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The Comprachicos

These are my comments on The Comprachicos, an essay by Ayn Rand found in http://www.amazon.com/New-Left-Anti-Industrial-Revolution/dp/0452011256

This will make a lot more sense if you read it first. It is not a summary, and it leaves out a lot of good ieas from the essay.

I agree with Rand's pro-children attitude, as opposed to the usual more hateful one. Rand says young children should start learning abstract ideas, and I agree with her.

I agree with her criticisms of "the pack" and conformity and collectivism, and her view that the "problem children" often have the best chance to get through school with their reason in tact.

I agree with many of her specific examples about how some methods of teaching are nonsense, or contradict the educational philosophy the teachers claim to follow. I disagree with her apparent assumption that most of the effects and meaning of teaching methods can be discerned by looking at them and reasoning about them. I think that the bulk of what's done to kids is more subtle than that. And I think kids are resilient and such blatant methods, alone, are not enough to have the affects schools do have.

Rand only mentions parents briefly. She says mistakes of this size aren't made innocently. I don't agree with that logic. I do agree with her assessment that many parents want to get their kids out of their hair, and don't think carefully about what sort of place they are sending their kids, and also don't have thoughtful, rational discussions with their kids.

Rand takes a fairly nature oriented position on some aspects of the nature/nurture debate. She does talk a lot about how education matters, but she also seems to think being more or less intelligent is innate

Rand sometimes appeals to "the evidence" or "scientific research" but fails to cite it or explain what research was done and how it is capable of reaching the conclusion it reaches. This is scientism, but it's mild and she provides arguments for all her conclusions.

Rand overestimates how much teachers hurt children *intentionally*. She thinks they somewhat plan for it. Alright, some do, but they don't actually know how to plan for things and then make them happen, so their planning hardly matters. Rand makes a comment that if they cared about the children they'd notice certain policies are harming children and stop or revise them, and concludes they don't care about children's well being. I disagree with that. I don't think they know how to evaluate what works and what doesn't. Doing that takes skill which they don't have. They have no idea if they are doing harm or not. I don't want to absolve them of all guilt, or even any guilt -- they do see crying children, and they definitely know that many children dislike much of what they do -- but let's not assume they know, plan, or intend more than they do. They are clueless and helpless, and have a mix of callous disregard; superficial, tender love and caring; some meanness; and for many teachers, especially the younger ones, only occasional hatred of the children. Many teachers have given up and don't think about what they are doing.

Rand says schools and culture used to be better and more rational, and the comprachicos only gained control quite recently, and the current educators had a better education themselves. I disagree. Rand doesn't go into detail here. It's true that schools have changed in some ways, and their explicit rhetoric has changed, but I see no reason to think their basic effect has changed. Perhaps Rand is going too much on the schools' explicit messages. If anything, school has gotten better. People are smarter now, and more capable; we can tell because they deal with more complex lives, have more possessions which are more complicated (like computers), there are more knowledge workers, and GDP per capita is much higher. And schools have had reforms, e.g. with corporal punishment. And we now have more and better sources of information (TV, internet, more books, etc).

Rand does a good job of emphasizing how much of a child's learning is inexplicit, and how much of what is taught is inexplicit (for example, she discusses the emotional vibe of the pack). And I agree with her comments on whim.

I agree with Rand's mentions of the *boredom* of school.

I agree with Rand that the primary way to do well in the pack is to learn to manipulate human beings, and this is disgusting, and not something an individualist would want to do. I agree that "socializing" and "fitting in" are wicked.

I liked Rand's comment that non-conformist children have *no one* on their side. Not even themselves, because they don't have much understanding of the nature of their battle. However, she's slightly mistaken: they have Rand on their side! She does indeed sympathize with them. Good for her. And I do too.

I don't agree with Rand's assumption about the developmental status of children being very strongly tied to age. She even mentions that is false at one point by saying children of the same age and intelligence can be at significantly different levels of development if one is educated well and the other isn't. Yet she still refers to what three year olds need, what five year olds need, and so on. (And it's not even clear if these age numbers refer to normal children or properly educated children.)

