Our American Nonage


The American Heritage Dictionary defines nonage (non-age) as 'the period during which one is legally underage' or 'a period of immaturity.' The great philosopher Immanuel Kant, however, offered a slightly different definition of that word in his 1784 essay What is Enlightenment? 'Enlightenment,' he said, 'is man's emergence from his self-imposed nonage,' with nonage being 'the inability to use one's own understanding without another's guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one's own mind without another's guidance. Dare to know!'

Modern State-dominated American society, however, despite its constant protestations to the contrary, strives mightily for the very opposite of enlightenment. It uses means great and small in its never-ending efforts to keep people in a permanent state of nonage ' a permanent state of immaturity and dependence on the guidance, and thus the control, of some officially approved authority.

Take, for just one example, this Labor Day headline from the front page of my local newspaper: Learning can begin at home. The newspaper apparently wants its readers to think of this idea, of this concept, as 'news' ' as something new, different, not previously known. It uses its authority to tell us that learning does not need to wait until a child begins his 13-year enforced tenure in the local Government Indoctrination Center , that it can indeed begin at home. The article then proceeds under the assumption that its readers share this sense of revelation, and that they, further, want to be told how to do this. A mere parent, after all, probably has no professional training in teaching and will need expert guidance.

A subhead tells us that Daily life is full of 'teachable moments.' Again, the paper assumes the new-ness of this remark and, in putting it on its front page, expects us to assume its validity, just as, when it runs an article about the American head of state, it expects us to share its belief in the importance and newsworthiness of such an article (it wouldn't be there if it wasn't important, right?). Between these two headings, we see a color photograph of a young girl looking at a book. The caption informs us that this six-year-old actually 'reads on her own' ' a feat so rare and impressive, apparently, that it too, like the article itself, deserves the front page of the paper. It raises the question of how a mere parent can achieve such success, and it begins to answer it by informing us that 'during the preschool years' the girl's mother 'read every day to her and played letter and words games' (the caption added that s at the end of word, not me). Her goal in 'her efforts to prepare (her daughter) for school' was to 'try to make it fun for her.' The caption ended by reassuring us that Mom did the right thing: 'Experts say the . . . family is on the right track to a solid educational foundation.'

When we look at the article itself, we learn that Mom 'transformed baking cookies into a math lesson for her daughter,' and that she 'used everyday situations . . . to teach her daughter and help prepare her for kindergarten.' But, again, lest we become alarmed at such actions, we learn that she did well because 'early childhood experts' say that 'parents can prepare their children for kindergarten by using teachable moments from their daily lives, by reading, talking and singing to them, and by being good role models.'

Interestingly, while the main headline talks about 'learning,' the beginning of the article deals instead with 'preparing.' The caption to the picture, for instance, talks about Mom's 'efforts to prepare (her daughter) for school.' And the article twice in the first three paragraphs talks not about learning, not about education, but instead about preparation for school: Mom used these everyday situations primarily to 'help prepare her' daughter for kindergarten, and 'parents can prepare their children for kindergarten by using teachable moments.' The writer drives this thought home in the next paragraph, when she quotes an expert (who, by the way, is the only male mentioned in this entire article) as saying that 'Everything you do from birth to the start of kindergarten is in one way or the other helping your child to prepare for the start of kindergarten.'

Now none of this will probably bother very many people. Most simply accept the necessity of their children attending kindergarten. In many cases, they actually look forward to it. They accept, perhaps without much critical thought, the stated premises of forced government education.

I do not accept those premises. I see government 'schools' as a prime way in which the State works to keep people as dull and stupid as possible. What the State insists on calling 'kindergarten' is just the first step in that long daily indoctrination process ' a process which will teach reading in such a way that few will ever actually read anything on their own, for their own reasons; a process that will teach history in such a way that few will ever see any value in it for today and tomorrow or look into it and interpret it on their own without expert guidance and interpretation; a process that will teach writing in such a way that almost none of them will ever sit down to focus their thinking onto a page and thus actually find out what they believe and why. Shouldn't the idea that 'everything you do from birth . . . is in one way or another helping your child to prepare' for the takeover of his mind by the authorities scare you, or at least make you wonder its validity?

The article then gives us a rapid fire list of 'tips' from experts: read simple books (as opposed to complex ones?); talk, sing, and play with them (who knew?); read with, not to, a child (parent and child are, after all, equals).

