Teaching in the post-literate age

Poetry is revolution

Revolutionary ideology created its own literature, and this literature for the most part became the official literature of state schools.

Thomas F. Bertonneau continues his analysis of the phenomenon he has labeled “post-literacy.” It may be worth noting that though the students in his sample all praise diversity, they do as they fall into line, all slouching in step toward the same god. It’s become a cliche to describe adherents of modern ideology as forming a mob or a herd, but one may still pause when confronted by a herd of nonconformists.

Early in my teaching career, when I was beginning my study of the meanings of literature and the intersections between language and culture, I came across many statements–ranging from Confucius to Orwell–about the connections between maintaining civilization and preserving the language from corruption. It seemed obvious that to teach English was to be on the frontlines of the contest between civilizational order and decadence–I fancied myself as joining a vanguard.

Alas, there was no army. What seems obvious to me now is that any regime intelligent enough to dissolve an Ancien Regime would be clever enough indoctrinate its teachers. That was easy enough. They are, after all, mostly low-level civil servants licensed by the state. Education courses based on such as Benjamin Bloom and Abraham Maslow, with no mention of the world’s great thinkers, helped keep cognitive horizons near and vague for teachers in general. The powerful formative texts of Western Civilization were displaced by trendy social science tracts, excerpted into polemical textbooks drafted for the market.

For English teachers in particular, literary culture itself was dominated by intellectuals drunk on nihilism. Consider such as Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg, of whom M.D. Aeschliman observed:

Their aesthetic/ethical style of “upward psychopathic mobility” was a demotic, demonic mix of the nativist narcissism of Walt Whitman (the “barbaric yawp” of “Song of Myself”) and the exotic literary/behavioral immoralism of the French “flowers of evil” — the criminal-as-hero, atheistic/existentialist lineage from Sade through Stendhal and Flaubert to the “accursed ones” (Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine), to the rich rentier-pervert André Gide, to the Dadaists and Surrealists, to Sartre and the criminal-pimp-homosexual “Saint,” Jean Genet.

There were others, of course, but in general, “raw, spontaneous, willfully anarchic and pornographic” self-expression spread like a new religion through university literary culture during and after the sixties, extending and celebrating the sensual narcissism of Whitman, completing the cultural turn of Emerson and Thoreau away from the authority of the past, the canonized traditions of such civilizational ideals as self-restraint, discipline, hard work, decency, and personal fidelity, and forward! into the sexual-social liberation of the authentic self with all the primitivism and anti-cultural rage that took form in the intertwined mass movements of the sixties.

At this point, the ideological capture of the teaching profession has been nearly total. English teachers–who are agents of the state–love to scream “censorship!” when some ordinary citizen musters a weak kickback against the low standards of some required book. Ironic. An addiction to striking revolutionary poses can be hard to break–even for officials. The habit of feeling engaged in heroic opposition to thought control makes for a comfortable alternative to the rigors of thought. What Bertonneau says of students is generally true of their teachers: “post-literacy collaborates with ideology in motivating students to invoke topoi such as ‘uniqueness’ and ‘diversity’ to defend themselves against the internalization of a genuinely literate, a non-personal and non-emotional, point of view.” Critical thinking, as it is practiced among teachers, usually means slamming the door on thoughts that challenge received ideology.

For some time I’ve been trying to understand the precise structures of consciousness that serve to inoculate young minds today from meanings and understandings that classic texts once communicated to new generations. It’s not just that students have not been taught the civilizational ideals that once formed the basis of public education, it’s also true that their consciousness has been formed in ways that tend to recoil at contact with many of those ideals. To speak plainly, the authority of the past that revolutionary ideology targets for debunking is morality–the common decency of ordinary people. The monotonous standardization of thought that these students display is triggered by the threat of some standard of goodness, which, if they understood it, might compel obedience. They have been trained through monotonous, repetitious, and explicit teaching that morality is bunk. Only authenticity matters.

I’m still at a loss as to what could be done, given the constraints of a public school classroom, where the gods of political correctness preside–mostly in the background but never far away–, or should be done, given the beliefs now held by many parents.

Getting family right: we learn by our mistakes (if all else fails)

We can change what the word "marriage" means, but  some men and women will still form lifelong partnerships with each other, with a central purpose of having and raising children. We will always have a name for those relationships.

We can change what the word “marriage” means, but some men and women will still form lifelong partnerships with each other, with a central purpose of having and raising children. We will always have a name for those relationships.

The sexual revolution continues providing a large data base of social science research establishing the wrong-headedness of progressive simplicities regarding marriage and families. We now just how wrong the advocates for easy divorce thirty years ago really were. The consequences have not been at all what they predicted. Divorce is hard on everyone involved, and it often has lasting effects on children. The path toward personal and societal improvement is difficult, depending as it does on changing our character.

There will always be conscience-easing arguments available on such venues as Huffington Post and Salon, and we will continue to find and hold rationalizations that soothe our failures. Arguments in favor of what is easy and simple abound. It’s been noted that modernity dissolves everything. That dissolution often begins with arguments that are relatively simple, relying on logic rather than history.

It’s a familiar pattern. I just finished Levin’s new book on the debate between Burke and Payne about the French Revolution. What struck me most vividly was the relative simplicity of Payne’s arguments–abstract reasoning from initial assumptions. By contrast, Burke was establishing complex balances, arguing for prudence and modesty, given the complexity of human societies. Payne was much easier to understand. He was popular with young people and people who were unhappy and wanted to blame society for their problems.

But it was Burke, of course, whose conclusions proved prophetic–while Payne’s proved to be dramatically wrong. What we got was not a liberal utopia, but a reign of terror. The trouble was that Payne’s simple assumptions about human nature were simply inadequate to the reality, so his logical conclusions drawn from those assumptions differed dramatically from what happened in actual history.

The revolution against traditional marriage will follow a similar course, I expect. The arguments for “marriage equality” are easy to peddle, especially when they are backed by a huge propaganda effort using popular media. The social science–particularly on the effects on children–is already failing to confirm the rosy predictions.

Modernity has dissolved a great many traditional orders, and because of that we are accumulating a vast scientific basis for seeing more clearly the wisdom of many of those orders. Eventually, we will get back on track, with a better understanding. Science and revelation do arrive at the same point, in time.

Unfortunately, the cost of learning by making mistakes is very high.