Monday, May 19, 2014

Can Serious Thought be Taught?

The cover story of the Christian Science Monitor Weekly for May 19 is titled, on the cover, as “Can parenting be taught?” This being the Christian Science Monitor, however, the full title, found within, is “Can parenting really be taught?”  And that’s a whole lot better. The article deals with what appears to be an avalanche of initiatives to solve the problems of poverty and unemployment by targeting low-income parents with scientific approaches to that oddity called “parenting.” That word, I’m told, dates from 1959 but had an earlier form, called “parentcraft” coined in 1930, the year the Great Depression began...

My initial reaction to that headline was “Can parenting be bought?” Teaching requires institutions, and institutions must be paid—by somebody; and that can be arranged. The answer thus is Yes. And therefore another question, suggested by Brigitte, is “Can parenting be sold?”  The answer is Yes again.

It is a feature of our times, especially in the still exceptionalist United States, that anything can be taught, no matter how unlikely, if only the right programs are in place. It’s not exactly noticeable unless your hearing is sharp, but it is everywhere. The most recent international version of it was to send about a dozen American operatives to Nigeria to solve the kidnapping of girls—and the vast hoopla that surrounded that action on CNN. We’re forever dispatching advisers to foreign lands to teach them anything and everything, not least democracy—on the basis of our odd scientific understanding that if you can identify a series of behaviors and train other people to engage in them, vast cultural mountains can be moved and vast abysses may be filled by the deployment of a few experts.

Can serious thought be taught? To our ruling classes? The answer here is No.


  1. As I am gearing up to do some reading of Plato's dialogues, I'm reminded of the fact that one of his major questions is "Can virtue be taught?" And since 'virtue' just meant habits and dispositions of excellence, it's pretty closely related to a more specific question like "Can parenting be taught?"

    And that fits with the other question, too. It was a major idea of the Sophists and Rhetors, Plato's opponents, that they could teach you to dominate in any field and do anything you like -- and all you had to do was pay their high teaching fees. And so the questions really are linked!

    Unchanging themes, endless variations....

    1. A useful reminder, Brandon, reminding me that culture has its seasons. This particular debate belongs to the Fall, and in more senses than one.