Thinking Outside the Boxes

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Fleming_Slideshow

And the people in the houses

All went to the university

Where they were put in boxes

And they came out all the same . . .

In “Little Boxes” Malvina Reynolds was protesting against the conformity of the 1950’s, when core requirements and a limited number of majors still ensured some measure of common culture among college graduates, but the sarcasm cuts even deeper today when students are free to major in systems analysis or marketing or film studies, and, when they seek refreshment from their mental labors, they can select from hundreds of cable channels and thousands of websites.

In all these little boxes of the mind, the poor kids are immunized against nonconformity and carefully shielded from all those dangerous thoughts of Aristotle and Shakespeare and Vergil that might lead them to question the assumptions with which the regime has made itself impregnable.  Are all human creatures really equal, that is the same—male, female, and other; Romans and Carthaginians; Greeks and barbarians?  Is this material life with its grimy pleasures really “all there is”?  Were there really people who once valued chastity, courage, and “moderation in all things”?  I can almost hear a student, exposed to the subversive classics, wondering out loud, “Kinda makes ya think.”

Such moments of doubt or anxiety are becoming so rare as to exercise only a negligible influence on our culture.  These days, when it is an outrage for an actor (Gary Oldman) to defend entertainers (Mel Gibson, Alec Baldwin) who shoot their mouths off, it is difficult to imagine one of our box-bred simpletons confronted with the opinions of Ezra Pound or Hilaire Belloc or Thomas Jefferson.  (Isn’t he that guy, who, you know, with that black chick Sally . . . ?)  Even 40 years ago, if I made the mistake of alluding to any writer from Aeschylus to Hemingway, my students stared at me with the blank expression of grazing cattle being treated to a learned discourse on the perils of the slaughterhouse.

“Ignorance,” as Lady Bracknell informs us, “is like a delicate exotic fruit.  Touch it and the bloom is gone.”  Americans these days are so unspoiled that when Pete Seeger went to his reward, some obituarists praised him for writing “Little Boxes.”  A minor error, to be sure, but even in 1976 few college students could name the second president of the United States or pick the century in which the Civil War was fought.

I do not blame the students.  The fault lies almost entirely with their parents and with their teachers.  Entire university departments are now populated exclusively with trained monkeys who specialize in critical theory or sociology or gender studies and know absolutely nothing worth knowing.  The humanities professors I run into are hardly any better.  A professorette specializing in Kate Chopin or Alice Walker will know little of Ben Jonson and not so much as the name of Boileau or Propertius, and there are far too many classicists who can rant, à la Frantz Fanon and Edward Said, about the sexism and racism of the Greeks without having mastered indirect discourse or the basic chronology of the Roman Empire.

All academic disciplines are supposedly equal, and a degree in pulp fiction or film studies or journalism is theoretically the equal of a degree in mathematics or classics.  Of course this is not true in the market-driven American universities where scientists, whose research grants bring in money (and money-bringing students) get paid considerably more than professors in the humanities and the social sciences.  Nonetheless, a doctor of education (amazingly, there are such degrees) can attend a meeting with chemists and linguists and look his superiors in the eye, doctor to doctor.

The egalitarian spirit trickles down to the undergraduates who are spoon-fed the freeze-dried pap of literary criticism, social theory, and music appreciation and told it is aged steak and homegrown asparagus.  The object, after all, is to make them “people in the houses,” whether the houses in question are workers’ flats in Bratislava or condos in San Diego; it is all ticky tacky just the same.

Conservative critics of American education often call for stiffening the professional training offered to budding engineers and future business leaders.  (In a more honest age, we referred to such programs as “vocational education.”)  We hear similar appeals from the left.  Every time I make the mistake of listening to an NPR news broadcast, I hear a commercial for the George Lucas Educational Foundation, which is “dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process through innovative, replicable, and evidence-based strategies that prepare students to thrive in their studies, careers, and adult lives.”  I assume they will also cure “the heartbreak of psoriasis.”  One might well wonder why, if Mr. Lucas were really interested in an education, he did not take the trouble to educate himself well enough to make a film (with the partial exception of American Graffiti) worth watching.

The Lucas Foundation’s website goes on to dream of a new world it calls “Edutopia” (if only I were making this up), “a place of inspiration and aspiration based on the urgent [sic] belief that improving education is the key to the survival of the human race.”  The poor man funding this edutopian dream is so uneducated (a B.F.A. in film from the USC School of Cinematic Arts) he cannot even hire someone to write his twaddle in passable English, though his ghostwriters may have a point: The only way a belief can be “urgent” is when it is being rammed down someone’s throat, which is presumably what the foundation has in mind.

