Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality

Kunk Fu Zoby Kung Fu Zu   3/20/14
by Theodore Dalrymple  •  Part I  •  Spoilt Rotten is the latest book by Theodore Dalrymple. It was first published in the U.K. in 2010. Unlike many of his other books, this volume is not a compendium of various essays and articles previously published in different newspapers or periodicals.Spoilt Rotten is a book based on the premise that many of the societal problems — which contribute to increased crime, lower standards of learning, familial breakdown and general cultural decline — are the result of the romantic/sentimental view of human nature.

While the book deals with the U.K., the observations made and conclusions reached could just as well be applied to the USA.  Dalrymple details many of the social problems eating away at the fabric of U.K. culture, and how they developed. He exposes and debunks the fatuous philosophy of the Left and explains how the lies and errors which spring from it damage individuals and society as a whole.

This is an extremely important book. I would urge anyone who is concerned with the direction of our country to read it.  It presents a concise bill of particulars against the political romantics of the world. And it can be used by anyone who is looking to confront the lies of the Left and their Libertarian fellow travelers.

SpoiltRottenBecause of the importance of the information contained in the book, I have decided to review it by chapter. I have included numerous direct quotes from the book.


Dalrymple notes that all people are occasionally sentimental. But the overarching romantic view of humanity and nature, which the Left is in thrall of, has its roots in the eighteenth century dilettantish “Philosophes” such as Rousseau.

The book’s introduction starts with the observation that, according to a UNICEF report, Britain was the worst country of 21 advanced countries in which to be a child. Dalrymple observes,

such reports are often based on false premises, suppositions and the like, and are designed to produce the very results that will confirm their authors’ prejudices (or their authors’ employers’ prejudices).”

Nevertheless, while not necessarily subscribing to the overall findings of the report, he does agree that childhood in Great Britain is the most “wretched’ he knows of, both for the children and adults. Not only are the children often miserable, adults are afraid of them. He gives some alarming statistics which help support this claim:

One third of teachers suffered physical attack from children”, “5/8  as many teachers had problems with parents”, 9 out of 10 trainees in  paediatric medicine witnessed a violent incident involving a child”, “40% were threatened by a parent”, “5% assaulted by a parent”

And on and on.  According to Dalrymple, a small amount of violence goes a long way. We all know this to be true. And Dalrymple’s numbers indicate that the violence is not small. It is therefore not surprising that many in the population are constantly intimidated and tense.

Why is it, Dalrymple asks, “that people who are generally healthier and wealthier than their recent ancestors are so violent, anxious and aggressive?” Dalrymple believes the reasons, at least many of them, spring from “sentimentality, the cult of feeling” which permeates our present society.

Dalrymple lays out some of the fundamental ideas romantics have about children. Like Rousseau’s idea of the noble savage, sentimentalists believe children are inherently good and it is only through contamination by adults that children lose their innocence. As regards education, romantics have for years maintained that “children.. are naturally intelligent and curious, have vivid imaginations and have both the desire and natural ability to learn things by themselves.”   With such a philosophy, the “right education became the prevention of education.”

Dalrymple continues,

“Romantic educational theory, subsequently provided with a patina of science by committed researchers, is full of absurdities that would be delightfully laughable had they not been taken seriously and used as the basis of educational policy to impoverish millions of lives… Despising routine and rote, and pretending that in all circumstances they were counterproductive or even deeply harmful, and much hated by children, the romantic educational theorists came up with the idea that children would learn to read better if they discovered how to do so for themselves…..This is only slightly more sensible than sitting a child under an apple in the hope that it will arrive at the theory of gravity. Most children need a clue, and even those few who don’t could spend their time more profitably on other things.”

This quote with its simple logic destroys the pretentions of the modern education lobby.

Dalrymple holds the education theorists of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century responsible for the observable damage done to generations of pupils and students. These theorists and their acolytes have turned schools in large parts of the country into “an elaborate baby-sitting service and way to keep children off the streets.” For anyone who has taught, this rings true. And they have succeeded in this at ruinous costs. As he says, “Never in the field of human history has so little been imparted to so many at such a great expense.”  The result of this fiasco is generations of people who are basically illiterate.  To illustrate this, Dalrymple gives numerous examples from his career as a doctor in the NHS.


Theodore Dalrymple

When he recounts his experiences with such poorly educated and uninformed people to various middle class intellectuals, Dalrymple notes they react badly, accusing him of making fun of the people described, and accusing him of making up his stories. They do so in spite of the surveys and extensive anecdotal evidence readily available which confirms his words.

