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I’m having one of those mornings where I think  I ought to be in another business, because I seem to have so much trouble getting things across.

Robert complains that he’s looking for a Cincinnatus and I’m refining a curriculum, but I’m not.

What I found interesting in the VDH  piece had nothing to do with the curriculum, and everything to do with yet one more indication that one of the biggest assets we have is our inherent decentralization.   In every society that has existed on the planet before us, and in most societies that exist now, the job of passing on an appreciation of and a commitment to that society was lodged firmly in institutions.   When the institutions began to fail, there was no turning back.

But when our educational institutions aren’t giving us what we want we…do something else.  And the curriculum is important in one way, because what it is is a way of recruiting students to your society and what it stands for. 

And to do that, you must first teach them what it is your society stands for, and then why it is that it’s preferable to the other options out there.   That’s why VDH wants to teach classics, because he thinks classics will help make clear that “differentness” and superiority of Western Civilization, along with outlining the ideals that have been important in that civilization over time. 

One way or another, though, the first thing we have to do if we are to support this civilization is to make sure people know what it consists of, and if you don’t think you can do that through the existing education system, then either you find another way to deliver that information or you’re dead in the water.

I said at one point in this thing that I  wasn’t really worried about the fate of the humanities, and I wasn’t, because even if every college and university in the contry fell into the sea tomorrow, the simple fact is that the humanities would be alive and well in DVD courses, Internet web sites, and dozens of other alternative venues that have grown up in the last twenty years to provide the connection with our history that the standard educational institutions seem less than adequately interested in.

Nor am I worried that we will not find our  Cincinnatus–hell,  I’ve met him.  His name is  Rob, and when 9/11 happened he walked out on a good job to join the Air Force.  He flew missions in Afghanistan and then the Air Force insisted he get a degree if they were going to go on promoting him, so when  I knew him he was doing that during the week and training on helocopters on the week-ends.  His name is Doug, too, and he had already done three hitches in the Navy when the attacks happened.   He called up whoever it is you have to call, kicked and screamed a little, and was on a boat somewhere in the Persian Gulf last time I heard from him.

Cincinnatus is out there, and there are a lot more of them than you realize.  But Cincinnatus was never in the majority.  He wasn’t in ancient Rome, and he never has been here.  Even in WWII, we needed a draft. 

What we also need right now,  however, are ways to get the information out, and those ways are NOT going to be getting a curriculum onto a college campus or into a public school system.   I suppose it would be nice if we could do that, but if we did it and that was all we did, it wouldn’t make all that much difference.

Schools are not where people learn love of country or admiration for their societyy’s history and ideals.  What we need is not a Department of Education demanding that every tenth grader take a civics course–although  I definitely think nobody should get out of high school without passing an exit exam in American government–but movies, miniseries, television shows, novels, and maybe even music that presents the narrative.

Because the narrative is a good one.  I’m back at Nathaniel Hawthorne this morning, reading a biography that covers not only his life but the “New  England  flowering,” and it occurs to me that I do know how to get my students “interested” in the narrative–and that’s to present it as a narrative.   They like hearing about  Emily Dickinson, believe it or not, and if I give them the  Civil War as a clash of personalities, they’ll not only listen, but remember.

I don’t think it is possible to get everybody in a society with the program, whatever the program is.  I do think it’s possible that you can put the narrative out there in a compelling enough way that it will penetrate the fog of car chases and caper movies that sometimes seems to be haunting us, and I do think that you can change a cultural climate–significantly change it–in that way.

It’s cultural climate that matters, not schools or churches or even government departments. Get the cultural climate on your side and you can do pretty much anything.

If I had to rely on the institutions, I’d be as pessimistic as Robert is about the future of Western Civilization in general and the American Idea in particular.  But I just watched this country vote for a narrative–because that’s what we did.  Not on the issues, and not because we hated George  W. Bush, but for an American narrative so iconic it could have been invented wholesale by  Parson Weems.  From good stamps to the White House in under half a century.   From racist segregation to all  Americans together in just about the same time.  The Amerian narrative is alive and well, thank you very much.  What we need is to reinforce it, and to do that we don’t need schools but stories.

Okay, I apologize to the Australians and the  Canadians for getting all American at the moment, but American culture is what I know most about (at least, in terms of the contemporary).

