Salvo 04.25.2024 9 minutes

Solipsism, American Pre-K Style

boy using digital tablet with headphones at home

Instituting a curriculum can break the stranglehold of the self.

Cocomelon, a YouTube channel of animated children’s songs, is arguably the single most popular children’s programming in the world. Its viewership makes the Beatles look like a small, indie group. The channel touts some of YouTube’s most watched videos, racking up billions of views.

Recently, a Netflix spinoff show called CoComelon Lane ignited an internet uproar. One clip, which features two gay fathers encouraging their young boy to try on a tutu and tiara, garnered millions of views in a few hours. Respondents expressed anger at the show’s normalization of same-sex parenthood and its flirtation with transgenderism. These overtures to progressive sexual norms are a manifestation of a deeper, more widely accepted identitarianism that pervades our culture.

The video opens with a little boy uncertain about how to dress for the day. “Who am I?” he asks—quite a profound little question for a show targeted at preschoolers. Is this little boy a child of God, an image bearer of the Divine? Is he a collection of atoms that chance has brought together? Is he a soul in a corporeal body outfitted with sensory organs?

The correct answer? None of the above. To the show’s creators, “Who am I?” is instead a long-answer question with no incorrect responses. The boy’s fathers respond with their own inquiry: “What do you like to do?” It is for the child, guided by his passions and pleasures, to decide who exactly he is. All morals and personal direction bubble up from our subconscious. Desire and passion become the arbiters of all that is good and true.

It’s worth pausing for a moment to see what is going on in children’s shows. Far from ivory towers, high culture, or the halls of power, streaming content aimed at kids is a major influence in molding the next generation behind our backs. At school events or restaurants, take a glance at any toddler in any highchair or mother’s lap and you’ll likely spot at least a few young kids who have been lobotomized by this channel’s characteristically uncanny valley animation, absorbing its implicit philosophy without even realizing it.

A Generation Lost

The telos of self-expression—if we could call a question a “telos”—pervades our popular institutions.

Consider Hollywood’s resuscitated Star Wars franchise. In the original trilogy, Luke required a mentor to lead and guide him through a “Jedi Code”—a stoical pursuit of knowledge, a renunciation of desire, self-denial, and a commitment to an external ethics. In the latest iteration of the series, however, the new protagonist’s mentor is a haggard old man whom she has to revitalize. Her power comes from within herself rather than submitting to training or authority.

The solipsistic philosophy of “become a better you” has even infiltrated the church. Most popular sermons are little more than self-help lectures with light biblical adornments. Where are the calls to hate thy father and thy mother or to sever a hand if it causes you to sin? A wide and gentle path of self-actualization has replaced sanctification.

Even common language—the shift from virtue to values—reflects this philosophy. Virtues such as courage or justice are hard things and demand unyielding action in the face of adversity. Abdicate a responsibility or succumb to a temptation and virtues cast blame, exacting punishment or requiring forgiveness. Values are malleable. Who’s to say if my value of family over work is right or wrong? They’re preferences masked as ethics.

But everyone, and children in particular, requires guidance and models. While certain aptitudes such as spoken language and gross motor skills develop seemingly without effort, science, history, math, and written language, the stuff of culture, beauty, and purpose, requires explicit instruction and modeling. For my daughter to learn even basic skills such as brushing her teeth, she closely studies my movements and needs explanations to figure it out. How much more for ethical living or professional success?

When I taught students for a living, I read Robert Frost’s famous poem “The Road Not Taken” with them every year. After a first reading, most came up with the common interpretation: it’s a call to live a nonconformist life. But its narrator acknowledges that both roads “equally lay” untrodden that morning; one was “just as fair” as the other. He makes a choice between two unclear options and at the poem’s conclusion recounts his day “with a sigh.” He’ll likely never return to explore the other road; one choice negated another. The poem is a rumination on the difficulty of decision-making. We choose to marry one woman and so forgo the rest. We choose one job and limit ourselves.

How then do we help our children to decide? “Care for the orphan and the widow” or “Be slow to anger” provide direction. When facing essential choices or ethically dubious circumstances, an objective ethics is a guide. It’s any wonder, then, that we have a mental health crisis among adolescents. Our youth shuffle through school halls, eyes fixed downward awaiting whatever the algorithm feeds them today. A generation of young men and women waste their days scrolling, gaming, and forgoing constructive hobbies or manual labor. When “Well what do you like to do?” is their only guide, a road diverges in a yellow wood, and our children sit down and scroll.

Providing Guidance

Conservatives are unlikely either to recapture Hollywood or make a competitor substantial enough to shift public philosophy writ large. We can build alternative institutions such as classical and religious schools, but these will educate only a small minority of the population. We can argue for a great religious revival, but the ranks of the churchgoing population have shrunk for 50 years and show no signs of reversal. All are tasks either impossible or generations in the making.

But our education system is one institution that conservatives can affect with public policy. What’s more, it is arguably one of the largest culture-shaping institutions in this country.

