Understanding Prejudice

Teaching boys to confront their innate biases

Let’s face it: we’re all prejudiced in one way or another. It’s only natural.

“Tribal prejudice, says Elizabeth Culotta in Science Magazine, stems from deep evolutionary roots and a universal tendency to form coalitions and favor our own side.”

Like most, I’m sure you think your family is the cat’s meow compared to all the rest and that you’d risk your life to defend it.

Even in arbitrarily-constructed groups with no shared history, psychologists find that people still think those in their ingroup are smarter, better, more moral, and more just than members of outgroups. Think of the time you were last partnered with a stranger when playing a board game.

“Outgroup bias is core to our species,” says psychologist Steven Neuberg of ASU Tempe. “It is part of a threat-detection system that allows us to rapidly determine friend from foe.” The problem, he says, is that like smoke detectors, the system is designed to give many false alarms rather than miss a true threat.

In the Implicit Associations Test, for example, people are asked to rapidly categorize objects and faces. The speed and pattern of the mistakes they make show that people more quickly associate negative words — such as “hatred” — with outgroup faces than ingroup faces. In disturbing tests using a video game, people looking at a picture of a person carrying an ambiguous object are more likely to mistake a cell phone for a gun and shoot the carrier if he is an outgroup male. Remember George Zimmerman?

Neuberg studied what might turn this detection system up and down. “When you feel threatened,” he says, “you react to danger more quickly and intensely.” People, he adds, also “startle more easily in the dark. That’s why prejudice rears its head in a dark alley rather than a well-lit field.”

Keep your lights burning. If one is whole, one will be filled with light, but if one is divided, one will be filled with darkness. — Luke 12:35 and The Gospel of Thomas

The light to which Jesus referred is the light of reason, and I have no doubt Trayvon Martin would be alive today had Zimmerman been using his brain.

The Psychology of Extreme Hate

Writing for Psychology Today, Allison Abrams corrects a common misconception. “While all racists are prejudiced,” she explains, “not all prejudices are racist. Prejudice involves cognitive structures we all learn early in life. Racism, on the other hand, is prejudice taken to the extreme against a particular group of people based on perceived differences. Not all individuals who discriminate against others based on differences are motivated by hatred.”

According to cognitive behavioral therapist Marion Rodriguez, hate can be rational, such as when we hate unjust acts. On the other hand, hate of certain ethnic groups, religions, races, or sexual orientations is based on irrational beliefs that lead to hatred of others as well as hate crimes.

Abrams goes on to list the factors behind extreme hate:

1. Fear

2. The need to belong

3. Projection

4. Emotional incompetence

Fear

Psychologist and political advisor Dr. Reneé Carr says that “when one race unconsciously feels fear in response to a different race group — fears that their own level of security, importance, or control is being threatened — they will develop defensive thoughts and behaviors. They will create exaggerated and negative beliefs about the other race to justify their actions in [an] attempt to secure their own safety and survival.”

Hate crimes, for example, reached an all-time high in 2001 in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The Need to Belong

Some members of extremist hate groups, Abrams says, are motivated by the need for love and belonging — a basic survival need. For some, especially those who may have difficulty forming genuine interpersonal connections, identifying with extremists and hate groups is one way to do so. Take the case of Reinhard Heydrich, chief architect of the Holocaust.

Nicknamed “The Blond Beast” by the Nazis, and “Hangman Heydrich” by others, Reinhard was the leading planner of Hitler’s Final Solution in which the Nazis attempted to exterminate the entire Jewish population in Europe. As a boy, he was a target of schoolyard bullies, teased about his high pitched voice and devout Catholicism. He was beaten up by bigger boys and tormented with anti-Jewish slurs amid rumors of Jewish ancestry in his family. At home, Heydrich’s mother believed in the value of harsh discipline and frequent lashings. As a result, Heydrich grew up a withdrawn, sullen, and unhappy boy. At age 18, he became a cadet in the small elite German Navy. Once again, he was teased. By then, Heydrich was over six feet tall, a gangly, awkward young man who still had a high, almost falsetto voice. Naval cadets took delight in calling him “Billy Goat” because of his bleating laugh and “Moses Handel” because of the aforementioned rumored Jewish ancestry and his passion for classical music.

Think about this… a bullied, beaten, withdrawn, sullen and unhappy boy was the chief designer of the nightmare that killed 6 million Jews. But he is not the exception. In ‘Wounded Boys at War,’ I profile other atrocities committed by wounded and alieneated children… all male.

In both Heydrich and his tormentors, we find men who lash out at “the other” driven by unconscious fears, prejudice, and hatred — those defensive thoughts and behaviors explained by Dr. Reneé Carr. We also see an innate expression of tribalism.

We men are tribal by nature.

In 1954, social psychologist Muzafer Sherif conducted one of the most famous experiments on tribal behavior. He convinced twenty-two sets of working class parents to let him take their twelve-year old boys off their hands for three weeks. Sherif then placed them on a remote location in two separate and equally numbered groups. For the first five days, each group of boys thought it was alone. Still, they set about marking territory and creating tribal identities. A leader emerged in each group by consensus. Norms, flags, songs, rituals, and distinctive identities began to form. Once they became aware of the presence of the other group, tribal behavior increased dramatically. They destroyed each other’s flags, made weapons, raided and vandalized each other’s bunks, and called each other nasty names.

“The male mind appears to be innately tribal,” writes Jonathan Hait in ‘The Righteous Mind.’ “It is structured in advance of experience so that boys and men enjoy doing the sorts of things that lead to group cohesion and success in conflicts between groups in contrast to two-person relationships for girls.”

Projection

“The most rapidly increasing type of crime is that perpetrated by degenerate sex offenders. Should wild beasts break out of circus cages, a whole city would be mobilized instantly. But depraved human beings, more savage than beasts, are permitted to rove America almost at will.”

Referring to homosexuals, those were the paranoid words of FBI Director J Edgar Hoover published in his 1947 article for The American Magazine titled ‘How Safe is your Daughter?’

During the 1950s, Hoover engaged in a maniacal persecution of gays which was later labelled ‘The Lavender Scare.’ Not surprisingly, he was also widely suspected of being in a secret, same-sex relationship with his deputy, Clyde Tolson.

“The things people hate about others are the things that they fear within themselves,” says psychologist Dr. Dana Harron.“Projection is one of our natural defense mechanisms, and it allows us to avoid facing our perceived shortcomings by transferring — or projecting — them onto others.”

Omar Mateen (29) killed fifty people and wounded an equal number at a gay club in Orlando in 2016. He was said to have been frequently angered by the sight of two men kissing. Regulars of the ‘Pulse’ reported having seen Omar at the nightclub where “he would go over to a corner and sit and drink by himself.” Kevin West, a regular at Pulse, said Mateen messaged him on-and-off for a year before the shooting using the gay chat and dating app Jack’d. Cord Cedeno also said he saw him on it. “He was open with his picture on the sites… he was easy to recognize,” said Cedeno, who said he was also contacted by Mateen at least a year before.

