Dr. Matthew Mehan is the Director of Academic Programs for Washington D.C., and Assistant Professor of Government for the Van Andel Graduate School of Government at Hillsdale College. He has been teaching and designing humanities curricula for twenty years, and has published not only academic and popular articles, but also two children’s books that prepare children to understand the intellectual heritage of the West.
Matt and Inez discuss how children’s literature can rise above the ugliness and confusion of much of the genre, as well as how an embarrassing version of childishness has spread to young (and not-so-young) adults. They also continue last week’s conversation with Paul Rossi about the promising trajectory of schools like Hillsdale that offer a real liberal arts education — that is, an education that helps us to be truly free.
High Noon is an intellectual download featuring conversations that make possible a free society. The podcast features interesting thinkers from all parts of the political spectrum to discuss the most controversial subjects of the day in a way that hopes to advance our common American future. Hosted by Inez Stepman of Independent Women’s Forum.
Welcome to High Noon, where we talk about controversial subjects with interesting people. And I’m so pleased to have on this week Dr. Matthew Mehan. Matthew is the director of academic programs for Washington DC, an Assistant Professor of Government for the Van Andel Graduate School of Government. Those are all Hillsdale College outposts and attachments. He’s been teaching and designing humanities curricula for 20 years and he’s a graduate of the University of Dallas, which we will talk about as we talk about following up on last week’s discussion on where the higher ed space is going and where there is a real elite education actually available. I actually got some emails about University of Dallas and yes, we did indeed forget the University of Dallas in our conversation last week and we’ll amend that this week.
But Dr. Matthew Mehan is also the author of, as well, he’s written a bunch of columns for the Wall Street Journal and for academic outlets, but he’s also the author of two children’s books that we’re going to be talking about today, the “Handsome Little Cygnet” and “Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals.” Both illustrated bestselling books. He’s really trying to create sort of new classics in the genre of children’s literature. So Matthew, welcome to High Noon. I’m so happy you’re here.
No, thanks, Inez. Thanks for having me.
Well, I wanted to start out asking you how you went from, or at least concurrently because you continue to do both things, but you are essentially a professor of the humanities. You help design, as you said to me just a moment ago, you helped design curricula for all kinds of high school level as well. So you are very much involved in building sort of the education, the true liberal education that is supposed to be the grounding for a self-governing citizen. So you’re teaching all the way up to college students and graduate students, but you decided to take this detour and write two children’s books. Why did you choose to do that?
It’s kind of a funny story, but I think you sort of sum it up in a couple quick ways. One is I actually did a Politics undergrad and cared a lot about sort of how to help serve the common good of the country and build up our nation and the republic and all those sorts of things. I was very much kind of high hearted about those things. I liked student government and politics. I was one of those insufferable people. But in studying there, I was also getting, I was trying to do a double major in English and I started seeing the connections between the two of them and realized, oh wait, the last book of Aristotle’s politics says that if you ignore the education of the next generation of your city, you lose your city in one generation. So that sort of pulled me up pretty strong and I was headed to DC maybe going to go be a Hill rat staffer or something and sort of work my way up.
And I balked at it and actually went into liberal arts education here in the DC area basically on the grounds that actually, if you’re going to have a healthy politics, you have to first have a healthy poetics. You have to have what Aristotle called the paideia. You got to have a sort of structural educational regime for the next generation to help them become the next generation of adult citizens. So that’s what got me interested in education. And then at the same time I realized one of the big ways education happens is fundamentally through story, poetry, beauty, image, culture and art. And after that I started writing on the side, creatively, and the first product was “Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals,” and then the second’s “Handsome Cygnet.” And in the works there are about three more books going to hopefully roll out over the next three or four years. So it’s going to keep going.
So when you looked around at the existing children’s literature space, what made you want to write these particular stories? So one story is about re-finding your identity and confusion in the world of a child, essentially, a baby swan. And the other one I think is more, and I haven’t read the one about all the animals. I assume there’s all these different creative kind of animals. There are beautiful illustrations in both of these books. How did you choose your first two themes? How are you going to choose, you say you’re going to write a few more. Do you have some ideas about the themes for those?