Certainly all these suggestions have positive value. But why does the newspaper project the idea that we need to have such obvious and common-sense suggestions validated by experts?

The experts tell us, for instance, that the child must see learning as entertainment. 'To her,' says Mom about her daughter, 'it was playtime. It wasn't learning. If it's fun, they're going to want to do it.' Our lone male expert, of course, agrees. Making learning fun, he says, is important for children.

Another expert informs us that we mustn't neglect the child's non-academic skills. We should, she tells us, 'let your child know he or she is valuable, capable, and lovable. Help a child learn how to put on his or her coat and tie shoes as soon as possible to develop the child's independence and self-confidence' because 'if they feel good about themselves, they will feel good about learning other things and will have the confidence that they can do it. Their self-image is going to impact their ability to succeed the rest of their lives.'

They also tell us not to 'push' your child too hard. The lone male expert warns us to 'let your child be your guide for what, how much and when to teach him or her. If a child becomes frustrated or upset, back off.'

At first glance, then, this article offers sage, expert advice about how parents can help their children learn. But in doing so, it assumes a certain nonage on the part of the parents, who apparently don't even know enough on their own, without expert guidance, to read 'simple' books to their children. After all, what does it mean when an 'expert' has to tell parents that they should 'let your child know that he or she is valuable, capable and lovable'? Don't they know that already? And if not, why not? What has happened in this culture that newspapers see value in printing such obvious 'advice' from experts?

But more importantly, perhaps, the article assumes a very dangerous stance towards the children themselves, one almost guaranteed to keep them not only ignorant by also forever immature and dependent upon others.

First, these experts imply that the parent has a responsibility to make learning fun for the child. That a child may instead find satisfaction or accomplishment in learning ' that he may, indeed, even learn somehow to (God forbid!) learn on his own, without help from a parent or an expert, without any parent-induced, artificial 'fun' involved ' is apparently beyond the approved pale. What happens to the 'learning is fun' child when he's left to his own devices ' when no parent or teacher is around to make his learning 'fun' anymore? Will he continue to learn when the games end? While certainly learning can have a measure of 'fun' involved, it can also prove difficult, frustrating, even painful. What repercussions does it have to teach a child from such an early age that learning must always and only entertain him?

Second, they tell us that the child must 'feel good' about himself ' no matter what, apparently. But does learning always make you 'feel good'? Is it ever good to 'feel bad' about yourself? Is it possible that something personally constructive could come from such a 'bad' feeling, even when that child is only five years old? Or are 'feelings' all that count? And, again, what repercussions does it have to teach a child this? No doubt we all want to 'feel good' about ourselves ' but what does that mean? Are these 'feelings' objective or subjective, real or imaginary, deserved or undeserved? And from whence do they come: from within or from without?

Finally, they tell us that the child alone must determine what and when he will learn. He and not the parent will 'be the guide for what, how much and when to teach him or her.' The parent must, when the child becomes frustrated or upset, 'back off,' and any potential learning must end. The child must have nothing but fun, nothing but entertainment, at all times, and he must feel only good about himself. If and when these somehow dissipate, if and when he stops having fun and instead becomes frustrated or upset ' when this feeling of entertainment ends ' the experts say the parent must 'back off' and allow his child to regain his necessary state of bliss.

Can we not assume that such a child, whose parents tell him from his earliest childhood that learning is entertainment, that he must 'feel good about' himself, and that learning must end on his command when it ceases to be 'fun,' will remain, in some ways, a child for perhaps his entire life ' that his nonage will never end, and that he will continue to depend upon others in some sense for his learning and his knowledge forever? Can we not assume that such a child will rarely if ever make the necessary effort, endure the necessary struggle and frustration, involved in something as seemingly simple, for example, as writing an essay like this?

Even in something as apparently innocuous and seemingly helpful as a front page feature article in a local newspaper, we can see the tentacles of the State trying to reach into our minds and manipulate us for its benefit, trying to keep us dependent upon its wisdom and benevolence ' to keep us in our nonage. Only our individual struggles to learn on our own in our own unique way, only our individual efforts to see the world clearly and objectively, will enable us finally to escape our nonage, to grow up and to become enlightened individuals, intelligent, independent and free. We must, you and I, do as Kant implores us: we must dare to know.

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Craig Russell's picture
Columns on STR: 35

Craig Russell is a writer and musician in upstate New York.