Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Searching For Perfection

Some adolescent thought patterns have become a little bit clearer to me after decades of teaching history to idealistic teenagers. For example, many start perceiving their parents’ flaws and their disdain for those flaws sometimes manifests as rebellion. Having heretofore seen their parents as perfect, the newly-perceived foibles often become magnified. Then they see defects in everybody and figure there’s no point in trying to improve anymore because perfection is unattainable. Others rebel because they still believe humans can achieve perfection both as individuals and, collectively, as a society - and become intolerant of anything less. They will roll their eyes in disapproval and walk fifty paces behind parents in public. Criticism of parental blemishes becomes quite fashionable with their peers.

By their twenties, most lighten up on their parents as they accept that no human is perfect, but persist in their belief that a perfect society is attainable. If their government doesn’t successfully anticipate all difficulties, for example, or doesn’t fix them immediately after they occur, then it’s incompetent in their eyes. At this point, their acidic parental disdain is transfered to their imperfect government and it’s fashionable to run it down. Yet they persist in thinking flawed people can create a flawless method of ruling society in which everyone is nice and generous works hard for the good of everyone else. All get whatever they need - free education, health care, housing, food, transportation - and government pays for it all by taxing those who produce the most. It’s a socialist pipe dream of course, but a persistent one among liberals young and old.

Liberals don’t consider themselves communists, but will speak of it wistfully and belief in the communist ideal of “From each according to his ability, and to each, according to his need,” dies hard. Although communism has failed miserably wherever it’s been tried, that’s only because it wasn’t applied properly, they insist. If only the right people had been in charge, it would have worked nicely.

The optimistic enthusiasm of youth is valuable for our culture and energizing for us all. Every society needs it, and it's one of the things that keeps this old teacher coming back each year. As Winston Churchill said: “If you’re not a liberal when you’re twenty, you have no heart. If you’re still a liberal when you’re forty, you have no brain.” Youthful idealism has its place and works best when it’s guided by the wisdom of experience. When I teach students about today’s political spectrum, for example, and explain that I used to be liberal and now I’m conservative, they ask what made me change. My short answer is: “I grew up.”

Thankfully, the Constitution creating our republic was written by men who had grown up, and that’s why it has lasted this long. A guiding principle as they wrote was their conviction that humans are flawed, and exercise of government power must be checked and balanced and decentralized - and, that people will be most productive when pursuing our own happiness.

The curriculum I’m responsible to teach is 20th century US History and one of the strongest dynamics in that hundred years is the struggle between our free enterprise system and the rise of communism. In the second half of the century, the Cold War was its principal dynamic. To help them understand communism’s appeal, I use The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Communism, which starts by describing utopian communes springing up and dying out in Europe and America in the mid-19th century. Among these were Shakers, Amana communities, Rappites, Brook Farm, Oneida, and others. Some lasted many decades and others were flashes in the pan, but all diminished to the point of extinction, or close to it. There’s only one remnant, for example, of Shakers in Poland, Maine, not far from where I teach. Presented are many different examples of how flawed people attempted to create perfect societies. When during the 20th century communism was attempted on a grand scale in the Soviet Union, it collapsed dramatically after seven decades. In China, it’s morphing into a government-controlled capitalism.

A few students each year think communism could never be a realistic method of running a country. They intuit the classic criticism that it sounds good, but won’t work because people will not push themselves much when the benefit of their labor goes to others. Playing devil’s advocate, I’ll point out that their parents’ labor is mostly for their benefit, and that fact gives them pause. They eventually conclude that, outside a family, communist ideas are not feasible. At this point, they’re ready to accept Winston Churchill’s declaration that: “Democracy is a the worst form of government, except for all those others that have been tried.”

The young liberals I teach have a lot of heart and I’m looking forward to another crop of them next month. Meanwhile, I find myself wishing, as Churchill did in his time, that the older ones now running our government had more brains.


Geoff Diehl said...


You're article took me back in time to my college years - however, I grew up (see:!

Your discussion also reminded me of another utopian movement which I studied - Kibbutzism:

Back in '91, we specifically studied the Kibbutz Goshen, but as you can see from the Wikipedia article's summary of the communal collectives, it's mostly failed as a living group and only has continued on through it's commercial enterprises.

Glad we could "kibbitz" about the topic!

Anonymous said...

Tom, you certainly do know how to make a point.


Anonymous said...

Fortunately there is a middle ground between liberal and conservative and I am generaly comfortable with it. Neither side is always right or always wrong and that is why Constitution is written as it is. It allows opposing points of view.

But for better or worse we are asked to choose between the wise man and the fool when we vote and its often hard to decide which is which. I only hope that neither gets to do too much damage.

Anonymous said...

Meanwhile, I find myself wishing, as Churchill did in his time, that the older ones now running our government had more brains.

Perhaps they just needed a good teacher as you appear to be.

Average American said...

I don't envy you teaching where you do. Hopefully, with the subject you teach, your students leave a little less liberal than when you got them.

Tom McLaughlin said...

Good luck in your campaign Geoff. I was just down the cape last week. Crowded, but nice. Osterville was a lovely town.

AA - Kids that age can be crazy at times, but they're very smart and don't have many preconceived opinions about things yet. When I describe a concept or a dilemma or an issue, and they're learning about it for the first time, they come up with some very interesting comments or ask fresh questions. It's very rewarding some days.

Besides, it's too late for this old dog to change venues before retiring.

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