Low Emotional Competence

Loma K. Flowers, of the nonprofit EQDynamics, defines emotional competence as the “integration of thinking, feelings, and good judgment before action.” This is where bigots and haters, like George Zimmerman, lose their footing.

“It is easier to believe fallacies,” says Flowers, “than to think and understand yourself. People often swallow racist rhetoric and unspoken assumptions without examining the issues.

“Thinking takes work… to line-up facts with feelings… to sort out, for instance, how much of your anger is really about being laid off from your job versus being about others objecting to Confederate statues erected to symbolize white supremacy… or how much of it is about the bullying you have endured in your life (like Reinhard Heydrich). The challenge is to link each feeling to the right context. Whether these beliefs are generated internally from feelings of worthlessness and projected onto others and/or learned from teaching or modeling by family members or your community, they are one of the most destructive manifestations of emotional incompetence.”

If the Jews were alone in this world, they would stifle in filth and offal; they would try to get ahead of one another in hate-filled struggle and exterminate one another. — Adolf Hitler, ‘Mein Kampf’

In this excerpt of Hitler’s manifesto we hear a man whose deep seated prejudice and self-loathing are projected onto an outgroup while simultaneously attributing to ‘the other’ his own hatred and genocidal intentions.

A more contemporary example is Donald Trump’s comments while campaigning in 2015:

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems…they’re bringing drugs… they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists!”

Those that can make you believe absurdities, said French writer Voltaire, can make you commit atrocities.

Nine months after the 2018 midterm election during which Trump repeatedly warned the country of an imminent invasion by Hispanic immigrants, a 21 year-old gunman massacred 20 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. “This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” he wrote in his manifesto.

History, I’m afraid, will continue repeating itself unless society helps young men, especially those who feel alienated and powerless, to develop emotional competency, and taught, at a very young age, about their innate tribal tendencies, ingroup bias, and outgroup prejudice. This is one of the main goals of my book for boys, ‘The Hero in You.

Here are some of the things I tell them:

A Boy Like You Cover
Book by Frank Murphy and illustrated by Kayla Harren

“We are all made of stardust,” said astronomer Carl Sagan.

When I first learned that all the atoms in you and me are the same as in everyone else it made me think of Lego blocks. Although they come in different colors, they’re basically the same.

Say you were to build an awesome castle or cool spaceship. You wouldn’t use Legos of just one color, right? That’d be dull. Same goes for people. If I was in charge of populating planet Earth, it would be pretty boring if I only used one color to make humans. Or think of painting. Imagine you take a big, white canvas and paint it white. What do you get? The same bland, white canvas all over again. Personally, I’m rather thrilled Earth decided to use not only white, but also red, yellow, brown, and black to paint us humans. Study nature closely and you’ll discover that her secret ingredient is diversity.

(…)

Now let’s talk about what makes a man unique.

It helps to think of a man as a computer assembled by nature using a unique set of parts. The software written into the male computer was programmed during the time we lived as hunter-gatherers, or, in our specific case, as male hunters. That experience wrote the instructions which guide our behavior, even today.

For example, we men don’t talk much and there’s a good reason for that. Imagine you’re out on the savannah with your hunting buddies and one of them just won’t shut up. You would never catch anything, and you, your buddies, and all the members of your clan would starve to death.

We are also less empathetic than girls, less sensitive to other people’s feelings, pain, and suffering. Think again of our past as hunters. If one of our hunting buddies fell and got hurt, we just didn’t have the time to sit by his side to comfort him. We picked him up, brushed him off, maybe gave him a pat on the back, and we both kept running after our next meal. We had to. Those waiting for us back at our camp depended on us to bring food. We bond with our buddies by challenging them.

We’ve been programmed to be territorial, just like our closest primate ancestors, the chimpanzees. In 1954, a famous social psychologist convinced twenty-two sets of parents to let him take their 12 year-old boys off their hands for three weeks and took them to a remote place. He then separated them in two groups. For the first five days, each group of eleven boys thought it was alone yet set about marking territory and creating tribal identities by coming up with rules like, perhaps, “no farting” or “no girls!” They came up with songs, rituals, and flags. One boy in each group was chosen as the leader. Once they became aware of the presence of the other group, territorial behavior increased dramatically. They destroyed each other’s flags, raided and vandalized each other’s camps, called each other nasty names, and made weapons. You see? We are still warriors at heart because when living as hunter-gatherers we had to defend our clan.

We are also protectors. When we see someone of our clan or family in danger, we run to their rescue, even if it means we’ll die in the process.

But much as there are great things about the male software, it also has its bugs and glitches like any computer program, and there is no reason why we shouldn’t constantly work on making it better. After all, we are Homo Sapiens, or wise men.

There is, for example, no reason why we can’t train ourselves to better express our emotions besides shouting, hitting desks, slamming doors, or punching people in the nose.

Although we are less empathetic, I don’t see why we can’t develop rational compassion which means using our brains to understand someone else’s suffering, and then using our warrior skills, strength, and courage to help out.

Knowing we are tribal and territorial, the next time we come across another group of people who look different, think differently, or speak a different language, instead of destroying their flags, raiding and vandalizing their camp and calling them nasty names, we can choose to see them as part of the human family, learn from one another, and work together to make the world a better place.

(…)

Unless you plan to live on a deserted island when you grow up, you will need to strengthen your social intelligence.

I say “strengthen” because you already have it. It’s a gift from the way we evolved as humans and the one that allowed us to become the dominant species on Earth.

Let’s start by making an important distinction between baseline intelligence and social intelligence. I know a lot of highly intelligent people who seem clueless when it comes to getting along with others, and I’d much rather spend time with an uneducated and simple-minded friend, who is otherwise gentle and kind, than with a selfish, insufferable know-it-all. Truth be told, I often behave like one. There are days when I can’t stand myself. Like all humans, I still have much to learn.

Social intelligence is intelligence in relationship to others.

It means knowing how to relate to others by deciphering and understanding what makes them tick, by being aware and appreciating what they want, how they feel, what they believe in, and how they think. It’s the ability to establish and maintain positive relationships; to know how to behave in different social situations, handle conflict constructively, and to compromise and collaborate.

Superheroes, in contrast, are loners and therefore sad and lonely. They sulk in dark caves, like Batman, crouch alone atop rooftops, like Daredevil, hide behind shields like Captain America, or under ice, like Iceman. In that sense, they are like those guys who waste a great part of their lives in front of screens or playing video games.