Yeah. The first book is definitely a kind of announcement display speech, sort of like, Hey, I know what I’m doing. I have the tradition in my back pocket. You can trust me with your children. So it’s bigger than “The Handsome Little Cygnet.” It’s got a huge glossary that introduces smarter kids who are more curious. That’s more than third of the book is this very funny kind of humorous glossary of words and ideas that introduce them to the western tradition of Christian humanism, but more just sort of Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman, Western culture. Like here’s all of this stuff. But that one, the primary theme, the two guys, you can actually see them behind me, the big yellow ball up there. And then this little fellow, the Dally, they’re the letter B and letter D creatures. They go through this journey through the alphabet and it’s actually a story about dealing with sadness and loneliness and what are the means to overcome that.
That’s the primary theme. And I saw that watching, as a teacher, watching all of these young students with all the interwebs and FOMO and digital culture and online bullying and just the dispossession of your animal self by just clicking on the screen and being sort of out of connection with other people. I saw sadness and depression and those kind of inner struggles to be actually very important. So I wanted to make a book that not preachily, actually, it doesn’t really point the finger in a lesson anywhere, but it basically gives you, kits out your imagination to overcome those difficulties. In fact, the bad guy is the evil, the letter E creature, and he is this weeping ape. He just can’t stop crying and he only says things in the darkest way possible, and he doesn’t know how to control his speech in a way that manages negativity, sort of like a Hamlet. He keeps soliloquizing in a way that’s not helpful.
The reason why it’s mythical mammals and a focus on what it is to be a mammal, which is another sustained secondary theme, was frankly, to be perfectly honest, that same thing with regard to what we have now is the trans movement, but I think it was starting with a kind of disembodied disregard for your own enfleshed nature, that you are an enfleshed creature, you are a body and a mind, you’re not just a mind online. And so I wanted people to get back in touch with their fuzzy, furry, huggy, happy selves because I think you need that. Kids need that, especially today in a way that Gen X, even Millennials just didn’t have the same disembodiment and the same stresses.
Yeah. And it’s really true. I mean if you look at surveys for how many friends people have, how much interaction they have in real life, it’s really shocking, a really shocking decline, even from the nineties. I brought this up with one of our other podcasts that I do with Emily Jashinsky, but we were talking about, I think in the nineties, the average man, not even woman, but the average man had something like 10 good close friends in the 1990s they were reporting and now over half of people have one or fewer. It’s a very precipitous drop off of that online, not online rather, very real, tangible friendship. And so I think that theme is so necessary.
So I always have this argument with another one of our podcast guests, Ben Domenech, because I get extremely annoyed at what seems to be in our culture, just this allergy to the adult. And by adult I don’t mean the things that would excite a 13 year old boy, which are explosions and breasts, but there just seems to be this allergy to being an adult. So one of the quintessential examples that I always get annoyed by was there was this tour of a ball pit, like a ball pit for little kids that was for adults. So every 20 and 30 something in Washington DC lost their mind about going into a ball pit. And we could go about with the Disney adults who spend thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars, they don’t have children, but they go themselves, all the Disney parks over and over again.
So I have this annoyance with the childishness and Ben Domenech always quotes CS Lewis back to me, when I became a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and being seen as very, very serious adult, I’m butchering the quote. So where on that spectrum do you fall? Why do you think our culture is simultaneously childish? And the reason I ask is because your books are, they have kind of a seriousness to them. There are serious themes. It’s not written in completely sort of dumb language. The language is very elevated for children. And these books, I think your “Handsome Little Cygnet” is what, five to eight or something? So these are for young children, and yet there’s sort of elevated sensibility to them and a way of introducing adult things to children where it seems to me there’s a theme now in American culture where it’s more adults who want to hold on to things that are exclusively childish for way past the point where this should be, there should be other things that are bringing you joy and bring your interests at a certain point.
