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Teaching Helplessness: The Problem with Modern Education by Daria Fedotova

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Teaching Helplessness: The Problem with Modern Education

"Children’s Games" (1560), a 118 × 161 cm oil on panel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (cs. 1525/1530-1569), located in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

People who are fully satisfied with the quality of their pre-university education are rare and usually graduate from expensive and reputable schools. Those are not the subject of this discussion, though some worrying trends creep even within their venerable walls. Most other schools provide nothing but basic knowledge that an average student can memorise, recite during examinations, and forget. Nevertheless, these schools do serve another purpose—and with much more success. They provide an opportunity for children to interact in a society that is not automatically favourable and forgiving, develop communication skills, and grow a thicker skin.

Like many others in that age, I was a rebel—but a rebel of a quiet sort. I sat in the far corner of a classroom, minding my own business and largely ignoring everything around me—from lessons to fellow students. Reading was among my favourite pastimes; however, I rarely read what was required by the school, choosing my own subjects instead. It seemed rather fair: I was not bothering anyone else, so they were supposed to return the favour. Perhaps that was when my taste for small government was born. 

Naturally, my teachers and peers found this arrangement hard to accept; we had constant clashes, and those served me well. I learned to stand my ground and not to shy away from conflicts, but also to remain civil about it. Combined with the theory of proper conduct I learned from my books, these interactions helped me build up confidence, self-reliance, and a certain experience of society. This might not have been so if my wishes had been granted from the very beginning or if my opponents were friendly and accommodating. 

Children must not be shielded from struggle. This is, perhaps unexpectedly, among the few advantages of educating children in schools rather than at home, for there they have the chance to experience struggle as a part of life and to learn how to do it with courage and kindness.

Modern schools, however, are shirking their duty in this regard, especially in the West. They are preoccupied with health and safety far beyond necessity: all potential hazards must be accounted for and prevented, or at least avoided. It is widely believed that children learn best in a completely safe environment, but nothing could be further from the truth. Children raised in a greenhouse know little of the real world; they are better trained to follow authority than to think for themselves. Gone are the happy days when children were allowed to climb trees and roofs, encouraged to go to school alone as early as possible and given an opportunity to learn from the minor injuries they sustained during their explorations. Fighting, the most intuitive way of resolving disputes known to every child, is strictly banned; kids are therefore deprived of valuable lessons of their strength, its rewards and consequences and the limits of its usefulness, as well as of the nature of hierarchies.

Bullying is a particularly persistent subject of moral panic among the school authorities and parents. In some extreme cases, it may indeed warrant the interference of an adult in order to prevent serious harm, but otherwise, it is a relatively good way to experience adversity. Instead of rushing to a bullied child’s defence, a parent or a teacher should explain how to deal with that situation and let them solve it on their own. This will help prepare children for the much more complex challenges that await them in the future.

These rules remain theoretical in most cases, as schools often lack funds to hire teachers and psychologists or buy new equipment. Yet what cannot be implemented is proclaimed, and that creates an expectation, a new normal. Fighting is out of the question; mean words are a cause for serious concern; mental health issues are exaggerated; and comfort is sacred. Children are not allowed an opportunity to solve their problems on their own; there should always be an adult who will tell them what to do and protect them from any potential harm—except, of course, for the damage done by indoctrinating them into the leftist ideology.

That ideology is becoming prevalent in all parts of the curriculum. History is among the most butchered subjects. Western children now engage more in ‘deconstruction’ and ‘decolonisation’ than in actual historical study. They tend to learn less of great statesmen, of battles, adventures, scientific achievements, and art, and more of minorities, oppression and crimes. Leftist history is ugly and dull; we need look only as far as the textbooks of the Soviet Union, which discussed endless popular uprisings instead of actual human achievements (until the topic turned to the Revolution, which was of course glorified beyond all resemblance to its reality). 

Other subjects, like mathematics or physics, are less prone to such intrusions, but even they are not immune. A 2016 article in The Conversation enlightens us on the potential ways to destroy even these subjects: 

There have been attempts to transform the content of school mathematics curricula. These include ethnomathematics, which excavates the mathematics in cultural objects, artefacts and practices; and critical mathematics, where mathematics is used to critique aspects of society and where students critique mathematics, for example, how algorithms structure our lives in ways which reproduce inequality.

And then, of course, there is sex education, sometimes introduced as early as primary school. From a very young age, children are taught about sexual orientation, gender, and every possible deviation from healthy sexuality, all neatly packaged and labelled. While one could argue that it is a good idea for teenagers to know how to avoid disease and unwanted pregnancies, the rest is useless and sometimes outright harmful. For younger kids, it is simply inappropriate.

Modern developments in education not only reflect the society we live in; they also influence it. People become psychologically dependent on the constant supervision they were subjected to from a young age. Even as adults, they seek someone to keep them safe, solve their problems, and tell them what to do. Though, post-secondary-school, they are finally free to be aggressive, they have no real strength to back their convictions up (assuming they have convictions), no sense of proportion, and no courage to accept a fair fight. Some choose to vent their rage on social media. Others prefer to avoid confrontation altogether. 

And so the support for centralised power grows. It is not hard to notice this tendency while looking through the recent American research. The Spring 2022 Harvard Youth Poll indicates that although young people are becoming less interested in voting, 55% of those who do, prefer Democratic control of Congress. At the same time, according to a 2019 study by Pew Research Center, “67% of Democrats and Democratic leaners say they would rather have a bigger government with more services.”

This situation may change with a different approach to primary education, an approach tested in the past and proven effective at raising healthy and successful young people. This approach emphasises physical and mental fortitude, stoicism and fair play. It encourages competition and rewards excellence. It fosters patriotism and respect for tradition instead of championing groundless progressive values. This approach is still present in some British schools as a product of the best Victorian practices.

Dr Stephen Basdeo, Assistant Professor of History at Richmond University, described the rise of elite public schools in his book Heroes and Villains of the British Empire

Things improved when Dr Thomas Arnold became headmaster of Rugby in 1828. He did not amend the classics-based curriculum in any significant way but concerned himself with improving the boys’ behaviour, and the reputation of the school, by giving the lads a good moral education. He allowed the students a limited degree of self-governance through the prefect system, which would teach the lads to take responsibility for their actions. Arnold also permitted the boys to play team sports, although these were not initially a formal part of the syllabus.

Where the good old traditions are still alive, it is considered normal for students to play outside regardless of the weather. They must disregard the inconveniencies and take care of themselves, and they learn that though the world may be cold, they can make their own warmth.

While the use of Victorian experience may be a fine theoretical solution, a question remains: what can concerned parents do? The first and most obvious solution is to find a school that treats their children as future adults rather than perpetual infants, but this is easier said than done. The next best option is homeschooling, which has many advantages, especially for the children who are not fond of company. Homeschooling allows children to prioritise, delving deeper into the subjects they are interested in and regulating the pace of learning to suit their own needs. It also gives them the full attention of their tutors instead of having to share it with other students. Meanwhile, the parents remain in control of what their child is taught. The only downside is the potential lack of exposure to society and its challenges—a significant downside, but depending on the options available, possibly unavoidable.

Changing our current approach to education is key to building back the strength the Western civilisation has lost. If it is not done, we will continue to breed generations of spineless managers easily influenced by leftist ideas. On a large scale, these changes depend on the goodwill of governments; but each family can contribute to saving our legacy by raising their children to be brave and confident heirs to our culture.

Daria Fedotova is a lawyer and writer based in Ukraine.