I reported a couple of weeks ago that I had started reading The Next American Civil War: The Populist Revolt Against the Liberal Elite by Lee Harris. Life is hectic, and has thrown me a few curve balls in the meantime, so I’m still reading it. Circumstances seem to conspire to minimize the amount of time available for extra-curricular reading.
In Chapter 4 Mr. Harris continues his observations on the influence of the different philosophical strains of the European Enlightenment — particularly the conflict between Burkean and Lockean concepts of human liberty — on American political culture. The clash between these competing ideologies has flared up again in recent years, with the Tea Parties, Michele Bachmann, and Sarah Palin representing the Burkean viewpoint, and the rest of the political establishment — including the entire Democrat Party and the vast majority of Republicans — channeling Locke.
The European Enlightenment was a response to the unprecedented explosion of scientific knowledge that had transformed Europe during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Rapid advances in the physical sciences, and later biology and medicine, led to the conceit that human society — especially political economy — could also be understood and improved by the enlightened scientific mind.
This has been the gravest and most fundamental error of the last three centuries. The philosophe arrogated unto himself the role of architect of a new society, in which outmoded customs and traditions would be discarded in favor of an improved model of society constructed by scientists armed with their superior knowledge and understanding.
The results of all this utopian tinkering — the French Revolution, Socialism, Communism, Fascism, National Socialism, Multiculturalism, and the modern welfare state — brought untold suffering upon the human race, culminating in the heap of corpses that is commonly known as the 20th century.
The lesson has yet to be learned, unfortunately. Political hubris is endemic in Western intellectual culture. The utopians are still with us, and the closer we come to the utter collapse of our civilization, the more determined they are to have their way with us — the ignorant peons who so stubbornly resist our transformation into a more perfect version of the human race.
Here’s what Mr. Harris has to say about the huge divide that has emerged between ordinary people and over-educated intellectuals (pp. 62-64):
Generally speaking, people who have only a high school education or less will be inclined to have more conservative or traditionalist views on all sorts of contemporary issues than people with a college education or advanced degrees. These two groups will normally tend to disagree on immigration, gay marriage, the war on terror, the threat of socialism under the Obama administration, and a host of other questions. It does not matter in the least which group is right or wrong — all that matters for the purpose of my argument is that there will be substantial disagreement between the two groups. It is obviously true that there will be a certain amount of crossovers from either side. There will be college professors who oppose gay marriage, and high school dropouts who approve of an ultraliberal immigration policy, but they will tend to be the statistical outliers.
At this point we are only dealing with a sociological phenomenon, namely, that better educated people in the United States today tend to be liberals, and that liberals tend to be better educated. But this phenomenon is open to two radically conflicting interpretations. One way of interpreting it would be to argue that better educated people will obviously have the right answers on the issues of the day, because they are smarter and see things more clearly. Needless to say, this interpretation of “the education gap” tends to be favored by educated liberals. Yet there is another way of interpreting this phenomenon, which is to argue that the so called education gap is really an “indoctrination gap.” The wide consensus among the better educated on different questions is not proof that they have been taught to think for themselves, but irrefutable evidence that they have been programmed to think alike.
To most of us, education is good, while indoctrination is bad. But how exactly can we tell when a program of education has in effect become a program of re-education? The underlying metaphor of education starts with a blank slate that represents the student’s fresh and open mind, so that the teacher’s mission is simply to fill him full of knowledge and information. But the premise of re-education is quite different. It assumes that the student’s mind is already cluttered with ignorance and prejudices, normally those he has picked up from his family’s inherited traditions. This means that the first task of the re-educator is to cleanse and purge the student’s mind of those traditions he has been taught to accept by his family. Only then can the re-educator fill his student’s mind with the right ideas and opinions — namely, the ideas and opinions to which the re-educator subscribes. But this kind of re-education seems suspiciously like straightforward indoctrination.
The slippery slope between education and indoctrination is an ambiguous heritage from the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. It is a direct result of the new way of looking at the world adopted by the enlightened elite of that time. Before the Enlightenment, European intellectuals most often saw their job as defending the status quo. After the Enlightenment, they came to see their mission as improving the world in accordance with their own values and ideals. These improvements, however, came at a cost. They required the abolition of traditions and customs that ordinary — that is, unenlightened — people dearly cherished. But this abolition could not take place without a power struggle: The average person did not want his traditional world turned upside down. The unenlightened fought back and resisted, and this required the enlightened elite to enter more forcefully into the political arena. Hitherto the intellectual had contemplated the world. Now he was determined to reform it. Thus the enlightened intellectual began his struggle to achieve cultural hegemony and domination — a struggle he inevitably justified in the name of human progress, often employing the standard argument that the end justifies the means. This was his fall from grace, for the intellectual, by committing to the implementation of his utopian visions of a perfect world, deliberately risked his most precious asset — his reputation for being reliably objective and disinterested about all the questions that came to his attention. But the enlightened intellectual is willing to take this risk because he is convinced that he has a world to win, and ever since the European Enlightenment, he has been trying to win it. And today he is succeeding, which is precisely what is driving the populist conservatives nuts.