Progressive educators have long understood the importance of public schooling and the concept of the “hidden curriculum” in particular, the implicit messages and lessons a school inculcates. Everything that occurs in a school building communicates a philosophy to students. Who creates the curriculum and which books are chosen or excluded? What behavior is punished or rewarded? What student work or images are displayed throughout the building? Our schools form the philosophy of the next generation without any blue-haired ideologues ever needing to assign Kimerblé Crenshaw or Herbert Marcuse.

What’s on the contemporary hidden curriculum? “Action civics” has replaced history. Young adult fiction has replaced the classics. Student choice has replaced the curriculum. Free reign has replaced discipline. Media literacy has replaced literature.

All told, our schools communicate to students that their desires and impulses matter more than order, that nothing is worth learning in itself, and that the present moment is all that matters.

Rebuilding the core curriculum of our schools would provide our students with the guidance that popular culture and many adults refuse to provide. The mere existence of a curriculum implicitly communicates to students that there are things worth knowing, even if it doesn’t immediately interest them, that there are historical figures worth emulating, that the here and now is not all there is, and that there are things worthy of consideration beyond our mere passions and insular interests.

In his seminal work on classical education, David Hicks sets forth the concept of an “ideal type,” models of excellence and virtue after which our students can strive, concepts of perfection and morality that give them something sturdy to stand on. Literature and history classically taught provide glimpses into this ideal type. Literature provides students with thought experiments and arguments with which they can analyze their own life. History is more than a list of facts but a hall of exemplars to mimic—or avoid.

Once upon a time, the fight for a core curriculum was at the center of conservative education policy. But a few currents swept attention elsewhere. The bipartisan education reform movement of the 1990s and early 2000s set aside cultural fights to focus on sanitized goals such as improving test scores, leveraged through accountability and standards. Surely such technocratic goals were worthwhile. But they overlooked one of the fundamental effects of universal schooling: the formation of the character of the next generation.

When Common Core failed and the former bipartisan coalition splintered beyond repair under Trump’s presidency, conservatives developed an aversion to curricular reform and instead pushed for a policy agenda of school choice and multitudinous bans on progressive ideology seeping into the classroom.

Without doubt, these too are promising, but are both insufficient. Regarding school choice, so-called “choice” will mean little if the mediating institutions in our education sector—the standardized tests, teacher preparation programs, trade publications, curriculum companies, and more—are captured by progressivism. It means little to a diner to choose his meal if every option includes the same exact ingredients.

And regarding bans, they’re a bit like trying to stop the flow of a river with just a few logs and your hands. The torrent will find a way. Progressive terminology has a habit of morphing.

Last year’s political correctness is this year’s DEI, which in turn might be next year’s “empathy,” “belonging,” and “community.” The ideas persist under new nomenclature. Conservatives will be left once again explaining to the public how these euphonious-sounding words mean something quite different in the mouths of progressive activists. Conservative politicians will spend their limited political capital banning an ever-mutating hydra of word play.

Curricular reconstruction can occur locally from school boards won in recent elections or through modifying state-level education standards. The curriculum wars, especially in the universities, were a cause célèbre, and conservatives could and should take up that mantle again at the K-12 level.

Concluding Anecdotes

When I taught, modern educational theory would have had me pandering to student interests, letting them choose what we read next, and ignoring or explaining away their behavior. I did precisely the opposite. I read Shakespeare with them. I required them to work in silence and write formal academic essays. I explicitly taught grammar and provided practice exercises. Modern educational theory would have predicted chaos in response to this authoritative imposition of a curriculum; quite the opposite happened.

While reading Romeo and Juliet, after Capulet threatens to kick his daughter out of the house if she refuses an arranged marriage, one young woman came up to me to thank me for reading this play with the class. “It’s the first book that ever really got me,” she told me; it provided her with a thought experiment of sorts through which she could consider her own family conflict. In that same class, by the unit’s end, another young man who had previously been expelled for instigating lunchroom brawls acknowledged during a discussion that he saw in Tybalt’s character his own need to curtail his anger and rage.

Our elites consider models, preset routines, and rules and strictures of any kind to be oppressive, limiting, stifling even. But they’re not. Memorizing a concerto does not stifle a pianist’s creativity but provides him the freedom to play Chopin or Beethoven. Learning of Winston Churchill does not waste a student’s time with irrelevant history but introduces them to a model of courage even when confronting annihilation. Reading Shakespeare or Tolstoy with students invites them into and thereby dignifies them through engagement with the great conversation.

The transgenderism hinted at in CoComelon Lane is the apotheosis of a widely accepted philosophy of self. Where once radicals tore down the strictures of the Catholic Church or traditional marriage, now not even the gender binary can impose models or guides upon students. Even nature itself must conform to our passions and desires. But this relativity and encouragement of self-definition is leaving students listless. A core curriculum based on the best that has been thought and said used to provide students much of the guidance they crave, forming their characters in an ideal mold. It can do so again.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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