Yeah, there’s sort of in infantilization, I think of, first of all, one of my first jobs was working in a Discovery Zone when I was in high school with the ball pit and the new guy, and I was the new guy for three months, I had to clean the ball pit. So no adult in their right mind would want to dive into a ball pit unless it was adults only. They’re disgusting places. No offense to anyone trying to make a living that way. The image I think of, there’s one that made the rounds online a few years ago of adult birthdaying where the adult will take a piece of cake and eat it like a little toddler and be in sort of this grotesque ecstasy, like they should be in a highchair. That whole spirit needs to die the death. So I’m with you on that Inez.
With regard to my own kids’ books, I think Ben’s half right, of course he is, right? It’s a paradox, right, that’s exactly, the willingness to be able to play the fool. I mean, in a certain sense, that’s what I’m doing. I’m a professor of Government in a grad school and an academic administrator and I do kids’ books. I think that’s a really good thing. CS Lewis was a serious professor and he did the Chronicles of Narnia. He would stoop to conquer. And I think that’s a serious thing that you care about the next generation in such a way that you’re not willing to create an adults-only professional persona. You have to be open to the next generation. I mean, that’s Socrates who’s talking to the young people, you have to talk to the youths. So I think that’s, one, is just, it makes sense to do that if you actually care about your culture and your society that you have to do that.
I’m a father. I mean, I’ve got a bunch of kids and so I really care about that. But the tone of my books I think is in a certain sense sort of fatherly. I just sort of be who you are. I’m a dad, and a prof, so the tone of my books is always sort of asking the young person to take a step up, come with me, just come up a little. And I think the general, and I faced these headwinds in trying to get these books, an agent and a publisher and do all this in the first place. They were very worried that, well, there’s words in here that are not age appropriate if you’re going to, you have to have a marketed target age and then you can’t have any words that are beyond this sort of clear set.
And I just kept pushing back to people saying, well, that’s not how “Wind in The Willows” is. Laura Ingalls Wilder doesn’t do that. A ton of books that we know and love that are great classics, Hans Christian Anderson, Brothers Grimm, they don’t do that. Right? Great works of children’s literature create a little bit of mystery, ask them to ask an adult what a word means. That’s why in the first book, I actually put a glossary in the back to kind of answer the critics. Fine, you don’t like the fact that there’s some words kids don’t understand. All of them are in the back in a glossary. And I made that a whole literary thing in the back.
So yeah, I totally agree that the infantilization is a problem and we’ve seen vocab skills go down and down and down because the literature that’s age appropriate is age level. It should be literature that’s age appropriate is one level up because when else are you going to have the sort of motive force to learn more than when you have beautiful pictures, an engaging story, a lot of fun and wonder, that’s precisely the time to engage someone in wanting to know a little bit more as opposed to what? Here is a brutal vocabulary list, now memorize it. Right? It’s precisely in children’s literature that you should sort of take it up a notch.
Yeah, this was funny. It’s just reminding me, I basically refused to learn how to type when I was a kid and my dad bought me this fancy typing program that was to me extremely boring. And he was forcing me to do it every day because I mean, rightly so, it’s a very important part of modern world. And now I write on a computer, but I really didn’t learn how to type until AOL Messenger came around when I was in very young middle school, because then I wanted to talk to my friends and I learned how to type really quickly. And I feel like it’s a similar sort of thing, you want to grab on to when somebody’s actually interested in, invested in, wants to figure out some other thing and to participate in some other piece of learning that you sneak in the hard work that you have to do to be able to get to that place. Right? So that’s really brilliant.
The delight and instruct, you got to do both, delight and instruct.
So you’re from Hillsdale. We had this discussion with Paul Rossi last week about where Hillsdale, what space Hillsdale occupies in this higher ed landscape and about elite universities. And I think there’s very little doubt that Hillsdale has, if not the, in the top handful of educational sort of programs in America. It’s incredible the kind of programming that Hillsdale does. I always feel very jealous when I didn’t know Hillsdale existed when I went to my undergrad. But it really is just an incredible, and all the departments are even from humanities and arts and things that are not related to the American founding that Hillsdale has a focus on.