The only way superheroes can relate to the world and feel important and in control is if there’s a villain to destroy. Because they mostly live in isolation, they are incapable of understanding what causes villains or bullies to do what they do, and, therefore, never solve anything. They just blow things up. That’s why as soon as they destroy a villain, another one takes his place. While it makes for good storytelling, you’ll do much better in the real world with the Life Force of Social Intelligence than with all the powers of flight, super-strength, super-speed, and x-ray vision.

Before we continue, we need to make another important distinction. Social intelligence does not mean playing nice all the time, or not standing up for what you believe in, even though some people might disagree with you or get their feelings hurt. It doesn’t mean you have to be liked by everyone or fit-in all the time. People pleasers have very weak King energy and low emotional intelligence.

That is why emotional intelligence is the first ingredient for strong social intelligence. If you’ve paid close attention up to this point and completed the exercises in your Warrior’s Workbook, you already know what emotional intelligence is and have begun to lay a strong foundation for it.

But just in case you’ve forgotten, emotional intelligence is knowing yourself, your unique temperament, what makes you tick, understanding where your different emotions come from, what they want from you, and how to harness them to react properly and make good choices.

The second ingredient for strong social intelligence is listening.

Notice I did not say “hearing.” Superman can hear things from miles away, but can he listen? True listening requires more than just your ears. It requires a receptive heart, and to open your heart, you must truly care about others. If you can’t care, you cannot love, and if you can’t love, you can’t serve like a true hero.

Fred Rogers, an American T.V. personality, said that there isn’t anyone we can’t learn to love once we hear their story.


We will continue to despise people until we have recognized, loved, and accepted what is despicable in ourselves. — Martin Luther King Jr.

Minessotta riots fire
Young rioter in Minnesota - May 2020

As American cities burn with rage, violence and despair, I am reminded of this African proverb:

“If don’t initiate the young, they will burn down the village to feel the heat.”

In ‘Raising Boys,’ Stephen Biddulph says that “by understanding the psychology of boys, their stages of development, their hormones and hard-wired natures, we can raise them to be fine young men: safe, caring, passionate, and purposeful. Millions of boys have poor life chances because we have failed to understand and love them. We can save them still.”

Derek Chauvin, the police officer who murdered George Floyd, was recently described by his wife thusly: “Under that uniform, he’s just a softie.”

Had Chauvin been properly guided as a young boy, I am convinced we would not be dealing with the current mayhem.

As a male elder of the human tribe, my mission to properly initiate boys has now acquired a greater sense of urgency.


Related content:

Rage! Harnessing the Power of our Emotions

Critical Thinking in a Crazy World

On The Wildness of Children

Lies the hope for the world

Deep in a remote jungle city in South East Asia, National Geographic reporter Hereward Holland writes that “in this gaudy mecca of eroticism and greed, the cuisine isn’t for the squeamish. Many items on the menu, including drinks, are derived from poached endangered animals.

“At one riverside bistro a tiger skeleton marinates in a dark alcoholic tonic in a 12-foot aquarium; its vacant eye sockets gazing down on patrons. The elixir is believed by its many aficionados to be a potent aphrodisiac that imparts the animal’s muscular vitality.

The tiger wine is good for men, says a Chinese businessman, grinning maniacally and flexing his arms like a bodybuilder. ‘It makes a man strong in the bedroom.”

Never mind the pathetic spectacle of a grownup man incapable of recovering his erotic power by no other means than quaffing the deliquescing remains of a tiger. What I’m wondering about is the disconnect; of what made humans so detached from the rest of nature to now see her as nothing but a storehouse for their rapacious and often deviant appetites.

What kind of mind, I ask, is one that looks at an ocean and sees only breaded fish sticks and Omega-3 pills? Who in every rainforest sees nothing but a pricey mahogany table or green pasture to raise a juicy burger? Who sees a cure for erectile dysfunction in every tiger or rhino, a trophy for his fragile ego in the rack of a buck, a convenient drain for toxic sludge in every river, a mountain as a jewelry store and wild spaces as just ‘unpeopled.’

Only a dissociative mind. The mind of a schizophrenic and sociopath. An ecocidal mind. The same kind that considers anyone superficially different from him as less than human, thus fit for extermination. A genocidal mind, like Adolf Hitler’s.

Humanity, I fear, is suffering from reactive attachment disorder (RAD), prevalent in infants living in institutions; foster kids who go from one caregiver to another, or children who are separated from their mother for long periods of time.

Our separation from Mother Earth can be traced to the start of the Agricultural Revolution, about 12,000 years ago. Prior, we had lived for hundreds of thousands of years as nomadic hunter-gatherers. Once we settled, we cut the umbilical cord and all hell broke loose.

The symptoms in those suffering from RAD include attention-seeking, neediness, infantile behavior, anxiety, detachment, and showing limited emotions. Pretty much the afflictions of the bulk of humankind.

Love is predicated on attachment, so it’s nearly impossible to love or care for anyone or anything from which you are far removed.

As it is, most of our sensitivities developed as hunter-gatherers are now all but lost. The rugosity of tree-bark, the moss’ padding, the lichen’s scuff or silkiness of a leaf have become unfamiliar. Constant exposure to the corrosive wear of artificiality has blunted our sense of smell and taste. We no longer know what to eat without checking labels. The world’s shrill commotion makes it impossible to listen to silence. Bleared by the glaring light of screens, our sight now misses nature’s secret clues and diminishes her rich depth… diminishes us. And our entire being, jarred by a storm of histrionic media images and shouting voices that incite us 24/7 to extremes of lust, greed, envy, outrage and fear have made it impossible for us to find serenity and equanimity.

Our species no longer resonates, vibrates, thrums, or harmonizes, so can’t play its once rightful part within the concert hall of nature. No longer in seamless unity with a numinous dimension, Earth — from the Latin mater for “mother” — simply becomes a target for plunder, exploitation, and a dumpsite for human waste.

We are living at right angles to the land and have commodified our aliveness, as said writer Maria Popova. And it may well be that our heedless violence against the planet is explained by our profound and unavowed sadness for living in exile from the wild and our sensual selves, so we seek to remove from view that which reminds us of what we have lost.

In his international bestseller ‘Last Child In The Woods,’ Richard Louv says that “since 2005, the number of studies of the impact of nature on human development has grown from a handful to nearly one thousand. This expanding body of scientific evidence suggests that nature-deficit disorder contributes to a diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, conditions of obesity, and higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses. Research also suggests that nature-deficit weakens ecological literacy and stewardship of the natural world.”

I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority. — E.B. White

Curing adults from their acute nature deficit disorder seems hopeless. But I refuse to give up on the coming generations, which is why my book for boys seeks partly to call them out to the wild.