I generally agree with Rand's comments about how people automate large parts of their thinking. For example, Rand says you have to learn to focus your eyes, or to coordinate your muscles to walk. And this isn't obvious or trivial. Rand says we learn a huge amount in our first two years, and if any adult could learn as much, as quickly, or as well he'd be a genius. But adults have automated the process so much it seems easy.

I agree with Rand that fakers -- for example people who pretend to agree with the pack when they don't -- often become fakers by habit, and then live that way without thinking, and it becomes a major part of them, and the "real" self gets lost and forgotten.

Perhaps my favorite part is on page 197:
At the age of three, when his mind is almost as plastic as his bones, when his need and desire to know are more intense than they will ever be again, a child is delivered -- by a Progressive nursery school -- into the midst of a pack of children as helplessly ignorant as himself. He is not merely left without cognitive guidance -- he is actively discouraged and prevented from pursuing cognitive tasks. He wants to learn; he is told to play. Why? No answer is given. He is made to understand -- by the emotional vibrations permeating the atmosphere of the place, by every crude or subtle means available to the adults whom he cannot understand -- that the most important thing in this peculiar world is not to know, but to get along with the pack. Why? No answer is given.

He does not know what to do; he is told to do anything he feels like. He picks up a toy; it is snatched away from him by another child; he is told that he must learn to share. Why? No answer is given. He sits alone in a corner; he is told that he must join the others. Why? No answer is given. He approaches a group, reaches for their toys and is punched in the nose. He cries, in angry bewilderment; the teacher throws her arms around him and gushes that she loves him.
I like the "Why? No answer is given." theme.

I think Rand's comment that loneliness is only for people who have something of value to share, but can't find any equals to share it with, is insightful. She says the emotion that drives conformists to "belong" is fear. I'm not so sure about that. I think fear plays a role, but there are many other issues, such as not knowing what else to do, and thinking non-conformity is morally wrong.

Rand hates: Kant, John Dewey, Marcuse, Hegel, Logical Positivism, and Language Analysis.

Elliot Temple on September 4, 2009

Comments (7)

Do you think that Rand is wrong to hate any of the things in that list?

Also, what about people like misanthropes and whatnot that dislike being around people? Might they not be lonely for different reasons?

Rihatsu at 2:00 AM on September 5, 2009 | #1898
Why would people who definitionally dislike being around other people be lonely when they're not?

Sonic Charmer at 5:30 AM on September 5, 2009 | #1899
Regarding list: I don't know that she's wrong. I think I've heard good things about Dewey elsewhere. Maybe he had good and bad sides.

I agree with Sonic Charmer. They'd be something else, not lonely.

Elliot at 7:42 AM on September 5, 2009 | #1900

Evaluating the success of techniques

Why are the "clueless and helpless" teachers failing to learn how to evaluate which of their techniques work and which don't?

Richard at 4:45 PM on September 6, 2009 | #1901
Cause they don't know Popper or Science, or much else.

Ignorance is the default state, and doesn't need much explanation. Knowledge and competence are what's unusual.

Elliot Temple at 4:47 PM on September 6, 2009 | #1902
I whole-heartedly agree about encouraging children to learn and explore cognition instead of being fed absolutes. My father had been feeding me answers to "why's", problem solving techniques and critical thinking from the preschooler age. I do believe it made a huge difference in my mental growth.

However, I must disagree about abstracts at a young age. The brain, like the body, takes years to grow and for many children, rational thinking, formal abstract operations and the likes are impossible until 12, 15 and even 18 years of age.

In my experience, conformity stems in part from the desire to create a personal identity for oneself. When building your identity, you start from scratch, and you seek to become someone. Looking around, you see individuals and groups who fit the bill, and you explore in those directions. So, not knowing better has my vote for an additional cause to fear.

Beorn at 2:33 PM on October 24, 2009 | #1923
Do you have any evidence that the "brain ... takes years to grow" and, as a matter of hardware(?) is incapable of various things until ages 12, 15, 18?

Or perhaps more to the point, do you have any explanation for this claim?

BTW, does it bother you at all to be claiming a physical handicap for a group people have prejudices against? That has been tried in the past.

Elliot at 10:54 PM on October 24, 2009 | #1924

What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)