So I’m a big fan of Hillsdale, but so what space do you think Hillsdale currently occupies and could occupy in the higher ed world? Because it seems like all of your competitors, your Harvards and your Yales, and even your MITs, they’re, they’re all doing two things. They’re one, they’re rushing to embrace a far left ideology. And obviously universities have been, conservatives have been complaining about universities being left for 70 years, but there does seem to be something qualitatively different with the sort of advance of the new left and the woke left. So one, they’re rushing on down that road as quickly as they can. And because of that, they’re also giving up to some extent on meritocracy. And we saw that with the data that came out on Harvard admissions and UNC admissions for different racial groups in this current round of Supreme Court cases. So what is Hillsdale doing differently and where do you hope that kind of movement can lead in the future? Because everyone can’t go to Hillsdale, right?
Yeah, no, that’s true. So Hillsdale’s a teaching college, it’s not a mega research university. So in one sense we have no desire to take on all of the next suit additional gear to get huge and a lot of these elite universities have. But I think it’s precisely that loss of a focus on a teaching mission and becoming more of a research university where, oh, the TAs will take care of the students so I can write my books and do high order academic, high prestige things and then on the STEM side and then start labs and do tons of research and get lots of government funds and sort of bulk up. This entire sort of monster apparatus really kind of puts the student second in a pretty serious way. But the promise of these places is elite education for the next generation of leaders for the country or in the world. That is the promise, that’s the prestige promise, you and Paul were kind of talking about that last week.
But the promise is basically not the focus anymore. And you have to keep faith, right? That’s number one is do what you say you’re going to do and say what you’re going to do and do it, just follow through. So I think we’re going to stay that way, but that is what made those schools great. That’s what made the Ivies important and serious is that they poured all of the riches of the past into the next generation. They just offered all the wealth of Egypt, like here, take it all and use it for the good. And so in that sense, I think Hillsdale is doing that work. We’ve been doing it right for a long time. And I think just by continuing to do that more effectively, we are sort of the meek shall inherit the earth, if you will. We’re just going to, I think, inherit the prestige of being an elite liberal arts college that trains leaders for the next generation, which is kind of what we’re doing.
So in one sense it’s kind of like, yeah, are we in competition with those schools? In one sense, no, but in another sense, yeah, we’re going to eat their lunch because we’re actually focused on training students in wisdom and particularly practical wisdom. How do you live well? What is the art of living? Everyone talks about the liberal arts and it’s like, well, what does that mean? Is are you a liberal? And they’re like, well, I mean sort of. It means free person, but you might retranslate it. It comes from the Latin artes liberales, it’s the arts of liberty. How do people be free? How do you actually govern free society together in conversation and community? That’s not the focus of those places anymore and as a result, they’re losing.
In terms of the meritocracy issue, I mean there is that, right? In terms of the racial quotas and that kind of thing is definitely an issue. We don’t take government money, so we don’t play those kinds of games. We just try to find people we think will really benefit from this education and will be upstanding members of our academic community and then the American community afterward. But I do think that we are seeing a change. COVID has sort of weaponized it and sort of sped up this process, but a lot of people who were sort of like, oh, my kid is definitely not going to one of these sort of branded small liberal arts colleges like Hillsdale or UD, they’re definitely going to go to one of these elite state or Ivy institutions. We’re seeing a lot of those sorts of people changing their mind now and realizing you know what, and this is I think the great weapon against meritocracy in a funny way, is an actual excellent education makes someone a much more prudent and excellent person.
It doesn’t make it automatically, there’s no guarantee, you still have to be a good person. But if you give people the kindling and they have the fire, they have a much bigger flame as a result of an education. So you sort of like, who are the meritocrats? Well, it’s those people who have the goods. Well, where do the goods come from? Well, they don’t just come from genetics or how good you did on your SAT scores. They come from the fact that you’ve trained yourself in the right kinds of arts with the right kinds of knowledge and you have the right kind of truth to actually think well and work well and lead well. So I think in one sense it’s kind of like, yeah, the meritocratic impulses give them the things that will allow them to merit excellence and lead. And I think that’s a process that unfolds slowly over time, but we’re seeing it.
