I was just rereading the great Richard Mitchell essay, ‘Children and Fish,’ and thinking it was my favorite of all. It is a difficult choice to make, given my appreciation of the others, but certainly I have read it more often and find myself considering it anew with each reading. The subject of what we make of ourselves was the particular point that hooked my thoughts this time.
One measure of Mitchell’s depth and breadth is that he could read a turgid socialist polemic like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and find something edifying. In this case, it was in the clear representation of a negative: Bellamy’s ruthless idea of human rights. Wading through the weeds of such thought, tiresome and full of poisonous ticks, had kept me from ever finishing the book, but Mitchell, always the good teacher and likely made immune to such foolishness by the annual inoculation of live virus in sophomoric term papers, has extracted the lie that is the very linchpin of the socialist state.
Remember now that Looking Backward was a stunning bestseller in its day. Stunning in all the senses of the word. How this came to be is another subject for another time, but it explains the mind of a certain intellectual strata of the late Nineteenth Century and how the thinking of people as diverse as Margaret Sanger and Woodrow Wilson, John Dewey and Eugene V. Debs might have developed. It was a ‘can do’ age and the idea that people could be educated to be good—as in, to act in a socially acceptable manner—was afoot as well as in a lot of heads. Never mind asking what ‘good’ is.
Just as the computer appears to have overwhelmed human intelligence in our own moment in history, by relegating thought to an amalgam of 0s and 1s, the new machine age of the Nineteenth gave totalitarians the brilliant idea that both human behavior and human nature could be regulated and perfected for the common good of a utopian future. Consider, for just a few seconds (any more than that will cause blood clotting) the invention of another Dewey, by the first name of Melvil. For every curious child in thrall to reading, all the libraries in America suddenly became an inscrutable province, and finding the book you wanted meant revealing your heart to the cold eye of ever-skeptical librarians trained in a mystical code. The alphabet and subject were not enough. Such open reference simply had to be mechanized to be controlled, you see. I see in the Wikipedia that Melvil’s original four-page pamphlet containing fewer than 1000 categories has grown in our time to a four-volume set. Such is the natural growth of all bureaucracy—bureaucracy simply being the mechanization of any government.
Richard Mitchell wisely notes in his essay that we are children so long as we do not control our own lives, and by extension, the more such control is subcontracted out to the state (as parenting is now sublet to the schools) the longer we remain children and only as responsible and capable as a child can be.
“Education is not something one person does to another . . . we have to do it to ourselves, one by one.”
Our responsibility to our children is first through example, and the first child each of us must rear is ourselves, before we can ‘rear’ others. ‘Rear’ is a wonderfully underutilized word in this Kardashian age.
Mitchell asks the question of all questions: What is the goodness you aspire to? Is it the goodness of a well-behaved child who does not throw the grapefruit at the market when you take them shopping, or one who will habitually tell the truth?
I worry that we have reached the historical time when behavior is adjudged by conformity instead of truth. I fear that the mechanized philosophy of Mr. Bellamy has proven triumphant.
You will have to find out about the ‘fish’ for yourself.