I am willing to wager my house that not one of my son’s seventh-grade classmates could identify John Locke in a photo. I am then willing to let that wager ride on another gamble that less than one percent of the seventh or eighth-graders in the Los Angeles Unified School District would be able to identify Locke in a photo array of historical figures. Double or nothing that not only would they not know who he is, but they would also have no idea of why he is important. I would then bet my entire stack of chips that a substantially higher number of middle-school students could identify Karl Marx. I anticipate being a very wealthy man.
This venture came to my mind following an end of the year visit to my son’s middle-school.
My wife and I attended a parents’ night at our son’s school. As we entered his English classroom, I noticed that the walls of the classroom were covered with photos of Karl Marx, Joseph Stalin, and Vladimir Lenin. The eighth-grade students had been studying George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” On every wall was a hand-made poster featuring a photo of Karl Marx, some biographical information, along with some pithy bit of wisdom attributed to him. As we left the room, I whispered to my son, “Tell your teacher that your father wants to know when she will teach the work of John Locke.” My son responded, “Who is John Locke?”
Written by George Orwell in 1945, “Animal Farm” is the allegorical tale of the wickedness and terror of Stalinist Russia. Significantly, the book is not a condemnation of Marxism. Rather it is a cautionary tale about Stalinism. “Animal Farm” is really a commentary on how Russian apathy and political corruption derailed the Marxist utopia. It’s also a rather cynical tale of the inevitability of totalitarianism.
Orwell’s novel also happens to be a fine piece of literature and one that I believe has a proper place in our children’s literary curriculum.
But was the problem with Stalinism only that it corrupted the Marxist ideal? Is totalitarianism the natural end of all forms of government, or are men capable of ruling themselves? Without the foundation of Locke, do American children have the philosophical foundation necessary to understand what is truly evil about Stalin and Marx and conversely, what is good and unique about America? I am concerned when young students can’t identify the source of the ideas upon which their nation was founded, but can easily identify men whose political beliefs are in direct opposition to those ideas.