Here’s what I tell them:

Rewilding the American Boy2
Photo by Ashley Ann Campbell

For 99% of modern human history, or like forever, we lived as hunter-gatherers, roaming the Earth with our few clan members, carrying very little, owning nothing but the animal skins on our backs, our stone tools, light hunting weapons, cooking vessels, and our inventiveness.

We moved all the time and learned to read the land — the jungles, forests, mountains, oceans and streams — by being closely connected to Earth. We learned to adapt to different terrains and climates. We were fit, rugged, resourceful, and adventurous.

(…)

We are creatures of nature and are paying a heavy price for living apart from it. Some have called this “nature deficit disorder.” The average American kid now spends over 7 hours a day in front of a screen. Compare that to the life of an American Indian boy as described by Charles Eastman who was a member of a Sioux tribe in 1858 and whose original name was Hakadah.

In his book, ‘Indian Boyhood,’ Hakadah says that “he enjoyed a life almost all boys dream of and would choose for themselves if they were permitted to do so. What boy,” he asks, “would not be an Indian for a while — the freest life in the world?”

“This was my life,” said Hakadah. “Every day there was a real hunt. We were close students of nature. We studied the habits of animals just as you study your books. No people have a better use of their five senses than the children of the wilderness. We could smell as well as hear and see. We could feel and taste as well as see and hear. Nowhere has the memory been more fully developed than in the wild. All boys were expected to endure hardship without complaint. [We] had to go without food and water for two or three days without displaying any weakness, or run for a day and night without rest. [We] had to traverse a pathless and wild country without losing [our] way, either in the day or nighttime. [We] couldn’t refuse to do any of these things if [we] aspired to be warriors.”

I don’t know about you, but if I ever got lost in the wilderness, I would hope to find someone like Hakadah to guide me to safety rather than a modern-day boy with a cell phone or tablet.

I realize many kids today live in places where there is no immediate access to open natural spaces. But it doesn’t have to be a gigantic wilderness. With the right imagination, your local park or nearby creek will do just fine. Anything but sitting around playing video games or glued to screens which is causing two additional disorders:

The first one is psychataxia, a disordered mental state causing confusion and an inability to concentrate.

The second disorder caused by too much screen-time is social-emotional agnosia, the inability to perceive facial expressions, body language, and voice intonation in social situations. In other words, kids suffering from this disorder can’t relate to others.

(…)

In all my walks out in nature I have never seen a bird’s nest that’s two stories high with a hot-tub and a 60-inch plasma T.V. Have you?

I have never seen an obese, out-of-breath squirrel leaning against a tree unable to keep up with her fit friends because she ate more acorns than were necessary to keep her body fit.

I’ve never seen a bear hauling a ton of trash and dumping it in a river.

All I’ve seen in nature is balance.

Maybe that’s why I also haven’t seen a therapist couch, a drug rehab clinic, nor a prison in the wild. You only need those when things are out of whack or unbalanced. And the only ones who are unbalanced are humans, which is probably what made British philosopher Bertrand Russell describe planet Earth as the lunatic asylum of the Universe where the inmates have taken over.

Good for the Planet, Good for the Child

Rewilding the American boy is not only good for the environment but good for the boy.

Reporting for the National Center for Biotechnology, Susan Strife and Liam Downey say that increased urbanization combined with dwindling natural spaces and increased time indoors has sparked recent concerns regarding children’s diminishing direct contact with nature. Evidence that children are spending more time indoors and less time in nature has also sparked research across the health and psychological sciences that links children’s diminished contact with nature to important childhood health trends, including increased levels of depression and increased incidences of cognitive disabilities, obesity, and diabetes. This research indicates that exposure to nature has physical, mental, emotional, and cognitive benefits that not only buffer the symptoms of the above disorders but also positively affect children’s overall development.

A child’s brain develops stronger connections when exposed to a rich environment. A recent study shows that the brain’s hippocampus, involved in learning and memory, is highly susceptible to plasticity. Neuroplasticity induces lasting change to the brain throughout an individual’s life. Neuroplastic change has significant implications for healthy development, behavior, learning, and memory, and can be elicited by thoughts, emotions, and environmental stimuli.

Navigating nature also develops spatial thinking, described by Temple University’s Dr. Nora Newcombe as “seeing in the mind’s eye,” allowing us to “picture the locations of objects, their shapes, their relations to each other and the paths they take as they move.” In a 2013 report on maps and education, National Geographic concluded that “spatial thinking is arguably one the most important ways of thinking for a child to develop as he or she grows. A [child] who has acquired robust spatial thinking skills is at an advantage in our increasingly global and technical society.”

Besides the documented benefits to a child’s health and mental wellbeing there are profound life lessons to be found in the wild. “Every aspect of Nature,” said astronomer Carl Sagan, “reveals a deep mystery and touches our sense of wonder and awe. Those with the courage to explore the weave and structure of the Cosmos will penetrate its deepest mysteries.”

An old tree, for instance, felled by age and storm and surrounded by fresh green shoots that had been waiting for their chance to rise, can teach a child more about the inevitability of death as a precondition for new life than any dry old textbook.

A stagnant, pestilent water pool can serve as a metaphorical warning against inactivity… to never allow their dreams to wither on the vine of life.

Watching a river flow effortlessly around rocks will teach them the power of persistence, flexibility, and yielding when confronting obstacles.

A bent tree sapling, struggling to get out from under the shadow of older trees to capture sunlight, is a testament to the rule by which we should all live — to find our own light, truth, authenticity and destiny, and stop trying to be an imperfect copy of someone else.

While I may not be able to save the tigers from being turned into wine to rejuvenate the flagging libido of older men, my hope is that my book will reach the new generation before the rest of nature succumbs to the rapacity of humanity’s dissociated, unwise, and unnatural mind.


Jeffrey Erkelens is the creator of ‘The Hero in You,’ a book for boys (10–13) meant to guide them toward an evolved expression of manhood and help them develop the character strengths needed to become caring and passionate men of noble purpose. Sign up here to receive updates on the book’s upcoming publication.

Parent resources:

Vitamin N (public library link), by Richard Louv, author of the New York Times best seller that defined nature-deficit disorder and launched the international children-and-nature movement. Vitamin N (for “Nature”) is a complete prescription for connecting with the power and joy of the natural world, with 500 activities for children and adults.

Sense of Wonder (public library link), by Rachel Carson. A celebration of nature for parents and children by the acclaimed conservationist and writer of ‘Silent Spring.’

Rage!

Harnessing the power of our emotions

In the history of Western literature, the very first word is “rage,” for that is how Homer’s ‘Iliad’ begins.

“Rage — Goddess, sing the rage of Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls, great fighters’ souls, and made their bodies carrion, feasts for dogs!”

And all this mayhem just because of a girl.

