I imagine taking a bushman from some hitherto undiscovered Pacific isle and setting him down in front of a television in, say, Washington. The fellow would be astounded. He might say, “Whoa, boss! Heap magic! Spirits inside, talk talk. Bad juju.” He would have no idea how the babbling box worked, or of the civilization that produced it — where it came from, why it was as it was, what its literature might be, what its thoughts had been.
What would distinguish him from the graduate of today’s high schools or, latterly, the universities? Only that the bushman would have sense enough to be astonished. I do not see why being complacently ignorant is preferable to being honestly amazed.
It is hardly necessary to recite the endless polls showing that even the graduates of what once were universities cannot give the dates of the Civil War, do not know who fought in WWI, have never read Shakespeare, cannot name the first five books of the Old Testament, believe that Martin Luther had something to do with civil rights in Mississippi, and cannot write a coherent paragraph in their own language.
They are pitiable without knowing it. Being innocent of history, they live in temporal isolation. Knowing nothing of painting, literature, or music, they are aesthetically crippled. Never having acquired a taste for reading, they are incorrigible. This is remarkable. The society has managed in a generation to overcome everything that civilization has strived for, replacing it with — nothing.
Now, the one thing that one must never do today is to express other than profound respect for our gilded bushmen. But is it possible to respect the contemptible? Have we not made a society in which the educated very few must quietly regard the enstupidated many with disdain? I for one cannot listen to anchors on the news without thinking of arboreal primates swinging from tree to tree. Benightedness need not be the fate of so many. I studied long ago in a small Southern college for boys (Hampden-Sydney) with modest entrance standards. I believe the average SATs were something like 1100. The prevailing philosophy at H-S was, first, that the reasonably intelligent could be cultivated; second, that adults knew better than school boys what school boys should study; and third, that a liberal education produced a civilized citizenry.
It was assumed, incidentally, that freshmen read fluently and knew algebra cold. There were no remedial courses. A college was a college, it was held, and not a repair shop for the proven academically hopeless who had no business on campus.
The studentry were largely told what they would study. We could choose our majors of course, though even within a major most courses were required. If memory serves, the student of arts could choose which of two ancient languages he would study, the choices being Latin or Greek. The student of the sciences could take three years of a modern language, or two years each of two languages. The candidate for a bachelor of arts could choose which two basic science courses he would take. They were demanding courses, the same ones taken by those with majors in the sciences.
And so the student left college having, with some variation, a grasp of history ancient and modern, languages including his own, literature, philosophy, the sciences, and the Old and New Testaments. (It was a Presbyterian college. The civilization being Christian, one can grasp neither the arts, music, nor literature without knowledge of the Bible.) We were civilized, to the extent that young males can be civilized. We knew where we were in place and time, and where we came from. We knew what we knew and what we did not know, and how to learn anything else that interested us. (Go to a library.) So much has changed. Then as now, many in the nation had neither the intellectual wherewithal nor the interest to acquire much of an education. Yet until at least the midpoint of the last century, it was thought that those who went to college, and therefore would end in positions of responsibility, should be schooled. Today we craft a society in which a very few are truly educated, though many have the trappings. One may issue a diploma to a bushman, or to a log. The recipient remains a bushman or a log.
We become bushmen and do not know it. And it is getting late. Afternoon comes. Twenty years ago the observant wrote that those of the rising generation of the time were the first in America to be less schooled than their parents. Those students are now in midlife and have their own intellectually bedraggled children, the second generation of complacently unwashed.
Lest it be thought that I exaggerate: Perhaps five years ago I went to a middle school in Arlington Country, just outside of Washington, D.C. Arlington is not the ghetto. On the wall I saw a student’s project, intended no doubt to celebrate diversity. In large orange letters it spoke of Enrico Fermi’s contributions to, so help me, “Nucler Physicts.” In the schools of small town Alabama in 1957, where I was a student, such invertebracy would not have been tolerated in an exercise, much less put on the wall. We have come a long way.
The schools remain a cultural slum, a dark night of the mind. As my daughters passed through these dismal moors, I saw misspelled handouts from teachers, heard of a teacher being reprimanded for correcting a student’s grammar, saw endless propaganda disguised as history. How does one recognize the onset of a dark age?
What have we done? And what now? Once the chain is broken, once no one any longer remembers how to write a sentence, much less the uses of the subjunctive, once Coleridge is forgotten and Milton and indeed everything beyond the mall, how can we recover what has been lost? I don’t think we can.
It comes with a price. The effects of the degradation are twofold. One is to deprive the bright and curious of a wonderful heritage that would enrich their lives. This is a high crime, and brings to mind the forgotten virtues of drawing and quartering, or throwing from the Tarpeian rock. Another effect is to separate the country into two classes, an invisible aristocracy enjoying things the rest have never heard of; and the rest, with 500 channels on the cable, watching Oprah, and having not the foggiest idea who, or what, or where they are. This is very, very bad juju.
This is a slightly expanded version of my column for The American Conservative.
Fred Reed [send him mail] is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well.