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Brian Dijkema: Who left the barbarians in charge of our books?

Commentary

Today, the CBC broke a story that showed how the Peel District School Board is culling books that fail to meet “equity-based” criteria for books in school libraries. Among the books that are thrown away, according to reporter Natasha Fatah, is Anne Frank’s diary. While they are not quite going so far as to host a bonfire to burn the books in school parking lots, the end result is pretty much the same. The board is not giving the books away, they are literally throwing them into the landfill to moulder. What an absolute abomination.

This practice is not just some random “woke” librarian on a rampage either. It is being done in response to a directive from the Ministry of Education, whose current minister is Stephen Lecce, a conservative. It comes from straight from the top.

The policy is the mirror image of the “anti-woke” book policy of the conservative governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis. A list of books removed from Florida public school libraries shows plenty of books that are terrible and that really shouldn’t be on the shelves, but also plenty that are not just okay, but genuinely endearing and in line with the tradition of living books. Why should a sweet, rhythmic, story about a Thai mom trying to quiet the animals so her baby can sleep be put out of a school library? I can’t tell you. Arguably, the Peel Board’s practice is even worse, as it simply removed any book published before 2008.

While the policy has since been countermanded by Lecce’s office, these types of policies—one aimed at removing “woke” books and another one aimed at “non-inclusive” books are, sadly, a metaphor for the state of public education these days. The words that best describe this policy are brutal and barbaric.

By this I don’t mean that school administrators are clothed in fur and looking for blood (though, judging from other goings-on in the Peel board, you can be forgiven for this assumption). They are a clear attempt to cut off students from a living tradition of reflection on the beauty and complications of human life, in favour of a simplistic, ideological vision. The dearly departed Australian poet Les Murray describes the situation better in three lines than I could in three pages:

Politics and Art

Brutal policy,
like inferior art, knows
whose fault it all is.

This is the mentality shaping both the Left’s and the Right’s vision for educating our kids. Is this what you want for your kids? It’s not what I want for mine.

This is not to say that libraries shouldn’t make choices about what to put on their shelves. Those choices are both a practical and pedagogical reality and will depend in part on the type of person you are trying to form. Perhaps it’s time to give up the pretense that forming our kids is something a system that self-articulately takes a pass on deeper questions of meaning and formation can do. Given the fact that two ostensibly “conservative” premiers have given North America two perfectly opposite, but equally brutal, policies on the literature that will shape our children’s imaginations, perhaps it’s time to find a new lens for evaluating education. 

And that lens, I should add, cannot simply be the technocratic one that our governments prefer. The culling of books based on ideological differences on sex or race or what have you is nothing compared to the culling of real, living, books that have been taking place in our libraries for years in the name of value-free technological “progress.” In many libraries—both public and school—books that would have once sparked flames of imagination in life in young children have been replaced by Chromebooks and electronic learning games or other bits of metal and silicon that are, literally, planned for obsolescence rather than for posterity. The beautiful, “eye on the object” look of children reading has been replaced by catatonic faces more often found in front of slot machines in a casino. 

The fact that the minister’s office issued a directive without offering clear criteria by which a book would be deemed to be “inclusive, culturally responsive, relevant, and reflective of students” (or even a definition of what it means by these extremely vague terms) is an abrogation of duty. A read of the audit reports produced by Peel indicates that this technocratic mindset is the greater concern for those of us concerned with education as something intended to shape humans, rather than technically proficient machines. It cloaks terms and actions that have significant import for the formation of children in administrative bureaucratese and is executed almost entirely by staff who are accountable to no one in particular, and certainly not Ontarian parents. 

Whether it’s ridding shelves of books like the Diary of Anne Frank in Ontario under Lecce, or Brother Eagle, Sister Sky under DeSantis, policies like this are another step in the alienation of children from the complexities of history and humanity. Even if this all is, as my friend Michael Demoor suggests, simply a case of bureaucratic stupidity brought on by the hugeness of the school boards (a view that is plausible, but which doesn’t deal with the very real and clearly articulated ideological nature of Ontario’s common school system, nor its increased centralization over the last few decades), it’s a stretch to say that this is a healthy way the system should be working. Overreach and bluntness of this sort are, as they say, a feature, not a bug, of systems where education is controlled by a bureaucratic state and massive, largely unaccountable, school boards.    

Perhaps this might give all of us—regardless of which colour you vote for in a given election—some pause, and a desire for something better.    

A month or so ago I was corresponding with the ever-so-gifted Mary Harrington about her recent book (reviewed here in The Hub) and mentioned that I appreciated how many of the concerns she raised in the book fit into an old-school “left-wing” model of politics. Her reply was enlightening. She said, “I don’t have a problem with being recognised as a leftist in some respects; it’s true, and besides I’m not sure the terms really apply anymore, as the split these days is more human vs posthuman.”

This, I think, is precisely where we need to be on education. Another word for brutal is inhumane. Both the Left and the Right are acting like barbarians and pushing a vision of education that is destroying our shared past and the reflections of human beings trying to make sense of the world. It has to stop. It’s time for a more humane, human-scale, vision of education. But to achieve that, humanists—of all political persuasions—will need to unite. 

Janet Bufton: The fight over liberty is far from over

Commentary

Review of: The Individualists
Authors: Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi
Publisher: Princeton University Press, 2023

In these pages last year, Ken Boessenkool summarized his view of libertarians

Libertarians don’t just want smaller government, they want pretty much no government. They don’t just want lower taxes, but essentially view taxation as confiscation at gunpoint. And they don’t just want free trade, they want free-for-all trade.

