Please go to this link to read this article in Portuguese.
This piece was originally published by Real Clear Markets on May 15, 2019.
For decades, leftists have championed socialism while ignoring its mountains of skulls, from
Russia to Venezuela. They dismiss The Black Book of Communism, a careful tally of the 60-plus
million deaths resulting from the deliberate actions of socialist regimes.
Some socialist-leaning people seem to be sincerely concerned about the welfare of others, and
ignorant of its egregious body count. Socialist-friendly intellectuals should know better. Their
job is to identify broad truths and their impact on human life. The most culpable are those who
know socialism’s deadly impact and continue to advocate for it.
The million-life question is: why?
Some of socialism’s apologists claim capitalism has killed more—but their tally includes
millions of deaths from wars and slavery. Are war and slavery caused by capitalism? Only clear
definitions can answer that question.
Socialism is the socio-economic system under which the community owns all property. Since all
the people living together can’t be in control at the same time, in practice, the leaders control the
use of property. The result: those with the power of the state control and direct economic
activity. Hence, horrors such as the deaths of 6 to 8 million under Stalin’s state-directed seizure
and disposal of farm produce in the Soviet Union alone.
Capitalism results from the system in which property is owned by private individuals,
government is sharply limited, and individual rights are protected, such as free speech and trial
by jury. Since Britain and the U.S. first implemented this system in the 18th century, creative
individuals have been able to well-deploy capital, resulting in profuse economic activity. Despite
the disruptions and truly serious problems along the way, capitalism has brought the highest
increase in wealth and relief from poverty to the greatest number of people than any other system
However, socialists confuse the public by equating capitalism with mercantilism, a system in
which government officials ladle out economic favors to cronies. Yet “crony capitalism” is a
canard: cronies have been around in every state.
More precisely, the problem is crony statism. Highly limited government and the rule of law in
which individual rights are protected delimits the favors officials can distribute to cronies,
equalizes opportunity, and results in the peaceful and productive pursuit of self-interest—and
increased living standards for all.
Wealth is not static—it is created. How else did we get from caves to skyscrapers? But a rich
person can live well anywhere—it’s the poor who especially need free choice made possible by
private property and individual rights if they are to create wealth and follow their own dreams.
And yet the mystery: leftists claim to care about the “poor and oppressed,” but the hockey stick
of GDP since industrial capitalism’s establishment fails to persuade them that capitalism is a
And they don’t just criticize capitalism—they revile it. Why?
Because socialists are collectivists and capitalism is individualistic. Socialists believe that the
ultimate good is “society,” the group, not the individual. This group may be the nation, the
family, the ethnic tribe, the similarly-gendered—you name it.
Caring for and helping others is their highest value, their moral duty and they claim to believe
that socialism achieves it. And that point is the intersection of the moral and the practical
because, if capitalism is dominant, people care for themselves. It is the individual’s
independence which scares these socialists, because, if everyone is independent, no one needs
Under capitalism each person can choose his or her own path of highest potential—not someone
else’s idea of how to live. The result is that individuals all over the world are lifted out of poverty
by following their own creativity to produce.
But living under capitalism demands an attitude towards others which is missing from the
collectivist picture. For example, many teachers are socialists because people who go into
teaching tend to want to help others, as do nurses and doctors. And there’s plenty of good in
helping others. I’m a teacher myself, but I don’t do it out of a moral duty. I do it as an exercise of
my highest powers of understanding and skill and I enjoy seeing the young flourish.
I strive to help them reach the point where they don’t need me. As renowned Italian educator
Maria Montessori said: “The greatest sign of success for a teacher…is to be able to say, “The
children are now working as if I did not exist… ”
Those who are collectivist in their core want something far different—they want power over
others. They infantilize to keep others dependent, like mothers who reward and enable children
to stay at home forever.
The collectivist focus on control reveals this motive. They dissemble by presenting a false
alternative: which group are you going to let control you? Are you going to be a “wage slave”
and let some rich guy tell you what to do, with his business and jobs, or are you going to have a
say by voting for the politicians and party that will control the economy? Nowhere do they offer
the choice of independence in which you control your own life.
To stop the scourge of collectivist guilt-induced government programs, capitalists need to
counter their ethic with a different moral model and assert capitalism’s spiritual as well as
material good. It’s good because it gives each individual the opportunity to exercise his or
her highest human virtues, such as self-reliance, productivity, and reasonableness, while, at
the same time, enabling individuals to make a good living.
A few years ago, Lenore Skenazy, of the book and blog Free Range Kids, dug up a 1905
newspaper article about two boys, 13 years old and 5 years old, who were celebrated for
traveling by themselves to Washington, D.C., and then San Francisco. Their adventure reflected
the self-reliance venerated in that era—and shot through Horatio Alger’s hugely popular novels,
such as Ragged Dick, in which a young boy radically improves his own life. That moral outlook
was celebrated in late nineteenth and early twentieth century America.
We need a return to that spirit! Challenging the collectivists’ moral presuppositions is critical.
Let’s trumpet the valor and superiority of capitalism and wipe socialism and its destructive
power from the face of the earth.
Marsha Enright is head of The Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute. It sponsors The Great
Connections Seminars and Leap Year Program, which radically increases reasoning power,
knowledge, self- confidence, and independence. She’s also the founder of Council Oak
Montessori School, for ages 3 to 15.
In this 2007 interview by Sara Pentz in The New Individualist (link above), Ms. Enright explains fundamentals of excellent education, the ingenious ways the Montessori Method gives students what they need, how we arrived at the dismal state of education we have today, the dire effects of Post Modernist influence on education, and how she is bringing the Montessori approach to higher education.
Tom Wolfe, American Iconoclast
by Marsha Familaro Enright
Originally published in The New Individualist, Fall, 2006
Tom Wolfe is one of the most original, honest and unfettered contemporary observers of American culture alive today. Originator of the New Journalism in the ‘60’s, Wolfe’s fiction-like forays in reporting have kept him at the leading edge of insight for decades. And he’s hilarious! He skewers pomp, pretension and preening evenhandedly–and his fellow members of the press are often well-roasted. His originality with language is phenomenal, his psychological insight and depth remarkable. Best of all, his entirely first-hand view of the world always shines through.
Just as Ayn Rand closely observed and essentialized American culture during the first half of the twentieth century, Wolfe studied our culture “in the field” during the second half and beyond. He ranged all over the country: geographically, culturally, artistically, and intellectually. His books offer the reader vivid accounts about the full range of the “American carnival,” from the outrageous car culture of Southern California (“The Kandy-Kolored, Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby “) to demolition derbies (“Clean Fun At Riverhead”), to the inner workings of the ultimate in ‘high’ culture snobbery–the New Yorker editorial offices (“Tiny Mummies!”).
From the ‘60’s onward, he seems to be on a mission to discover what makes American culture such a vast array of paradoxes–and in his later works, he eyes philosophy for answers.
Who is this wild man of journalism and fiction? A hugely popular and prolific author, Wolfe is probably best known for his novelesque account of the NASA space program, The Right Stuff (1975), made into a movie of the same name. Born and raised in Richmond, Virginia and educated at Washington and Lee (B.A., 1951) and Yale (Ph.D. American Studies, 1957) universities, Wolfe spent more than ten years as a reporter for such institutions as the Springfield Union, The New York Herald-Tribune, Esquire and The Washington Post. In 1960 as Latin Correspondent at the Post, he won the Washington Newspaper Guild foreign news prize for his coverage of Cuba.
