This is a small section from a much larger essay written in 1971 that criticized the modern education system. I thought that the following description was particularly insightful and wanted to get the thoughts of others about it.
Well? Deep, or full of it?
The average highschool graduate is a jerky, anxious, incoherent youth with a mind like a scarecrow made of sundry patches that cannot be integrated into any shape. He has no concept of knowledge: he does not know when he knows and when he does not know. His chronic fear is of what he is supposed to know, and his pretentious posturing is intended to hide the fact that he hasn’t the faintest idea. He alternates between oracular pronouncements and blankly evasive silence. He assumes the pose of an authority on the latest, journalistic issues in politics (part of his “class projects”) and recites the canned bromides of third-rate editorials as if they were his original discoveries. He does not know how to read or write or consult a dictionary. He is sly and “wise”; he has the cynicism of a decadent adult, and the credulity of a child. He is loud, aggressive, belligerent. His main concern is to prove that he is afraid of nothing because he is scared to death of everything.
His mind is in a state of whirling confusion. He has never learned to conceptualize, i.e., to identify, to organize, to integrate the content of his mind. In school and out, he has observed and experienced (or, more precisely, been exposed to) many things, and he cannot tell their meaning or import, he does not know what to make of them, sensing dimly that he should make something somehow. He does not know where to begin; he feels chronically behind himself, unable to catch up with his own mental contents if the task of untangling it were far beyond his capacity.
Since he was prevented from conceptualizing his cognitive material step by step, as he acquired it, the accumulation of unidentified experiences and perceptual impressions is now such that he feels paralyzed. When he tries to think, his mind runs into a blank wall every few steps; his mental processes seem to dissolve in a labyrinth of question marks and blind alleys. His subconscious, like an unattended basement, is cluttered with the irrelevant, the accidental, the misunderstood, the ungrasped, the undefined, the not fully remembered; it does not respond to his mental efforts. He gives up.
The secret of his psychoepistemology which baffles those who deal with him lies in the fact that, as an adult, he has to use concepts, but he uses concepts by a child’s perceptual method. He uses them as concretes, as the immediately given without context, definitions, integration’s or specific referents; his only context is the immediate moment. To what, then, do his concepts refer? To a foggy mixture of partial knowledge, memorized responses, habitual associations, his audience’s reactions and his own feelings, which represent the content of his mind at that particular moment. On the next day or occasion, the same concepts will refer to different things, according to the changes in his mood and in the immediate circumstances.
He seems able to understand a discussion or a rational argument, sometimes even on an abstract, theoretical level. He is able to participate, to agree or disagree after what appears to be a critical examination of the issue. But the next time one meets him, the conclusions he reached are gone from his mind, as if the discussion had never occurred even though he remembers it: he re-members the event, i.e., a discussion, not its intellectual content.
It is beside the point to accuse him of hypocrisy or lying (though some part of both is necessarily involved). His problem is much worse than that: he was sincere, he meant what he said in and for that moment. But it ended with that moment. Nothing happens in his mind to an idea he accepts or rejects; there is no processing, no integration, no application to himself, his actions or his concerns; he is unable to use it or even to retain it. Ideas, i.e., abstractions, have no reality to him; abstractions involve the past and the future, as well as the present; nothing is fully real to him except the present. Concepts, in his mind, become percepts - percepts of people uttering sounds; and percepts end when the stimuli vanish. When he uses words, his mental operations are closer to those of a parrot than of a human being. In the strict sense of the word, he has not learned to speak.
But there is one constant in his mental flux. The subconscious is an integrating mechanism; when left without conscious control, it goes on integrating on its own-and, like an automatic blender, his subconscious squeezes its clutter of trash to produce a single basic emotion: fear.
He is not equipped to earn a living in a primitive village, but he finds himself in the midst of the brilliant complexity of an industrial, technological civilization, which he cannot begin to understand. He senses that something is demanded of him-by his parents, by his friends, by people at large, and, since he is a liv-ing organism, by his own restless energy-something he is unable to deliver.
He has been trained to react, not to act; to respond, not to ini-tiate; to pursue pleasure, not purpose. He is a playboy without money, taste or the capacity of enjoyment. He is guided by his feelings -he has nothing else. And his feelings are only various shades of panic.
He cannot turn for help to his parents. In most cases, they are unable and/or unwilling to understand him; he distrusts them and he is too inarticulate to explain anything. What he needs is rational guidance; what they offer him is their own brand of irrationality. If they are old- fashioned, they tell him that he is too self-indulgent and it’s about time he came down to earth and assumed some responsibility; for moral guidance, they say, he ought to go to church. If they are modern, they tell him that he takes himself too seriously and ought to have more fun; for moral guidance, they tell him that nobody is ever fully right or fully wrong, and take him to a cocktail party raising funds for some liberal cause.
His parents are the products of the same educational system, but at an earlier stage (note: this was written over 30 years ago), at a time when the school conditioning was furtively indirect, and rational influences still existed in the culture -which permitted them to get away with discarding intellectual concerns and playing the fashionable game of undercutting reason, while believing that somebody else would always be there to provide them with a civilized world.