Let me say that I am grateful to Peter Lawler and James Poulos for the opportunity to write on Postmodern Conservative. My first post is probably excessive and certainly pretentious. I hope to do better in the future. In the future I will try to preach less and point to what others say, but I had to get these thoughts out . . .

I was discussing the idea of character, meaning the question of what is good moral character, with a friend of mine today. He expressed how he can’t stand hearing discussions that emanate from leading public figures which emphasize the necessity of moral character in the citizenry. He brought up Newt Gingrich—who to my mind didn’t discuss character as much as Alvin Toffler type futurism, and who anyway is somewhat 1990s retrograde—as an example of an invocation to character that inevitably puts the professed moralist into the position of a hypocrite. To be sure (and regardless of the bad example of Gingrich), this is indeed the effectual truth of far too many a moralist. As a former monk in an order of the Catholic Church, my friend claimed to have a lot of personal experience as evidence of those who in positions of authority say one thing and do the opposite. In part, this explains the “former” regarding his many years’ venture in monasticism. He’s right about all this hypocrisy, but as bad as it could be, isn’t this true of any human organization? He’s right in terms of any organization, but is he right in his generic distaste for and condemnation of moralism?

Who could doubt him in his experience? While his experience has soured him to moralistic scolding—and when you speak of scolding I do not know of anyone who cares for it—should it sour one and all to moralistic scolding as such? Surely scolding in terms of disciplining to an expected order is a necessary but not sufficient element toward the capacity of leading a life above ordinary—if not an excellent one. I agree that we are not children, but don’t children need scolding? Shouldn’t even adults—as rare as the occasions may be necessary (I kid)—be held up to moral scrutiny? I’m not asking for Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter, but I am asking for better than Garrison Keillor’s “all the children are above average,” because as cute as that saying is, it is not true. Scolding implies standards that everyone ought to live up to—even if at the end of the day some will excel, and most will not.

In its immensity and diversity of population, with a variety of interest, passion and opinion, a modern nation state like the USA (at the level of politics) is not the best place for the moral scold to tell us all what to do. President Obama has presented himself as such a scold on certain occasions, and when he has done so he has made himself less presidential and overly partisan. While I can’t speak to the specifics of a monastic religious order, I don’t think that scolding is out of bounds in a specific church setting. Though I suspect that nowadays such scolding makes for a loss in the size of the congregation. Most churches don’t emphasize the wrong in wrong doing these days. I’ll admit that as a community college professor, I have found that indirect scolding, vis a vis emphasizing what students should be ashamed of doing, is helpful in getting them to perform rightly the tasks that I ask them to perform. But this is indirect scolding, and there are direct consequences for cheating and plagiarism and the like. They cheat, and I fail them. This is simply the harsh necessity of punishment made in defense of what is commonly understood to be the best in terms of education. However, with some of the students I suspect a crappy paper is the fruit of the fear of punishment. (Don’t get me wrong. I love those crappy papers!) I don’t want college education to be reduced to the criminal law, but I wonder sometimes if this is not the case (at least in the view of some students and administrators).

On the family level, such scolding of our dear little ones is an ultimate requirement. To be sure, words and rules need to be lived up to by all. While there is punishment for their infraction, rules intend to govern the action of all rightly and toward right ends, and in that way they apply to all (including, though differently, to parents). In the ordinary course of things, moral suasion—coupled with habituation—is necessary for the formation of the rudiments of a well-ordered and virtuous life. It turns out that nature has blessed us in that children generally take well to instruction. The family, as an inherited institution, seems to be an excellent social arrangement for the formation of the good character of our dear little ones. It exists in order that they can at the least survive—but hopefully thrive in excellence—in the free society that is ours as such. Still, as we all know, in terms of performing these tasks, some families are better than others.