Along with Jimmy Breslin, Wolfe became one of the original staff writers of New York magazine, which had started as the Herald’s Sunday supplement. While on staff there, he began writing articles for Esquire magazine, many of which later formed his first book, The Kandy-Kolored, Kool-Aid Streamline Baby, published in 1965. These essays birthed the new, colorful, dramatic, story-telling style of writing which was later dubbed “The New Journalism.” The methods of this new style changed the face of reporting forever.
If you want a sample of an hilarious piece of journalism about journalism-and insight into Wolfe-read the essay “The New Journalism” in The New Journalism (1975). To begin with, he aptly summarizes his experience in graduate school, which motivated him to become a journalist in order to have exciting real-life experiences:
“I’m not sure I can give you the remotest idea of what graduate school is like. Nobody ever has…Half the people I knew in graduate school were going to write a novel about it…No one ever wrote such a book, as far as I know…the subject always defeated them…Such a novel would be a study of frustration, but a form of frustration so exquisite, so ineffable, nobody could describe it. Try to imagine the worst part of the worst Antonioni movie you ever saw, or reading Mr. Sammler’s Planet at one sitting, or just reading it, or being locked inside a Seaboard Railroad roomette, sixteen miles from Gainesville, Florida, heading north on the Miami-to-New York run with no water and the radiator turning red in an amok psychotic overboil, and George McGovern sitting beside you telling you his philosophy of government. That will give you the general atmosphere.” (The New Journalism, 1975, 16)
He then analyzes what made “The New Journalism” new: harnessing methods of the novel to infuse stories about real people and events with drama, local color and psychological depth. This included describing whole scenes of a person’s life-witnessed directly by the journalist-extended dialogue, and shifting points of view. It required the writer to spend considerable time with subjects, questioning them about their thoughts, feelings and motives. “They had to gather all the material the conventional journalist was after-and then keep going. It seemed all-important to be there when dramatic scenes took place, to get the dialogue, the gestures, the facial expressions, the details of the environment. The idea was to give the full objective description, plus something that readers had always had to go to novels and short stories for: namely, the subjective or emotional life of the characters.” (35)
This required that the reporters have “the moxie to talk their way inside of any milieu, even closed societies, and hang on for dear life.” Writers like George Plimpton trained as an amateur with the Detroit Lions football team and turned it into Paper Lion; Hunter Thompson rode with the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang before almost being stomped to death by them; Gay Talese chronicled boxing great Joe Louis’ life. This new style was in contradistinction to the “century-old British tradition in which it was understood that the narrator shall assume a calm, cultivated and, in fact, genteel voice. The idea was that the narrator’s own voice should be like the off-white or putty-colored walls that Syrie Maugham popularized in interior decoration…a ‘neutral background’ against which bits of color would stand out. Understatement was the thing.” (32)
And distinguish himself from understatement he did. Wolfe’s works became populated with wholly original turns of phrase that are so on-the-mark, many have migrated into our vocabulary. Tom Wolfe invented terms like “the Me Decade;” “the Right stuff,” and “social x-ray,” but according to the biography on his publisher’s website, his personal favorite is a Southern turn of phrase he introduced to the written word–and the national scene-in 1964-“good ‘ol boy.” He also “found a great many pieces of punctuation and typography lying around dormant when I came along-and I must say I had a good time using them. I figured it was time someone violated what Orwell had called ‘the Geneva conventions of the mind’…a protocol that had kept journalism and non-fiction generally (and novels) in such a tedious bind for so long.”
Using these new writing inventions, Wolfe has spent decades describing wildly-changing, status-seeking American fashions in delicious detail, whether it’s taking a limo four blocks to a party or owning a plantation. From his sharp observations he has crafted pithy characterizations like that of renowned symphony conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein and his “radical chic” buddies (another phrase he coined) or fictional Charlie Croker of A Man In Full (1998). He’s wondered at the chasm between the people (the “proles”) and the intellectuals and literati, between the glorious productivity, abundance and creativity of American culture and the Intellectuals’ gloomy, apocalyptic evaluation of that self-same culture-all expressed with his usual, interwoven sarcasm.
The reader can find it in an early essay from a book about ‘60’s culture, The Pump House Gang (1968):
“What struck me throughout America and England was that so many people have found such novel ways of …enjoying, extending their egos way out on the best terms available, namely, their own. It is curious how many serious thinkers–and politicians–resist this rather obvious fact. Sheer ego extension–especially if attempted by all those rancid proles and suburban petty burghers–is a perplexing prospect. Even scary one might say…I was impressed by the profound relief with which intellectuals and politicians discovered poverty in America in 1963, courtesy of Michael Harrington’s book The Other America. And, as I say, it was discovered. Eureka! We have found it again!…When the race riots erupted–and when the war in Vietnam grew into a good-sized hell–intellectuals welcomed all that with a ghastly embrace, too. War! Poverty! Insurrection! Alienation! O Four Horsemen, you have not deserted us entirely. The game can go on.”
And he is still wondering about it in his most recent book of essays, Hooking Up, published in 2000. This book ranges from art to neuroscience, and even a Cato Institute seminar is examined. The title essay “What Life Was Like at the Turn of the Second Millennium: An American’s World” opens with:
“By the year 2000, the term ‘working class’ had fallen into disuse in the United States, and ‘proletariat’ was so obsolete it was known only to a few bitter old Marxist academics with wire hair sprouting out of their ears. The average electrician, air-conditioning mechanic, or burglar-alarm repairman lived a life that would have made the Sun King blink. He spent his vacations in Puerto Vallarta, Barbados, or St. Kitts…Our air-conditioning mechanic had probably never heard of Saint-Simon, but he was fulfilling Saint-Simon’s and the other nineteenth century utopian socialists’ dreams of a day when the ordinary workingman would have the political and personal freedom, the free time and the wherewithal to express himself in any way he saw fit and to unleash his full potential…Americans could boast of a freedom as well as a power unparalleled in the history of the world.
“Our typical burglar-alarm repairman didn’t display one erg of chauvinistic swagger, however. He had been numbed by the aforementioned ‘intellectuals,’ who had spent the preceding eighty years being indignant over what a ‘puritanical,’ ‘repressive,’ ‘bigoted,’ ‘capitalistic,’ and ‘fascist’ nation America was beneath its democratic façade. It made his head hurt. Besides, he was too busy coping with what was known as the ‘sexual revolution.’ If anything, ‘sexual revolution’ was rather a prim term for the lurid carnival actually taking place in the mightiest country on earth in the year 2000…Sexual stimuli bombarded the young so incessantly and intensely they were inflamed with a randy itch long before reaching puberty,” which Wolfe then goes on to describe.
