    So, nothing new in the Obama program for most districts. As a matter of fact, teachers feel threatened by this approach. Any type of contest feels like a ploy to shut down public schools and turn them into private/for profit schools that reinvent themselves long enough to absorb the new money, and then shut down when things don’t change much.

    If a child leaves school without a decent education, he/she is bound to stress all systems, bound to become a burden on society down the line.

    Your friends here talk as though everyone receives post-secondary education. Here, university education is available to those who can afford to get loans and scholarships, those who can absorb the cost of four years of tuition and books, at the tune of $60 thousands for a four year bachelor. Just recently, a law was passed for assisting our youth in obtaining low-interest loans and assisting in the pay-back rate.

    The major part of the population was easily swayed by strange political discourse not related to governance at all during past elections.

    There is a lot to do to address this problem.


    1. Rosaria,

      Obama’s response to the problem in public schools is to provide contests where schools apply for funds …. It doesn’t address what happens in many neighborhoods where schools have to be everything to a child

      I understand, but in case more funds arrive is better than nothing. Higher salaries for ex. attract better teachers. Here we have total underpayment so the good minds, those that could empower the youth, fly away.

      It is hard for a European, me in any case, to understand why teachers feel threatened by Obama’s approach. Private/for profit schools might work in your context. Here I don’t know. Not understanding elements of the American mind doesn’t put me off, al contrario.

      Your friends here talk as though everyone receives post-secondary education.

      I don’t know. I think though they understand that the K-12 education is the most crucial for the development of a young personality. Education, all of us agree, is much more than just skills, even though skills are necessary.


  12. @Mor:
    Damn! Do you think he did that to show snobbish patina…

    I did not express myself well. I did not mean that in other places culture was not valued, but that at LEAST it SEEMS to be valued. You say it may be that it REALLY is valued, and I won’t argue. My point was that SEEMING to be valued, if not much, is a lot more than totally disregarding it.

    So, we are more in agreement than not, I think…


  13. Possibly very well known in North and South America…

    Illich spent much, if not most of his life in the Western hemisphere. I think he set up an “institute” in Mexico, a sort of hippie New Age think tank.

    Like most utopian anarchist types, he makes a lot of good critical points, but I wouldn’t say more than that.


  14. CIDOC was the name of the place. In Cuernavaca. Hippie new age think tank? Not quite, really. Last 10 years of his life he spent in Germany working closely with the ‘greens’. I would say that not me but his work speaks on his hehalf. Good day to you all.


    1. Ana, I am getting really interested in all that is Mexico. And this Illich needs to be considered, he could be useful. Paz, I’ll enjoy more of his poems (Hermandad, the English translation, I just modified it a bit, but the Italian transl is mine)


      1. 4 hour delay is no fun, believe me, specially at midnight. Glad Mexico made a wink. Helas! Illich, believe me, isn’t what you may call ‘useful’… But I don’t want to get into ‘back to the middle ages’…
        As for Paz: good for you! Read Piedra de sol, I have a hunch you’ll like its tone.


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