Dalrymple discusses and quotes several “sentimental” educators from the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. He exposes, through their own writings, the nonsensical nature of their claims.  Despite the illogical nature of their theories, these theories slowly crept into the minds of intellectual pedagogues, seeped into official studies of the education apparatus and thence into the curriculum. Dalrymple notes that even so-called conservatives accepted the nonsense as far back as the early 1930’s.

It is clear that Dalrymple believes many, possibly the vast majority, of the educational sentimentalists do not take their theories seriously or at least they do not subject themselves to the same standards. He takes Steven Pinker as an example.

Using Pinker’s The Language Instinct, he demonstrates the dishonesty proffered in much of the now official romantic view of education. While accepting that Pinker’s view of the development of language may be correct, Dalrymple shows the conclusions Pinker draws from this view are dangerous and dishonest:

To quote Pinker, “...no form of language is inherently superior to any other.”  Language says Professor Pinker, “is not a cultural artifact at all, and therefore cannot be taught.” Prescriptive grammar is a ‘hobgoblin of the schoolmarm’; a standard language (such as the one in which he himself writes) is a language ‘with an army and navy.’ According to Pinker, “everyone spontaneously develops the language that is adequate to his needs.” And therefore, as he says at the beginning of his book quoting Oscar Wilde, ‘nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.’

How dishonest is this? It is on basis of such ‘learning’ that the elite pedagogues instituted the teaching of Ebonics. Even Pinker admits the dishonesty of his statements when Dalrymple points out to him that if Pinker’s view were taken seriously it would “enclose people in the mental worlds into which they had been born,” to which Pinker replied, “of course people should be taught a standard language.”

Dalrymple concludes about Pinker,

“In fact, he is simply giving a new, supposedly scientific gloss to old romantic conceits about childhood, conceits that are almost certainly at heart a denial and repudiation of the religious doctrine of Original Sin. I need not recapitulate the apostolic succession of romantic educationists here (Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Froebel, Montessori, Dewey, Steiner, say nothing of their acolytes), but will confine myself to quoting one of Professor Pinker’s intellectual-or perhaps, more accurately, emotional-forbears, the social reformer Margaret Macmillan who wrote, “Early childhood is a vital and momentous period in education but it is not the time for accuracy…”

One is led to ask, if not now when?

I have often asked myself how much of the romantic bilge spewed forth by these “experts” do they truly believe and how much is propaganda used to help create an ignorant underclass of unthinking drones.

And of course, human vanity probably plays a large part in the furtherance of such sentimental nonsense. People are generally susceptible to flattery where their children are concerned. No doubt, many truly believe their little darlings are special and therefore are not in need of the restrictive discipline found in the traditional classroom. The little darlings simply must be able to express themselves — no matter that most of what they express is incoherent rubbish. After all, they are our little darlings. As an antidote to this nonsense, the parable of building one’s house upon a rock instead of upon the sand comes to mind. But, of course, that springs from religion so we mustn’t mention it, regardless of the wisdom expressed.

Dalrymple next turns to the sentimental/romantic view of the family and personal relationships laying out the resultant devastating consequences for society. Stay tuned for my next article. • (5594 views)

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9 Responses to Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’ve been playing the at-home version of this game while Mr. Kung has been assembling his article. He had turned me onto this book a few weeks ago and I’ve been working my way through it of late. I’m about two-thirds of the way into it and I have a whole lot of quotes underlined. But I’m not going to steal Mr. Kung’s thunder and I’ll post my favorites at a later time. I’ll let him develop the story. And a good one it is.

    But suffice it to say, I’m no stranger to the writings of Theodore Dalrymple. One of the first books I ever bought for my Kindle (which I had before my Android tablet) was his “Life At The Bottom.” Soon after, I bought his “Our Culture, What’s Left of It.” Then, in quick succession, I purchased his “Not With a Bang But a Whimper: The Politics of Culture and Decline.”

    I think that all three of these may have been collections of essays. I do know that the first two were riveting. By the time I got to “Not With a Bang But a Whimper” he was sort of repeating himself.

    In “Spoilt Rotten,” one need simply begin and end with his Introduction chapter, which is the finest introduction of any book that I’ve ever read. Much of the rest of the book is simply giving evidence for what he concisely sums up in the Introduction. The Introduction therefore is literally worth the price of admission.

