Student Idealism

We commonly rank motives from high to low, and distinguish “cynics,” who ascribe low motives to common behaviors, from “idealists,” who ascribe high motives. Official propaganda tends to be idealistic, including what we teach in schools. While basic concepts in economics and sociobiology can be understood at young ages, we teach them much later. This isn’t an accident:

Sarah Hrdy … questioned “whether sociobiology should be taught at the high-school level … The whole message of sociobiology is oriented toward the success of the individual. … Unless a student has a moral framework already in place, we could be producing social monsters by teaching this.”


Cynical descriptive conclusions about behavior in government threaten to undermine the norm prescribing public spirit. The cynicism of journalists – and even the writings of professors – can decrease public spirit simply by describing what they claim to be its absence.

Many say we are better off training kids to help others, even if we have to lie and suggest most folks do this.  Nietzsche said “society encourages self-sacrifice because the unselfish sucker is an asset to others.”  But this theory suggests local temptations to defect; I would want your kids, but not mine, to be taught to help others.  Instead, however, we see parents pushing their own kids to be taught idealism.  Why?

One reason I think is that moderate idealism is an attractive feature of potential associates; it suggests they will be helpful and cooperative to associates. For example:

Not to be a socialist at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head. Georges Clemenceau

We expect high idealism from college applicants, less from grad school applicants, and far less from older job applicants.  So while we expect folks to slowly learn the cynical truth about the world, and we expect smarter folks to learn faster, those more cynical than their cohort are seen as untrustworthy, while those more idealistic are seen as impractical or stupid.  I wish I could find the source, but I once heard that a far larger fraction of Harvard law admitees than graduates planned to do public interest law.

This theory says students and parents have a common interest in being seen as learning age-appropriate idealism.  But an experienced high school teacher explained to me last weekend why young students have an even stronger desire to be taught idealism: students strongly prefer teachers they can personally trust, and students see cynical teachers as untrustworthy.  That hadn’t occurred to me, and not only does it make sense in general, it makes sense of one of my failures.

In fall 2006 I tried to create a class for non-econ honors students.  These tend to be high-test-scoring female non-science-major sophomores taking classes like Conceptions of Self, Reading Cultural Signs, and Cross-Cultural Perspectives.  My class was Reforming Social Institutions:

We will go one by one, week by week, through major institutions of modern life … [and] review the basic features and supposed functions of existing institutions, some common complaints about those institutions, and some suggested reforms.

My teaching style was mostly my usual, emphasizing discussion, and thought I balanced cynicism on current institutions with idealism on reform.  Many loved the class, but alas others hated it, and our evaluation system punishes variance.  When typical evaluations are 4 out of 5, one student saying 1 cancels three students saying 5.  So I got by far the lowest evaluations since my first year of teaching seven years before (when I was terrible).  Sample comments:

“class discussions were not related to the material and were not conducive to learning.  I would suggest a different Professor teach this course.”
“instructor has no place teaching an honors course.  Discussion topics … were brought down to an asinine level”
“too much sexual innuendo in class discussion”
“felt uncomfortable in class -> – too many sexual innuendos – felt he has interest in female students”

(I’ve never had remotely similar complaints re sex.) This seems weak personal confirmation: many kids distrust and dislike cynical teachers.  Of course another factor might be their other teachers hostile to econ-style cynicism.  At an interdisciplinary conference I once asked an English professor, half-joking, “Why do you guys hate us?”  His immediate serious reply: “You know.”

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