Kant famously claimed that “out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” It is an idea both liberating and oppressive. Humans and their inventions aren’t perfect, nor are they going to be, but, on the other hand, humans and their inventions aren’t perfect, and they’re never going to be. See what I mean? It’s a real problem–an is the glass half-empty or half-full kind of problem.
The idea that our natures are irreparably flawed is often used to justify callous social policies and authoritarian regimes–let the market rule. Conversely, the idea that our natures are reparable is also used to justify totalitarianism and various flavors of homogeneity–treating people as blank environmental outputs–which leads me to believe that just about everyone who actively campaigns to rule over anything is probably an asshole, but we’ll get back to that. It’s an old argument. Indeed, these dueling ideas, nature versus artifice, are at the heart of Freud’s dismissal of Marxism.
There is in fact, Freud believed, a kind of human nature, and regardless of that nature’s plasticity, the world with its various injustices is not mere historical accident. It’s not capital that has dehumanized us, or mechanical reproduction that has robbed us of originality. It’s just human desires run amuck–sloth on tap. Basically, we can’t make better people: meanness, spite, lust and violence are bred in the bone. The best we can do is hold our baser instincts at bay, tame our savagery with routine meals and a whip.
Still, it would seem impossible for any reasonable person to deny that our environment affects more than just our self-restraint. Poverty breeds violence. Abusers tend to abuse. Pampering breeds indifference. You know the drill. Hopelessness turns out malcontents and thugs faster than a Hostess factory can turn out donuts. Fortunately, the stupid intransigence of pain remains so only if unchallenged. It is surprisingly flimsy, and it doesn’t take much to dull its edge. Does anyone really dispute that a clean and safe environment improves the life of all by fostering the dignity of one? I wouldn’t think so, but I’m not sure how else to understand the sensibilities of capitalist privateers and free-market groupies. Take your average biped, give them ample food, space, security and purpose, and you’ll produce vanilla-flavored happiness nine-and-a-half-times out of ten. It’s a pretty simple recipe, actually. Sure, you’ll occasionally produce a dissident, but the vast majority will be happy to bump along. Trust me, all those radicals in the sixties didn’t give up the fight; they just got jobs. Not only are revolutions not televised, they’re not free.
This isn’t, however, a diatribe against the concentrations of wealth in the United States–even though such concentrations are a kind of moral catastrophe. No, I’m interested in the limits of the nurture-axiom. What are the limitations of social engineering? How far can the community’s investment in self-development go? Surely, we can agree that economic opportunity tends to produce general satisfaction, if not spiritual nourishment. We also know that, in general, people who are better educated tend to live longer, as do people who make more money–though there is a correlation cap to both. But how far do we go with that?
Sending every child in the United States to a university is an idea so ridiculous that only politicians and administrators take it seriously. Vocations that don’t require an upper-division writing requirement are not only just as necessary as cube jobs, there’re a good deal more dignified. Now, I’m not valorizing rock quarry-style labor. Having grown up under my father’s labor autocracy, I know what sodding a yard backfilled with rebar and building remainders is like, but having passed many a day under the anesthetizing buzz of those fluorescent gas chambers illuminating desks all across America, I’m not sure there’s a clear winner. Break the body or the spirit–it’s a matter of taste. Labor is just hard, but some people are clearly inclined to one form over the other, and as long as we valorize one, well, as long as we valorize one we’ll get a situation that looks very much like the one we’re in.
Still, I have to admit, the intent is good. How else do you combat persistent poverty and racial discrimination than through such initiatives? I don’t know, but I do know that a liberal-arts education doesn’t necessarily improve anything, which is a difficult thing to admit. As an English lecturer, I’d like to say that Shakespeare makes you better, that reading and understanding Plato, Sylvia Plath and the literary ambitions of Roberto Bolano will make you more sensitive to the human condition. But it won’t. If someone can misconstrue Christ’s message to mean, “blow up abortion clinics,” then I’m afraid the iambic pentameter just isn’t going to cut it. Case in point, Schopenhauer, the 19th century philosopher and vegetarian advocate for the humane treatment of animals, learned the Buddhist dictum that life is suffering so completely he decided to prove it by regularly abusing his maid and throwing her down the stairs. He knew Latin and Greek and a good deal more besides, but he was a dick regardless of his humanistic horizons.
Obviously, though, we can’t champion ignorance. There’s no shorter route to dehumanization than by way of idiocy. As sorry as it sounds, it seems as if some sort of fall-back to the golden mean is about the best I can come up with–even though I’m not sure where that leaves more radical social changes, like the civil-rights movement and the Egyptian revolution. I don’t know, I’m pretty confident we can’t make better people, but I continually hope that people, including myself, can be better.