Mourning the hollow core of our cultural curricula
In this, the month of Aquarius, I feel that I am swimming upstream to wonder where we have reached in our national cultural trough when the only touchstones we share are political loves and hates and vaccine and masking belief and unbelief.
We agree to disagree, but it is about acts and facts, not stories and themes. There is no cultural common ground anymore. Few read books; rather, there is plenty of listening to podcasts at hyper-speed and googling headlines and data with little regard for sourcing. It’s all just part of the social media soup.
In the 1960s, postwar economic success and lilywhite sameness crashed up against the first urgings of nonconformity. Ultimately, materialism and unenlightened self-interest would continue to dominate, but along the way it became more possible to be gay, Black, female in the USA. A work-in-progress to this day, ever an upstream swim. In 1965, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. introduced the polymorphous character of Kilgore Trout, who would splash through a half-dozen novels. Two years later, Richard Brautigan’s novella “Trout Fishing in America” landed.
Was it a coincidence that this time of upheaval spawned visions of trout? Back then, the arts and humanities loomed large in universities and high school curricula and, through them, a common core, a Western canon. It excluded, intentionally or not, many other critical strains of thought, culture and influence. That would take many years to right, and it’s still early days. But for all it missed, this curriculum grounded generations with compelling writing that encouraged reading and the pursuit of knowledge as a verb not a noun. Not just facts but how to learn.
As the costs of higher education soared into the stratosphere and technology took over our lives, with superficial facts readily available as finger-food on smartphones rather than via books, the move away from the humanities to math, science and vocational skills became pronounced. Degrees in literature, languages, philosophy and religion have dropped by about one-quarter in the last decade alone. Less than 10 percent of freshmen at Harvard intend to major in the arts and humanities. Many graduate college without a course in these disciplines.
But what is most important to vocational success in a knowledge economy? The core need isn’t technology and work outputs in themselves. Rather, these fuel the narrative about them. Every retail product sells us the story of what it does. Law codifies story. Health is the latest scientific version we craft and later amend or overturn. Politicians tell stories that are often lies painting lipstick on the pig. The crux of civilization is still what we tell each other around the fire. Only the media have changed.
Among the hundreds of young employees I have supervised, I long ago realized that few could write a clear and compelling paragraph. There was no point whatsoever in using the “great books” of the 20th century in conversation, as they were seldom read and understood. Even film and music had no common ground outside of a few blockbusters of sound and fury. When it came to pitching concepts and selling them, if I wanted it done right, I often had to do it myself. I did my best to mentor and educate, but often too little too late. Illiteracy was the norm, and even cultural literacy was leaves in the wind. I kept my cultural references to myself.
Is it possible to have or share a common core anymore? French education always featured this in lockstep, but it doesn’t appear to have advanced that nation on the world stage. Yet the point is not specific curricula, but rather the habit of learning itself. If we are not to elect fools and fakes, we need to know how to evaluate facts, positions and poses. If we are to trust science, yet also question smartly those who wield it, we need evaluative skills. To separate fact from fiction, we need to understand how to separate all that passes for fact.
An America that salutes the flag to better schools but underpays teachers and shifts to remote learning with every sneeze, regardless of impact on those who aren’t lucky enough to have parents who can supervise at home, guarantees a generation lost to critical thinking. And if the new curricula lack writing that encourages reading, particularly the deeper experience of books, we will fail. It is in books that we enter another’s mind fully and roam about freely.
Old school I am, and old school I will be. When I managed a bookstore, the biggest readers were the home-schooled. They were the Kilgore Trouts, swimming against the stream. That’s not how it should be. Demand a liberal arts education that prepares young people not for a career, but for the career of lifelong learning. It’s still the age of Aquarius.