Educational Despotism

education the odyssey soft despotism lotus eaters alexis de tocqueville teachers

Richard Gunderman for AdamSmithWorks

September 1, 2021
One of the most remarkable depictions of despotism in world literature is found in one of its oldest and greatest works – Homer’s Odyssey. As Odysseus and his men are sailing home to Ithaca, they are blown off course for a full ten days before reaching the land of the Lotus-eaters. While the crew is resting and collecting fresh water, Odysseus sends two of his men to see what sort of people inhabit the place. Happily, the indigenous Lotus-eaters are not hostile and even treat their visitors with apparent hospitality. Yet they turn out to be the most sinister of despots.
The Lotus-eaters give Odysseus’ men Lotus to eat of, and as soon as they do so, the men “did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them.” Instead, they were for staying in the land of the lotus and never thinking of their return. To get them back, Odysseus must forcibly retrieve them and bind them as they bitterly weep under the ship’s benches. Once the men had eaten of the lotus, they ceased to be themselves and longed for nothing more than to cast off their cares and sorrows, giving in to a comfortable numbness.
The Lotus-eaters are soft despots, as opposed to the hard despotism of another of the Odyssey’s characters, the Cyclops, a giant who deals violently with Odysseus and his men. Scoffing at the dictates of hospitality, he uses his superior strength to capture, bind, kill, and eat his guests. By comparison, the Lotus-eaters are both subtler and more deadly, for they deprive their guests of something even more fundamental than life -- their identity. Men who have always defined themselves in terms of their homeland, people, and mission lose all sense of who they are and what they care about most in life.
I know educators and learners who feel similarly. Teachers in kindergarten through 12th grade programs lament that they are micromanaged, required to “teach to the test,” and not trusted to do what they know to be in the best interests of their students. College teachers feel increasing pressure to toe an ideological line, avoid challenging their students with ideas that might make them uncomfortable, and earn high satisfaction scores. Even in graduate and professional schools, moving up in rankings and implementing administrative initiatives often trump professional mission and vision.
Consider a high school science teacher I know. Noticing that one of her best students was weeping silently at her desk, she summoned her into the hall to discover the problem. It turned out that the girl had just learned she was pregnant. The teacher remained with her in the hall, listening to her concerns, offering consolation, and attempting to help her find a path forward. When a vice principal walked by, however, he wrote up the teacher for failing to stick to her lesson plan. The administrator, who knew nothing of the situation, placed blind adherence to rules above professional judgment and compassion.
It was Alexis de Tocqueville who first contrasted hard and soft despots and coined the term soft despotism. A hard despot such as Cyclops is immediately identifiable, acts with little or no regard for the freedom and responsibility of others, and punishes opponents in ways that vary from reprimands and unfavorable performance reports to political imprisonment, torture, and even execution and assassination. World history is littered with the proponents of hard despotism, from reviled figures such as Caligula and Hitler to others sometimes treated as heroes, such as Alexander and Napoleon.
Soft despotism is different. In this case, it is often difficult to identify who is responsible. Accountability is often diffused through a wide bureaucratic network, in which no single individual or group of individuals can be held to account. The outward appearance of soft despotism is the antithesis of its hard counterpart – conditions seem peaceful and perhaps even positively benign. Odysseus’ men, for example, are not hand-cuffed and even long to remain in bondage. Most importantly, soft despotism places its subjects in positions of ignorance and dependency.
In Democracy in America, Tocqueville captures soft despotism in these terms:
After having thus taken each individual one by one into its powerful hands, and having molded him as it pleases, the sovereign power extends its arms over the entire society; it covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated, minute, and uniform rules, which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot break through to go beyond the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them and directs them; it rarely forces action, but it constantly opposes your acting; it does not destroy, it prevents birth; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, it represses, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupefies, and finally it reduces each nation to being nothing more than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
Soft despotism is powerful, but in an insidious way. It molds its subjects not by torture but by ensnaring us in a system of rules. Its instruments are not the sword and the rack but the strategic plan, policies and procedures, annual reviews, and marketing. Highly averse to provoking decision and action, it instead soothes and enervates. No one says no, but they keep referring you to another department, and then another department, and soon you drift off, lulled into forgetfulness like Odysseus’ men. Echoing John Milton, Tocqueville foresees human beings herded like sheep.