In Homer’s epic, the great warrior Achilles is forced to give up his prized spoil of the Trojan War — a young captive girl. Enraged, Achilles abandons the battlefield and sulks in his tent causing the death of many of his comrades by his indecorous withdrawal.

Achilles is not alone in his affliction. A low EQ, or emotional intelligence, is a condition common to many men.

The Bible, for instance, records the first ever case of murder committed by Adam and Eve’s firstborn son, Cain, who, in a fit of blinding rage, bludgeoned his younger brother Abel after the Lord accepted Abel’s offering in preference to his own.

More recently — May 2014, to be precise — 22 year-old Elliot Rodger slaughtered seven people in Santa Barbara, CA. because he felt rejected by the sorority girls at Alpha Phi.

In his words:

“On the day of retribution, I am going to enter the hottest sorority house at UCSB and will slaughter every single, spoiled, stuck-up, blond slut I see inside there. All those girls I’ve desired so much, they have all rejected me and looked down on me as an inferior man if I ever made a sexual advance toward them, while they throw themselves at obnoxious brutes.” — Excerpt of Elliot Rodger’s video recorded manifesto

Rage, says author Parker Palmer, is simply one of the masks heartbreak wears.

How different might the tales of these three young men have been if they’d been taught to draw upon their inner resources to master the moment… if, as boys, they would’ve been helped in nurturing their emotional intelligence.

Might there be a midpoint, then, between Cain and Elliot’s fiery rage and Achilles’ sulken, cowardly withdrawal? Halfway between our innate responses of fight or flight?

The ancient Greeks said there was and called it ‘sophrosyne’: an ideal of excellence of character and soundness of mind, which when combined in one well-balanced individual leads to temperance, prudence, decorum, and self-control.


Men are like rivers. When rejection, disappointment, and despair rain down upon them, their current swells with hurt. Their sense of control and masculine pride come under threat. This is their ‘Achilles Heel’. Ashamed, disoriented, and untaught on how to deal with such powerful emotions, they repress them, but the hurt invariably breaks through and overflows, wreaking havoc on self and others.

Imagine if we could transform the chaos of these pent-up emotions into generative energy. What a better world it would be!

In Spanish, the word for “river dam” is ‘represa’ — to repress. But a dam does not end with an impervious barrier. A floodgate opens to a turbine which transforms the river’s raging power into energy. That’s sophrosyne!

Young men in America urgently need the wisdom of such harnessed power, which is why my book for boys devotes an entire chapter to the Life Force of Temperance.

“We’re failing in the most basic aspect of teaching kids about the human experience. Disappointment is more common than success, unhappiness is more common than happiness. It’s the first insight of every religion and robust philosophy.” — Dr. Leonard Sax, author of ‘Boys Adrift.’

Before training boys on this indispensable strength of character, though, I first help them tackle some of their generation’s most insidious problems, like the pervasive culture of narcissism and instant gratification; the dispiriting envy provoked by deceptive social media narratives about the ‘perfect body,’ the ‘perfect life,’ instant fame and wealth; the false promise that kids can be anything they want to be; that they are ‘special’ for no apparent reason instead of unique for many, and I further explain why obstacles and resistance (i.e., not always getting what we want) are necessary to spark ingenuity and creativity and what ultimately lend beauty and meaning to life.

Since children learn and retain best through story and metaphor, I introduce them to the Life Force of Temperance by way of the tragic tales of two famous young men, followed by the ‘Allegory of the Chariot’ by Greek philosopher Plato.

Chariot version 2

“Neither too hot nor too cold is what ‘Temperance’ means. Neither too fast nor too slow. It’s all about moderation. About self-control. About being able to say ‘no’ to short-term rewards in exchange for a greater reward in the future. It’s also about knowing when enough is enough.

I’ll explain this by way of a true story about a man by the name of Jack London.

In 1889, when he was just thirteen years old, Jack taught himself to sail. At fifteen, he borrowed three-hundred dollars to buy a small sailboat, the ‘Razzle Dazzle,’ and became the most successful oyster pirate in Northern California. Needing to earn money to help his poor family, Jack would go out at night on his boat and steal oysters from the companies who grew them along the shores of San Francisco and he’d then sell them at the fish markets in Oakland. At seventeen, he quit school and joined a crew of seal hunters and sailed to Japan. At twenty-one, he trekked deep into the Canadian wilderness in search for gold. Jack also loved to read and write, and by the age of thirty, was the most successful and highest paid writer in America. ‘The Call of the Wild,’ is one of his most famous books.

Pretty cool, right? Just imagine what Jack’s Instagram or Snapchat would have looked like had social media existed when he was growing up. Who wouldn’t want a life like Jack’s?

But here’s what happened…

Jack blazed hotter than a wildfire and kept pushing himself faster and faster, harder and harder, like a merry-go-round whizzing at breakneck speed with its wooden horses panting and covered in white foamed sweat. Jack wanted more — more fame, more money, more ‘likes’ — and he wanted them now! And because he could never get enough, he made himself sick, drank too much booze, and died at the age of forty.

Before I tell you what you can learn from Jack’s fate, I’ll tell you another true story. This one is about a boy named Alex, better known as Alexander the Great.

Alexander was born in Greece in 356 B.C. to King Philip II and Queen Olympias. At age 12, he showed impressive courage when he tamed the wild horse Bucephalus, soon to be his loyal battle companion. At age 20, Alexander became King of Macedonia and began a campaign for world domination. In thirteen short years, he defeated the mighty Persian Empire, conquered Egypt, and ruled over the largest empire in the ancient world.

Also pretty cool.

But here’s what happened to this guy.

Alexander kept pushing himself and his troops harder and harder. At one point, his exhausted soldiers refused to fight further. They told Alexander that a true leader knows when it’s time to stop fighting. Because he didn’t like the advice they gave him, Alexander killed his most trusted lieutenant in a fit of drunken rage.

“In victory,” said writer Robert Greene, “do not go past the mark you aimed for.”

To understand what this writer meant, imagine your school’s football team is trouncing the opponent 70–0 at the end of the third quarter. There is absolutely no way the other can win. Victory for your school is certain. Now suppose you’re the captain of your team… would you instruct your players to ease-off, or continue crushing it?

Alexander kept on crushing. Not only greedy, but dangerously vain and arrogant, he allowed his success to go to his head to the point of believing himself a God. Alex kept fighting, partied hard (just like Jack), drank too much, died at the age of thirty-two, and his empire soon collapsed.

Memorize this: A wise warrior knows when it’s time to stop swinging his sword.

What shocks me is the fact that Alexander was tutored by none other than the wise philosopher Aristotle who was himself a student of another genius by the name of Plato. It was Plato who warned everyone about the danger of not having self-control, or temperance. He explained himself by writing a simple story with a hidden, but crucial meaning, named ‘The Allegory of the Chariot.’