Libertarians care more about what policy costs than about what policy does. Libertarianism is what conservatives are sometimes left with with regards to their political programmer when their centre-left opponents co-opt their mainstream ideas.

Suffice it to say, I don’t recognize myself here, and neither would most libertarians. (Off the top of my head, we’re against the draft, even if it’s cheaper.) However, it tracks with the popular understanding of libertarianism. Still, Boessenkool is an experienced conservative strategist who worked with libertarians for decades. How did he end up with the same reductive, unflattering view as those who have long seen themselves as libertarianism’s political opponents? 

The Individualists, an intellectual history of libertarianism by Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi, can help make sense of not just libertarians but of an increasingly confusing political landscape. 

Zwolinski and Tomasi argue that commitments shared by libertarians since their emergence around 1850 have inspired different interpretations of what follows from those commitments, depending on the individuals that held them and the political context in which they lived. 

The core commitments of libertarianism—private property, skepticism of authority, free markets, spontaneous order, individualism, and negative liberty—can support more than Boessenkool’s stripped-down description of libertarianism. The Individualists explores how these “political markers” have formed a common thread through political theories that offer strikingly different answers to questions about the size and scope of government, big business, and responses to poverty, racial injustice, and global justice.

Contra socialism

The Individualists presents several examples in which “the full libertarian position did not come into its own until it had something to push against”. State socialism was both the first and the most enduring thing against which libertarianism pushed. 

Libertarianism radicalized classical liberalism in response to the rise of state socialism around 1850. In Britain and France, this gave many of the earliest libertarians a conservative bent, with largely economic goals that look familiar. But libertarian-conservative fusionism in opposition first to Roosevelt’s New Deal and then during the Cold War likely informs how most people today think of libertarianism. Within fusionism, libertarianism sat on the political Right, pushing for smaller government than conservatism generally. This was a relatively productive political alliance, but there was friction not just within the alliance, but within libertarianism. 

Among “strict libertarians” (defined in The Individualists as those who see their policy commitments flowing logically from their philosophical beliefs) the fiery personalities of Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand clashed when it came to issues like how to approach business and when to support war. Strict libertarians also clashed with “broad libertarians” (qualified as libertarians for their membership in the broader liberty movement) like Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek, who were attacked for insufficiently radical positions. 

It’s easy to laugh at the high drama of low stakes, but it would be mistaken. During the height of fusionism, libertarianism really did have access to power. Think of Ronald Reagan reading The Freeman (a publication of one of the oldest American libertarian organizations, the Foundation for Economic Education), or Margaret Thatcher slamming down a copy of Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty. While libertarians were hardly monolithic (few political movements are), that didn’t presuppose political influence. 

Academically, libertarians had heft, too. The Individualists reminds us that Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick credited a long conversation with Murray Rothbard for inspiring his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Libertarian economists Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek were crucial voices on the side of markets in the economic calculation debate about whether state socialism could deliver better returns than a market economy. 

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was a triumph for human liberty and dignity. It was also the beginning of the end of Cold War fusionism, and of the political relevance of the most salient arguments libertarians had been making for half a century. 

Where next?

Libertarianism seems stripped down and adrift in part because libertarians, like conservatives, are casting about for new political homes, and trying to cast off the baggage of old political context. 

We can better imagine where libertarianism might go without the threat of state socialism to unify it or to unite it with conservatism by looking to libertarianism’s past. Socialism isn’t the only threat against which libertarians have defined themselves. 

Early American libertarians, in fact, often identified as socialists—or anarchists. These libertarians aligned themselves against slavery and the illegitimacy of the social contract, and the government, that it implied. In this tradition, libertarian heroes look less like Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman and more like Lysander Spooner, who started an illegal post office to undermine the idea of state monopolies, or even John Brown, who launched a failed insurrection to end slavery. 

Back across the pond, Richard Cobden and John Bright built a political alliance in opposition to imperialism and war, believing that ending the protectionist Corn Laws in the United Kingdom would move the country away from paternalistic imperialism and towards a more peaceful world, perhaps one without meaningful national borders. 

Libertarianism without socialism isn’t libertarianism without purpose, after all. But it might look quite different. Zwolinski and Tomasi suggest that post-Cold-War libertarianism has begun to split into three camps: paleo-libertarianism, bleeding-heart libertarianism, and Left-libertarianism. 

Paleo-libertarianism emphasizes a perceived link between freedom and culture. They emphasize the role of property rights in preserving national values by providing a theoretical basis for the exclusion of outsiders (hotly contested by other libertarians). Paleo-libertarians assume that people are basically conservative and are wary of cosmopolitanism and progressive values. This strain of libertarianism fits neatly with the “New Right” and national conservatism—though an alliance hasn’t yielded the success and influence that Cold War libertarianism enjoyed. 

Bleeding-heart libertarians are motivated by concerns about social justice rooted in their belief that spontaneous orders can yield both good and bad outcomes, and believe that “Individual freedom is an ideal to be pursued together.” Left-libertarians are motivated by concerns about concentrated and monopolistic power, including corporate power. For them, “Liberty is about solidarity—without the state.” The goals of Left- and bleeding-heart libertarians may be compatible, but paleo-libertarians oppose both concerns about social justice and anything associated with the Left. Erstwhile allies may find themselves standing against one another, but Zwolinski and Tomasi only predict that the fight is far from over.

In exploring the history of libertarian thought, The Individualists provides a model for understanding how political movements can shift with the contexts they’re in and the personalities that drive them. Come for the explanation of why a Cold War political lens is inappropriate for understanding libertarianism today, stay for another way of thinking about our political world.