Teaching Barbarism

Civics Is Not Enough: Teaching Barbarics in K-12,” by John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, PS: Political Science and Politics, Vol. 29, No. 1. (Mar., 1996), pp. 57-62, http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=1049-0965%28199603%2929%3A1%3C57%3ACINETB%3E2.0.CO%3B2-U.

UN nation-building exercises drag on as atrophied imperial mandates. Parisian suburbs are “zones without law.” Influential members of the nation-security community praise posts that warn without resiliency, State-building is nothing more than the creation of an empty suit.”

A decade ago, two UNL professors warned that the moral legitimacy of democracy was under attack

But the striking finding to us was that, even setting aside [particular scandals and controversies], there was an undercurrent of intense disgust with intrinsic elements of democratic government, particularly democratic government in a technologically complex society of 270 million people, most of whom expect the government to do many things.

Although people, at least as represented by the individuals who participated in our survey and in our focus group, are effusive in praise for the concept of democracy as well as for the basic construction structure of the United States government, they recoil from what democracy looks like when seen in action and sometimes in inaction.. People love the rules of the game, but hate the game itself. Such a hatred of democratic procedures is obviously unhealthy and apparently springs from a patently unrealistic set of assumptions about the nature of democratic politics.

This is an important point. Democracy is safe from material attack. John Robb’s systempunkten aside, guerrilla movements would not succeed in undermining democracy by knocking a few (or even a lot) of points of gross domestic product.

A much greater threat is the horror of people who see politics up-close in our super-empowered information-rich society, and hate it.

For instance, I recently analyzed the blog remarks of House Speaker Dennis Hastert on oil companies. One commentator wrote

Does the interest in your politician’s manipulation of you as a people end in satisfaction that you think you have it figured? Or does it only end when you remove yourself from them and do something to negate their influence?

I think this reaction is pretty typical. People see political manipulation and the application of war theories to politics and want it to end. But barbarism never will end. Human struggle is universal. Politics is not civics — it is barbarics.

And the reason for this is obvious: yet another failure of America’s public schools

we have never been taught what democratic processes look like; we have only been taught antiseptic constitutional principals.

students are not receiving a balanced picture: they are taught the civics but not the barbarics of democratic process.

Current efforts to rectify the situation by getting people to participate more won’t work. It may even make the situation worse, as people become even more aware of the barbarism of civicism

Participation alone will do little to solve the problem

Hibbing and Theiss-Morse believe that the situation can be fixed by teaching “barbarics” to students from early ages

Would it not be preferable to let students know from an early age that preferences, whether based on racial groups or otherwise, will frequently lead members of society into conflict.

Making students aware of both civics and barbarics would not magically turn a negative public into a positive one, but it is an important step toward a public that appreciates the governing process

Despite the authors’ warning of no magic solution, the problems of our public school system are deeper than they suggest. As I earlier wrote, children wish to struggle from early on (boys especially through kinetics, girls especially through gossiping), but the school system retards and perverts this. Teaching barbarism in the current sit-down-shut-up framework is a band-aide.

Worse, the civics-barbarics dichotomy is misleading. All politics is war by other means — or more accurately, some other means. The friction of human struggle encompasses all attributes of life: counter-terrorism, literary criticism, humor, biology, aesthetics and pornographics, computer science, and others.

Human struggle is horizontal across all knowledge, because humans will eventually use any knowledge to win. Teaching that human struggle is something less than the hyper-internet we call reality just rearranges the blinders, and and adjusts our weak-point of democracy from one area to another.

2 thoughts on “Teaching Barbarism”

  1. “Politics is not civics — it is barbarics.”

    I think this is exactly right. I was composing a blog in my head complaining about how bloggiticians (trying to coin a new term there) treat politics like it was a war with 'us' vs 'them.' Then when I thought about it, when it comes down to it, politics is war, only with more rules.

  2. Adam,

    I think the “more rules” are mostly definitions. Direct, organized violence would seem to be the only difference between war and politics in a meaningful sense.

    Great point on 'us' vs 'them.' Mao and others talked about the “correlation of forces” — everything that helps your team being friend, everything that hurts your team being foe. When people talk about “them” (say, Republicans criticizing Democrats, even though Carter is pro-life and Clinton is pro-free-trade), they are bluntly seeing this correlation of forces and trying to shape it.

    Of course, while there are “teams,” the teams are in the eye of the beholder. Pro-life politicians who happen to be Republicans might see Harry Reid as generally being on their team (because he is pro-life), while Republicans who happen to be pro-life might see Harry Ried as being the enemy (because he is a Democrat).

  3. Hey Dan,
    The funny thing about humans is how we don't change all that much. What changes are the institutions we create. So that the difference between barbarism and civilization is a difference between violence and institutionalized conflict. Elections, debates, adversarial legal procedings are all conflicts but they are not violent. We are successful and peaceful because we have channelled our barbaric impulses into civilized institutions.

    The success of an enterprise such as that in Iraq has less to do with whether Iraqis have experience with democracy than whether they are more inclined to resolve differences through democratic institutions rather than tribal butchery.

    What we need to be teaching our children are the democratic means of decisionmaking, and we are actually more successful at this than we think. Even at a more fundamental level of society, if you put Americans together they will negotiate and debate and even vote on solutions to problems. Rather than massacre each other.

  4. Phil,

    As always, an insightful comment. Most people's orientations are guided more by norms than by beliefs. This is good — norms are much harder to change, so there are less idiotic norms than idiotic beliefs.

    The problem with a society used to civics is that in extreme situations, the lack of democratic legitimacy might make them more willing to jump ship. Of course, it could work in the reverse too: a belief in civics might make them more likely to jump in a crisis situation because of the real-ideal mismatch, but if barbarics are “normalized” during a crisis there may be less sentimental attachment to a democracy.

    I think you saw something like this in Vietnam: an educated political class was raised in civics but experienced a world steeped in barbarics. How many times have I heard some liberal ruefully compare government actions from the '60s and '70s to what their government classes taught in school.

    If those are the options, then the choice is between Kaplanism and Utopianism. Give be Kaplanism any day.

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