Reading Rousseau: The Problem With Education

I am currently writing a book, set 200 years in the future, after the near-total splintering of society following the election of a narcissistic, childish, manipulative con man/businessman to the American Presidency. The story takes place in two bordering countries: the remains of the U.S.A., and Bernietopia, i.e. the northeastern part of the U.S. It’s a lot of fun to write, and pretty funny too.

Now, the parts that take place in the U.S.A. are really pretty easy to write – I’m basically just laying down the worst-case scenario, based on the direction the country seems to be going (to me, anyway, and it’s my book, so there). The Bernietopia parts, which were the first parts I wrote, as a semester project in a class on American Utopian Literature, are proving much more difficult: see, in these parts, I’m trying to actually articulate a theory, or philosophy, of government which is not only true to the American Dream and the fundamental American Spirit that I still believe in, and faithful to the intent and spirit of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, but also incorporating other sound principles of society and justice (many of which also influenced the thinking and philosophy of our own founding fathers).

So I’m doing a lot of reading on political philosophy, which brings me to the point of this post: the problem with education is that it never ends. It can stop, but it can never really end. No matter how much you read, there is always something more to be learned, on any given subject. Take the research I’ve been doing for this book. It started out as a school project, so I started with the material we’d studied in class: Nathaniel Hawthorne and Laura Ingalls Wilder, among others. Then I moved on to Thomas Carlyle, whom I was introduced to in a class on Victorian Literature. I was surprised to discover that Carlyle, although he seems to have been a pretty staunch capitalist and industrialist, had some very important insights and thoughts that really influenced my thinking.

Warning: The following paragraph is basically just a list of stuff Moon has read lately – feel free to skip ahead if you’d like – sincerely, Moon’s Conscience:

Then, I moved on to Thomas Paine, and his pamphlets The Rights of Man, The Age Of Reason, and Common Sense (a lot of good, thought-provoking stuff there), as well as The Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson (oddly enough, not a lot of help), and Patrick Henry’s Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death speech, as well as The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederich Engels (I’ve gotta admit, I was a little leery of ordering that one – don’t want to end up on a list – but figured I really oughta read it and see what all the fuss is about), and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. And you know what I discovered after reading all that stuff? That there was a whole lot more to read.

Warning 2: the following 2 paragraphs are just more of the same – still sincerely, Moon’s Conscience:

I’ve added Ben Franklin’s Autobiography and Other Writings, The John Locke Collection, John Jay’s The Federalist Papers, The Revolutionary Writings of John Adams, more stuff by Patrick Henry, and Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and Other Essays to my library, and still have to order The Complete Works of Jeremy Bentham, as well as the works of John Stuart Mill, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and George Orwell’s 1984, and Animal Farm (and those are just the ones I know of right now).

I also have to get back into Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, G.K. Chesterton, and the Bible. First, of course, I have to make it through The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Okay, I think he’s finished now – You’re welcome – Moon’s Conscience

I hope you understand that I’m not listing all these books and writers to make you think I’m smart or anything: one of the things I learned in college is that education won’t make you smarter (and any of you who actually know me, will know that I am living proof of that). However, I do believe that education can make you better – if you let it; if you’re willing to follow where it leads you, and you’re willing to keep an open mind, and actually think about what you’re learning.

No, the point of listing all this stuff is to illustrate (again) the point of this essay: that the problem with education is that it never ends.

I am also not just talking about formal education: for the first 48 years of my life, I was largely self-educated (no offense to my grade- and high-school teachers, it’s not your fault, it’s all mine), and many of the smartest and wisest people I know are also self-educated, and they, like me, continue to further their own education completely on their own. But I think that they would agree with me that education, whether formal or self-directed, not only never ends, but that it’s exhausting.

There’s just so much to learn – about everything, and we’ve all only got so much time. We’ve all got things to do: work, play, raise the kids, chase the wife (or husband) around the house (preferably in an amorous way), watch a little TV, keep up with the news, waste time on the Facebook, etc. It can be hard to make time for learning, but deep down, we need it, and you know what?

It’s worth it.

