Politics and Pedagogy in Captain Fantastic

“Emile: or, On Education” 

Ben and Leslie Cash, intent on living free from the corruptions of capitalism and the neoliberal world order, chose to rear and school their six children in the remote wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. “Our children shall become philosopher kings,” Leslie wrote her mother, not long before committing suicide. This reference to Plato’s Republic highlights an essential question raised by director Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic: How should we educate our children if we wish to create the best civil society?

Philosopher kings are not democrats and, while Ben expresses the possibility that any of his children may rationally persuade the group to a particular course of action, the Cash family is a patriarchy. Ben is a brilliant survivalist who is extremely well educated by traditional standards. In raising his children to live closely with nature and in defiance of society outside the woods, Ben is demanding and intolerant of sloth or sloppy thinking. Calisthenics, Pilates and weapons training accompany rigorous academic instruction which includes medical science, history and critical analysis of assigned literature. There is also a fair amount of indoctrination in counterculture philosophy and anti-Christian sentiment which, ironically, sometimes brings to mind similarities between hippy and Christian homeschoolers.

One is also reminded of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile. Ben, like Rousseau, sees human society as corrupt and corrupting. Both see nature and human nature as essentially good. “God makes all things good;” writes Rousseau, “man meddles with them and they become evil.”  Thus, that type of education which is closest to nature is best for human development.

Emile was taught to be practical, self-sufficient and resourceful. He was isolated from society and for a time allowed only one book: an expurgated copy of Robinson Crusoe. Defoe’s shipwrecked sailor, alone on an island and forced to fend for himself is, in Rousseau’s view, an excellent role model for Emile.

Ben and Rousseau believe we should not be overprotective of our children and that a certain amount of risk and hard truth is necessary in order to prepare them for adulthood. Ben takes his children, even the smallest, on treacherous rock climbing expeditions. “There’s no cavalry. No one will come and magically save you in the end,” he tells his thirteen year old son who has injured his hand and appears unable to grab a hold and pull himself to safety. One cannot learn courage without some element of danger. “The delights of liberty will make up for many bruises,” writes Rousseau.

There are notable differences between the Cash children’s education and that presented in Emile. Whereas Emile is long kept from reading much apart from Robinson Crusoe, the Cash children devour assigned books and are required to report and expound on them. They are familiar with many of the classics as well as the typical fare assigned in public school English and social studies classes. Many true teachers will be excited seeing one of Ben’s daughters describe Nabokov’s Lolita as “interesting” and Ben responding that “interesting is a non-word,” insisting that she provide deeper analysis.

Ben and Rousseau have created pedagogies for preserving pupils’ natural born freedom and goodness, but of what use are they to civil society? Captain Fantastic reintroduces us to the dilemma presented in Emile:  It is near impossible to be true to ourselves and our natural independence while also being dutiful citizens, subjects or social beings. A child reared in the style of the Cash children or Emile is bound to experience frustration when introduced to the world outside the wilderness.

When the Cash children, traveling to their mother’s funeral, meet their suburban cousins they encounter a world with alien norms and assumptions. Those children, tied to their smartphones and computer games, have little understanding of history, literature or the Constitution. They have no idea from whence their food really comes. They have been protected from physical danger and are not given straight answers about death, sex or mental illness. No one challenges their assumptions. They are pampered and unwise and yet, they are perhaps better prepared to contentedly thrive in the American culture in which they were raised. Rather than feel pity for their numb-skull cousins, several of the Cash children resent how maladapted they themselves are for civilization.

“I don’t know anything,” Ben’s oldest son complains to his father upon fumbling though his first crush on a girl from outside the woods. He’s wrong, of course. He can climb mountains, defend himself and set broken bones.  He can explain differences between the political philosophies of Mao and Trotsky. He has looked into the living eyes of the deer he will kill to feed his family and eaten its heart as a sign of respect for the animal that lost its life to sustain his own. He is physically, intellectually and spiritually superior. As evidence that civilization might have some use for his understandings, he has been accepted to every Ivy League university. He knows much more than his suburban cousins who are unable to explain much of anything.

Rousseau recognized the divided souls dwelling in modern individuals. Anxiety and alienation may well grow more acute as one becomes conscious of the incompatibility of civil society and one’s own natural inclinations. In the end it is not clear whether the Cash children will, like Plato’s philosopher kings and modern technocrats, conclude that ordinary folk are not really capable of making decisions for the community and lose faith in democratic society. Or, possessed of the qualities of self-reliance, rational thinking and gratitude; add their virtues to the sum of democratic virtues. Emile, a great book and Captain Fantastic, a very good movie, contain apparent contradictions and paradoxes which remind us that teaching for citizenship, for critical thinking, and for career readiness are not so easily reconciled.

  • Rousseau quotes are from Emile, translated by Barbara Foxely. It can be accessed as a Project Gutenberg EBook at www.gutenberg.org

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