In America, George Lucas counts as a success.  After all, every dumb kid in America grew up wanting to be Luke Skywalker or Obi-Wan Kenobi.  Alec Guinness was so embarrassed by his Star Wars fame that, when the mother of a young autograph-seeker boasted that her son had seen the movie over a hundred times, Guinness asked her to promise she would never let him see such rubbish again.  He had taken the job assuming the film would be harmless “fairy-tale rubbish,” but 20 years later he had begun to worry about what would happen to someone who grew up “living in a fantasy world of secondhand childish banalities.”  We no longer have to wonder.

A boy brought up reading Homer and Scott and Stevenson would not be impressed by such banalities.  I well recall my own impression, when someone dragged me to see the first Star Wars film.  I found it vastly inferior, special effects aside, to Flash Gordon serials or that superb piece of trash fantasy, Gene Autry and The Phantom Empire.  In literature as in film, the quality of our popular trash has declined—and precipitously.  Our parents once read H. Rider Haggard (She), Earl Derr Biggers (Charlie Chan), and John P. Marquand (Mr. Moto), but our children make do with J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter) and Stephenie Meyer (Twilight).  If those last two names do not fill you with disgust, then, if you wish to find the source of the problem, you need only look in the mirror.

Everyone who has opened his eyes at one or another point during the past 100 years is aware that the constant and precipitous decline in American (and more recently European) culture is thanks in large part to government schooling and the (mostly) unlettered government operatives who crowd the rolls of the NEA.  But it is easier to spot the problem than to find a solution.  The problem lies, at least to some extent, in the widespread ignorance of what education is or, rather, what it is supposed to accomplish.  Since I do not propose, in my allotted few hundred words, to define the whole purpose of education, I shall have to content myself with speaking about one primary goal of any educational system, no matter how rudimentary: paideia.

The Greek word paideia (from pais, child) means child­rearing, and in its educational aspect it refers to what social theorists sometimes call “enculturation”—that is, the acquisition of a hitherto alien culture or the transmission of the cultures of the tribe or nation to the next generation.  What, then, is culture?

Anthropologists use culture to mean all the institutions and rituals that make us who we are.  The Latin cultura (from colere, to till or take care of) can refer to the care and nurture of various things such as fields (hence agriculture).  In English we still speak of culturing pearls or bacteria, but the more relevant and lively derivative word is cultivate.  One can cultivate a field or a taste for good wine and good music.

If the root meaning of culture means something like the fostering or nurturing of growth, what is it that is being grown in the medium of culture, either in the sense of high art or in the anthropological sense?  The obvious answer is mature human beings.  As the social anthropologist Paul Bohannon has written,

Into every culture and every civilization, year after year, hordes of uncultured “barbarians” descend in the form of newborn babies.  In every society a major—indeed, an overwhelming—amount of social energy must be spent in making cultured creatures out of this human plasm. . . . The habits that are acquired by youngsters are part of the culture in accordance with which they are brought up.

The object of cultural education, its product, is a human being who has acquired the habits necessary for life in his society.  More specifically, it is his character or personality that is formed by the culture.  Some parts of our culture are universal: All over the world people live in families, worship gods, and sing songs about their ancestors.  Nonetheless, in practice, each culture is specific: In some cultures a man might have two or three wives, worship a snake as a god, and sing a tune that we could not recognize as music.

The peculiarities of national character—the things that make the French different from the Chinese—depend a great deal on the differences between French and Chinese cultures.  This includes business practices, political systems, even our conceptions of right and wrong.  Change the habits, says the anthropologist, and you have changed the culture; but, says the political reformer, change the culture, and you change the habits and character of the people, and when you have done that, you have made a revolution.

Change the character, and you have changed the nation.  A culture based on casual promiscuity, Gaia-worship, and mistranslations of Hindu and Mayan literature will produce a national character entirely different from one based on Homer and Dante.  While cultural revolutions replace one political class and ideology with another, they also subvert the character and morality of the people, destroy their myths and symbols, and reinvent a new national (or international) identity.  They call it “diversity,” but the precise name for this is cultural genocide, or, in its most malignant form, spiritual terrorism.  In the name of diversity, they abolish all the distinctions and variety that gave life to cultural traditions.

If the effect of modern public schooling has been cultural genocide, it does not seem at all unfair to say, after so many decades of destruction, that the object is also cultural genocide.  The emergency remedies most urgently needed are as obvious as the first headache remedy we should recommend to a man who kept on hitting his head with a hammer: Quit doing it!  There can be no fixing of public schooling, so long as the conspiracy of teachers unions and government bureaucrats is empowered to destroy the minds and character of American children.  To send our children to public schools is a bit like selling them to the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu for one of his evil experiments that were explicitly aimed at destroying Western culture and eliminating European man.               

 

[By InSapphoWeTrust from Los Angeles, California, USA (John Burroughs Middle School Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons]