Education Commentary

Cynicism: ‘The Opiate of Thought’

By James M. Banner Jr. — February 20, 1991 6 min read

“How,” I asked a group of high-school teachers recently in a workshop on the Constitutional provisions regarding war, “can the reluctance of Congress to debate the advisability of battle in the Persian Gulf before January be explained?” “Oh, that’s easy,” one shot back. “Cowardice.” “Might not a Supreme Court decision,” I ventured, “exert a check on future Presidential action by virtue of the High Court’s moral authority?” “It has no moral authority,” I was told. “Well, then,” I persisted, “what checks are there on Congressional and Presidential war powers?” “None at all,” was the widespread response. “And anyway,” one teacher rebuked me, “the President will do as he likes, just as Lincoln did during the Civil War.” “How about public opinion as a limit on government action,” I tried again, “as during the Vietnam War?” “Naw,” came the answer. “No one expects the government to respond to the people.”

Now, of course, each of these responses may be valid. The problem is that they were uttered by professional teachers not as fact, not in an inquiring spirit, but out of the deepest cynicism. If such attitudes are characteristic among teachers, nothing--not inadequate teacher training, not low achievement-test scores, not inequitable school financing--could be more threatening to American education.

Cynics may have good reason for their attitudes. After all, the world repeatedly foils the idealist and disappoints even the person of modest hope. Men and women often act from deficient and sordid motives. Laws are ignored, constitutions sometimes of little protection against the tyrant or the mob. Acts of ostensible generosity can veil advantage-seeking, and grand visions and words can prove to be hypocritical. Yet cynicism is the opiate of thought. A conviction that human behavior is rooted wholly in self-interest, a contemptuous distrust of people’s acts and expression, keeps the cynic from seeing the world whole and often from seeing it right. Knowing, in Oscar Wilde’s sharp words, “the price of everything, and the value of nothing,” the cynic comes to all challenges of thought with a mind befogged by certainty and lacking a sense of wonder and play.

If cynicism is a danger to us all (and who among us has not succumbed to it from time to time?), to young students it is a particular peril. In teachers, therefore, cynicism is indefensible, if not a breach of professional ethics. The reason is not because some students are not, or will not become, cynics by themselves. The world about them, especially in our inner cities, provides all the spurs to cynicism that anyone needs. The reason that cynicism in a teacher in the presence of students is insupportable is that it erects, rather than tears down, barriers to thought. It prevents analysis and abstraction. It bars the mind from understanding contingency and the spirit from sensing possibility. Worst of all it leads to fatalism, to the view that normal human agency has no power in the world and that only the less wholesome qualities of human nature avail.

Take the teachers’ answers to my questions. The view that cravenness among a majority of senators and representatives explains what some people, I among them, consider to have been Congressional tardiness in debating the wisdom of war in the Middle East, forecloses the chance to explore, and to lead students to explore, other explanations. Considerations of national security and diplomatic strategy, the reality of institutional inertia in representative bodies, historical precedents, partisan divisions, and the location of effective initiative in government are all issues that come to bear on as freighted a challenge as legislative action in time of war. To ascribe Congressional action to base motives prevents the broadening of students’ minds to encompass complexity and ambiguity, to weigh competing and alternative explanations, and to understand the conditions under which the representative bodies of a democratic republic work.

To conclude--to allow students to conclude--that the U.S. Supreme Court lacks moral authority, that there now exists no effective institutional checks upon Congressional and Presidential war powers, that government has become isolated from citizens might be the result of wide-ranging discussions about how authority is gained, lost, and assessed and about citizens’ role in governing themselves. But to dismiss the issue of institutional authority or to let pass in silence a question of limits on power--that is, to allow students by cynicism to assume, and not by careful evaluation to conclude, what might in fact be defensible positions--is to deny young people the chance to consider the role of institutions, people, and ideas in human affairs. It is also, of course, to fail to help them to see, as the Founding Fathers knew, how fragile is republican government, how vigilant as citizens people must be in preserving it. A cynical explanation of human behavior is thus no explanation at all. It is rather a spur to ignorance and passivity.

Do I make too much of what may have been passing comments, smart-alecky postures, by the teachers before me? Perhaps. But if some of them were satisfied by cynical answers to my questions, might they not let such responses pass unchallenged if uttered by their own students? In fact, if they imagined that cynical answers even constituted considered responses, then what must be the quality of discussions in their classrooms, their respect for evidence, their refinement of thought?

Cynicism as an approach to knowledge and as a method of teaching it belongs in one place only: outside the schoolhouse door. Nothing is more precious to youth than its hopes for the future. To dash these hopes through cynicism is to blight that future itself. It should instead be the obligation of teachers actively to combat every evidence of cynicism they find in their students, to challenge it with facts, questions, views, hypotheses. The mind cannot fill without confidence that knowledge opens the way to possibility. Nor can the spirit sustain itself without some confidence in our better nature, rather than just a condemnation of our lesser ways. It is cynicism’s consequence to deny precisely the kind of distinctions and discriminations among life’s events that make human choice possible and knowledge of human behavior of any value. For if everything is contemptible and to be dismissed, of what worth then is one’s own contributions to life?

Closemindedness in a teacher is as unforgivable as ignorance, only it is more difficult to eradicate. An absence of knowledge can be fought by learning. For teachers today--though never for enough of them--opportunities for learning take the form of fellowships, sabbaticals, professional-development programs, and a growing number of other institutional efforts, to say nothing of teachers’ own efforts, many of them under the most demanding professional circumstances, individually to maintain and broaden their own knowledge. But a dismissive attitude about people and their acts, being a posture toward life and an inclination of mind and personality, cannot be taught away. No workshops or fellowships are likely to make a difference. Instead, it must be disciplined by its possessors, fought against like an addiction, challenged by colleagues, never held up as exemplary or amusing. It should be identified as the enemy of learning that it is. Then it can be said of more schools that, there, inquiry, not mere instruction, has dominion.

A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 1991 edition of Education Week as Cynicism: ‘The Opiate of Thought’


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