For the denizens of higher education, it is all too familiar. The strategic plan is to become a top-ten program in the region, or number-one in the field. Success is defined in terms of rankings, which presuppose a vision of excellence that can be quantified. The stated goal is not to become the best version of ourselves possible or contribute as much as possible to students, colleagues, and community, but to come out on top, implying that the efforts of our colleagues at other institutions are somehow less deserving or innately opposed to our own. For one to move up, another must fall.
The policies and procedures manual and the annual review become tools of covert coercion, and their key theme is documentation. That which is not documented never happened. Metrics become the currency of the day, based on the presumption that anything that is not measured cannot be managed. Before long, people spend more time making their numbers than pursuing and promoting excellence. The girth of promotion and tenure dossiers balloons out of control, to the extent that it becomes impossible to see any forest beyond the trees.
I know of a school administrator who was being called to account for poor satisfaction scores at his institution. Reasoning that low satisfaction could damage morale, with adverse ripple effects on recruiting and retention and the quality of faculty, the board demanded that he take steps to boost the numbers. To do so, he proposed withholding a portion of each teacher’s annual compensation until satisfaction scores began to improve. His goal was not to make any meaningful difference in work conditions, but simply to massage a metric.
Marketing can become all. What matters most is not whether we are producing a quality product or whether learners and communities really benefit from the service we provide, but simply whether they buy it. The purpose of institutional marketing campaigns ceases to be education and becomes manipulating behavior. There is no need to fashion rational arguments for the safety, efficiency, or drivability of automobiles when simply draping an attractive person over the hood will move them off the dealer’s lot, so why not employ similar strategies in higher education?
Soft despotism only works if we can be made to lose our way. So long as we see clearly where we are, what path we are on, and where we are trying to get to, it cannot succeed. We must be disoriented, confused, made to feel uncertain about which way is up, and even whether there is really an up or down at all. Those who lack map and compass are easily steered in any direction. Instead of grabbing and forcing us in a direction we do not wish to go, soft despotism convinces us that there is no appropriate orientation and that one path is just as good as any other.
C.S. Lewis took pains to remind his readers that the greatest evils are not perpetrated in Dickensian dens of crime or even 20th century concentration camps. Instead, they are “conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.” The devil Screwtape intimates much the same to his nephew, “The safest road to hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
To achieve such disorientation, soft despotism seduces us into supposing that it will do for us what we cannot or will not do for ourselves. It reduces us to a state of infantilization, convincing us that matters have become so complicated or so difficult that only experts can do the job right. How could anyone but a PhD armed with a supercomputer begin to make adequately informed choices? Ordinary people must cede important matters to the experts. Where, we find ourselves asking, is the central authority with the technical horsepower necessary to do the job right?
In the last few decades, outsourcing has become commonplace. Manufacturing, information technology, and even routine legal services have been outsourced and offshored to external providers, displacing many workers yet reducing costs. Soft despotism is a different kind of outsourcing. In this case, we outsource our own judgment and decision-making authority, purchasing ease and security at an even dearer price – namely, our freedom and responsibility. To ease our burdens, we accept an existence of ignorance and dependency.
Those seeking road signs by which to avoid soft despotism or compass settings by which to escape it would be well advised to consult Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith’s perspective convincingly undermines many of the assumptions on which the despot’s project rests. For example, he expresses great confidence in the discernment of ordinary parents, teachers, and students. Against the point of view that experts alone possess the requisite understanding to order human life, Smith argues that moral life is embedded in situations that only those close to them can adequately understand.
Every man, as the Stoics used to say, is first and principally recommended to his own care; and every man is certainly, in every respect, fitter and abler to take care of himself than of any other person. Every man feels his own pleasures and his own pains more sensibly than those of other people. The former are the original sensations; the latter the reflected or sympathetic images of those sensations. The former may be said to be the substance; the latter the shadow.
It is impossible for a central authority, necessarily far removed from the circumstances of each person, family, and community, to make appropriate educational decisions in our stead. Given a choice between a world in which experts make educational choices for students, parents, and teachers and one in which we do so ourselves, Smith strongly urges the latter. The systems of experts may seem more sophisticated and powerful, but they are divorced from reality. They mistakenly suppose that responsibility can be reduced to adherence to laws and rules, and that fidelity to such standards is key.
