We hear a lot these days about cultural decline: Students who can’t learn, adults who can’t read and a general “dumbing down” of the population.
Millions of people have almost no knowledge of science, history, art, literature and religion. If our culture were a person, it would be flatlining on its deathbed.
Nobody is happy about the mess and everybody has their favorite political ogres to blame for the perceived decline. No need to name the usual suspects here. But before we toss in the cultural towel, consider a few points that get little attention.
First, after teaching for more than 50 years, I’ll let you in on a little secret. There have always been students who couldn’t learn and people who couldn’t tell you which hemisphere the USA was in, much less find it on a map. Illiteracy, which was normal for adult Americans two centuries ago, was — and is — still fairly common.
But educational deficiencies are only part of the educational scene. I began noticing another phenomenon several decades ago.
The brightest students of today are brighter than the best students of my day. I say it without condescension. Are we dividing into two Americas — the super smart and the super slow? It is an enigma for social scientists and a nightmare for teachers.
Naturally, we pin our future hopes on the bright students. But don’t give up on the slow ones just yet.
Our universities turn out intellectual specialists in every cultural field, but intellectuals usually do not save nations in times of crisis. That chore goes to plain people whose knowledge is limited but their courage is not.
Intellectuals — bless their little pointy heads — are more likely to undermine national resolve. Culture has several definitions.
In the broadest sense we can describe it as a general repertory of concepts, methodologies and technologies for solving problems, defining values and enhancing lives.
But at times parts of the cultural field, or canon, outlive their purpose and become excess baggage. This is true in academic culture, which I know best. Much of it has become too unwieldy to assimilate.
Hundreds of unreadable books clog the different fields. Thousands of pointless articles are a wearisome burden for the student. Bibliographical entries serve not so much to help the reader as to highlight the erudition of the writer.
Occasionally we have to slough off parts of adipose culture, as frontier Americans simplified top-heavy European civilization and created the lean, adaptable culture destined to revolutionize the world several times over.
Cultural downsizing and streamlining seems to be happening again. If so, then the bright youngsters popping up in increasing numbers may refocus culture in a more usable way.
Is that usable, trimmed-down model a certainty? Not at all, but neither are the doomsday predictions we hear almost daily. As always, it is up to us to make the best or worst of alternatives the world presents.
Either way, we stand to lose many things, good and bad. History is clear on the matter: Some things have to end so that others can begin.