Executing Tradition: Cultural Death and the Manipulation of the Young

Increasingly, there are calls for educators to reject “adultism” in teaching their students. “Adultism” is essentially the idea that adults (parents, teachers, law enforcement officials, pastors, government leaders, etc.) have too much authority over children and young people. This must be done, anti-adultists (who are all adults themselves) say, because children lose self-esteem when they are treated as children.

In the context of education, anti-adultism includes the ideas that children should determine not only what they study but also which teachers should be hired or fired. These goals – cleverly named “meaningful student involvement” – rely, not surprisingly, on the principles of John Dewey who posited the remarkably contradictory tenets that (1) students must be allowed to make important decisions, and (2) students must have the knowledge required to make important decisions; apparently he overlooked the fact that many, if not most, young people lack both the knowledge required to make important decisions about their education and the maturity to do so.

While I am a firm believer in encouraging students to live up to high standards and expecting students to act responsibly, the anti-adultist agenda (created by adults, remember) is obviously going too far. In fact, it has already been tried – in Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a movement which killed between 500,000 and 2 million people from 1966 to 1976.

Historian Paul Johnson offers a detailed description of how the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution destroyed Chinese culture. Educators and artists were punished, while schools were closed and art works were destroyed. Universities even had their own armies. The 1 million Chinese students were formed into the Red Guards – who were largely responsible for the nation’s collapse into anarchy. Johnson writes that “long hair, sunglasses, neon signs, playing cards, chess sets, top hats, jazz records, teashops, coffee houses, private theaters, private restaurants, weddings, funerals, holding hands, [and] kite flying” were banned. Even wives were cruelly tortured.

Not surprisingly, the results were crippling. Even the Encyclopaedia Britannica notes that “There existed, for example, a severe generation gap; individuals who experienced the Cultural Revolution while in their teens and early twenties were denied an education and taught to redress grievances by taking to the streets. Post-Cultural Revolution policies—which stressed education and initiative over radical revolutionary fervour—left little room for these millions of people to have productive careers. Indeed, the fundamental damage to all aspects of the educational system itself took several decades to repair” [emphasis mine]. When young people were taught to oppose their nation’s centuries-old culture and to reject education, they learned that violence was the only option. But perhaps most importantly, their lack of education prevented them from taking jobs and participating positively in their communities.

Mao understood the power of youth and the necessity of promoting new ideas to gain popularity for himself. As he wrote: “The young people are the most active and vital force in society. They are the most eager to learn and the least conservative in their thinking” [emphasis mine]. Youth were more likely to accept new ideas and to reject old ones, he said – the parallels with Huxley’s Brave New World are striking. Mao continued: “We hope that the local Party organizations in various places will help and work with the Youth League organizations and go into the question of bringing into full play the energy of our youth in particular. The Party organizations should not treat them in the same way as everybody else and ignore their special characteristics.” Youth were special, and their differences were a significant benefit to the communist party. But, perhaps in tacit acknowledgment of traditional Chinese reverence for ancestors and family, Mao added: “Of course, the young people should learn from the old and other adults, and should strive as much as possible to engage in all sorts of useful activities with their agreement.”

Mao also understood the danger that tradition posed to communism, so he encouraged his “cultural revolutionaries” to question tradition. He said, “The people’s state protects the people. Only when the people have such a state can they educate and remold themselves by democratic methods on a country-wide scale, with everyone taking part, and shake off the influence of domestic and foreign reactionaries (which is still very strong, will survive for a long time and cannot be quickly destroyed), rid themselves of the bad habits and ideas acquired in the old society, not allow themselves to be led astray by the reactionaries, and continue to advance – to advance towards a socialist and communist society” [emphasis mine]. A government which totally “protected” the people offered the only way the Chinese could completely abandon tradition and fully adopt communism.

But how does all this relate to classical education?

A few points seem especially pertinent:

  • Certainly students should be given responsibilities, but clearly they cannot be given responsibilities as great as either Mao or the anti-adultists want. As educators, we have to find the balance – often on a case-by-case basis – between our students’ abilities and maturity level and the responsibilities our students can and should have.
  • Traditions and old, time-tested ideas are important, but not only because they are traditional. They ought to be understood for their own sakes; often, they offer immense wisdom, as well as practical benefits, and, in many cases, simply enjoyment.
  • Finally, we must show our students that neither criticism and questioning nor blind adherence to tradition are sufficient guides for how we should live; decisions must be based on a fixed moral standard – and the ultimate moral standard is the character of God as expressed in the Bible.

Only time will tell whether the anti-adultists (who – don’t forget – are adults themselves) will win.

Photo: Wall at Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp near Berlin (c) Grace Hughbanks, 2015