For the past four months I’ve been employed as a teaching intern at a small, very expensive private high school with a curriculum built around classic texts of the Western canon and primary source documents. I work primarily with freshmen, sophomores, and juniors: the first study ancient world from early Sumerian civilization to the rise of Islam, with extensive readings from Greece and Rome in between; the second, European civilization from the Middle Ages to the 20th Century; the third, American history and letters from the early colonial period through the Founding, up to the immediate post-9/11 era. The curriculum is an ambitious attempt at communicating the important features of Western history and thought (i.e. “The Humanities”) as the gradual development of a coherent whole—with philosophy and literature and events all interpenetrating and shaping one another—rather than sectioning off separate categorical territory and exploring each one independently of the others. The classes are conducted as roundtable discussions, with the concerns and interests of the students often driving the course of the conversation. Sometimes this can get pretty lively, with students engaging with the material in a way that forces them to reflect on their own opinions and presuppositions. But most of the time—especially in the classes of freshmen—the discussions are dominated by kids who bloviate in an attempt hide the fact that they ignored the reading in favor of a summary on Shmoop.
At best, this model of education teaches students that taking stances on phenomena in the present always entails taking some kind of stance on phenomena of the past, and that real, authentic learning requires the active participation of the learner. At worst—though I suppose this is a danger of all attempts at “education” and not limited to this particular school or pedagogical model—the students learn absolutely nothing.
The last few weeks of sophomore year involve a close study of Bolshevism and European fascist movements with readings from Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Spengler (!), and excerpts from a variety of documents from Nazi Germany including speeches by Hitler and Himmler, the text of the Nuremburg Laws, and—in a separate unit on the Nazi death camps—the Wannsee Protocol. This is, of course, important stuff. Probably the most important stuff, when one is considering the situation in which we find ourselves in the 21st Century. It’s also material that I hardly touched in my own utterly un-elite, provincial, public school education, which involved much attention paid to particular battles of the Second World War but hardly any mention of the Germans’ attempt at obliterating every human being on planet Earth whom they categorized as a “Jew.” Over the last decade or so, however, this period of European insanity has become a major object of study in my life—so upon discovery that the kids were going to be reading the Wannsee conference notes and discussing the implications of the Nazi death camps, I felt I had to observe.
I’m not sure there could have been any way to prepare for the nightmare I witnessed. On one hand, it makes sense that teenagers growing up in our world would be mostly unfazed by the form of the document, full as it is of the kinds of figures, statistics, and bureaucratic euphemisms common to the 20th-century technocratic American style. Though a technocratic dossier like this is something totally novel within the context of their studies, the figures, statistics, and bureaucratic euphemisms that populate it are utterly unremarkable features of the documents of modern public life. It is a mistake to treat what is familiar to you as a trans-historical given, but it is not an intellectual sin. One would think, however, that the marshaling of such a familiar way of writing for the goal of exterminating more than 11 million people would stimulate some kind of reflection on said style—“hold on, why is it that mass murder looks so much like health policy?”—but then you would be revealing yourself to be an optimist. The teacher did a heroic job trying to stimulate such a reflection. But the sheer strength of their commitment to certain presuppositions—namely, that “science” and “good” are synonyms—made such an inquiry fruitless.
But the real horror began only after someone mentioned Mengele and the broader Nazi experimentation program. “Should we dispose of the results of the Dachau hypothermia trials,” someone asked, “just because they were conducted unethically?” I’m not sure I heard a single voice suggest that maybe we should. Another student mentioned several closer-to-home examples of forced or unethical experimentation to press the question: the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, Albert Klingman’s two decades of dermatology experiments at Holmesburg Prison, the US government infecting Guatemalan mental patients with herpes and gonorrhea in the late 1940s. The group remained unable to consider the possibility that, when it comes to “science,” bad means might imply bad ends. Things got even more macabre when a student suggested that the real problem with Nazi experimentation was that they failed to “scientifically” determine which populations were expendable to society and thus best suited for use as unwilling subjects of experimentation. Their hatred of the Jews was a product of feeling, not science. (Every serious committed Nazi, of course, would disagree). Several students suggested that we use death-row prisoners in medical experiments: this would make them more “useful” because they would be “helping all of mankind.” Eventually the idea arose that consent was important, and that many people would be willing to volunteer for medical experimentation to “help out their fellow man.” At some point my quiet panic made it impossible for me to pay much attention.
There were, thankfully, a few students who expressed gut-instinct responses that all of this discussion was grotesque, and a few more came around at the end. But these few passionate reactions failed to entirely dissipate the technonihilistic atmosphere that hung over the class. One student, quite thankfully, said the thing that needed to be said: “There is no difference between determining who is ‘scientifically expendable’ and what the Nazis did.” But nobody could bring themselves to question the scientific enterprise as such: the Nazis were accused of “pseudo-science,” of being “racists,” in sum, of being wrong. And because science that turns out to be wrong—or that has negative consequences beyond what the norms of polite society allow—cannot be science, science remains unscathed. Science itself cannot be the problem, because it is categorically good.
I know that this is harsh criticism of the opinions of teenagers. But I don’t impute the fault to them: they’re just kids. Nor do I think that the problem can be pinned on ideas or indefinite categories such as “culture” or “society,” though their opinions certainly reflect assumptions they’ve inherited from the intellectual ecosystem they inhabit. The issue, I suspect, is largely structural: their failure to think seriously about serious things is a problem at the heart of the entire schooling-education project. Most of these kids are very intelligent. Almost all of them come from extremely wealthy families. Some combination of these two factors results in a kind of purely abstract, virtual thinking that sees the world from a feigned “objective” perspective a thousand miles up. (Which, hauntingly, is the essence of totalitarian thinking.) From such a height, all things—including fellow human beings—take on the appearance of purely manipulable objects subject to your godlike will. When wealth and parents and school administrators and the technology regime all conspire to protect a person from even the mildest experience of suffering, it’s easy for that person to call for an “objective” or “scientific” investigation into who is most deserving of suffering: their answer, undoubtedly, will never include themselves. They lack skin in the game. And education understood as an activity separated from living only serves to intensify this abstraction of thought: it would be an incredibly rare and special mind that could think its way to empathy or arrive at it with only a stack of books. The rest of us must rely on some kind of experience, something over which we have little or no control, to rearrange our thinking and our disposition toward ourselves, others, and the world.