All this is self evident to Pomocon readers, but my formerly monkish friend seems to wish to rely on the auxiliary precautions of law and sociology. He is suspicious of the family—as I suppose all monks are. He seems to like modern arrangements—as I do too. These external arrangements—an admixture of accident and choice—seem to relieve us of the necessity of asking hard questions regarding what is required to live a responsibly self-governing life. Perhaps such a self-governing life is impossible, at least if one means a life where you have to take account of each individual decision you make. In modern society, as we all “bowl alone” and cling to our “sky gods and boom sticks” (as Jonah Goldberg amusingly paraphrases President Obama), it is perhaps mere emotivism which makes us speak of such things as character and self-government. As was said in the 1970s, we need to get over our “hang-ups” because we know such individual self-reliance in such a diverse and fragmented society as ours is ultimately an illusion. However, the acknowledgement of this stance likewise assumes that we can still establish an abstract Rawlsian political order that will not—in any comprehensive manner—form the character of the denizens to whom such an arrangement applies, but which can nonetheless and simultaneously provide a decent and stable political order. To me, this all seems to be ultimately a bunch of BS, especially as it is proffered as an arrangement based on (hypothetical) choice.

It is true that we can’t make it alone, but the statist solution seems to drain any spirit from a life worth living in the first place. At the very least the sort of statist or collective protection of the bare life will be the foundation that secures the freedom of the good life, i.e., the good life understood as the complete self-expression of individual autonomy. If my bare life is secure along with everyone else, then allegedly I am free to make whatever I can of my good life, as long as it does not impinge on the rights of others. Which ultimately means that the state will have to tell me what I have the right to do in relation to others, but I will accept this situation because I am ultimately by myself and provided in my necessity with the state—even as I know that this is the situation of everyone else. I know where my bread is buttered, as it were, and so does everyone else. This statist good life—which resembles a libertarian fantasy and statist reality—presages some sort of despotism that for good or ill ultimately levels all the wheat stalks to the same height, as Croesus explained it to Solon. At the end of the day it seems that no one, other than the philosopher king, is capable of assigning the right one job for each person in order to make for perfect harmony and justice in any regime—let alone the United States. I suspect that this proper assignment is not possible. The attempt through a data-driven social scientific plan coupled with an abstract philosophy of justice to order and arrange human life makes the statist reality an illusion. It will not happen. Consequently, it raises serious questions about the reality of autonomous self-fashioning, such as it is.

None of this is exemplary of self-government—individually or collectively understood.

I don’t think anyone, liberal or conservative believes any of this statist planning and philosophical theorizing is actually possible as it intends to be. So where does this leave us with the question regarding moral character and its formation? Hopefully it leaves us with a greater appreciation of inherited institutions, i.e., the Constitution and its specific arrangement of powers and offices. But hopefully it also leaves us with a greater appreciation of the kind of people—their virtues and overall character—that historically have made this regime more or less work and which seem to allow for its perpetuation. But this character requires a constant tending to too.

All of this is a prologue to an interesting (and much discussed) article in the Wall Street Journal on “Chinese Mothers” by Amy Chua (which is an excerpt from a soon to be published book). According to Chua, Chinese mothers are harsh, but wonderful. Tocqueville says that democracy makes relations between fathers and sons or parents and children softer. Under equality of conditions, there is a greater degree of friendship and consequently a greater degree of softness. Compared to European families he says this is a good thing. Equality of conditions allows for human beings to freely display a wide array of virtues in the context of the family. In the equality of conditions, this may allow for encouragement to pursue all sorts of dreams and ambitions that were never possible in the ordinary family back in France. It also allows for greater affection, and perhaps even love amongst family members.

However, it may also lead to lassitude in morals—let alone in industry. In the absence of a moral and religious core in the family, equality of conditions may lead to alcoholism, divorce, latch-key kids, alienation, single parent households, and an immense unhappiness in the nuclear family which while it may have chosen itself, is also all by itself. “Johnny, go play your video game and please shut up.” This understandable reality makes the family in terms of its highest calling immensely fragile, even while many recognize that the healthy family remains a necessary component to the functioning let alone flourishing of the larger political order.