So that’s interesting. So there have always, at least in sort of living memory, there are sort of these two, not necessarily contradictory, but intention goals of a modern university. One is to be able to do all the things you just said, to train people in the arts of liberty. And the other one is more related to the meritocracy, succeeding professionally afterwards. And it seems like part of the reason that we do invest not in Hillsdale, as you said, very importantly, Hillsdale does not take any government money, which means they don’t take federal loan money. Hillsdale has done a lot of work fundraising so that they can offer their own scholarships and so on directly to students. That means they’re not subject to a lot of the terrible regulations. So kudos, again, to Hillsdale for doing that. But the sort of basis of the ask of all of these enormous funds that are now going towards universities, whether through grants or through this failing student loan program, has been these two bases.
Our graduates will raise the GDP and they will be better citizens. And it seems like on both of those things, our modern university system is completely failing. So that’s one. But two, these two things as you’re kind of alluding to, are a little bit in tension with each other. It may not be that the pure meritocratic model, so I guess I’m trying to dig into the, because you’re definitely pushing back on me on this meritocracy, and I’m by no means a sort of SAT alone, I used to teach the SAT, and I don’t think you can really interact with that test and come away thinking that it’s some kind of grand measure of ability. But don’t you think that there is some necessity of, and some barriers, meritocratic barriers to get a class in that, especially in that kind of elite university, which I hope Hillsdale actually will be, not a research university, but an elite one. I mean, there are people who are just more capable of learning the things that you are talking about, although I’m sure there are themes for anyone. So how do you reconcile those two things?
Yeah, absolutely. So in one sense, I don’t see the tension as strikingly as you do in this way, that if you are actually going to be a free person and discharge your duties and be a great citizen, you’re going to need to be able to do that at the highest level of virtuosity. And virtuosity is a fancy way of saying excellence, you need to be good at what you do. And you actually need people of a certain amount of talent to receive a serious liberal arts education. And the more talented they are, the more they can do with it. So we don’t share a lot of our information, but it’s a very elite school. Hillsdale’s excellent, and we have some of the best and brightest, and frankly, the demands on us for admissions now are becoming far more intense over the last five to six years. It’s been growing for decades.
So I take your point well that we actually want the best and brightest in a certain sense. Obviously that needs to be, I think, moderated by a concern for character just because you have horsepower, it’s like I don’t necessarily want to arm someone with the liberal arts if they’re a miscreant goofball. I don’t want to help them. But you mentioned something last week with Rossi that I resonated with quite a bit. You were sort of pushing back on him saying, Hey, we need a serious set of intelligent and creative people to strike out away from these prestige universities and actually go get the serious education to rebuild society and actually turn away from these, as you put it, what did you say, headlong run into these ideologies, these woke ideologies or whatever they are, just false, I think is a kind of easy way. They’re just not true.
And I think that is happening, thank goodness. I think things like Jeremy Tate’s CLT, the classical learning test is creating a different set of standards for excellence that are actually more refined than the SAT and the ACT. That’s going to be a very useful sort of tool in the toolkit for doing this. And personally speaking, I mean I was a national merit finalist from, it was a university town public school like you went to. And so it was very high flying. We sent like 55 kids to Ivy League schools from a class of 400, very intense, a lot of professors’ sons and daughters. But I didn’t want to go to Princeton at the time because frankly it was kind of like nobody that I think like is going. And there were a lot of people applying and I was like, I’m going to go to a prep school or a liberal arts college that seems to be offering a course of study that seems more demanding.