    Okay, I can’t resist providing one quote. This is one of my favorites and is why I, a naturally shy (but bloggingly gregarious) person, have never been tempted to join the Left. You’ll understand why:

    The public expression of sentimentality has important consequences. In the first place, it demands a response from those who witness it. This response has generally to be sympathetic and affirmatory, unless the witness is prepared to risk a confrontation with the sentimental person and be accused of hardness of heart or outright cruelty. There is therefore something coercive or bullying about public displays of sentimentality. Join in, or at least refrain from criticism.

    Seinfeld even had an episode that made fun of this tendency. It was the one in which the main characters were all running in some kind of victim-of-the-week charity parade and Kramer didn’t want to wear the requisite pink ribbon. “But I don’t want to wear the ribbon.” “Oh, but you must wear the ribbon.” And then they start chasing Kramer and, I think, tackle him to the ground while trying to pin the ribbon on him.

    It goes exactly to the point that Dalrymple makes about this sentimental “niceness” inherently containing a bully factor. In fact, I was rather surprised that he didn’t mention this Seinfeld episode. It was such an obvious fit. But he is a Brit and surely has better things to do than watch TV.

    This relates to another favorite quote I have from the book (yes, I’ll do two…I can’t resist):

    It is no longer enough to shed an unseen tear in private over the death of Little Nell; it is necessary to do so, or do the modern equivalent, in full public view.

    I suspect, though I cannot prove, that in part this is the consequence of living in a world, including a mental world, so thoroughly saturated by the products of the media of mass communication. In such a world, what is done or happens in private is not done or has not happened at all, at least not in the fullest possible sense. It is not real in the sense that reality television is real.

    Oddly, I’m actually a very sentimental person in the usual sense. No, I don’t cry at the drop of a hat. That’s being a girly-man, not sentimental. But I cherish those small moments that I know are here today and then gone forever…moments that most people sleepwalk through.

    But my natural shyness (or just common sense) has never led me down the path to ostentatious displays of “niceness” as has become so common (and thus, if you ask me, meaningless and vacant). There is surely a reason that Jesus said:

    And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

    It’s true that Jesus might not have been a conservative, in the usual sense. But in no way was he a “Progressive.”

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    Emotion is very powerful, but also very dangerous. Of course, my emotions often seemed to alternate between what the medieval humorists would have called an excess of black bile and an excess of yellow bile, which is one reason I took so eagerly (if not always successfully) to strict rationalism.

    One important lesson of Dalrymple’s writings is that the sort of behavior we associate with poor blacks has nothing to do with race, and everything to do with the culture that prevails in many poor communities. I once noted that Darcy O’Connor’s A Dark and Bloody Ground, about crimes set in the impoverished people of the Cumberland Plateau of Kentucky and Tennessee, showed all the same pathologies as the black ghettos even though the inhabitants were white rural Republicans instead of black urban Democrats.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      One important lesson of Dalrymple’s writings is that the sort of behavior we associate with poor blacks has nothing to do with race, and everything to do with the culture that prevails in many poor communities.

      That’s exactly right. The type of poverty and the vulgar and violent nihilism you see in places such as Detroit have nothing to do with race. It has everything to do with the corrupt and dehumanizing culture created by these “compassionate” overseers of the Left.

      This story needs to get out. But one of the main impediments to this story getting traction is that many people are attached to the idea of themselves as The Nice and Caring People (one of the dogmas of the Religion of Leftism). And they will actually facilitate the ruination of other people’s lives rather than let go of that appellation.

      Sentiment (as defined by Dalrymple) and romanticism – not to mention the kind of narcissism described by Fairman – are horrible ways to organize society and to deal with other people.

  3. Rosalys says:

    We have indeed become a sentimental society. Endless public blubbering, holding of candlelight vigils, plastic flower and Teddy bear shrines littering the landscape – I suppose people think they are “doing” something”, but in fact they accomplish nothing.

    But this article is about the sentimental view of childhood.
    “According to Pinker, “everyone spontaneously develops the language that is adequate to his needs.” And therefore, as he says at the beginning of his book quoting Oscar Wilde, ‘nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.’”
    Does this explain the persistence of the “Look, Say Method” of teaching reading, which requires years and years of memorization when a child can be taught to read in two weeks using phonics? Well, I guess being a Progressive means never having to be consistent.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I read many years ago that everyone can learn to read using phonics, whereas a significant minority can’t learn with look-say. By teaching the latter, the education “profession” has made the deliberate decision to have a sizable population of illiterates. In fact, I’ve long suspected that the term “functional illiteracy” was invented because literacy tended to be defined on the basis of having attended school long enough (which mean that just about everyone was literate since that much schooling was a legal requirement) rather than on the basis of actually being able to read (and understand what one has read). So they needed a term for those who were only theoretically literate.