The stuff I’m reading right now is not easy to read. Those old dudes had a labyrinthine way with words. I frequently find myself having to go back and re-read something because by the time I get to the end of a sentence, I’ve forgotten what he’s talking about (sometimes I have to re-read 2 or 3 times – see what I mean about college not making you smarter?), but it’s worth it, because you frequently come across gems like this:

“by equality, we should understand, not that the degrees of power and riches are to be absolutely identical for everybody; but that power shall never be great enough for violence, and shall always be exercised by virtue of rank and law; and that, in respect of riches, no citizen shall ever be wealthy enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself:¹ which implies, on the part of the great, moderation in goods and position, and, on the side of the common sort, moderation in avarice and covetousness.”

¹If the object is to give the state consistency, bring the two extremes as near to each other as possible; allow neither rich men nor beggars. These two estates, which are naturally inseparable; are equally fatal to the common good; from the one come the friends of tyranny, and from the other tyrants. It is always between them that public liberty is put up to auction; the one buys, and the other sells.

I think we have a tendency to think that the problems that plague our society and world currently are somehow new, or that they are something someone has made up to cause trouble, or that, (if we are smart enough to realize that some ((most)) of our problems are at least centuries old) since something (like wealth inequality) is still a problem, then there just clearly isn’t anything we can do about it, at least as a society. Then you read something like that, and have to realize that yes, it’s been a problem for centuries, and that perhaps the reason it still is, is that no society has ever really even tried to fix it, at least not seriously.

Warning: Look out, he’s starting to philosophize – don’t say you weren’t warned – Moon’s Conscience:

When it comes to things like that, a lot of folks like to fall back on the old, “well, you can’t legislate morality” argument. The thing is though, we can, and do, legislate morality all the time. That is largely the purpose of laws: to make immoral things illegal so that 1) people won’t do ’em, and 2) so that the ones that do can be punished. Killing is immoral. Stealing is immoral. Perjury is immoral.

Now I’ll grant you that there is a difference between religious morality and societal morality. That’s why only three of the Ten Commandments are actually reflected in our laws (except in some southern states of course). The founding fathers were wise enough to realize it was best to stick to legislating against things that could be proven and, if truth be told, ignoring those commandments which they themselves had a proclivity for breaking (I’m looking at you, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin).

But I digress: the point is that we often insist on legislating morality – hence the pro-life movement.

Okay, it should be safe now – Moon’s Conscience

Which brings me to another problem with education: it has no limits, no boundaries. You never know where it’s going to take you.

Nope, sorry – Moon’s Conscience

Studying one thing can suddenly branch out into something completely different. The hardest part of The Social Contract for me to understand was a bit in which Rousseau suddenly started using math to prove his point: I am not a math guy. I just don’t get it. When I look at math, or even just numbers, really, my brain glazes over, and I just go into a kind of trance (and not the cool kind where your spirit animal pops up and takes you to hang out with Jim Morrison, but the other kind, where you suddenly snap out of it and you have no idea what just happened, but you’re not happy, and Donald Trump is suddenly President). Math is hard.

Or you’re studying literature, and all of a sudden, you’re reading non-fiction about the industrial revolution, and the rise of the labor movement.

Or you’re studying military history, and suddenly discover that if the economy hadn’t taken a giant dump on itself in 1873, then Custer might have died of old age, and the history of our relations with Native Peoples might have been very different over the last 150 years (okay, probably not, but an intriguing possibility).

The point of this is simply that everything is related: nothing exists in a vacuum, it’s all intertwined; Literature, Philosophy, Science, Math, the past, the present, the future, morality, religion, truth, lies, good, evil, war, peace, terror, joy, everything you can imagine, all twisted and tied together like some sort of extremely complex DNA of Life, and every new thing you learn unravels just a little bit more of it, and you gradually see, and kind of understand it all just a tiny bit more. It’s fascinating, and scary, and frequently annoying, all at the same time.

Finally, what may actually be the biggest actual problem with education: There is often an uncontrollable urge to share what you’ve learned. No matter how you resist, there’s just some part of you that says, “Hey, I should tell this to EVERYBODY!!!!!” regardless of whether EVERYBODY!!!!! cares, or is even curious or not (chances are they’re not). The next thing you know, you’re trying to think of gimmicks to make reading what you have to say at least somewhat palatable.

Screw you fat boy – Moon’s Conscience

See what I mean?

Which leads me to the last big problem with education (okay, not really, but transitions are hard): Education, as unending, confusing, and unlimited as it is, is important. Really, really, really important. Too important to be used as a pawn in the endless political gamesmanship that our government seems to prefer over actually governing.


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