That’s what I did. And so I think a lot more people are doing that. And they’re not going into high prestige jobs though, not yet. They’re actually doing what I think is wise, and I’m patting myself on the back a little here, but a lot of these people are going into education and building up classical curriculum, building up these new charter schools, building up classical ed, turning around some parish school. They’re doing low prestige, but high yield, very important things. That is to say they’re going all Gandalf the Gray, which you can’t see as he pads about Middle Earth, rather than Theoden king, right? Rising to the top. But because frankly you don’t have the institutional strength yet to do as much good as you’d like at the higher level.
So I think if you want a next generation of elites who are excellent and prudent in these ways, then I think you actually need to do what’s being done and actually just put more gas in the can to do that. More of these schools, more classical curriculum, more liberal arts education, more of the great books rigor, we’ve got to pour it on. And I think, I’ve said this to you beforehand, and I say it a lot, I think places like Hillsdale and UD where I teach and where I went, they’re the Oxford and Cambridge of the next American Renaissance. They’re going to continue to pour out the kind of excellence that builds up a great society.
Yeah. There’s nothing that warms my heart more than thinking about well-educated Hillsdale grads teaching in the charter network that Hillsdale has started up, the Barney School Network, is that what it’s called?
Yeah, I’m on the board of advisors for the K-12.
Yeah, that really warms my heart for all the reasons you just said. I think it is the only way to truly, I mean it’s scary. I got into education policy, which I don’t talk about as often on this podcast, but I did 10 years of education policy. And the reason that I got into that branch of policy wasn’t actually, I didn’t start out sort of a school choice advocate. I didn’t come at it from the sort of Freedman-esque competitive impulse part of it. Now I’m a very strong advocate for school choice, but I didn’t come initially to education because of that. I was interested in education policy because 80% of Americans under 80 can’t pass the citizenship exam that my parents took to become citizens of this country. And it’s not difficult. These questions are not, they’re very basic questions about American government and you have 19% of Americans under 40 can pass that. And that’s really scary for a self-governing society, allegedly. So I think you’re exactly right to say that that’s the most necessary fuel for the potential renaissance is people who simply understand the West, understand what it is to be human, understand the government that they, and the society in which they live, understand what’s good about it and have some love for it as well.
Yeah, and don’t get me wrong, I mean we’ve got tons of Supreme Court clerks, Hillsdale’s got its leadership crew doing a lot of great work in DC especially. I love it. And this grad school, we’ve got chiefs of staff and legislative directors and people running committees. We’re doing plenty on the leadership side too, especially in Washington. But you had mentioned, again, forgive me for just, last week’s conversation was so prescient. You were talking about at a certain point, if you’re going to concern yourself with a certain level of equality, someone has to say, I want the next generation to actually, of my own children, let’s say, somehow do less well, take a step down. I actually think that that’s not exactly it. You have to maybe do it for yourself because you can in good conscience say, I want you son, daughter, to have a less good life.
You actually have to try to build that life up for your children and make them better and give them as many advantages as you can. It’s your kind of duty to your child, but you might choose lower prestige, but higher yield jobs that are good and start your family at a lower level of prestige and then work very hard to try to build up. There’s a beautiful poem by Robert Frost. It gets misread as this sort of libertarian sort of peon, but it kind of is in one sense, but called Build Soil. And it’s about you’ve got a crop going, but you might just plow it under one year and just not reap its benefits for yourself so that the soil gets all the nutrients and becomes stronger and better to grow even greater crops. I think there’s a certain prudence in a certain number of serious people going into these educational fields, which are, let’s face it, they’re far lower prestige, they’re much less money, but they might just be the most effective thing for this culture and this country. So I think it’s kind of both. You want both, but I think very often the meritocratic school forgets one. You want high flying masters of the universe, but you also want some of those extremely talented people to humbly pour themselves into these other institutions and build soil.