Every man, Plato said, is made up of three parts. The first is the logical, thinking part, that Plato called the “charioteer” — or conductor — whose job is to drive and control the chariot. The other two parts inside every man are the horses that pull the chariot — one black, the other white. The black horse represents our emotions. The white horse represents our spiritedness, that combines, both our physical and mental strength, and our courage.

Let’s summarize these 3 parts and connect them to the ‘Energies’ discussed in Chapter 9:

The King represents your Brain = Charioteer.

The Warrior represents your Strength and Courage = White Horse.

The Wild Boy represents your Emotions = Black Horse.

Remember what Confucius said? That we should never give a sword to a man who cannot dance? Confucius was referring to a man who is not connected to his body and emotions, and, therefore, can’t control his black horse. It’s the man who, when angry, doesn’t take the time to understand where the anger is coming from and what it wants from him so foolishly lashes out with violence. In other words, instead of wisely simmering, he blows hot and burns others.

Earlier in the book I told you that feeling and expressing emotions is a good thing but not so if you allow them to take over. The black horse of your emotions must always, always be under the wise control of the charioteer — the inner-King who brings order to your life and calms your storms.

The white horse, on the other hand, is very important because it helps you get what you want out of life. It is essential to achieve your goals. It’s that fierce warrior inside every man who won’t sulk or run when the going gets tough. It’s also the excitement you feel when you are doing something you love. But if you allow the white horse to run amok, you will end up like Jack London and Alexander the — not so — Great.

Hold your horses!’ is another phrase you should memorize for it may one day save your life as it may have spared Alex and Jack from their tragic fates. This expression was first used 2700 years ago by Greek poet Homer in ‘The Iliad,’ referring to a guy by the name of Antilochus who drove like a maniac in chariot races.

What I don’t get is this: Why on earth didn’t Alexander pay attention to his wise teacher Aristotle and learn all this stuff about charioteers and horses? Why did he not connect the dots? If you ask me, Alexander must have been distracted or half-asleep during class which I hope is not what you’re doing right now but, rather, paying close attention so you don’t make the same mistakes.

Aristotle was trying to teach young Alexander to know when enough is enough, and to listen to his body and properly deal with his emotions to prevent crashing his chariot in a fit of blinding rage hurting himself and others.”

Like fire, anger is a great servant but a terrible master. — Martin Luther

While intended for boys, this ancient wisdom would well serve adults and may help quell the many bursts of rage flashing across America today.

The sorry state of the nation’s discourse proves how woefully unaware and unintelligent many are about their emotions. Running hot through the civic bloodstream, today’s default response is rage. Debates are ‘won’ by who can shout the loudest. Many of its leaders are men who wield the sword of power but don’t know how to dance. Outrage is now the chief currency of the ‘news’ and media ecosystem. The country’s politics are infected by vitriol, and tightly-lidded dishes of seething anger and acrimony are present at dinner tables, especially at Thanksgiving, where families sit on eggshells in fear of inflaming one another or self-combusting. Politics, once ago but “the normal affairs of state and its citizens,” is now something better not discussed. And then people wonder why things are getting more strident and divisive and problems keep getting worse.

Rightful anger and spirited debate are necessary to resolve issues and fight injustice. In fact, I think larger doses of this robust tonic are needed in a country where its citizens are increasingly living true to what South African writer Breyten Breytenbach once observed, that “Americans have mastered the art of living with the unacceptable.” No more lamentable proof of this contagion than the growing indifference to the hundreds of innocent lives lost every year to mass shootings.

But while rightful anger is very often called for and necessary, the battle is all but lost if we allow it to play us like helpless marionettes.

In my book I tell boys that rather than raising their voice, they must harness their anger, simmer, and work on improving their arguments. Speak when you’re angry, warns writer Laurence J. Peter, and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.

So it’s not a matter of cutting ourselves from our feelings, but of attaining a serene mind which no longer falls prey to our emotions; no longer shaken by adversity or intoxicated by success, as said Jean Francois-Revel and Matthieu Ricard in ‘The Monk and the Philosopher.’ “If a handful of salt falls into a glass of water,” they observed, “it makes that water undrinkable, but if it falls into a lake it makes hardly any detectable difference.”

The world today is experiencing unprecedented turmoil and greater storms lie ahead. The innate fierceness in men is needed more than ever. But such power must be expressed by calm inner strength and not with violence which is only a manifestation of frustrated, unconscious impotence like the one that made Achilles sulk, Cain murder, and Elliot slaughter so many innocent people.

My book aims to prepare the future generation of men to overcome the many challenges that will soon test their character by teaching them how to deal with the swelling hurt of life’s inevitable disappointments, defeats and rejection without burning themselves and others in an explosion of rage.


Follow my book’s heroic journey to publication!

Related articles:

A Mass Shooting and the Birth of a Book

Adventure, Danger, Honor and Glory – The Path of the Masculine Warrior

Women of the World, Please Take the Wheel!

 

 

Everyone’s Doing It

So it must be okay

In the face of new and more damning evidence in the impeachment trial against the Trump administration, I’ve begun to hear exculpatory comments from a few of his staunch supporters, like, “Every president has used the power of the office for personal gain; what’s the big deal?” or “Democrats are a bunch of hypocrites! Once in power, they all do the same thing,” or “Don’t tell me the Clintons didn’t use the presidency to line their pockets or help them get re-elected!”

It seems character no longer matters in these United States.

Raised in a third-world country under military dictatorships for most of my adult life, I know well how corruption works. I also know how it slowly infects every sector of society until turning it into a cesspool. I just thought America was different.

“Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.” — George Washington

It appears the little voice of conscience is dead in America too.

Give a little whistle,” said Jiminy Cricket to Pinocchio.

Take the straight and narrow path

And if you start to slide

Give a little whistle

Give a little whistle

And always let your conscience be your guide.”

So here’s my whistle: Children are listening and watching what adults say and do, and they are masters at imitation.

It should surprise no one that according to a recent survey on the moral attitudes of young people conducted by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, 45% of boys agreed that “a person has to lie or cheat sometimes in order to succeed,” and that twice as many boys as girls agreed, or strongly agreed, that “it’s not cheating if everyone is doing it.”

Since I agree with American statesman Frederick Douglass that it is easier to grow strong children than repair broken men, my focus is on the youth in America, particularly its boys.

In thirty years of working with children,” says Dr. Michael Gurian, author of Saving our Sons, “I have never been more worried than right now for our sons. Nearly every problem we face in our civilization intersects in some way with the state of boyhood in America.”

I share Michael’s concern, and it seems many do so as well.

As a preface to their comprehensive and brilliant handbook on character strengths and virtues, Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman say their project coincides with heightened societal concern about good character.