As the reader can see in the foregoing, typical passage, Wolfe does not merely notice blatant contradiction and hypocrisy–he finds them like a homing device finds its target hidden in a dark cultural and intellectual labyrinth and reveals it to the world. Likely this skill, on top of his material success, accounts for the screaming fury of the literati. In “My Three Stooges” Wolfe recounts how his surging fame and success with the novel A Man in Full–which pre-sold 1.2 million copies–motivated the likes of ‘modern’ novelists Norman Mailer, John Updike and John Irving to denounce him in public as beneath literature. Wolfe chuckled about it on national TV and thanked them for increasing his publicity.
A Man in Full is set in contemporary, dynamically growing Atlanta, teeming with vivid characters and detail about the New South. The bulk of the story revolves around real estate magnate Charles Croker and his attempts to hold onto his empire tooth and nail. The story reveals many strata of Atlantan society, both white and black. However, the reader can see Wolfe’s concern for our contemporary culture in his sympathetic portrait of Conrad Hensley, a young man whose upbringing by déclassé middle class hippies leaves him lacking in most of the technical and social skills that make survival and success possible. In this story, Wolfe’s recognition of philosophy’s power is most apparent, through the aid a book of the ancient Greek philosopher Epitectus gives to the self-development of the young man. After an excruciating run of events leads Conrad to one of life’s nadirs, he turns it around by incorporating Epitectus’ principles of integrity and courage into his life. Later, the dramatic plot explicitly turns on issues of philosophy as the young man’s life intersects with Charlie Croker’s.
Wolfe’s fictional characters are not heroes on the grand scale of Victor Hugo, but they can be larger than life, and some, like Conrad, do achieve real values over multiple obstacles through honesty and fortitude. Wolfe admires and honors ingenuity, courage, honesty, hard work, self-responsibility, and science–and competence and achievement over status. In his 1975 The Right Stuff, his admiration shows for the many engineers and scientists who made the Space Program possible. At the same time, he marvels at the status and honor accorded the Astronauts before they had gone on any missions!
His own personal values are most clearly apparent in the subdued tone of his celebratory essay, “Two Young Men Who Went West” in Hooking Up. In it he recounts the history and achievements of Robert Noyce, founder of Intel. Noyce is little-known outside of Tech circles but lionized there, a legend in the semi-conductor industry, “a national treasure” as one writer testified in all sincerity. Noyce forged a new corporate culture, the culture of achievement and single-minded work, the entrepreneurial, independent and self-responsible culture of Silicon Valley, through the principles and practices he instituted as head of his young company. Wolfe traces his ideas and values back to Grinnell, Iowa and its 19th century, Dissenting Protestant individualist roots. Wolfe respectfully reports that at his death, the unreligious Noyce was celebrated by “swarms of people [who] left [a memorial service] with the mournful feeling that some sort of profound–dared they utter the word ‘spiritual’?–force had gone out of the life of the Silicon Valley.”
Apparently, Wolfe deeply resonates with 19th century Dissident Protestant values. In a Brown University interview some years ago, Wolfe revealed this about himself: “Some years ago at a conference a student in the audience asked me why I write. I never asked myself that question in my life. I started free associating. I thought of the Presbyterian catechism for some reason. The first question is who created heaven and earth? The answer is God. The second question is why did he do it? It’s interesting, the answer is “for his own glory.” So I used that as my answer. It was probably a more honest answer than most.
“To me the great joy of writing is discovering. I started out as a journalist. I still love the adventure of going out and reporting on things I don’t know about.” (Mahdesian interview)
Wolfe comes by his appreciation of modern intellectuals honestly. He drew the ire of the art world with his essays-cum-books on art and architecture, The Painted Word (1975) and From Bauhaus to Our House (1981). In the first, he argues…so to speak…that the fame of modern artists is wholly dependent on the trumpeting of art critics–not on any value or skill of substance might actually possess. When it came out, the art world howled at this characterization and Wolfe–ever the incendiary–fed the fire by appearing on TV in his trademark white Southern Gentleman’s suit, homburg and gloves.
In the second, he perforates the pretensions of Modern Architecture, the sort Ayn Rand describes as the new fashion near the end of The Fountainhead.
“Oh beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, has there ever been another place on earth where so many people of wealth and power have paid for and put up with so much architecture they detested as within they blessed borders today?
“I doubt it seriously. Every child goes to school in a building that looks like a duplicating-machine replacement-parts wholesale distribution warehouse…Every new $900,000 summer house in the north woods of Michigan or on the shore of Long Island has so many pipe railings, ramps, hob-tread metal spiral stairways, sheets of industrial plate glass, banks of tungsten-halogen lamps, and white cylindrical shapes, it looks like an insecticide refinery.” (From Bauhaus To Our House, 1981, 1).
The books maps out how plain white walls and glass and steel boxes became the cynosure of architectural style in the wealthiest country that ever existed. He traces this fashion back to economical worker housing designed by Corbusier and Mies Van der Rohe after World War I, and fawning American intellectuals me-too-ing European fashion.
Amid the acerbic observations and witty descriptions, I have seen him searching for an answer to the following questions: why does the U.S.-the greatest civilization in history-self-flagellate, and why has it descended into hypocrisy and perversion rivaling the Roman Empire? This paradox peoples much of Wolfe’s work. He sees U.S. culture and events through classic American eyes of common sense, respect for productivity and hard-work, and no-nonsense skewering of hypocrisy. As a self-made man, he appreciates the good fortune of our freedom and individual expression. And he struggles to find some objective grounds, some reasonable formulation of wholesome values–in other words, a philosophy that supports and realistically grounds the basic American values of common sense, productive creativity, self-respect and the individual pursuit of happiness.
Some feel Wolfe’s approach to events and characters is cynical. I think he strives to present an unvarnished view of American culture, with its warts as well as its gold nuggets. He is a reporter, after all. In his fiction, his characters are not idealized portraits, but neither are they journalistic: his characters are highly stylized examples of human possibilities, extracted from Wolfe’s perspicacious observations. He knows that status is a driving motive among men–he doesn’t like it, because he believes in merit. That’s why he seems to have some admiration for even mixed characters like real estate tycoon Charlie Croker. Charlie has created, he’s produced real wealth. Wolfe lauds him for this and spears him for his craven status seeking. He does not romanticize real people beyond their actual achievements–we see this in The Right Stuff-but he does present real heroes in all their glory, like Bob Noyce and Chuck Yeager (whom Wolfe made famous).
Wolfe shares with Ayn Rand the ability to deeply parody social-climbing antics. He could be describing Kiki Holcombe of The Fountainhead when he scrutinizes the “social x-ray” women of ambitious New York society in his first novel, Bonfire of the Vanities (1975). This book, as his other novels, is replete with detailed accounts of self-aggrandizement and blatant status seeking. In an interview, he declares “My real interest is in the subject of status, which has to do with how people group themselves, rank themselves.” However, unlike Rand, he is not morally affronted by it. As a philosopher, Rand rails against the energy spent social-climbing and presents an alternative-a new, secular ethics and approach to self and others based on achievement and merit, qualities Wolfe clearly admires.