Yeah, I think that’s really well said. And I want to recall something you said maybe a few minutes ago and come back to it because it really struck me. You said that that Hillsdale is selecting its class also on character. There’s no attention to character in part because post-modern ideas, I mean what is character? What is the good? What is moral? So on these questions to have very unfashionable answers in the academy today. But it strikes me that is exactly what was missing. And I think it was very, very difficult in the sort of elite high school that I went to, public school, but very elite high school, there’s no attention to character and no reward for virtue at all. And absent that, the meritocracy turns into not only, of course, all of the attendant horrors that one can imagine in terms of people graduating from that kind of system and then wielding power. That’s kind of the obvious conclusion of this. But I also thought it made people very unhappy because if you don’t achieve within the meritocracy to the level that you hoped, you do badly on a test, you don’t get into your first ranked school. The kids in that system cannot deal. They have no other source of self-worth at all.
Yeah, I’ve written on this in a variety of ways. I did a piece for the Washington Examiner a few years ago about how poetry can actually help you deal with tragedy and difficulty in your life. And I think the way we teach the humanities today is as bad as the worst Stone Age disaster. We teach them so poorly now and we have all this technological STEM sophistication. So we’ve got microphones that work and fiber optic cables and Starlink and whatever. We can do all these amazing things technically, but in humanities, when I hear what people are doing in a lot of schools with their English and their history courses, it’s seeing a bunch of Picts with blue face paint sort of chanting on the shores with sticks and slings. It’s that Stone Age barbaric. But what was the case for so long was that you were teaching them how to write, speak, and give them knowledge of the past and a kind of sense of a narrative, if you will.
But the whole, that was in a certain sense, the prima facie thing you were doing and the secondary and more important thing that was through those things you were actually trying to achieve was the formation of character. In formation of character. You have to form your own character with your deeds. You have to choose well again and again to be good. No book reading is going to make you a good person. But like I said before, it’s kindling. It’s actually the things, that’s what tragedy is. Tragedy is the catharsis, the purification of the passions through fear and pity, meaning, oh, I can identify that that person has many goods, but I can also identify they’ve done something really terrible and I never want to do that. So you’re learning the laws of human life and if you don’t understand as a teacher or as a school that you are actually trying to equip people with the rules of the road for how to live well and you forget that, and it’s just like, no, I just want them to become a good communicator.
Well, why do you want them to become a good communicator? So they can communicate truth persuasively to other people and therefore work in community to achieve great goods. Well, what are those goods and why are we doing, if you don’t understand the ends, you’re going to mess up the means and the means are getting more and more messed up because there’s no end in mind or it’s being replaced by bizarre, weaponized, ideological hatred. That I think is maybe the Greek word telos, the end, the end in mind, the purpose. I think a lot of these ideologies, if you actually get down to the nub of them, they’re a-telic or anti telic, against an end. That’s the purpose is to not allow any ends to be pointed out to other people for radical freedom, for falsely understood.
Do you think that that’s because, you just said in the formation of character, there’s this element of tragedy. You see people on one level, you understand and identify with doing things that are deeply wrong and therefore there are consequences not just for other people, but for those people who are doing the bad actions as well. Do you think part of, or rather, the underlying problem here is that we have an ideology that doesn’t admit that consequences stem from natural order and human nature? Because as you were saying that I was thinking, but the way that we describe consequences today is systemic racism. If something bad happens, it’s because of this nebulous thing that doesn’t require any individual person to be that example. You know what I mean? You can’t point to somebody doing a bad action. We want to, as Reagan quipped about once, we have to get away from the idea that society’s at fault every time a criminal commits a crime. But that idea writ large is it has been broadened out to consequence altogether. It’s almost like the adult version of children thinking all of the consequences come from their parents, when in reality, if they’re good parents, they’re creating consequences to mimic the world so that kids can make a mistake and only have a fake consequence and learn not to make that mistake for real in the real life where the consequences are real.
Yeah, no, I mean, yes, part of back to which one, where is it over here, “Mehan’s Mammals,” the mammals, part of that is your mammalian nature. You have a body and that has finitude to it. And so it can only take so much of X or Y. And if you don’t recognize the rules of the road of your limits, then you’re going to hurt yourself. And that was part of what I was getting at with the book was to reintroduce people, people to their human bodily nature. It’s a rational nature too, but people like to forget the body and just go, I can think of anything. Like, okay, but that doesn’t answer the question. I can think I’m flying, but if I don’t have an airplane, I’m going to die if I just leap off a cliff. So I totally agree that that’s just kind of an enormous problem.
