God’s blessing to you on this the twenty third day of January in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.
Well, I missed yesterday. The odd thing is I didn’t even notice that I did until I was writing out the date for today’s post. My apologies; yesterday was an extremely hectic day. I took my middle son to a classmate’s fifth birthday party, and there was a magician there performing for the children. I was surprised by how accurate depictions of magicians doing children’s parties on television turned out to be.
On a slightly related subject, I recently saw this rant by Harlan Ellison:
It’s a very interesting subject about which much can be said. First I’d like to mention that given the way he uses a German pronunciation of Dachau, I might have not realized he was talking about the Nazi concentration camp either, though I’m certainly aware of it. I’m only really used to seeing it written.
The copyright on the video is from 1993, and Ellison says that the story was from a few years ago, and given that at the time he was in his late fifties, that probably doesn’t mean just two years. (The older people get, the longer a period of time is covered by “a few years”.) So we’re likely talking about the late 1980s, or at the latest the very early 1990s. That makes this story especially egregious (if it’s not a matter of pronunciation) because Dachau was in living memory then; plenty of soldiers who fought in World War II were in their sixties and seventies in 1990; it was only 45 years after the liberation of the concentration camps. Incidentally, having grown up in the 1980s, I imprinted on the idea of World War II being in living memory for many people, which it isn’t any more. I’m sure that there are a few World War II veterans still alive as of the time of this writing, but World War II ended 71 years ago.
Anyway, it is a real problem that modern people are not well educated in history. The ever-increasing efficiency of distribution is making this all the more the case; with tends of thousands of books being published every year, it’s impossible to know more than the tiniest handful of them. Of course, this has long been the case; the great library at Alexandria is estimated to have had somewhere between 40,000 and 400,000 books. Even without television, no one could be familiar with them all.
This was, in part, why there was the idea, within education, of teaching the classics. It ensured that there was a common set of references that (educated) people could make that others would recognize. There was also the part about the classics being very, very good, of course, but that’s a different subject. Actually, it’s not, entirely, because the excellence which made the classics, well, classics, also made them not very accessible. This meant that the classics were in a head-on collision with widespread education, and not surprisingly widespread education won. But that’s not really what killed off the classics. Secular education was what killed off the classics, for the very simple reason that nothing secular transcends time.
This is almost true by definition, of course; especially if one permits materialists in the room what counts as secular is purely bound by the moment, and inherently has no consequence past the conditions it has bequeathed to us as the present moment, together with our (pointless) memories of it. But even apart from that, even if we permit a little bit of humanity to leak in around the edges of strict secularism, such that we actually consider ourselves to have some continuity with the past in a more meaningful sense than the historical curiosity of how present conditions came to be, it doesn’t matter very much because there are too many crimes in history for remembering them to be practical. No one’s distant ancestors were innocent of others’ blood, so on purely practical grounds—to borrow a phrase from Pride & Prejudice—in matters such as these a good memory is unpardonable.
The result is that as education became secular, it forgot history. It also forgot classics of literature and art because human nature is not a thing to be learned, but a thing to be made. Of course, having jettisoned all standards (it can take a generation or two), there becomes no reason to mold human nature into one shape rather than into another. The only thing we have to decide between alternatives is our inclinations, and to simply do what our impulses dictate requires no action. One cannot become an adept at doing whatever you feel like. So in the end, the mastery over human nature which was the goal becomes a total passivity. Learning about the raw material of human nature is useful for forging a new human nature, but since in the end the secularist has nothing to forge it to besides what it already is, he quickly discovers there’s no point to even knowing what it is. Even if there is no value to knowledge conceived of beyond control, people who do not desire self-control have no use for self-knowledge.
At which point the only value to any sort of modern classics which replace older classics is that of shared reference, but the problem is that there’s not much call for shared references. They’re not of practical value, and people with nothing to communicate don’t need a language to do it in.
As I was writing this I was thinking of the book The Catcher in the Rye, which I recall disliking. It’s a relatively recent book which is highly praised in the sorts of places which should rightly make one suspicious of it. And there’s the fact that I couldn’t remember any of it so I had to read Wikipedia’s plot summary to refresh my memory. From what I can piece together from my memory augmented by Wikipedia’s plot summary, it’s the book of a horribly disaffected boy who doesn’t fit into his world and feels very dislocated because no one gets him. But there’s nothing to get; he’s empty. There’s nothing to say about nothing. He wanders around New York City trying to find something, but looks in all the wrong places. It wouldn’t have sold nearly so well if he actually wandered into a church and realized that nothing but God could fill the emptiness inside of him, but it would have been a far more worthwhile book. But then perhaps my memory is faulty. According to Wikipedia, it was highly praised by noted promise-breaker/tax-raiser George H. W. Bush.
Anyway, while the cultural illiteracy which Harlan Ellison complains about is certainly a problem for science fiction authors, it’s somewhat combatable by picking a niche audience and writing for them. For example, you can rely on Christians getting (at least fairly commonly made) biblical references. As Chesterton said, the modern world is one wild divorce court. But in himself, Christ brings all men together.
Glory to God in the highest.