No, Wolfe doesn’t like the status-seeking, but he accurately and incisively reports it–and prods it with his razor wit and clever neologisms. Ever the journalist, Wolfe accepts the constant competition for status as basic to human life, even in such apparently rational groups as scientists and philosophers. I think he can sharpen readers’ eyes to this competition, enabling them to recognize it more often in their own social circles, and in themselves-however rational they may seem. He revels in the creativity and exuberance of American culture, with its open expression of personal values–of ego. He also worries about the descent into decadence and depravity in the past 40 years, and the lack of self-respect characterized by such phenomena as MTV and contemporary fraternity practices. He understands the siren call the current culture has on youth, with the concomitant drowning of personal self as illustrated through the main character in his 2004 novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons. He is not a hard and fast traditionalist–how could he be, with his independent views? He seems to be struggling to find some objective grounds, some reasonable formulation of wholesome values.
Over the years, I have felt like a detective–finding the clues for Wolfe’s deep love of country in work after work, but never hearing an open admission from him. The clues are there in The Right Stuff, From Bauhaus to Our House, The Painted Word, Hooking Up, and other books. Finally, in an interview this year in the Wall Street Journal, he voices his opinion:
“I also believe in the United States. I think this is the greatest nation that ever existed, still is. It’s really the only really democratic country in the world. Find me one country, just one country in the entire world that would let a foreign people-different culture, different language, and in many cases different color than the majority of the native stock-take over politically an entire metropolitan area in less than one generation. I’m talking about the Cubans in Miami . . .”
“I’m very democratic,” he says after a time. “I think I’m the most democratic writer whom I know personally, though I don’t know all writers of course.” (the precise reporter!)
“I really love this country. I just marvel at how good it is, and obviously it’s the simple principle of freedom. . . . Intellectually this is the system where people tend to experiment more and their experiments are indulged. Whatever we’re doing I think we’ve done it extremely, extremely, extremely well.” Silence. “These are terrible things to be saying if you want to have any standing in the intellectual world.”
Ever the jokester…its one of the things to which some people point, I’m sure, to prove his cynicism. I find it more in the vein of Mark Twain: caustic and always ready to puncture pretensions, even his own. His tone is not deeply serious or ironic in a weighty, European way. He’s led a rebellion against European intellectual domination-at least in journalism. His tone is distinctively American–light-hearted, irreverent and with an intellectual innocence nonetheless–like Mark Twain rather than Dostoevsky. Some might take exception to his style–as many have to Mark Twain-but his trenchant observations communicated through fresh eyes always delight me. I envy all the literary gold a new Wolfe reader will find.
Mahdesian, Linda. “Tom Wolfe, Zeitgeist Czar.” http://www.brown.edu/Administration/George_Street_Journal/v20/v20n24/wolfe.html
Picador Publishers’ Official Tom Wolfe Website. 2006. www.tomwolfe.com/bio.html#.
The Kandy-Kolored, Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby 1965
The Pump House Gang 1968
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test 1968
Radical-Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers 1970
The Painted Word 1975
Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine 1976
The Right Stuff 1979
In Our Time 1980
From Bauhaus to Our House 1981
The Purple Decades 1982
Bonfire of the Vanities 1987
A Man In Full 1998
Hooking Up 2000
I Am Charlotte Simmons 2004
Marsha Familaro Enright has been attracted by the pleasures and problems of education since the third grade. Trained in biology and psychology, she has written research articles on psychology, neuropsychology, development, and education for a number of publications. She founded the Council Oak Montessori School near Chicago in 1990 and has served as its president since then. Recently, as founder and president of the Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute, Marsha and her colleagues have been developing a new college informed by the Montessori Method, the Great Books, Ayn Rand’s ideas, and classical liberalism. Information about that project can be found at its website, www.rifinst.org. Marsha also contributes articles and reviews to The New Individualist, including popular profiles of famous authors such as James Clavell, Cameron Hawley, and Tom Wolfe. Recently, she spent time with TNI contributing writer Sara Pentz to discuss the state of modern education, the prospects for its reform, and her own college project.
TNI: How did you get into the field of education?
Marsha Enright: When I was a kid, I loved school and I loved to learn. I looked forward to it everyday. But I was frustrated by the many kids around me who were miserable in school and often disrupted things. There was a lot of teasing and ridicule. I did not understand why that was happening, especially why the smart kids were not interested in learning. I vowed to myself that I would find a system of education that would really support kids in their learning and be a good environment for my own kids when I grew up. That is how I got interested in education.
But, ironically, that is not what I decided to go into when I went to college. At first, I wanted to be a doctor, like my dad. I was a biology undergraduate. After a while, I got interested in psychology, and toward the end of my college years, I decided that that was really where most of my interest lay. So I went on to graduate school and got a Masters in psychology at the New School for Social Research.
In high school, I read The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand and got very interested in her ideas. And in one of her journals, The Objectivist, there were some articles about the system of education called the Montessori Method. They were by a woman named Beatrice Hessen; I think she owned her own Montessori school. When I read those articles, I said, “Wow, this sounds like a fantastic system.” I read all the books that I could get my hands on about the Montessori Method, and I visited many Montessori schools to observe how they worked. I determined that that was what I wanted for my children.
So, when I started having my children in the early 1980s, I looked around for a Montessori school. There was one in the neighborhood for pre-school, three- to six-year-olds. I put my kids there, and I was very happy with it. When it came time for elementary school for my son, I found a Montessori school in a nearby suburb that he went to for three years, but then it closed. I wanted to make sure that he and my other children could continue in Montessori, so I organized some of the other parents to open a Montessori school in our neighborhood. And that is how I got started as an educator, running Council Oak Montessori School in Chicago.
TNI: What interested you about Maria Montessori and her approach?
Enright: Montessori was a great scientist. She was trained as a medical doctor, the first woman doctor in Italy, and she approached human learning as a scientist, observing in great detail what children did and trying out different materials and activities with them to see what would work best.
Her method is very concerned with the individual child. She started out working with retarded and autistic children. And she became almost instantly famous around the world in the early part of the twentieth century because, after working with these children for a year and applying her observations and her methods, they were able to pass the exam for normal children.
But while everyone thought this was wonderful, she was thinking, “My gosh, if my poor retarded children can pass the exam for normal children, what is happening if normal children are only being asked to learn up to that level?” That is when she started working with normal children. And there, again, her results were so phenomenal that she gained even more fame.
Because motivation is so important in learning, she focused on the proper conditions to keep that fire burning. If you look at children who are one or two or three, you can see that they have tremendous motivation to learn everything they can—crawling around the floor, putting things in their mouths, looking at every book, following what their moms are doing, imitating. They are just balls of energy when it comes to learning everything they can about the world, about objects in the world, about how to move, how things taste, smell, look, about what people are doing with each other.
Montessori noticed, for example, that if she could get a child to concentrate on an activity and really be involved in it, when the child eventually stopped the activity he would be happy; he would be calm; he would be tired, but in a very contented way. And that would keep him interested. The next day, the child would want to learn and do more. So it became a self-feeding process.
TNI: What, besides motivation, is really important to learning?
Enright: Well, I see learning as acquiring the knowledge and skills that you need to function in the world—to be productive, happy, and successful. Just like a flower: If you put a flower under a rock, it is going to struggle around that rock to try to reach the sun and water, but it is going to become deformed. But if you put it in the right kind of soil with plenty of water and sunshine, it is going to be beautiful and flourishing. A child is like that, too. Montessori called the child “the spiritual embryo.”
TNI: What did she do to nurture that “embryo”?