I think you can extend it, you can extend it outward. There’s a rebellion against natures, right? Everyone always pushes to the exception and doesn’t think about the rule. And this gets to wider questions about how we educate, even I’d say the adult elite, even the conservatives. I mean, I’m pretty crazy on these things, so forgive me for a wild-eyed utterance that might not be fully intelligible at first blush. But we don’t actually teach the things that teach nature anymore to elite educated people. We don’t do Cicero’s “On Duties,” which is, that’s the text on natural law. We don’t do that kind of work anymore. And then, like I said, we don’t teach tragedy in the way that it actually sort of focuses on the individual. You mentioned structural evils, structural sin, structural racism. I’m always insistent, and I actually think it’s a logical principle. You can be very prickly about it.
Okay, I’ll happily let you use that term, but you have to understand what you’re using it to mean. It is a concatenation of a series of individual wrongdoings. That is to say there’s no evil, wrongdoing, injustice. Those things are done by people, those are acts. So there’s no structure, there’s no, like a building isn’t doing something wrong to you. The architect might have done something wrong by building it ugly, and so it’s hurting you in some sense. And that’s about as close to structural sin or structural injustice as I can come, is when an architect makes a bad structure. But anything else really is you doing something wrong. So when someone says, oh, you’re structurally racist, it’s like, no, you’re accusing everybody of being racist, so let’s get down to brass tacks and talk about an individual and what they’ve done wrong, and that’s where they get into real trouble. That’s harder.
So it’s much easier to just sort of castigate everyone and wave your hand and say it’s the structure. But that’s what frankly history and literature has always been traditionally designed to do, to show you individual actors doing individual deeds that have enormously important consequences. A lot of people say, oh, we should stop teaching monumental history about great men like George Washington, or not even good men, great men like Napoleon or Alexander the Great, right? We should stop doing that and talk about, I always joked once I taught a history class, and it was a sixth grade US History class, and I prepped the lessons, it was handed to me, and I didn’t really like it, but I had to teach that book my first year. And I said, it’s as though all of the United States history was completed in the back of a wagon by a 14 year old girl journaling.
It was like, there was no understanding of like, well, no, this person did this and then we went to war, or they won this battle and it saved everybody. Or this person wrote a book and it turned everybody on to the evils of slavery, right? There’s actually individual people doing individual things that have enormous societal effects, that has been totally obscured by the way we teach the humanities now, and people are even busily writing I think untrue books of literature and history that obscure that precise truth, which is foundational, fundamental, and not only is it true, it’s the kind of truth that helps people be free. That’s the kind of liberal arts type works that we need to put before people, and there really is a kind of industry of obscurantism to avoid these things.
Well, I think that’s a really good place to start thinking about wrapping it up here because that training, that thing that is difficult about learning to be free, as you’ve pointed out throughout the last almost hour, it is something that we have to learn. It’s not something that comes easily to us. And so I don’t think that there could be a better start than your books. So if you want to give the titles again and where people can purchase them, because I think that if you have your kids or grandkids or children for whom you’re buying Christmas gifts or Hanukkah gifts this season, I think that that Matt’s books would be a really wonderful addition to any anybody’s library for their children.
Well, thank you, Inez. That’s very kind. Yeah. The first one is “Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals.” You can get it basically anywhere. Amazon, Walmart, Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, from the publisher, TAN, whoever. And then the second one is “The Handsome Little Cygnet,” which is the newest one, and that’s, this one, the “Mehan’s Mammals” is more for grades three through seven or eight, and the “Handsome Cygnet” is for more for toddlers up through about third grade.
Well, thank you so much, Dr. Matt Mehan for coming on High Noon and spending this hour with us.
No, it’s a pleasure, Inez. Thanks.