The Autodidact’s Apology
English professor Duke Pesta has been a vocal and high-profile opponent of the Common Core standards He is shown Thursday, April 3, 2014 in his office at UW-Oshkosh in Oshkosh, Wis. Mark Hoffman/MHOFFMAN@JOURNALSENTINEL.COM

The Autodidact’s Apology

In the course of my research into the origins of the problems of higher education, and of education itself, I have discovered people far older, wiser, more experienced, and more intelligent than I, already making the arguments I had intended to make in a book, with a wider audience than I will ever have, and more eloquently than I will probably be able to manage any time soon.

The three that come to mind include Stefan Molyneux, Duke Pesta, and John Taylor Gatto. In reverse order, Gatto is an award-winning New York teacher of 30 years who retired because he couldn’t stand working for a system that hurt children (a revelation that grew on him over his years under the employ of the state). Duke Pesta is a professor of English with a Ph.D from Purdue, and an avid critic of Common Core, and the intentions and methods behind it. Stefan Molyneux holds a Master in the history of Philosophy from the University of Toronto, and hosts Freedomain Radio, his philosophy podcast and call-in show.

Most of the current conversation about whether or not someone should attend University — or even public schools — centers around economics. Is it worth it? It’s a complicated question with no clear answer, and certainly no definitive one that will apply to everyone. My own estimation is that the value of education is declining, making college a poor investment for my generation and the foreseeable future, generally speaking. As the number of people with degrees has increased, the quality of those  with degrees has necessarily decreased.

What I like about the arguments made by Molyneux, Pesta, and Gatto, however, is that they generally avoid the money question, and focus more on the experience and its effect on the character of the student. The effects are not beneficial, not by my estimation, and not by the lights of these more educated instructors.

With sophisticated intellectuals like these, any attempt at adding to the literature on my part would be more distracting and diluting than it would be beneficial. Anyone looking for my book, I will refer to Gatto’s excellent work, The Underground History of American Education.

I do have one argument, however, that was either assumed or simply missed by the aforementioned Trinity. It does not need a full book, so I’ll lay it out here, as I think it is a point worth being made more explicitly.


Aristotle’s famous assertion that “we are what we repeatedly do” is more than a truism and corner-post of folk-wisdom. It is a neurological fact. Behaviors we repeat reinforce neural pathways that establish “default” actions and reactions, which require effort, energy, and motivation to overcome. It is why people train their “muscle memory” in martial arts, and is also why visualization works as an athletic and performance aid, prior to events.

If you train repeatedly to block and strike back when someone punches at you, then when someone suddenly tries to punch you on the street, you will do what you were trained to do, without thinking. Automatically. If you visualize the perfect golf-swing on the 8th hole, picturing the light breeze from the north and the weight of the driver descending, and then swinging through, you will have good form when you actually head to the course. You will swing correctly: automatically. We are what we repeatedly do.

If you go to school, for four years, and do what you have been advised by your friends and family — “keep your head down” when political subjects come up, so that you can just get your degree and get out — what effect will that have on you?

Does anyone not think that Millennials, as a generation, are more entitled than their parents and grandparents? Can anyone not see the depression and anxiety in my generation? All the pills and medications everyone has been put on to cope with the stress of their lives? Is there any doubt that the practicalities of income and social approval have driven both courage and independent thinking from our generation, more than any other in recent memory?

I don’t say this to condemn all Millennials, certainly. We are the next heroic generation, and I believe we will fulfill our role, if only because it doesn’t take all or even most of us to do so. I also don’t believe that school is solely responsible for the particular pathologies of our age. Social media, unprecedented mobility, and living in a multicultural society have all had their impacts as well. But the instilling of conformity in students through a mixture of separation from the family and a fear of social ostracism, rejection, and punishment from your new family (the school), have imparted all sorts of negative character qualities into large swathes of students. The scale of this reprogramming is something that previous decades of social engineers could only dream of.

What sorts of character qualities? The sorts that come from keeping quiet out of fear, of speaking out of fear, even condemning others to make oneself socially safer. Cowardice, dishonesty, fear, a lack of curiosity, a lack of ambition or creativity, all stem from the feeling of social insecurity that keeps everyone in line.

To believe that you are above this, that you would be somehow immune, is tantamount to believing that you are not really human. That the laws of neuroscience and habits essentially do not apply to you. Certainly, many people go through school with their integrity intact, but not because they were uniquely strong. If anything, it will have been because they maintained strong family ties through the duration of their education, which rendered them less susceptible to the social pressures designed to change them. This is why attending to “change the system from within” is delusional. A chicken cannot change a meat-grinder from within.

Virtues are not mere abstractions. They are the qualities by which we are successful in our lives, throughout their duration, and the call to abandon virtues for momentary gain is a siren’s song. Friends and romantic partners of quality look to our courage, our strength, our will. Our children will grow to love us based on our virtue, not on our personal success. So will our grandchildren.

As my good friend Augustus Invictus once said, “I wonder which is more terrifying: to lose a child to a cause – or to lose the respect of that child when she discovers that her parents were cowards who made a virtue of submission?”

At the behest of Dr. Jordan Peterson, I have been reading through Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelego, wherein he documents and contemplates his 10 years of imprisonment in the labor camps of the Soviet Union. The aggregation of suffering, endured by tens of millions for days without end, is absolutely stupefying in grandiosity. The stories of the tortures, the creative genius of some of the cruelty inflicted on fellow humans, is difficult to convey in mere sentences. For myself, the one that stood out the most was the interrogation threat of throwing a victim’s daughter in a room full of syphilitic old men, if the interviewee did not confess to crimes and turn in others. I think I would have taken the brand on the inside of the rectum over even the threat of that kind of fate towards a daughter of mine, let alone the threat carried out.

Where did such cruelty come from? Why did it happen? These were questions that Solzhenitsyn spent a lot of time thinking about, and his speculative answer was that perhaps they didn’t love freedom enough. Perhaps they had brought it on themselves through indifference to submission and slavery, and also that they had failed to see the monster in themselves, capable of the very cruelty being inflicted upon them.

The point is twofold: first, virtues and their effects are real. They have real-world consequences, as real as pain, and as real as death. Second, believing you are somehow immune, that you are above the corruption inherent to human nature, may very well be the biggest source of our susceptibility to corruption, and the torments that await the rejection of virtue.

It is for this reason that schools should be avoided: not merely to avoid gulags, but to preserve the integrity of your character, which is the most precious thing you have.

The soul is dyed the color of its thoughts. Think only on those things that are in line with your principles and can bear the light of day. The content of your character is your choice. Day by day, what you do is who you become. Your integrity is your destiny. It is the light that guides your way.

— Heraclitus


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