Enright: Her method became famous in 1907 in Rome when she set up what she called the House of Children—Casa de Bambini—where she worked with slum children. It was a wonderful environment for learning that respected the individual child’s interests and his natural learning tendencies. It used the teacher as a guide to learning and had the children collaborate with each other, but very respectfully.
Their behavior changed so markedly that people came from all over the world to train with her, and soon her method started spreading globally. Alexander Graham Bell’s wife became interested and opened the first Montessori school in the United States in 1912.
TNI: That’s remarkable.
Enright: It was remarkable, because she was able to get three and four year olds to concentrate for long periods of time.
She had a famous example of a little girl working on what is called the knobbed cylinders. It is made of a bar of wood with cylindrical pieces of different widths in it. Each cylinder has a knob on it for grasping, and the child has to take all the cylinders out of the bar and then put them back into the right-sized holes. If they do not put them in all the right-sized holes, then one cylinder is left over, and the child knows that he made a mistake.
This is what we call, in Montessori education, a “self-correcting” material. The goal, as much as possible, is to help the child see for himself if he achieved the goal or not, if he “got the right answer.”
TNI: So they are not constantly being corrected by someone else?
Enright: Exactly. If you want the child to be an independent individual when he reaches adulthood, he has to be able to know on his own when he has achieved something or when he has failed—to judge that independently.
In this example, the girl working on the cylinders was so engrossed in her work that it did not matter that Maria had a crowd of children around her singing, or that she moved her seat around or anything; the child just kept focusing on the cylinders for forty-five minutes.
TNI: That’s impressive.
Enright: You see this in Montessori schools all the time—this incredible concentration, which, interestingly, Montessori figured out back at the turn of the century, was a key to learning and self-motivation. More recent psychological research by professor Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, on the optimal conditions for the most enjoyable kinds of experiences, independently and completely supports her original observations and conclusions. Csikszentmihalyi called this kind of experience of engrossing activity “flow,” because when he first discovered it, he was studying artists in the ’60s who would be totally engaged in what they were doing. And they said, “I’m just in the flow.” They would forget where they were, they would forget what time it was, and they totally enjoyed what they were doing. In sports, it’s “getting in the zone.” When the Montessori people read his books and contacted him, he recognized what was going on in the Montessori classroom—that Maria had created this optimal flow environment for learning.
TNI: And the focus was on the individual.
Enright: Exactly—that we are all individual human beings with human wants and needs.
Montessori schools spread all over the States, and they were spreading all over the world, too, when along came this very influential professor from Columbia University Teachers’ College, William Heard Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick decided to “scientifically” analyze the Montessori Method. He went to some schools, he interviewed her, and he wrote a book called The Montessori System Examined. His book basically gutted the Montessori Method, discrediting it with the academics.
You see, Kilpatrick was a staunch advocate of John Dewey’s “progressive” method of education. Dewey’s method, if you look at its basic principles, is actually almost the opposite of Montessori—although a lot of people think that it is very similar because it emphasizes experiential, “hands on” learning.
For one thing, Dewey opposed the development of the intellect when a child is young; he considered it stifling to the imagination. Whereas Maria said, “Well, you cannot really do imaginative work until your mind has some content.” So, the imaginative work goes hand-in-hand with learning about the world.
In addition, Dewey focused on the socialization of the child. For him, the school was about teaching the child how to get along with other people and be a part of society—this was the crux of his “pedagogic creed.” You can see it in his famous declaration about the purpose of education, first published in The School Journal in January 1897. Dewey wrote, “I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself. Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling, and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs.”
TNI: At that time, there was a big push for socialism in all aspects of our society. Anybody who promoted individualism was in the minority.
Enright: Exactly. Even Montessori herself was, politically, a socialist. I mean, it was generally believed that socialism was the most advanced political point of view. She understandably would have been seduced by all those ideas. That was not her field.
Now Maria Montessori’s method does teach social skills as a conscious element in the curriculum. We call it “the grace and courtesy aspects” of the curriculum. But contrary to Dewey’s approach, hers is about how people properly interact with each other to be productive and happy individuals, in the course of developing their minds.
You can see this in the whole system, starting with the very way that children are allowed to work with the materials in the classroom. They can go to the shelf where the materials are, select something, bring it to their own space defined by a rug or a desk or a table or wherever they wish to sit, and work on it. They can work by themselves with the material as long as they want; the children are taught to try not to disturb each other. They can share the material with the other children if they want to, but they are not forced to. Consequently, what happens is that they tend to be very happy to collaborate with other children.
TNI: How interesting.
Enright: And when they are done, they are required to take the material and put it back on the shelf where it was so that the next child can use it. To me, all of these principles taught in the Montessori classroom train children how to behave in a free society with other responsible individuals.
TNI: I can see that.
Enright: Montessori’s is not a focus on “You must get along with other people no matter what.” The focus is very much on intellectual development, on the individual trying to learn, to develop himself, and to interact in a respectful way. In some respects that is the opposite of the collectivist idea that Dewey had of how we should interact. One result is the consistent reports we get from upper-level teachers and employers that Montessori students stand tall in what they think is right.
Anyway, Kilpatrick said that the Montessori Method was based on an old-fashioned theory of faculty psychology. Now, at that time, 1918, the ascendant theory—the so-called “scientific theory of psychology”—was behaviorism, whose basic tenet is that you cannot scientifically say that there is a mind, because you cannot see it; you can only study behavior.
As a consequence of Kilpatrick’s books, the Montessori schools started closing down. Only a few remained over the long haul, and they were quite small. Students going to teachers’ colleges were discouraged from going into Montessori because it was considered old-fashioned—too much focus on the intellect, not enough on imagination; too individualistic, not the proper kind of socialization.
But the Method was rediscovered in Europe in the ’50s by a mother, Nancy McCormick Rambusch, who was very dissatisfied with education in the United States. She brought it back to the U.S. and eventually started the American Montessori Society. Ever since, it has been a grassroots, parent-driven movement, not an approach promoted out of the universities.
TNI: At that point, education was inundated by the ideas promoted by Dewey. Is that correct?
Enright: Right. You have to remember that traditional education was mostly either self-education or education of the wealthy, who could afford to hire tutors. The problem of mass education arose because a republic like ours needed an educated populace. But because not all parents could pay for school, public education started with the basic problem of how to educate so many people on a limited budget. To solve that, they came up with the factory model, which is to have everybody in one room doing the same thing at the same time. The teacher is the one lecturing or directing everything that the children are doing.
TNI: Sort of like mass production.
Enright: Right. And in some respects, it worked. I do not think it would have worked so well if not for the fact that many children going into this system were highly motivated immigrants—because motivation is the key to learning. Even today, as bad as some of our public schools are, you will find reports about immigrants from Somalia, Serbia, Poland, China, all doing fantastically in public schools where other children are failing.
People look back at nineteenth-century traditional education and early parts of the twentieth century and say, “Look at how well people were educated then, compared to now.” Yes, we have many examples of remarkably high-achieving people from all levels of society at that time, but what proportion of the population were they?
