Magazine | July 19, 2010, Issue

Unfriendly Persuasion

‘I think it is kids’ preference to pair up and have that one best friend. As adults — teachers and counselors — we try to encourage them not to do that.”

Thus Christine Laycob, “director of counseling” at Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School in Missouri, speaking to the New York Times the other day about why best friends are a bad thing. “Parents sometimes say Johnny needs that one special friend. We say he doesn’t need a best friend.”

By “we,” she means the expert opinion of “educators.” Granted that “educators” seem to have minimal interest in education, and that therefore it would be unreasonable to expect them to regard, say, American students’ underperformance in everything from math to music as a priority, one is still impressed by their ability to conjure hitherto unknown crises to obsess over. The tone of the Times piece is faintly creepy — not least in its acceptance of the totalitarian proposition that it’s appropriate for “experts” to reengineer one of the most basic building blocks of our humanity: the right to choose our friends.

If the report reads like something out of The Stepford Kindergarten PTA, it is no more than the logical endpoint of the educational establishment’s preference for collectivized mediocrity over individual achievement: A child should no longer have best friends, and close friends, and people he’s happy to hang around with, and folks he doesn’t much care for. Instead, he should just be friends with the collective, with the commune, all the same. We conservatives have been wasting our energy arguing the difference between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. The statists have moved on, and are now demanding equality of basic human relationships, and starting in nursery school.

Oh, come on, you scoff. Why make a big deal about one itsy-bitsy New York Times education story?

Well, because much of the contemporary scene owes its origins to silly little fads among “educators” that seemed too laughable to credit only the day before yesterday. I see the Times piece references those literary best friends of yore, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. But Tom and Huck’s boyhood is all but incomprehensible to today’s children. I believe that unlike its fellow Missouri educational establishment in St. Louis, the grade school in St. Petersburg had no “director of counseling,” because, if it had, she would have diagnosed Tom with ADHD and pumped him full of Ritalin, and the story would have been over before he’d been told to whitewash the fence. The suppression of boyhood would have been thought absurd half a century back. Yet the “educators” pulled it off, effortlessly. Why not try something even more ambitious?

Speaking of best friends, in 1902 Theodore Morse and Edward Madden wrote the song “Two Little Boys,” in which the eponymous tykes are wont to play soldiers on wooden horses. (The great Aussie didgeridooist Rolf Harris revived the song in 1969, and it got to No. 1; Mrs. Thatcher named it one of her favorite records.) “One little chap / Then had a mishap,” as the song says, and breaks his mount. So his friend offers to share his steed:

#page#Did you think I would leave you crying   When there’s room on my horse for two? Climb up here, Jack, and don’t be crying I can go just as fast with two . . .

Come the next verse, the horses are real, and they’re in the thick of battle. This time round, the other boy loses his mount, shot out from under him, and it’s Jack’s turn to say:

Did you think I would leave you dying When there’s room on my horse for two? Climb up here, Joe, we’ll soon be flying . . .

The lessons we learn in childhood stay with us. The Battle of Waterloo, they used to say (and with a straight face, too), was won on the playing fields of Eton. But in British and Commonwealth schools today, competitive sports have been all but abolished. It was recently reported that in one children’s soccer league in Ottawa any team that racked up a five-goal lead would be deemed to have lost, and the losing team declared the winners, to spare their feelings. By those standards, the hapless England footie team might have managed to “beat” Germany and get through to the next round of the World Cup (almost). What’s less clear is whether boys raised on such playing fields would be capable of winning another Waterloo, or even be prepared to fight it. Indeed, early setbacks in post-Saddam Iraq and current difficulties in Afghanistan derive in part from that Ottawa soccer mindset — that it would be insensitive to open up a five-goal lead over the enemy.

In an essay on democracy for The New Criterion, Kenneth Minogue began by “observing the remarkable fact that, while democracy means a government accountable to the electorate, our rulers now make us accountable to them. Most Western governments hate me smoking, or eating the wrong kind of food, or hunting foxes, or drinking too much. . . . The distribution of our friends does not always correspond, as governments think that it ought, to the cultural diversity of our society. We must face up to the grim fact that the rulers we elect are losing patience with us.”

What to do? The state can, as Brecht advised, elect a new people — which the immigration policies of many Western nations seem intended to accomplish. But you can also change the existing people, in profound ways and over a surprisingly short space of time. Give me a boy till seven, said the Jesuits, and I will show you the man. Give me a boy till seventh grade, say today’s educators, and we can eliminate the man problem entirely.

Mark Steyn — Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist.

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