When 'Niceness' Becomes Tyranny
Take this quiz. In which of the following venues -- (a) The New York Times or (b) Fox News -- did the following report appear? "Teacher[s] . . . [are] frightened of the pupils and fawn on them." The "students make light of their teachers. . . . And, generally, the young copy their elders and compete with them in speeches and deeds, while the old come down to the level of the young; imitating the young, they are overflowing with . . . charm, and that's so that they won't seem to be unpleasant or despotic."
The answer is "none of the above." This account is nearly 2,500 years old, coming from Socrates in Plato's Republic, and is part of an analysis of how democratic freedom, taken to its extreme, can culminate in collective tyranny.
What has been the effect or our Niceness Crusade on today's children? A New Yorker piece blames parents for creating young children who are, as the article's title states it, "Spoiled Rotten." ("Why do kids rule the roost?" asks the subheadline.) What kind of college students do such children then grow up to become? A recent New Republic article by a former Yale professor worries that today's students at elite universities are "entitled little sh[**s]." Another study, of Bowdoin College students, conducted by the National Association of Scholars, finds these students guilty of "knowingness," which is "the antithesis of humility," the "enemy of education," and "a formula for intellectual complacency." Contrast this with Socrates' famous formulation, which served for centuries as liberal education's animating principle: "The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being."
Why might today's parents fail to exercise the leadership necessary to enforce the discipline necessary to their children's maturation? How have the relations between the young and old been turned upside down, with the older, more experienced generation now fearing to offend the younger, less-experienced generation, rather than vice versa?
Doubtless, a variety of factors are at play here, but, for Socrates, democratic justice, which he finds to be the principle of freedom, degenerates -- as do all political principles -- through being taken to its extreme. Liberty, which in the highest sense consists in freely choosing to restrain one's passions in order to pursue the just course, degenerates into license, which is liberty unrestrained by any purposes higher than freedom itself; that is, license is irresponsible freedom.
So unquenchable can become democracy's passion for freedom-as-unrestraint, argues Socrates, that, by virtue of its logic, it extends freedom ever wider, eventually to the animals themselves: "There come to be horses and donkeys who have gotten the habit of making their way quite freely and solemnly, bumping into whomever they happen to meet on the roads, if he doesn't stand aside, and all else is similarly full of freedom." This fantastic scenario is meant intentionally to be dreamlike, but it resonates with us today when we consider the principles animating the animal-rights movement. Some recall the saga of the ill-fated "Baby Fae," a newborn whose heart condition led doctors to take the desperate, ultimately unsuccessful, measure of transplanting a baboon's heart to her in hopes of saving her life. This produced outcries from the animal-rights movement, which critiqued the morality, as one scholarly paper puts it, "of the taking of an innocent animal's life to attempt to save the life of an innocent human." Similar human-animal equations appear regularly from PETA, such as its "Holocaust on Your Plate" campaign.
The political consequences of taking freedom to its extremes, according to Socrates, are that democracy's citizens "end up . . . by paying no attention to the laws, written or unwritten, in order that they may avoid having any master at all." Under the new dispensation, then, the old come down the level of the young; parents, to their children; human beings, to animals; and -- thanks to today's popularization of moral relativism -- objective Truth falls to subjective choice. All this in order that all may be fully "free."
How might we rediscover a sound basis for teaching and practicing self-restraint? We could start by reading Plato, who teaches that, while it is one sense natural for us to "want what we want, when we want it," human nature at its deepest longs for something more, something higher. We long to discover and participate in a good of such nobility that it trumps our lower desires.
There was a time, of course, not so long ago, when many college students could be expected to study (because it was required) Plato's Republic. But those bad old days of making students read things they might not want to read, such as difficult Platonic dialogues, surrendered to the same passion that Plato finds threatens to transform democratic liberty into tyrannical license. In the name of "student choice," our university elders, not wanting to seem "unpleasant or despotic," abandoned required core curriculums a half-century ago, replacing them with their intellectually spineless shadows -- "general education" and "distribution requirements."
It is difficult to envision today's universities restoring the type of rigorous, required core curriculum in which students would be compelled to encounter a text like the Republic, through which they might receive the greatest gift of all -- coming better to understand themselves and what they believe through engaging in a serious conversation with a mind greater than their own who challenges them to examine their unexamined assumptions. But if universities do not take this courageous step, they doom their students to lives suffocated by prejudice, by the "knowingness" and sense of entitlement that is death to intellectual as well as political liberty. If American higher education, which has come so much in our increasingly secular society to be the chief crafter of the culture, fails to seek to arrest the degeneration for which it is in some part culpable, Socrates would argue that we can next expect a culture in which "insolence" will come to be labeled "good education; anarchy, freedom; wastefulness, magnificence; and shamelessness, courage."
From this shift in the culture, Socrates concludes, comes "the beginning, so fair and heady, from which tyranny . . . naturally grows." Which leaves a question for today's parents and educators: Are the benefits of our aimless "niceness" toward our children worth the price? If not, then for their sake, as well as ours, we adults might consider acting again like grown-ups.
Thomas K. Lindsay directs the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and is editor of SeeThruEdu.com. He was deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under George W. Bush. He recently published Investigating American Democracy with Gary D. Glenn (Oxford University Press).