Actually, discontent with public education runs back a long way. There is a book from the ’60s by Richard Hofstadter called Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. He has a chapter called “The School and the Teacher,” in which he talks about the American dedication to education, how it is the “American religion,” and the concern, going back to statements of Washington and Jefferson, that we have an educated populace. He documents that objections to the kind of education received in public schools goes back to 1832—objections by Horace Mann in Boston, among others—and the complaints sound remarkably similar to what you hear today! Complaints such as: Not enough money being spent on students or teachers; teachers not getting the kind of social recognition they should for their important work; too many people apathetic about what was happening in the public schools.
So there were serious criticisms of traditional, factory-model education early on. But today there are serious problems with education as a result of the mass influence of Dewey’s philosophy of education and the ideas of leftists so deeply incorporated into the system of learning.
TNI: How do the ideas of leftists undermine education?
Enright: Well, the most serious problem is caused by the philosophical ideas of egalitarianism that became embedded in the system starting about thirty years ago. Egalitarianism is basically just a new variation on the socialist ideas which drove Dewey’s educational philosophy.
In the United States, we believe that people should have equality of opportunity. In other words, they should not be hampered by unequal treatment under the law, or by other people forcibly preventing them from pursuing what they want to do. Egalitarianism, however, takes the view that everybody should be made actually equal—not equal before the law, but materially and personally equal—that everybody should have the same amount of money, everybody should have the same abilities—
TNI: And opportunities.
Enright: Yes, and opportunities, regardless of their own effort. That these opportunities should be provided for them. This socialist permutation of Marxism was incorporated into the educational system in the way we spend public education money. Nowadays, we cannot spend more money on students of superior intelligence or talent than we do on students who have a lot of problems. We must focus instead on lifting kids with problems to the same level as everybody else. So a lot of money has been poured into “special education”—euphemistic code words for the education of poorly functioning children—and it is sold to the American public with the argument that we should give these kids an even break. In other words, it’s sold with an individualist spin: Since it’s government money, and since the government should be promoting equal opportunity, we should give problem kids extra help so that they can get on par with everyone else.
TNI: It’s easy to see how people can agree with that view of equal opportunity.
Enright: And it is true that we do need an educated populace. But there is a disjunction between the customer and the person paying, because public education is paid through government. So you have all of this conflict over what is going to be taught in the schools; and you end up having political pressure brought to bear by whoever has the dominant philosophy, influences the teacher’s colleges and education departments, or controls the local governments that run the educational programs.
There are two obvious consequences of introducing egalitarianism into the system. One is this idea that we must spend all kinds of money to raise the level of children with problems. As a result, a lot of money has been taken away from programs for what are called “gifted” children; after all, they’re already at a high level, so it’s not “equitable” to spend more to raise them higher.
The other consequence is the multiculturalism movement. That’s the idea that everybody should be considered equal no matter what their beliefs, or their racial, cultural, family, or ethnic background. Of course, as Americans, we think that you should not judge somebody based on his background or race, whatever group he is in, or anything like that, right? We think we should judge people as individuals. So, multiculturalism was floated in American society with an individualist twist.
But it is not about individuals. It categorizes everybody according to what social and cultural group he belongs to. And with egalitarianism comes cultural relativism: Every culture is equal to every other, none is better than any other. You throw out objective standards of what is good and what is bad.
So now, we are supposed to respect everybody regardless of what his culture or background brings to the table. If your culture believes in cutting off heads and ripping out hearts—well, it’s all relative!
TNI: And you have to be so careful about what you say, where you say it, and how you say it, in terms of being politically correct.
Enright: Exactly. And why is that? The egalitarians do not want anybody’s feelings to be hurt. They do not want people’s self-image to be hurt by the fact that they are not a white male, an Olympic athlete, or something like that. They have elevated a person’s self-image to being the main consideration, instead of what the person has actually achieved: We’re going to make everybody feel equal, even if they are not. Whereas our usual American approach to equality is: We do not care what your background is. If you have achieved something great, we are going to recognize and reward that.
TNI: We see the effects of this kind of philosophy, for example, in the “No Child Left Behind Act.”
Enright: Yes. No Child Left Behind is a way that conservative policymakers have tried to deal with the bad effects of egalitarianism in public education. They said, “See what this egalitarian approach to education, where everybody is worrying about hurting somebody’s feelings, has done to education. It has gotten teachers to give kids social promotions, which means that even though they have not mastered third-grade material, they are still promoted to fourth grade. We need to impose standards on public schools to make sure children are being educated to a certain level.”
So they imposed a centralized, top-down testing system for all schools, to try to make sure everybody was up to the same standards. This reflects the traditional way education is organized, because it is all about making everybody do the same thing at the same time.
TNI: And advance through the grades.
Enright: Right, advance through the grades. The other use of the term “grades” has to do with the evaluation of the child’s work on a task, essay, or project. Did you know that the use of the term “grades” came from the idea of grading shoes and saying that “this group of shoes is the best group, this group is just okay, this group is not too good, and that group must be thrown out”? What’s bothersome about this is that, as educators, our job should be to craft an environment to help each child, whatever his ability or background, so that he can learn and achieve as much as he can, so he can fulfill his best potential as a unique individual.
But in the grading system, you are thinking about how to decide whom to pass and whom to fail. In the traditional view, failing was the child’s fault, not the educational system’s—the child just didn’t try hard enough. One thing that traditional education was criticized for, and one reason why these newer methods were incorporated, was that we were losing all this human potential. But that truth was twisted through egalitarianism.
TNI: Then, at some point, there are classes where no grades are given at all, so nobody gets his feelings hurt? Or like the Little League where no score is kept?
Enright: Right. Nobody is labeled a winner or a loser.
I think that for young children, this is not always a bad idea, because grades and scores focus on competing with other people. In Montessori schools, we do not generally keep grades. We focus on whether or not the child is mastering the material. And each child is evaluated separately. A child also learns how to evaluate himself. “Have I mastered this material? Can I go on to the next level?”
TNI: And this is easily determined by the teacher?
Enright: Easily. Because the teacher knows the curriculum well; she knows what the child should be working on. And we have a general idea, from the scientific study of development, at what level children usually should be functioning at a given age. Not everybody will fall into the statistically normal sequence of development, because there is so much individual variation in human development and potential. We use a very broad category of what is objectively normal development.
TNI: This is also based on the biology of the child?
Enright: Exactly. One of the reasons we do not use grades in Montessori is that we recognize that education is, at root, self-education. Our job is to guide children in their self-education; we are very concerned that each child be concerned with doing his best and challenging himself. This only happens in the right educational environment because, you see, human beings are naturally very competitive. That, I think, comes from our nature as social animals competing in the social hierarchy, and it is very easy to let that trump the desire to learn.
So, when you introduce grades and all those comparisons in the early ages, children tend to focus on comparing themselves to each other and determining who is on the top of the heap and who is not. Their focus tends to be, “What is my grade? Am I pleasing the teacher? And am I better than the next guy?” They do not tend to focus on “What am I actually learning? Am I understanding what I’m doing? Do I know how to use it?”
TNI: That can be very dangerous. And it can undercut their self-esteem.
