Which British conservative said this?

“It appears as if all schools have been turned into training grounds for depravity, and everyone leaving them instantly shows that he has been led astray, with his head holding nothing but emptiness and his heart nothing but self-esteem, that first enemy of reason.”

Portrait by George Dawe

Take a stab at it, you can’t miss. Any conservative could have thus commented, accurately, on our system of education.

Yet no British conservative has said that, not verbatim at any rate. This ringing denunciation was uttered by a Russian conservative, Admiral Alexander Shishkov (1754-1841), Minister of Public Education.

He was talking about Russia, but I wonder what Shishkov would say if he were miraculously transported to Britain, circa 2021. How would he view our schools, with their shift of emphasis from basic literacy to condom studies, homosexual practices, transgender delights, and racism as the principal dynamic of world history?

Such subjects weren’t taught in the Russian schools Shishkov knew. However, his pronouncement was as locally valid as it was universally prophetic. He was a conservative after all.

Even under the tsars, the good admiral got bad press in Russia for being reactionary, archaist, obscurantist – choose your own term of abuse. He got off lightly. Any minister holding his views in today’s Britain would get more than just bad press. He’d get the sack.

However, a conservative mind isn’t just the best tool for understanding life, but I dare say the only useful one. Alexander Shishkov proves this yet again by using the term self-esteem pejoratively.

That’s not how most people understand self-esteem today. It’s treated as a synonym of self-respect, although in reality they are closer to being antonyms.

Self-respect is a moral concept; self-esteem, a psychological one. Or, if you’d rather, self-respect is ontological while self-esteem is existential.

The former has to do with honour and dignity, something to which every human being is entitled simply because he is indeed human. The latter is a feeling, usually inflated, of possessing a high self-worth.

Self-respect doesn’t have to be earned, it only has to be asserted and upheld. Self-esteem, on the other hand, should presuppose no automatic entitlement: it has to reflect actual achievement, and even then it’s too close to smugness for comfort.

Thus it’s indeed the “first enemy of reason”, in Shishkov’s phrase. Reason needs a sense of under-achievement to stay active. It has to seek new discoveries, which ipso facto means reason must be dissatisfied with the discoveries it has made so far.

Looking at most people in the public eye, politicians, stars, celebrities and so forth, one detects an abundance of self-esteem and a distinct lack of self-respect. Moreover, one sees very few people who are alert to that nuance.

Perhaps we too should entrust our public education to retired naval commanders. May the search for a British Admiral Shishkov commence.  

3 thoughts on “Which British conservative said this?”

  1. The decline in ‘Education’ in Australia is ludicrous. All students must be able to pass, so the latest instruction is for us to provide no more than 2 instructions, allow students to have a fidget toy in class, simplify instructions, encourage the use of technology, allow oral responses in place of written, allow dot point responses, print exams on coloured paper, reduce homework expectations, adjust the criteria for all learners to succeed, provide the exam to learning support who may need to read and write for students, (they don’t have arms in plaster, they have just not learnt to write and need to pass)….and on it goes. What happens after school in the real world is another thing!
    Traditions are gone also as seen in the final year 12 Art exam in Queensland there were about a dozen reproductions of ‘Artworks’ for students to analyse. There was only one painting, that of course was by an indigenous artist. The ONLY WAM (white Australian male) work was a photo of a white man hiding behind an image of Captain James Cook. The rest of the images were ‘things’ like piles of fabric by an Asian woman, a neon sign by a New York feminist, an African refugee in a cosmonaut outfit, an indigenous lino-print of Aboriginal traditions, etc… No ‘Western Cultural’ traditional art, in fact nothing before 1999; like true postmodernists the past is a fabrication not worthy of study.

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