  4. Rosalys says:

    As for children being basically good…
    A baby comes into this world wailing – it takes up to six weeks for him to learn how to smile!

  5. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I agree with Mr. Kung that this is a book everyone needs to read. And Theodore Dalrymple has done an excellent job of articulating his points. I don’t mean to dump on Thomas Sowell just for the sake of it, but he is much thicker than he needs to be. C.S. Lewis says in “The Grand Miracle”:

    I have come to the conviction that if you cannot translate your thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts were confused. Power to translate is the test of having really understood one’s own meaning.

    In this case, Lewis was talking to ministers and other church officials about taking the message of the Gospels to the masses. But I would think this could apply to political and social philosophy as well.

    It’s an open question as to when one’s writing should be sprinkled with Latin or French phrases in order to express a point or stretch the reader . . . and when such things are mere self-conscious bon mots of erudition drizzled in better-than-thou.

    That said, I do find myself often reaching for the dictionary when reading this book. Luckily, electronic book readers make this extremely convenient. But Dalrymple is clear throughout despite taking on a difficult subject matter.

    If Dalrymple’s “Introduction” chapter is exceptional, his chapter on “Victimhood” is not far behind brilliant. He delves into the very guts of the predominant social/psychological/political mindset that infects people today (that is, in regards to what makes a “Progressive” a “Progressive”)…including more than a few conservative political writers and organizations who (unknowingly, in my opinion) are simmering in this same stew. Let me quote what I think is the key passage from that chapter:

    The elevation of the status of the suffering victim occurred in the west not when real and terrible mass victimisation was of very recent memory, but when Western Europe and America seemed to have recovered from the worst excesses of such victimisation, and indeed were prospering. Sylvia Plath had not been a victim of anything, or at least of anything political, when she used imagery from the Holocaust to describe her own case; within a few years of the publication of her poems, the well-heeled and fashionably dressed students of Paris were chanting such slogans as ‘We’re all German Jews.’ The students drew cartoons of General De Gaulle with his physiognomy as a mask behind which was the real face of Hitler, with the implication that the Fifth Republic was some kind of covert Nazi dictatorship of which the students were the oppressed victims. Far from being victims, they were the very elite of the country, destined before very long to reach positions of social, economic and political power. But they were pioneers in what became a cultural trend: the desire and ability of the privileged to see themselves as victims, and therefore endowed with incontrovertible moral authority. And in a democratic age, the less privileged will soon do what the privileged do. Before long, a sense of victimhood became almost universal: everyone was a victim of something, gross or subtle as the case might be. It even became quite common to argue that subtle victimisation was worse than gross, because it was less visible and therefore more difficult to resist.

    That, you could say, was the social/psychological aspect. But even more interesting to me (because the metaphysical aspects go deep in the soil, and all roots that touch these basic foundational principles are either nourished or poisoned by them) is this astute observation by Dalrymple:

    The Christian view, that man was born imperfect but could and should strive in person towards perfection, was first challenged and then replaced by the Romantic view that mankind was born naturally good but was corrupted into badness by living in a bad society. Thus the exhibition of vice became evidence of having been treated badly. What had been deemed moral defect became victimhood whether conscious or not; and since mankind was born happy as well as good, unhappiness and suffering were likewise evidence of bad treatment and victimhood. To restore men to their original and natural state of goodness and happiness, therefore, required social engineering on a huge scale. It is not surprising that the Romantic revolution should have ushered in the era of massacre for ideological reasons.

    The Christian view is much less sentimental than the secularist. The secularist sees victims everywhere, hordes of suffering people who need rescue from injustice. In these circumstances, it has become advantageous to claim victimhood for oneself — psychologically and sometimes financially — because to be a victim is to be a beneficiary of injustice. This is why so many highly privileged people, who by the standards of all previously existing populations, lead lives of outstanding comfort, freedom and possibilities, claim the status of victim.

    I have stated before that only a conversion to genuine and traditional Christianity can save this nation (and the West) from the Leftist horde. This is why. The metaphysical presuppositions are everything. This is also why “social justice” is the Marxification of Christianity and should be avoided at all costs. People must think rather than act like sheep in a dumb herd.

  6. Glenn Fairman says:

    very excellent take on this…….

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