“After a detour through the hedonism of the 1960s, the narcissism of the 1970s, the materialism of the 1980s, and the apathy of the 1990s, most everyone today seems to believe that character is important after all and that the United States is facing a character crisis on many fronts, from the playground to the classroom to the sports arena to the Hollywood screen to business corporations to politics. According to a survey by Public Agenda, adults in the United States cited “not learning values” as the most important problem facing today’s youth.”

Strengths of character, the authors suggest, provide the the stability and generality of a life well lived.

“The good life reflects choice and will. Quality life does not simply happen because the Ten Commandments hang on a classroom wall or because children are taught a mantra about just saying no. What makes life worth living is not ephemeral. It does not result from the momentary tickling of our sensory receptors by chocolate, alcohol, or Caribbean vacations. The good life is lived over time and across situations, and an examination of the good life in terms of positive traits is [essential]. Strengths of character provide the needed explanation for the stability and generality of a life well lived.”

They also underpin democracy, the rule of law, civic discourse, and the conscience of a nation.

In ‘Forgotten Purpose: Civics Education in Public Schools,’ educator Amanda Litinov says, “one of the primary reasons our nation’s founders envisioned a vast public education system was to prepare youth to be active participants in our system of self-government. The responsibilities of each citizen were assumed to go far beyond casting a vote; protecting the common good would require developing students’ critical thinking and debate skills, along with strong civic virtues.”

“Until the 1960s,” Litinov adds, “it was common for American high school students to have three separate courses in civics and government. But civics offerings were slashed as the curriculum narrowed over the ensuing decades and lost further ground to ‘core subjects’ under the NCLB-era standardized testing regime.”

Civic knowledge and public engagement is at an all-time low, reports the Center for American Progress. A 2016 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that only 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government, which was a significant decline from previous years. Not surprisingly, public trust in government is at only 18 percent and voter participation has reached its lowest point since 1996. Without an understanding of the structure of government; rights and responsibilities; and methods of public engagement, civic literacy and voter apathy will continue to plague American democracy.

While knowledge and understanding is essential to democracy, I argue that they are no substitute for virtue and strengths of character.

“A good moral character is the first essential in a man. It is therefore highly important that you should endeavor not only to be learned but virtuous.” — Letter from George Washington to George Steptoe, December 1790

Pressured regularly by Alexander Hamilton to participate in the first presidential election, and worried Americans would view him with distrust and think he simply desired power, Washington wrote this to Hamilton: “Still I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles: the character of an honest man.”

In its rapid plunge into the cesspool of moral relativism, the United States seems no longer willing or interested in forging its boys into virtuous men of character, like Washington. It also doesn’t seem much bothered by the blatant disregard for decency, honesty, and decorum of its elected officials on both sides of the aisle.

So I’m giving a little whistle.

Either listen, and act, or prepare yourselves to witness your once-proudful country being taken over by villains and their legions of lily-livered and unscrupulous sycophants.

Danger!

Essential for survival

Sad boy behind wire mesh

“A young animal kept too long in a cage will not be able to survive in the wild. When you open the door, it will be afraid to go out; if it does go out, it won’t know what to do because the world has become unfamiliar, an alien place.” – From On the Wildness of Children, by Carol Black 


From sanitized playgrounds, to eerily quiet streets after school, to trigger warnings on college campuses designed to ‘protect’ our youth from words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense, we are raising a generation of children who won’t know what to do once released from their ‘safe’ cages into the real world.

No surprise 18-to 34 year olds are less likely to be living independently than they were in the depths of the Great Recession, or that many are choosing to isolate themselves in virtual worlds where they have greater control over outcomes.

“Child-rearing has gone from harm prevention to risk elimination,” says millennial author Malcolm Harris. “In the shadow of [the current] high-stakes rat-race, it’s no longer enough to graduate a kid from high school in one piece; if an American parent wants to give their child a chance at success, they can’t take any chances. In a reversal of the traditional ideas of childhood, it’s no longer a time to make mistakes; now it’s when bad choices have the biggest impact.”

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

What many scared, but otherwise well-intentioned parents don’t realize is that the world today is changing at a dizzying speed which will require adaptability and survival skills only those exposed to danger and uncertainty can develop.

Disruptive technologies, the likes of Airbnb, Uber, cryptocurrencies, 3-D printers, etc., are upending traditional industries at a breakneck pace. Today’s knowledge will most probably be obsolete in a decade. Survival will not be of the fittest but the ‘unfittest’: those who do not fit in or fill traditional boxes. The prize will be to those who imagine and create new boxes.

Such creativity is only nurtured by experimentation…by courageous trial and error. What is to give light must endure burning, said concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl.

Sheltered and coddled children grow up with little resilience, they give up before they try, are incapable of finding solutions to their own problems, and are not inventive or self-reliant.

Carol Black points out that an ‘uneducated’ person in the highlands of Papua New Guinea can recognize seventy species of birds by their songs. An ‘illiterate’ shaman in the Amazon can identify hundreds of medicinal plants. An Aboriginal person from Australia carries in his memory a map of the land, encoded in song, that extends for a thousand miles. But to know the world, you have to live in the world. 

Most children today can’t find their way back home from school without a GPS. They are no longer allowed to live in the world; not the real one at least. No wonder they’re scared of it, or unstimulated by it when compared to the variety and intensity of the virtual worlds they now inhabit.

But the real world cannot be controlled by a joystick or mousepad – it is ‘red in tooth and claw.’ You can’t pause life like a video game and there are no do-overs.

A few, like Caroline (5) and Leia Carrico (8), are fortunate their parents understand the value of exposing them to managed risk and danger. Having received wilderness survival training, they recently survived forty-four hours on their own after getting lost in a heavily-forested area in Humboldt County, CA.

“A free child outdoors will learn the flat stones the crayfish hide under, the still shady pools where the big trout rest, the rocky slopes where the wild berries grow. They will learn the patterns in the waves, which tree branches will bear their weight, which twigs will catch fire, which plants have thorns.” – Carol Black

“In the real world, life is filled with risks—financial, physical, emotional, social—and reasonable risks are essential for children’s healthy development,” says Joe Frost, an influential playground safety consultant. At the core of our safety obsession, adds Tim Gill, author of No Fear, is the idea that children are too fragile or unintelligent to assess the risk of any given situation.

I give children more credit, and in my book, ‘The Hero in You,’ I include this poem by the inimitable rascal and mystic Rumi:

Your old grandmother says,

“Maybe you shouldn’t go to school.

You look a little pale.”

Run when you hear that. A father’s stern slaps are better.

Your bodily soul wants comforting.

The severe father wants spiritual clarity.

He scolds, but eventually leads you into the open.

Pray for a tough instructor.

