Milford Daily News: The ideal society and education.

By James Johnston/Daily News columnist
Milford Daily News Posted Sep 30, 2009 @ 12:01 AM

Some perceptive points in this article by 65 year old James Johnston. It reminds me of the wisdom of age – we don’t call upon it half enough. Sometimes those who have lived a substantial part of their lives are able to put real perspective on what is and isn’t important – we should listen.

FRANKLIN — .I suppose that ever since Sir Thomas More wrote “Utopia,” people have thought about the ideal society, the perfect place to live where there is a minimum of pain in all of its various forms.

Thomas Hobbs wrote “Leviathan,” in which he outlined the perfect political state in which an enlightened monarch set the stage for all activity and directed the public affairs of the well-ordered society. Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought that man was a noble savage and possessed an intrinsic purity until he was corrupted by civilization. Thus civilization itself was evil according to him. Karl Marx thought that man was made miserable by the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, and that wealth had to be shared in equality among all the members of a society. Vice President Thomas Marshall thought that America needed a good 5 cent cigar as a curative for all our ills. Ah yes. They were deep thinkers all.

Now President Obama wants children to go to school eight hours a day for 11 months a year.

As a society we seem obsessed with perfection. Why is that anyway?

President Obama wants children to go to school much longer just as students do in Japan. It is well to remember that Japanese students have the highest suicide rate in the world.

I had a student, who was a Japanese national, by the name of Nentaro Okomodo in class some 25 years ago with whom I discussed this very issue. He told me that Japanese students push themselves beyond endurance during their school years before college and even go to “After School School” and Saturday School as well.

Kentaro’s thoughts were that this excessive schooling pushed too many kids over the edge. I tend to agree. He also said that when most Japanese kids actually get away from this oppressive school structure they tended to drink a lot in college. In fact, he said in Japanese society you are given a choice. That choice is that you can have a driver’s license or drink, but you cannot do both. I asked him if his dad drove. He said, “No. He likes a drink every now and then.”

We live in such a demanding time that I am happy to be 65, because I have escaped all of the insane and excessive structure that is being forced on children today.

Every minute of the average middle class child’s life in this country is being structured to the point they don’t really have all that much down time at all and little or no time to themselves. First of all there is day care, then preschool, then carefully structured play groups so that the kids won’t be put in with the “wrong kids.” Then the kids of today are left with very little time to develop their own thoughts in their favorite place, or working on something that they would like to do.

Many schools are trying to downplay competition while at the same time fostering collective thinking. I believe it is true that there can be destructive competition, but we cannot ignore the fact that competition is part of a healthy life. We live in a competitive society.

But I think we have not stressed sportsmanship enough over the years. The Vince Lombardi thing (“Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”) has been overdone to a very large degree. We have got to introduce the ideal of winning and losing competitions gracefully. That is, after all, what sportsmanship should be all about. If that becomes true in American life, sports itself might once again become about building character as it was supposed to be.

Maybe what we should try to instill in children is a sense of ethics in how we do things. We have seen where a loss of ethics in business has just about brought the nation to its knees in the last several years. We, of course, have to admit that ethics and corporate business have been strangers for the most part since the days of John D. Rockefeller.

We have a lot of kids getting lost because they are allowed little sense of “self,” and they are not allowed to be “unscripted,” to really play, be silly, make mistakes, learn from them, and go on from there. I have never seen so many kids afraid to be wrong. If you are afraid to be wrong, you will most likely never attempt anything new.

Another question we should try to answer as a society is, “In pursuit of an ideal society, do we want a nation of cookie-cutter kids that only act in concert or in a committee, doing everything by consensus?” Does individual thought get ground down in seeking universal opinions arrived at in group activity?

There has been a movement toward cooperative education by educators, fostered by the business community, and the Massachusetts High Tech Council, which takes a valid form of inquiry and cooperative learning and then takes it too far. They go to the point that students tire of the concept of industrial types of cooperative approaches to solving problems and making decisions by this collaborative form of consensus building. This is a business model which has for awhile was being pushed as an educational mode.

Here is where we must take great care that the concept of “the individual” must not be lost while trying to produce an ideal work force for the 21st century.

Kids seem so stressed today, but then adults are so driven and stressed today as well. Most middle class adults want perfect kids. It’s like “The Lake Wobegon Effect” of Garrison Keeler’s ideal community, “Where the men are handsome, the women are strong, and all the kids are above average.”

It does not help that most people don’t really know from day to day if they will still be employed. Toss in the fact that most people who are now still paying their 30-year mortgages are making payments on houses in which they have lost a third or more of their equity and value. That can be stressful. On top of that, adding the fact that your middle class child won’t be in the middle class without college education or an advanced degree or two that will cost you several hundred thousand dollars per kid can compound stress beyond endurance. Then he or she will have to hang onto their jobs for dear life and hope that whatever they are selling, or in rarer cases producing, will still have a market. Does this sound like an ideal society?

Maybe stressing kids out to the max, and causing their hair to turn gray by the age of fourteen is a sort of kindness after all. Then they can be really prepared for the rest of their lives. Maybe they should go to school eight hours a day for instruction, and have only a month off to recharge their batteries, or better yet, maybe they need to have some more activities lined up for them. God only knows what would happen if they ever had time for themselves. They might think a thought or even have fun.

Why are ideal societies, as conceived by great thinkers, always so damned organized?

People are always controlled by the idealistic philosophers who think they know best the way we should all live. They see humanity as imperfect and needing to be protected from itself. Even Plato who first discussed the ideal society in an organized way in his book “The Republic,” organized the role of every individual in his ideal society according to their inclinations and skills.

I think that we are too obsessed with control as a concept. Most societies which suffer from intellectual rigidity don’t produce much that is original. They tend to perfect what others have done as original concepts. Do we really want our kids to be cogs in well oiled machines? It’s too bad that too many people reading this will say, “Yes, and what’s wrong with that?”

If you are asking that question in a rhetorical way, there really is nothing that anyone can tell you. If the idea of the concept of an eight-hour school day and an 11-month school year is up for vote, President Obama, my vote is “No!”

I do always agree with my friend, Mr. Obama. Let’s strive for greatness, but my idea is that an ideal society is one in which we can make mistakes and learn from them without being made to feel like a bad person; lose games and win games with sportsmanship; and have time to think, reflect and do what you want to do sometimes in a time period that you are free to waste. The freedom to waste time in itself should be an ideal of true freedom.

About the author

Comments are closed.

Powered by WordPress | Two Thirds Design