“What is the difference between a democracy and a republic? (Silence)
“Name one poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (Silence)
“What is meant by ‘civic culture’?” (Silence)
Perhaps one reason that 61 percent of American high school students can’t answer these questions is that we’re no longer asking the questions. Oh, I know that we still teach history and literature, and that most teachers are holding forth and performing nobly in a media-saturated age, but the culture at large just isn’t too interested in the past.
Our minds are on the present. Cicero called it “the tyranny of the present,” meaning (even in 55 B.C.) that the present can become our master if we let it. We become enthralled by it, seeking its pleasures, forgetting that something and someone came before us, allowing us to have what we have. Worshippers of the present are slaves to the moment, moving from pleasure to pleasure, from crisis to crisis, not realizing or caring that there is a context and a history for everything.
We moderns care little for context and history. If it’s not a moving image on a screen, we want no part of it. It’s too hard to sit and listen, and unthinkable to pause and ponder. Reflection is out; fast-paced videos are in. Our requirement of everyone and everything is immediacy.
So how did we get here? How did we move from believing there is such a thing as the wisdom of the ages to believing that children and youth bear some kind of mystique that we must honor?
As a child and a youth, I felt incredibly enriched, and even safe, because I was around so many people older and smarter that I was. Being the 16th of 17 children is, very seriously, a wondrous and beneficial thing. Textbooks can’t compare to listening to the stories of two older brothers who helped defeat the Nazis.
When I was 12, Elvis came along and the earth shook a bit, but the nation was only 11 years removed from World War II, still enjoying residual benefits of living amongst the greatest generation who at the time were in their 30s. The social order stood.
While most people will never experience the blessing of a family as large as mine, we could all still experience family if we could manage a renaissance of civic culture. Such a renaissance won’t be easy in an electronic age. It is possible, however, simply because the human spirit yearns for family.
Let’s face it. The 20th century was the American Century, but American confidence has since fallen to a low ebb. The first decade of the 21st century did not find America believing in herself or feeling like a united family. Modern bureaucracy and central planning have undermined our tradition of local government, local action, and local community spirit. Modern education has diminished classical studies, opting for test taking, rankings, and practical careers.
Currently the cultural tie to our past is broken. Schools alone cannot be blamed for our youth having precious little knowledge of their historical or cultural worlds. Parents are ultimately responsible for the education of their children. Civic life (a community or nation with law, order, productivity, and a measure of happiness) is impossible when people have a severely limited knowledge of their world and their past.
The demise of classical education — of emphasis upon western civilization’s origins — is the result of a decision: the decision of textbook companies to diminish Greek and Roman influence and to give all civilizations moral equivalency, and the decision of school systems to purchase the textbooks. The demise of classical music in our schools (and hymnody in our churches) is also the result of a decision: the decision to run with contemporary youth culture rather than cherish the values of the past.
Plato taught that in order to take the spiritual temperature of a society, one must “mark the music.” Well, today rock music is as tightly embraced as classical music is scorned.
In literature, contemporary tastes reign as well. Longfellow and other such “Fireside Poets” are out of favor. Feminism, multiculturalism, and sexuality are now the required topics of literature. Homer, Longfellow, Tennyson, and Robert Frost weren’t concerned with such trendy, contemporary topics, but with the “eternal verities” of truth, greatness, heroism, and sacrifice.
The world has changed because human nature hasn’t. C.S. Lewis wrote, “Modern man has a dreadful fear of The Same Old Thing. He fears what he needs most: a dose of eternal values.”
The cure for our youthful narcissism and the best defenses against the social disorder that faces us are still the old-fashioned comforts of work, love, and family life.
Roger Hines of Kennesaw is a retired high school teacher and former state legislator.