Smith has far too much respect for the richness and complexity of human life to accept such a naïve assertion. Soft despots who seek to shift our educational field of view from families, classrooms, and schools to national education policies cannot genuinely know or care about the teachers, parents, and students from whom they seek to arrogate decision-making authority. To make a wise choice that fits a situation, we must know and care about those involved. On this basis alone, soft despots, whom Smith refers to as “men of system,” are not qualified to decide.
Educational discernment cannot be reduced to any abstract system. To repeat, learners and educators strive to do what is appropriate and be good for one another precisely because they know and care about one another. Well-considered decisions are, in a profound sense, impossible for strangers, and except in cases of emergency or a lack of decision-making capacity, no one should presume to choose for someone else. Excellence in education requires acute understanding and a deft hand, in comparison to which central authorities and their systems wield very blunt instruments.
The administration of the great system of the universe, however, the care of the universal happiness of all rational and sensible beings, is the business of God and not of man. To man is allotted a much humbler department, but one much more suitable to the weakness of his powers, and to the narrowness of his comprehension; the care of his own happiness, of that of his family, his friends, his country: that he is occupied in contemplating the more sublime, can never be an excuse for his neglecting the more humble department.
In one of his letters, Tolstoy provides a beautiful illustration of the soft despot’s perspective. He is like a man who looks across a valley and sees only a dense forest. He does not dream that beneath the leafy canopy dwell the many families of a village, each seeking to lead a full life. To become decent human beings, Tolstoy urges, we must respect that particularity. When a friend or neighbor is joyful, we should rejoice with them, and when they are in sorrow, we should suffer with them. But except in extreme circumstances, we should never presume to rescue them from themselves.
The 20th century overflowed with examples of titans who thought otherwise. The architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, who fancied himself “Le Corbusier,” was one such soft despot. A founder of modern architecture, he was a true man of system, having drawn up master plans for whole cities, such as Chandigarh in India. Concerning houses, the dwelling places of families and the first loci of education, he writes,
A house is a cell within the body of a city. The cell is made up of the vital elements which are the mechanics of a house. . . . Our pavilion [for the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts, namesake of art deco] will contain only standard things created by industry in factories and mass produced . . . . My pavilion will therefore be a cell extracted from a huge apartment building.
One need but glance at his headquarters building for Soviet trade unions in Moscow, his Church of Saint-Pierre in Firminy, or his convent of Sainte Marie de la Tourette near Leon to appreciate the extreme standardization and authoritarianism of his designs. It would be difficult to imagine how reinforced concrete could be poured into a more disorienting and inhumane form. His creations appear utterly sterile.
The same can be said for education about education. People may think that because they have gone to school to earn a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree in education, they have mastered everything that is needed. But they haven’t. Knowing about education means more than knowing how to design curricula, develop instructional methods, and assess performance. It means knowing about a subject matter, the core ideas that animate it, the students who study it, and how the study of a particular subject, idea, or text could enrich and even transform a learner’s life.
Good teachers can take a cue from one of the lessons education’s soft despots have failed to learn, humility. The writer Frank McCourt described the despair he felt year after year trying to make a difference in the lives of his students. The students seemed unreachable, and he was approaching the conclusion that there was nothing he could do. Then some years later he bumped into one of his former students at a bar. He was now a top magazine writer, and he told McCourt that his was the best class he had ever taken. Even teachers do not always know the difference we are making.
A society of free and responsible individuals is only possible when people are educated for freedom and responsibility, and this is precisely what educational despotism seeks to commandeer. To resist strong despotisms, we need strength. To resist soft ones, we must remain alert and oriented, jealously guarding our moral and political prerogatives against the encroachment of a stupefying expertise. Experts may have something to teach us, but ultimate responsibility for educational decision making must rest not on the top floor of administration buildings but on the ground, with students, teachers, and parents.
To avoid soft despotism is one of the most urgent challenges facing education today. What seems to reorient us in the direction of efficiency may in fact disorient us entirely. What seems to magnify us to our grandest possible proportions may in fact reduce us to insignificance. And what seems to make existence easier for us may in fact rob us of life. Against the totalitarian grandeur of the schools in Le Corbusier’s “radiant city,” Smith redirects us to a single classroom, where a teacher is bringing out the best in each of her students. One is the inhumane vision of a despot, the other a portrait of human vitality.