Enright: In the sense of undercutting their real self-esteem, their deepest sense of self-confidence. “I’m not good at math—I can’t do it as well as Johnny.” But maybe he’s just a late bloomer. Einstein was supposed to be a mediocre math student in the early grades. Being constantly compared to others can cut a child’s motivation to persevere and keep learning something, even if it’s difficult. So, we are very concerned to downplay that kind of competition. Competition happens anyway, but to a reduced degree. A child will look at what another is doing and say, “Hmm, I want to be able to do that.” If there is not a lot ofpressure to compete, this natural tendency will actually motivate him in a good way.
TNI: It’s more of a healthy, inner competition—
Enright: —than something externally directed. You want to encourage this intrinsic motivation to learn and achieve that we see in the two year old, because when you become an adult, you want to be self-motivated—to achieve things yourself and to know what you enjoy doing, in order to be happy.
TNI: Why do conservatives not like the Montessori Method?
Enright: Well, I do not know if I can speak about all conservatives. Some send their children to Montessori schools. But, politically, the conservative approach is, “Let’s go back to what was done before.” They tend to think in the paradigm of what was done traditionally in education. That ends up being the factory method.
And they want to reintroduce standards, since egalitarians following the Dewey method took standards and mastery out of the picture because they did not want to hurt anybody’s feelings. So, since nobody is learning or acquiring the skills needed to succeed, the conservatives’ response is, “Well, let’s reintroduce standards.” Their way of doing it is by using these tests. It is ironic that conservatives, who seem to want a more free-market approach to things, should introduce the federal Education Department’s top-down, one-standard idea about what everybody in the whole country should be doing.
My teacher friends now call it the “No Child Left Standing Act,” because of the tremendous focus on producing higher test scores at all costs. The money that schools get is so tied to the test scores that the focus of teachers and administrations is almost solely on whether the children are passing these tests at the designated levels—not whether the children are really learning things. As we all know, it is very easy for many kids to learn only what they must for the short–term, to pass the test, but in the end they know very little about the subject.
TNI: It’s the old practice of “cramming for the test” until the last moment, taking the test, and then forgetting everything.
Enright: Exactly. Whereas real learning is about gaining the knowledge and skills that you need, relating these to other things you know, figuring out how you can use it all in your own life, and understanding how it affects the world.
The conservatives wanted to revert to traditional testing to assess what the child was learning. But, unfortunately, a test is not generally an authentic measure of what the child understands. Many smart kids are encouraged to compete to get good grades and learn to “game the system.” The kids who succeed the most in school oftentimes are the best at doing whatever the teacher tells them. They know what they need to do to get good grades, to get into the good high school and college. We see students who do fantastically on the SAT and may even do well in college, but they do not know how to think well. They just know how to play along by other people’s rules. When they get out into the real world, they are not necessarily especially successful or great employees.
TNI: They don’t succeed in reality.
Enright: No. Sometimes they are tremendous failures.
There was interesting research done on millionaires by Thomas J. Stanley. He discovered that quite a few of them got under 950, total, on their SAT scores, and yet they are fantastically successful in business. Obviously, their talents were not served or assessed well in school.
TNI: So, it is ultimately an issue of learning how to think, is it not?
TNI: And that is never taught, is it?
TNI: What about the kids of single parents or kids from minority homes lacking the usual advantages—kids who may not be instilled with much motivation to learn? Also, why do children from some ethnic groups, such as kids from India, seem to be more motivated to learn?
Enright: Indian culture really emphasizes education.
TNI: As does the Chinese culture.
Enright: Yes. So your question is: What can we do to motivate children who come from less-supportive backgrounds? Well, for one thing, research finds these children tend to do very well in Montessori classrooms.
Also, speaking of motivation—I remember a John Stossel TV special some years ago. There was a segment about Steve Marriotti, a former businessman who decided to teach in a Harlem high school. And he just had an awful time. Almost the whole year, the kids made fun of him and caused trouble.
Just before the end of the year, as he was about to quit, he asked his class, “If I did one thing right, what was it? If one thing I did was interesting, what was it?” And he said, “A fellow at the back of the class, a gang leader, raised his hand and said, ‘Well, when you talked about how you ran this import/export business and how you made it successful.’” Right there, this gang leader basically reconstructed Marriotti’s income statement for him. Obviously, he was an intelligent student—he had absorbed all the facts about the economics of Marriotti’s business.
It dawned on Marriotti that what would really motivate these kids to rise out of poverty was to learn how to become entrepreneurs. So he instituted a program that is now worldwide, to teach kids how to be entrepreneurs—the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship. One thing he found is that children from these backgrounds are used to tolerating uncertainty and risk, which you must be able to do to be a good entrepreneur.
Enright: But people from a very stable background will not easily have that ability. In fact, we have an opposite kind of problem nowadays. We have so many kids from wealthy families that they lack the motivation to make money, and they do not have any direction. Their parents do not instill in them enough sense of purpose and drive. They end up being profligate, drunks and drug addicts, just spending money—Paris Hilton or whatever.
Because we are such a wealthy society, that is another reason why teaching our children in ways that nurture their intrinsic motivation right from the get-go is so important.
TNI: Back to an earlier point. If conservatives don’t have the right approach to education, what about libertarians?
Enright: The libertarians have mostly been encouraging school choice—the idea that parents should have a right to decide where their child goes to school. Encouraging school choice is a good idea; it is certainly a step away from this monolithic public education system we now have and towards a more individualized educational market.
TNI: That means supporting the voucher system, right?
Enright: I have to say, the voucher system scares me, in this respect. With the government paying for private-school education through vouchers, on the scale of money we’re talking about, there will inevitably be corruption. And then political people will say, “Well, if these private schools are going to take government money, we have to have government oversight and control.” It is a real, dangerous possibility that the government will step in and standardize everything, and that will be the opposite of a free market in education. It’s what happened in the Netherlands.
TNI: Is that where libertarian educators are moving?
Enright: What I understand is that libertarians originally were encouraging tax credits for education. Milton Friedman talked about that, years ago. Individuals could take money off what they had to pay in taxes in order to use it for private-school tuition. Also, non-parents and organizations could give money to educate others, like poor children, and get tax credits. If there weren’t enough monies that way, I imagine that you could set things up so that children whose parents did not pay enough taxes would get some kind of voucher.
But, at some point, many libertarians decided that that was not going to fly, politically, and so they turned instead toward vouchers for everybody. But the politicians will end up regulating private schools that use vouchers, maybe saying that all voucher-accepting schools have to have state-certified teachers or curricula.
TNI: So this may put Montessori out of business.
Enright: Yes. Because once the government begins to issue vouchers, the schools are going to have to accept them—except, perhaps, for the schools of the very wealthy. All the other private schools, where middle-class and lower-middle-class students go, will either have to accept them, or they will go out of business.
TNI: Ah, yes.
Enright: So, the libertarians are encouraging a free market in education, which is a good thing. The thing I do not hear from them, however, is much talk about what kind of education is objectively best for human beings. That is because most libertarians believe in a free market, which is the political end of things, but they think that your moral standards and ethical beliefs are entirely private and subjective.
Okay, I do not think that the government should be regulating morals, either. However, although I think that what is right and wrong is often a complex question, I also think that you can look at human nature and reality and say, “Just as certain things are good for human health, certain actions are good for human education.” It is a matter of science and experience to figure out what is objectively good in education. But libertarians do not discuss objective standards of education very much; it is something they leave by the wayside.
