Monday, September 1, 2014

The Only Road to Happiness

I'll warn you up front-- this is more about politics and culture than actual education, because apparently I'm having one of those days. But if you stick with me, I think we've got insights here about how a certain sort of reformster mind works.

This all starts with a GOP poll report leaked to Politico. The poll reveals that a whole lot of women, particularly single, educated ones, see the GOP as a party of old, white, right-wing, stuck-in-the-past, out-of-touch men. The report that came with it suggests some strategies to deal with that. Those strategies are pretty aptly summed up by Amanda Hess at Slate as "carefully explaining that women are wrong."

But Hess's article led me to this piece by editor R. R. Reno at First Things, a journal focusing on economic freedom and "a morally serious culture." And that article is valuable because it presents such an unabashed, unvarnished representation of a particular point of view.

Reno gets off to an interesting start, conflating women's feelings about the GOP with their feelings about "the conservative message.' That in itself deserves some attention because I think a pretty good case can be made that a broad swath of the GOP is miles out of touch with conservative values. But we'll save that for another day.

Responders like Hess have focused on the centerpiece of Reno's piece, a fully imaginary single woman who has been constructing with an impressive level of specificity. Reno creates her, and then explains why her lack of appreciation for conservative values has made her sad. The story of the sad straw woman, while impressive in its fictive inventiveness, is not nearly as interesting to me as a particular set of assumptions that run through the article.

They want a sense of belonging and a modest degree of confidence that their life-path will bring happiness. Both tend to be weakened as traditional institutions exercise less authority. 

Put somewhat more concretely, the single, 35-year-old woman feels “judged” when I oppose gay marriage, because she intuitively senses that being pro-traditional marriage involves asserting male-female marriage as the norm—and therefore that her life isn’t on the right path. She resents this implication.

As a result, people suffer from anomic disorders. (That means various kinds of personal unhappiness related to the lack of clear norms for how to live.)

The assumption here is that if people would just follow the path that traditional institutions and cultural values lay out, the people would be happy. They are not following that path because a more permissive society has seduced them into following various other paths, and now they both feel judged for taking alternate paths and are unhappy because they are not on the only road to happiness.

I have a smidge of sympathy for Reno. I agree that when people live as if they can make any choices they like and then get pissed off that those choices have consequences-- well, those people are asking for a life full of cranky. And I think it's a big group, including people who want to be an hour late to work every day and still keep their job as well as GOP candidates who want to be dicks to women but still get the women's vote.

But Reno is missing a huge part of the picture. People are abandoning traditional pathways because for many people, those pathways have ceased to work. Get a job + work hard at it is supposed to = become a self-supporting member of society. But low minimum wage + part time status + no benefits = member of the working poor. Economically, we have lots of people who did exactly what they were Supposed To Do, and now their college diploma gathers dust while they try to figure out how to make this month's rent with what they make bagging groceries. And our new world-class level of poverty means an entire generation is growing up in situations where following the traditional path does not get you jack. I suspect this has a great deal to do with the erosion of traditional values in our culture.

Of course, the difficulty today is in finding a source of “effective authority” that has currency in the public square.

Well, yeah. You know how an effective authority could gain currency? By saying things that seem to be related to the people actually live in. Telling poor people "It's your own fault for being lazy and dumb and morally suspect" or women "It's your own fault for not staying home and raising babies" does not earn currency.

But beyond even that is the underlying assumption that there is One, True Road to happiness, and that people who travel it end up happy, and everybody else does not. This is not true now, and there is no evidence that it has ever been true, ever, in the history of human beings. Yes, traditionalists like to point at some point in the past (frequently coinciding with their childhood) and say, "There was a time when everyone was on the same page and life was better." This says more about the failure of their memory than the success of the culture. There was never such a time.

People who believe there is One Right Way to live your life are a menace to society, primarily because what they really believe is that there is One Right Way to live your life and they know what it is. They believe that Happiness is located at one special place, and they have a map. And though I started with the GOP, that political party by no means has a monopoly on this viewpoint.

I don't believe I can name one thing that is required to make every single human being happy. A really great kiss is right up there, but there are probably people who are happy without one, or unhappy with one. I would say that is because human beings are different. Reno would say that's it because some people are right, and some people are wrong. For those of who believe that Happiness is a million little separate flowers in a very large field, the One Right Way theory just seems bizarrely wrong.

But that's their premise, and if you're still here, it's the same premise behind Common Core and high stakes standardized testing and national teacher evaluation systems. There's just One Right Way to do things, and the People in Charge know what it is, and so they have labored to create a system that puts everybody on one path to the same destination instead of a system that fosters a gazillion individual searches for a gazillion individual people.

One size does not fit all. Not everybody in the world needs to travel the same path in the same time. I can't believe I live in a time in which that idea has to be argued, let alone even stated.


  1. Wow. This really resonated with me. This attitude of One Right Way sounds like a throwback to the 50's and Leave it to Beaver. I heard it a lot in the late 60's, people bemoaning how things were changing and it was horrible and how everything was better before. When I was a child in the late 50's and early 60's in a rural elementary school, I always thought there was One Right Way to do things and I just had to figure out what that was. It was very frustrating because, even living in this time when supposedly "everyone was on the same page and life was better," I never seemed to be able to figure it out. (I admire creativity so much but I've never felt I was very creative and I've always wondered if what little natural creativity I had was smashed out of me by my school. I also think it made me fearful of trying things because I was afraid I'd get it wrong and not do it the One Right Way, and that it also made me not trust my own judgment because the Authority had dibs on the One Right Way.) When, because of teaching, I became interested in the way the brain works, and started reading about left and right hemispheres, and then different learning styles and preferences, then multiple intelligences, then ADD and ADHD and Asperger's and autism spectrum (and also from teaching foreign languages and living abroad,) it became clear that even though people think that everybody's brain works the same way, it really doesn't. Each person's brain is wired somewhat differently. And at last (but it took a long time) I realized that I could trust my own judgment because I don't think like other people and I don't have to. I like the way I think. For me it makes sense, but I don't expect other people's brains to work just like mine. Obviously believing in the One Right Way doesn't work for education. I wonder if the recent resurgent dominance of this type of thinking has to do with our obsession with technology and thinking that it solves all problems. Since with computers everything can be broken down into binary functions, which is pretty simplistic at the core, maybe people think everything has to be that simple. And data are the most important thing, because gee, we have to use our computers. Interpretion of data, not so much, because that can involve using people's confusing brains. The Humanities aren't important, because they don't involve numbers, and aren't important in any measurable way for specific job training. Our world has been taken over by numbers and the people for whom numbers are a religion. If it isn't measurable, it doesn't exist. Or shouldn't.

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