In order to prevent such family disorder, Amy Chua offers the “Chinese” mother. As she describes it, I must say that (in a qualified manner) I love the Chinese mother. This mother scolds endlessly in a way which points toward the right. She is downright mean—and at times unreasonably so, but it leads to success in school and career. However, I suspect the Chinese mother also habituates her children for a political regime that is none other than despotism. It is true that an obedient child—even one who is excellent in math or music—is still not necessarily a child that is being properly habituated to live in a free liberal democracy. Football and theater may not be as great as math or science (as the Chinese mother says), and in fact I would agree that for certain students they should be subordinate. Nonetheless, football and theater teach a degree of spiritedness that is necessary to prevent despotism. With nothing but expert musicians and mathematicians, we have nothing other than the proverbial voluptuaries without heart and specialists without spirit. After all, even Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela has a wonderful youth orchestra .

It is true that I would rather have a child as an excellent pianist who could put Glen Gould to shame over some kid who thought he was better than the latest Green Day album. That said, I don’t think Amy Chua necessarily raises good kids when she thinks that success is winning the Van Cliburne competition or even college Jeopardy. Chinese mothers—good as they are—seem to teach habits conducive to what Lenin called Aziatchina. I am in awe of, and—in the general context of contemporary American society—in agreement with the typical Chinese mother, but I have my doubts.

Of course some people have different opinions on the Chinese mother .

Enter David Brooks —he claims the Chinese mother is a paper tiger. She’s a wimp compared to the cognitive skills required of our youth to handle the cognitive dissonance of real lived personal relationships. The cognitive abilities required in negotiating group dynamics are far more severe in discipline than is mastering the quadratic equation or a Beethoven sonata on the piano. I think Brooks is affirming my point, but he is making the point as if one need not think beyond the practical issue at hand. Simply have your kid attend a sleepover with friends, and hopefully the kids won’t sneak out to smoke weed and vandalize the neighborhood. Even if the young ones engage in such anti-social behavior, it will be educational as the particular child learns the reality of crushing defeat in his inability to persuade his friends to do otherwise. His efforts may end in ridicule and defeat, but he will have learned a more important lesson—even if he gets a police record. Apparently, learning that being good is feeble compared the thrill of misbehaving is necessary to the cognitive—not simply moral—education of the child. All this is to say that I think the Chinese mother instinctually knows what’s best, in that she suspects the worst for “spontaneous” groupings of youth that are expected to teach themselves the practical virtues necessary for living one amongst another together. Save the Thucydidean education for refection in maturity.

So perhaps Rousseau’s account in the Emile is correct. Tutors, nay parents, must establish scenarios of freedom for the child—scenarios that are orchestrated toward having the child learn the lesson of free choice and its consequences for himself. Don’t let it get out of hand, but don’t become the tyrannical Chinese mother either. If it is true that the education of the household is the preeminent education, and if we wish to have an education proper to living with each other in a way that allows for individual self-government, then Brooks is right that education must be more than mathematics and music. The drama club, the sleepovers, the school dances, the football team, etc. need to be guided in such a way that place external, albeit hidden, restraints which guide the youth toward their proper end. Such a scenario needs a little bit of the Chinese mother, and less a reliance on brain science working itself out spontaneously over time. Or so it seems to me.

And needless to say the mollycoddling, Oprah cry your feelings, self-entitlement, self-esteem boosterism racket—that many folk fairly or unfairly place in Dr. Spock’s and Mr. Rogers’ hands—needs to end (or at least be modified by something sterner).

But maybe I’m too insensitive and puritanical for today’s mores. Knowledge of the proper ends of life is endlessly frustrated in the rearing of children. Perhaps we should just lighten up, and let Huck Finn be Huck Finn as he hangs out with Tom Sawyer. It is an adequate compromise.

Articles by John Presnall

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