“Walter Russell Mead on Teaching” an essay by A Conservative Teacher

Today’s Guest Saturday post comes to us from A Conservative Teacher and discusses the merits of teaching students about the essence of power. This essay was originally published on Friday, April 12, 2013.

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Walter Russell Mead on Teaching

Walter Russell Mead recently wrote a blog post about a Grand Strategy class that he is teaching this semester and buried in this post were some very perceptive insights into teaching today:

….For many of my students, this is the first class they’ve taken in which they’ve been encouraged to think seriously about the nature of their ambitions and how to achieve them. Power both fascinates and disorients the academy today. Throughout the millennia teachers have assumed that getting and keeping power was one of the chief reasons that students came to their classes. The rhetorical instructors of ancient Greece and Rome were teaching students the skills that would enable them to persuade: either to persuade jurors to acquit or convict, or to persuade voters to support a given course of action or a particular candidate.

Today we focus on introducing them to various lines of academic inquiry and on giving them ‘job skills’ that will help them earn a good living. Both of these are perfectly good things to study, but how many professors would start a class off by saying that the goal of the class is to teach students to acquire, hold and use power in society at large?

More classes should start in exactly that way. An education, among other things, should help you become adept at the power game.Few things are as deeply human as the drive for power, and ambition remains one of the great drivers of any society. Getting away from that reality and providing courses that aren’t grounded in helping young people achieve the fame, glory and power that it is natural for them to seek is getting away from an essential and vital part of the educational process. An exclusive focus on instrumental and secondary types of learning marks a college or university as a ‘sheeple factory’: a place dedicated to turning out staffers and followers rather than a place where young eagles flock in order to learn how to soar.

Perhaps a mass society like ours needs more sheeple stalls and fewer eagles’ nests. From a certain angle the American academy looks like the most brilliant experiment in social control ever invented. Restless intellectuals can spend their tenured lives debating the fine points and arcana of recondite disciplines without in any way inconveniencing the social order. Athens and Rome were tiny communities compared to the modern American state; if we had the same ratio of eagles to sheeple that Rome and Athens did our social order might burst apart under the stress of all that ambition. Perhaps Frank Fukuyama is right, and the end of history both demands and creates a race of sheeple (“last men” in Nietzsche’s phrase) to staff and uphold it.

I am not so sure that is true, particularly in a time like ours when the social and institutional infrastructure of 20th century, blue model America is breaking up. When paradigms need to shift, there is no point in teaching students to conform to the intellectual and occupational patterns that have already been established around them. They need to explore, to challenge and to dare: to dream of greatness and develop the fixed purpose to achieve it whatever the obstacles that try to hold them back.

Eagles don’t make good pets. They are often ungrateful to their teachers. They look to the future and not to the past, they look to what works and not towards what used to work. They don’t color between the lines, they struggle to conceal their insincerity when mouthing the genteel pieties of the upper middle class, and they have a self confidence that can be hard to distinguish from arrogance. They are carnivores not vegans, they like winning more than they like sharing, and they see bureaucrats as obstacles to be circumvented and tools to be used rather than as serious and thoughtful professionals guiding mankind toward a higher path.

They are, in other words, insufferable — and perhaps especially so when young and still unformed. But we need them…

One of the features of my government classes that immediately marks my classes as ‘different’ is that on the first day I make a point of telling by telling students that the purpose of the class is to teach students how political power works in our nation. Their hard work, innovations, intelligence, and experiences will mean nothing if they don’t know how to play the political game our nation- they need to know the political structures of our country, know how to connect with government officials and bureaucrats, know how to manipulate the system to their advantage, recognize when the political system is being manipulated against them to their disadvantage, and know how to make political connections so that they can get ahead. Maybe at one point in our history all this politics didn’t matter as much- but as our nation has dissolved into a mature and corrupt political society, much like late Republic Rome, it is vital that students know how power works in society.

This sort of ‘hit them in the face realism’ is not something that students are used to- in most of their classes they are trained to just be sheeple- to ask lots of vague mushy sounding questions, say nice platitudes and spew out concerned- sounding rhetoric, to learn simple and meager job skills, and to someday push pencils around for leaders who make real decisions. We really don’t encourage leadership, critical thinking, advanced job skills, innovation, ambition, strength, daring, or Chuck Norris kick-assness anymore- and after reading Mead’s post, I’m really encouraged to do even more of this so that America can once more be a leader in the world and not just a nation of sheeple following around Obarfo and his traveling troop of Demffoons.

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