Rakiki hitting Simba

Encouraging and guiding them toward their own heroic journey, I present boys with the value of courage – halfway between timidity and recklessness. I tell them to take risks but with prudence, and to embrace discomfort to achieve mastery and to challenge their convictions.

I do not comfort but challenge them.

Parents who wish to continue sheltering their sons from the real world will do well to keep my ‘dangerous’ book away from them.

Read the companion piece ‘Awakening your Wild Man’: a message to Men, and for women who yearn for the return of the Fierce Gentleman (paywall).

Follow The Hero in You.

For updates, join our mailing list.

 

You’re Flogging the Wrong Horse, Mueller!

Prosecute our Educational System Instead

When will we learn?

That we don’t have a “gun problem” or a “drug problem”, but collectively, one of despair.

That we don’t have an “immigration problem” but a development opportunity in our backyard.

That the important issue is not that the Russians meddled in our electoral process with deceitful propaganda, but that many voters were so easily duped.

When will we stop focusing on consequences and pay attention to causes?

I’ll say it again:

  1. We’ve scratched the surface of the “drug problem” by injecting it with $1.5 Trillion since 1971, and it has done nothing to lower the rate of addiction.
  2. We can confiscate the 270 million guns owned by Americans, but mass killings won’t stop because the despair felt by many young men will still be there.
  3. We can Band-Aid the “immigration problem” by building a wall all the way to the Moon and across the entire southern border; it will be riddled like swiss cheese with underground tunnels in no time. Hunger is a powerful motivator. Think East Germany and the Berlin Wall.

We will not stop Russia or any other foreign power from attempting to influence our elections for their benefit, as they can’t, and haven’t been able to stop the U.S. from doing the same.

What we can, and must do, is arm our voters, especially those coming behind us, with a powerful antidote: critical thinking skills.

Here’s a sampling of social media messages posted during the last election by fake accounts with convincing names such as United Muslims of America, Black Matters, Woke Blacks, Heart of Texas, and Being Patriotic:

“… hype and hatred for Trump is misleading the people and forcing Blacks to vote Killary. We cannot resort to the lesser of two devils. Then we’d surely be better off without voting AT ALL.” (Clinton’s spelling by the way, is not a typo).

“American Muslims [are] boycotting elections today, most of the American Muslim voters refuse to vote for Hillary Clinton because she wants to continue the war on Muslims.”

Being Patriotic “America has always been hinged on hard-working people. If you remove jobs, you’ll remove our country from the world map.

Being Patriotic

Heart of Texas: If Hillary becomes President of the US, the American army should be withdrawn from Hillary’s control according to the amendments of the Constitution.

Heart of Texas

Lastly, my favorite, from The Army of Jesus:

Like if you want Jesus to win

Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities. – Voltaire

With their spread amplified by paid advertisements, some 130 million Americans saw at least one of the posts disseminated by Russian actors according to Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch.

What most stuns me about these posts, is not their absurdity, but their lack of subtlety and sophistication. It’s as if those who wrote them believe the U.S. is mostly populated by village idiots.

In 1983, the Reagan-appointed National Commission on Excellence in Education wrote the following in their report: ‘A Nation at Risk’:

“The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

Little has changed, and since 1983, two generations of young adults have already marched through the assembly lines of our public schools and into our voting booths.

What is the purpose of education anyway?

Is it to produce new cogs and wheels to replace those that wear out inside the machine of our industrialized, tech-driven economy?

Or, is it to foster creativity, love of learning, grit, citizenship, and an open mind?

Scott Walker, the Governor of Wisconsin, believes the former, and tried to change the century-old mission of the University of Wisconsin system – known as the ‘Wisconsin Idea’ – by removing the words that commanded the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition,” replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

Critical thinkers are amiable skeptics, wrote Heather Butler for Scientific American. They are flexible thinkers who require evidence to support their beliefs and recognize fallacious attempts to persuade them. Critical thinking means overcoming all sorts of cognitive biases. Roughly speaking, critical thinking helps you figure out whether you should believe some claim, and how strongly you should believe it.

In his paper ‘Teaching Critical Thinking, Lessons from Cognitive Science’, Tim van Gelder says “humans are not naturally critical thinkers. Indeed, like ballet, it is a highly contrived activity.  Running is natural; nightclub dancing is natural enough; but ballet is something people can only do well with many years of painful, expensive, dedicated training.  Evolution didn’t intend us to walk on the ends of our toes, and whatever Aristotle (‘Man is a rational animal’) might have said, we weren’t designed to be all that critical either.  Evolution doesn’t waste effort making things better than they need to be, and Homo sapiens evolved to be just logical enough to survive while competitors such as Neanderthals and mastodons died out.

But it can be taught, and even better, a growing body of research is proving that more so than intelligence, wise reasoning leads to greater wellness and longevity.

But our schools and universities don’t teach it, as they don’t much teach the Humanities anymore – the philosophies, literature, religion, art, music, history and language that help us understand ourselves and our world. These disciplines are rapidly being replaced by Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

But I forget: rationalism is the new bogeyman, and most of us recoil when having to read anything longer than one page.

My concern with this whole ‘Russia Collusion’ thing is not with the threat outside influences present to our representative democracy, but more importantly, with the threats from within. An unthinking society is easier prey to homespun propaganda that triggers aberrant human emotions like fear, vanity, greed, envy, tribalism, scapegoating, and thirst for vengeance (Aldous Huxley must be smiling smugly in his grave).

When it comes to education, I side with our federalist (or nationalist) forefathers: Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, believing that something as vital to democracy as the education of its citizens must not be left to the vagaries of competing ideologies.

Here’s part of Jay’s essay ‘Concerning Dangers from Foreign Force and Influence’ published in the Federalist Papers:

“Among the many objects to which a wise and free people find it necessary to direct their attention, that of providing for their safety seems to be the first. I mean only to consider it as it respects security for the preservation of peace and tranquility, as well as against dangers from foreign arms and influence, as from dangers of the like kind arising from domestic causes.  Let us therefore proceed to examine whether the people are not right in their opinion that a cordial Union, under an efficient national government, affords them the best security that can be devised against hostilities.”

Sadly, my vote for a unified approach to education is half-hearted, realizing that long-gone are the days when John Jay could confidently assure that “once an efficient national government is established, the best men in the country will consent to serve.”

But still…how we educate future generations in the Union, has, in my opinion, a direct bearing on the country’s security and prosperity so must not be left in the hands of philistines like Scott Walker, or the Texas School Board, which, in 2010, adopted textbook standards emphasizing the Christian influences of the nation’s founding fathers and diluted the rationale for the separation of church and state.

Despotism can only exist in darkness, proclaimed James Madison, and I agree. Our schools should be producing light bulbs, not mindless cogs and wheels.

So, Mueller, while you keep flogging that horse, you might want to consider what Mark Twain once said:

In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.


Join my mailing list.