TNI: I know that standards and discipline in education are important to you.
Enright: They are. But there is a good side to them and a bad side. The conservative view of education tends to be that children need to learn certain things, and we must make them learn them because they are not necessarily interested in learning those things right now. I call this the “Original Sin” view of education, because it fits many conservatives’ ethical views: They think children tend to be naughty and would rather play, so you have to discipline them to make them learn.
TNI: Force them.
Enright: Force them to learn, right. And what Maria Montessori discovered was that theylove to learn, if you give them the right environment, and they will do it of their own free will. You, as the adult, just have to be clever enough to give them what they need at the right time. You have to be the right kind of guide in their learning process, in their self-education. So, what tends to happen in the well-run Montessori school—and this is one of the things that is remarkably different about them—is that the children are very well-behaved of their own accord.
TNI: Because they are focused on learning and their own self-fulfillment—on intrinsic competition, as opposed to getting the best grade, fighting with others, and worrying about their self-images.
Enright: Exactly, exactly. What is so striking when you enter a Montessori classroom is this busy hum of all these children doing their own individual work all around the classroom. They are working on things; they are excited about what they are doing and sharing it with each other, but quietly. They are allowed to talk to each other. Maria said, “We learn so much through conversation as adults. Why do we stop children from talking to each other?” Well, that happens in traditional education because children end up talking about things that are different from what the teacher is directing them to pay attention to, right?
Enright: People often ask me, “How do you know that a Montessori school is better than other schools?” And here is some of my proof: Over the years at my school, I cannot tell you how many children have lied to their parents, saying that they are not sick when they really were, because they do not want to miss school! We get notes from parents all the time about this.
TNI: That’s fascinating. It’s also fascinating that you have taken these concepts and have decided to put together a college for young adults. Why did you decide to do that, and how it is going to work?
Enright: It is well known that leftist philosophy dominates academia. Stories about how people with conservative or libertarian views are kept out of the academy are common. Furthermore, on campuses you have a proliferation of anti-cognitive, anti-free-inquiry ideas, like political correctness. The kids are not allowed to talk about things in certain ways because it might offend somebody. If they hold politically incorrect views and express them, they are ridiculed. In many instances students are punished with bad grades by professors who do not like what they write—not because it is poorly done, but simply because the teachers do not like the content. Well, that strangles debate. That strangles the reasoning mind. That strangles independent judgment.
TNI: It’s all too common.
Enright: Plus, it concerns me that the many students coming out of college are not able to think well. These people will take over the leadership of our society; yet they cannot think for themselves, and they have been encouraged to strangle their minds with political correctness.
So, I thought to myself, maybe it is time to start another kind of college, one consciously devoted to reason, to individualism, and to encouraging students to learn how to think for themselves—not only by the ideas that we’d teach, but by the very methods that we’d use to teach those ideas. A school where the teachers are not authority figures telling you what the truth is, and you are just absorbing it and spitting it back to them on the tests. Instead, a school where the teachers are expert guides to the best knowledge and ideas in the world—where reasoning skills are emphasized in every classroom, whether it is science or art, whether it is mathematics or history.
TNI: And you are going to find teachers able to do this—and wanting to do it?
Enright: Yes. I do not think it is going to be a problem to find teachers, because I have so many highly qualified people approaching me, saying they would be interested. It would be a matter of finding those with the right combination of skills, attitudes, and knowledge to properly implement the curriculum we have created.
TNI: Talk a little about that curriculum.
Enright: It is going to use what are called “The Great Books” as its foundation. These are group of classics first identified in the late 1920s and ’30s. Robert Hutchins, a far-seeing president of University of Chicago, was concerned, back in the ’20s, that college was getting too professionalized—that everybody was focusing on just getting a job, and that they were not being educated well enough in the great ideas of our world to understand what was going on around them.
So, he put together this committee of experts in ideas, works, and education—Mortimer Adler, a philosopher at U.C.; Richard McKeon and Mark Van Doren from Columbia; Stringfellow Barr from the University of Virginia—a number of people. They picked a group of books that they thought were the most influential, the best-reasoned, the most important works in Western civilization, and they called these “The Great Books.” Since then, the list has been expanded to include titles from civilizations around the world.
A person educated in these books knows a tremendous amount about the ideas, history, and people who have influenced the world we live in today. So, we are going to use that list of books, plus a select group of more contemporary ones, such as the works of Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Richard Feynman, and others. These will form the basis of our curriculum.
We will also incorporate philosophical questions in all classes—very reality-oriented philosophical questions. When the student is learning mathematics, he will also learn, “Why am I learning mathematics? What does it teach me about how to think? How can I use it in the way I live? How does it affect our society? What place does mathematics have in the marketplace?” So, when he graduates, he will have a firm grasp of the relationship between what he learned in school, and the workforce, and his life, and history, and political goings-on—all of these things. We will give him much stronger, more integrated knowledge of the world than does the usual curriculum.
TNI: And he will be independent.
Enright: And he will be independent. He will consciously know how to question and analyze. Through encouragement, reasoning skills, excellent philosophical knowledge, and the way the teachers will guide him, his independence will be highly nurtured. He will be much more confident of his own point of view because he will have thought it through so well. And whatever work he chooses, he will be able to be a confident leader promoting freedom.
Since I’ll bring Montessori principles up to the adult level in this school, a large component of the curriculum will be a “practical life component,” where the student not only intellectually grasps relationships between ideas and what is going on in the world but gains practical experience with that, too. We’ll give students an opportunity from their freshman year on to get involved in outside internships, research projects, and other activities where they can learn about whatever they might be interested in doing. They can try different kinds of work—
TNI: —actually working alongside business people, or interning with scientists?
Enright: Yes, precisely. The internship program will also demonstrate to people how well the students are doing, as they display their excellent thinking skills, their work ethic—all the kinds of things we are going to encourage and nurture.
TNI: Do you know for a fact that people out there would be willing to bring these interns into their environment?
Enright: Oh, yes. I know quite a few businessmen who are involved with me in this project, and they are very excited about the idea. You know, businesses today have a great deal of trouble with employees who are not prepared to work in the right way.
TNI: So, is this college going to be a reality?
Enright: If I have anything to do about it.
TNI: How are academics throughout the country responding?
Enright: I have quite a group of enthusiastic academics on my advisory board. When I go to conferences of the Liberty Fund and the National Association of Scholars and tell them about the college, many people are extremely interested. And, as I said, there is a lot of interest from professors who would like to work there.
TNI: You sound like an educational optimist.
Enright: I am. I think the basic principles of education—and educational reform—are now well-established. You have to remember that when Maria Montessori started, she basically taught slum children.
TNI: And proved that, given the right kind of education, these kids could rise out of poverty and become successful.
Enright: Absolutely. Every day, through a combination of factors, including drive and their own free will, people emerge from the worst of backgrounds and succeed. But what you want to do, of course, is to make it possible for more of them to succeed. And that is what education should be about: crafting a learning environment that allows the greatest number of children to develop themselves.
TNI: Well, it is a fascinating subject—and as your own project develops, I’m sure that we will talk with you about it again. Best wishes, Marsha.
Enright: Thank you, Sara.