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.