There are things that have disturbed me greatly over the last couple of decades, and those things will have to be fixed, in the long run.  But our strength is in the fact that we don’t just sit on our hands when things go wrong.  Can’t find a college or university willing to teach you the humanities?  Buy DVDs from The Great Courses or The Teaching Company.  Can’t find a school that will teach your child the three Rs and patriotism?   Homeschool him, establish a charter school, unschool him, move him over to the Christian academy.

There was really never a time when most American children knew all their history or reached a tenth grade reading level or could handle mathematics beyond basic arithmatic.  In the days when our high schools were “better,” they taught fewer than twenty percent of our adolescents.  The rest dropped out early and went to work. 

I think we’re actually educating more children now and to a higher level than we did then, we’ve just changed our focus–we’re concerned about all the ones who aren’t making it.  In my father’s generation, the school systems looked at kids like the ones who attend my classes, said “absolutely no point in bothering,’ and just ignored them.

Sometimes the task looks impossible, and disheartening.  Consider one of my students, who works pretty much full time, and who responded to a request for an in class essay about abolishing the income tax with “I don’t really get all that stuff about taxes.”

She was, apparently, unclear that she was having taxes taken out of her paycheck every week.   I mean, what does it take, if she’s not intersted in what happens to her own money?

But there were always students like that one, and there always will be.  The country never did depend on them, and it doesn’t depend on them now.

It does depend on the cultural climate, but we shouldn’t be going through schools to fix it.

Written by janeh

December 5th, 2008 at 6:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Cincinnatus'

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  1. With a decentralized approach, how do you ensure (or attempt to ensure) that those aspects of the culture you prize continue? If you don’t, you will end up with little cells of people struggling to hold onto some elements of a dead civilization, something like the popular view of Europe in the Dark Ages. (And yes, I know that’s at best an extreme over-simplification.)

    We’ve discussed before how distant popular culture is from the ideals, the stories of western culture in the recent past. We’ve even read how hostile some people can be at the very idea that there’s something – dare I say ‘better’? – than popular culture. I feel the need at this point that I’m not talking about most light entertainment (like most of the detective novels and all of the movies or TV I enjoy); I’m talking about things like the fascination with celebrity at the expense of heroes. And the lack of familiarity with our own political and cultural traditions to the point at which Canadians use Pilgrims and turkeys to celebrate our Thanksgiving, and when our PM does something truly idiotic, he can claim that having the opposition try to form a government is ‘undemocratic’ rather than a perfectly legitimate, if rare, result of the PM losing the confidence of the House in a parliamentary system of government.

    I wouldn’t have thought it possible for anyone to persuade the Liberals, NDPs and Bloc to sing from the same hymnbook, much less do so within weeks of an election, but I digress.

    So, you can’t trust your institutions to perpetuate your culture – but how do you prevent your culture (or those bits of it you value and need to preserve) from fracturing into little bits existing in isolated fragments and passed on by online courses? You’d need a really good story in the mass media to avoid that, and I don’t think the mass media owners think their customers would be interested in stories about civic virtues.


    5 Dec 08 at 9:46 am

  2. This is what I get for shorthanding: I put Cincinnatus in the company of Augustus and Trajan for a reason: they were political as well as military figures, advancing the Senate and the People of Rome. Those I’m afraid are in short supply.

    What I said we’d get–Stilicho, Aetius and Arthur–were the military defenders of a state and civilization unwilling to defend itself. Rome in the West didn’t stop reading Homer and Aristotle, but it produced an overtaxed overregulated culture which made peasants and town dwellers think even Franks and Goths might have more to offer, an aristocracy unwilling to pay for its own defense, and a bureaucracy moving at the speed of tectonic plates.
    I’m not sure how you’d prove it, but my reading is that the decline of classical learning was the effect of societal collapse, not the cause.

    It would be entirely in keeping with the Roman parallel for our last defender to be a soldier. But the moneyed class won’t pay for his men and equipment, and the governing class will protest that actually defending the state against sworn enemies is contrary to their understanding of diplomacy. The lower and middle classes will be busy becoming the enemy. Military defenders are vital, but not sufficient, and studying the Canon may not provide more of anyone useful in this context. A rational army MIGHT all run away.

    I would, of course, much prefer to be wrong.


    5 Dec 08 at 7:38 pm

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