Welcome to the Relativism Factory

May 2010By R. Kenton Craven

Dr. R. Kenton Craven is a scholar-in-exile, living in Sparta, Tennessee.

"The devil of educationism that possesses us is the kind that can be cast out only by prayer and fasting." — Flannery O'Connor

"My advice to all parents is…anything that William Heard Kilpatrick and John Dewey say do, don't." — Flannery O'Connor

The quotes above are happily borrowed from the chapter headings of the excellent book John Dewey & the Decline of American Education: How the Patron Saint of Schools Has Corrupted Teaching and Learning by Henry T. Edmondson III (ISI Books, 2006), which thoroughly explores the nature of the anti-philosophy that has become institutionalized in our public education system. A distinguished Southern scholar who has written widely on ethics and literature, including on Flannery O'Connor and J.R.R. Tolkien, Edmondson has bravely trekked through the desert wastes of forty volumes of what must be the most muddled prose to ever attain to such demonic power over a culture. Keeping his bearings by the polestars of Plato, Aristotle, Newman, Chesterton, and others who understand genuine education as having something to do with content and character, Edmondson tracks the beast of educationism to its ultimate lair, where lie the scattered bones of countless students devoured by relativism and nihilism.

An education professor I encountered a few years ago contended with my argument that relativism is institutionalized in the public schools: "I never talk about relativism, and I suspect most teachers in the public schools don't even recognize the term." True, the modern teacher is unlike Dickens's Thomas Gradgrind in Hard Times who recites his doctrine ad nauseam:
Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!
No, most teachers in the public schools know little of relativism as a doctrine, nor for that matter do they recognize facts, but they all recognize the mantras: "Well, it's all relative," or "It all depends on where you sit." Revenge as a way of life is not an explicit dogma in the prisons, but it is institutionalized as an unspoken assumption in both the keepers and the kept. It permeates their system like a virus, everywhere active, everywhere invisible, witness to the inner law expressed by W.H. Auden in "September 1, 1939": "The error bred in the bone/ Those to whom evil is done/ Do evil in return." Relativism operates the same way in public education; even its most dangerous carriers are unaware that they are infected. As a result, they exhibit the kind of mindlessness that has destroyed the very possibility of genuine education — and for that matter genuine thought — in America.

To understand how this institutionalization takes place, check into a modern university as a teacher-spy and inspect its very dirty laundry for clues. As such a battle-scarred teacher-spy, I have read Edmondson's study with a painful delight of recognition. Permit me to corroborate his findings with a bit of autobiography.

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