Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Lobotomising young minds

Have you ever noticed that when formerly intelligent people go to university, they frequently emerge knowing less than they did when they went in (or else they've rejected ideas altogether).  Where once, it required a surgical procedure like lobotomy to remove the thinking parts of the brain, now it simply takes immersion in university for three years or more.  Spend more than ten minutes talking to any number of today's young graduates, and you'll know what I mean.

The reason for the phenomenon can be explained in two words: post-modernism.  "Post-modernism," explains a recent article in The Australian, "is hobbling Australia's best and brightest university students by locking them into narrow, prescriptive and politically correct ways of thinking and using language."

Unfortunately, the phenomenon is not confined to Australia.

For a concise survey of how the world of ideas came to this, I highly recommend Stephen Hicks' Explaining Postmodernism. Buy one for a student today -- it might just save their lives.  And do read The Australian's exposure of the phenomenon. [Hat tip Ashley C.]

Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault
by Stephen R. C. Hicks

Read more about this book...


  1. Thankfully it doesn't always work that way. I went into university as a bit of a socialist and about 1 month into economics 101, the penny dropped, the inevitability of economic logic became clear and all traces of collectivism instantly and permanently disappeared.

  2. And you escaped re-education camp, Matt B? ;)

  3. You clearly didn't get Susan St John as your lecturer, Matt. ;^)

  4. I'm not sure what postmodernism has to do with socialism. The inevitable conclusion of postmodernism is that dogmatic prescriptions for organising society are narrow and dangerous. That would include socialism, evangelical Christianity, and objectivism.

  5. Blair, you might appreciate reading this brief post at Jerry Kirkpatrick's blog.

    Socialism... died as a moral ideal in 1945. As a practical ideal, socialism died with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Yet socialism and the principle that government might is required to make right is still with us. How can that be?

    Answer: epistemological errors of Enlightenment thinkers, specifically their failure to identify the true nature of consciousness and thereby describe reason’s method of knowing reality, allowed irrationalism and collectivism to take root and grow into today’s spectacle of a virulently absolutist and nihilistic postmodernism.

    In short, as Hicks says in the introduction to his book, the failure of socialism made postmodernism necessary; the collapse of philosophy made postmodernism possible.

  6. richard mcgrath5 Aug 2008, 17:34:00

    Thanks PC - I have just ordered a copy of this book to read and will then pass it onto my two sons and, eventually, my daughter.

    As my younger son started economics at school this year, I got him to read Economics In One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt over the last school holidays. I recommend it to all readers and their secondary school-age children. It is available online at http://jim.com/econ/contents.html

  7. What do you think of Friedman and Hayek Peter?

    Sorry, had to ask.

  8. "Have you ever noticed that when formerly intelligent people go to university, they frequently emerge knowing less than they did when they went in (or else they've rejected ideas altogether). Where once, it required a surgical procedure like lobotomy to remove the thinking parts of the brain, now it simply takes immersion in university for three years or more. Spend more than ten minutes talking to any number of today's young graduates, and you'll know what I mean."

    You're not wrong about that, PC. Salient is all the evidence you need.

  9. phil,

    Just skipped across to the Salient and immediately came across this prime example of lobotomisation. Still, Jenna does see some things clearly even if she is clueless about where the problem lies:

    Being completely unprepared for the real world is particularly Salient if you are a student of the arts and humanities. My BA ( bugger all) in sociology and media alone will get me nowhere but a glorified secretary position at Ministry of Fisheries or Inland Revenue (I’m just living the dream folks). This is highly self defeating, as most BA subjects fuel your hatred of such mundanely meaningless consumer driven lives, yet simultaneously restrict you to a government department or lending consultant position which reinforces that kind of life. Hideous.

    Note to Jen: in what respect is an organization that takes money by force under the threat of imprisonment "consumer driven"? These people stamp on the face of freedom and it's no wonder you would find the prospect of working for them hideous. But don't blame capitalism for that. The IRD is the polar opposite of capitalism.

  10. Post-modernism was rife in the arts faculties in NZ twenty years ago. It's scarcely an explanation for issues with "young" graduates.

    Nor has there been any "collapse of philosophy". Philosophy has been burying its undertakers for at least 200 years.

    More recently philosophy depts (in most NZ unis at least) have been redoubts fighting off the post-modernist menace that has overtaken the Faculty of Arts. Post-modernist takes on "objective truth" get short shrift in philosophy depts because they encounter there people who've read Kant's subtle and clever ideas about that (among others). That's why post-modern philosophy flourishes more amongst those who aren't professional philosophers than among those who are.

    (Please don't now vomit up what Rand thought of Kant. I know what she said, and it's obvious from it that she never read any of Kant's works).

  11. Kitching is knowingly and unashamedly attacking a straw man:

    "You could say they don't have it right, they don't understand it, they haven't grasped it. But if this is what they think postmodernism is, if it has led them to argue in these ways, then it's educationally damaging irrespective of whether they have it right or not."

    Attacking what a bunch of young university students think, and representing that to attack a concept seems a bit disingenuous.

    As I understand it, post-modernism is nothing really special, it just means not throwing out the old for the sake of the new. It's definitely not anti-modern, that would be more like luddism. Being a post- thing, it should at the very least include what came before it, and move it forward in an evolutionary way. The key evolution for post-modernism is to step out of the myopia of reductionism and try to grasp and properly understand systems of thought that usually have a rational basis, but not an objectivist root.

    But if you can't bring it back to a modern framework, you're not practicing post-modernism, more like pre-modernism, superstition or spirituality.

    One of my favourite modern / postmodern dialogues is between Nathaniel Branden and Ken Wilber. If you listen to that talk you'll see there's actually very little that they disagree on.

  12. Anon,

    Why is it obvious that Rand never read Kant? Perhaps you would care to enlighten us rather than just throwing assertions around? Also, is it necessary to read primary sources to gain an understanding of ideas? Most physicists today don't bother reading Einstein. Doesn't mean they don't understand Einstein or that they don't understand relativity better even than Einstein.

    Also, Kant is tough going; it's like swimming in treacle. Kant apparently wrote hurriedly for fear of impending death! So I prefer to read about his ideas from other sources.

    Briefly my take on Kant is that I consider him an important philosopher because he saw far more clearly than any philosopher before him that contemporary rationality had a big problem, namely how theory can possibly be *justified* by observation. Newton's theory, which he held to be unassailably true, is exact beyond any observation, it applies to all planetary configurations, and in realms beyond all human experience and measurement (eg star interiors). Furthermore, it is impossible to observe a Newtonian force; to measure a force is to presuppose the truth of Newton's theory!

    Unfortunately the solution Kant proposed - such as thinking Newton must be apriori knowledge and that "our intellect does not draw its laws from nature, but imposes its laws upon nature" - triggered much of the irrationalism of postmodernist thought. It didn't trigger the death of philosophy, however, for 20th century non-post-modernist philosophy went on to correctly solve Kant's problem without throwing out the notion of objective truth. And thus our 21st century conception of rationality is much improved on Kant, post-modernists not withstanding. But Kant correctly saw the problem and that can never be taken away from him.


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