Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Educating for a Dark Age

The loss of historical knowledge and consciousness prepared Americans for the dictatorship of relativism

In conversation, Yale professor David Gelernter and Bill Kristol talk about how the past two generations in American life have focused on disdaining Western culture. Gelernter says:

And during this same period, universities were being taken over by intellectuals and moving hard to the Left. Intellectuals have also been Leftist, have always been hard to the Left. So the dramatic steer to the Left coincides with a huge jump in the influence of American universities. We have a cultural revolution. And the cultural revolution is that we no longer love this country. We no longer have a high regard for this country or for the culture that produced it. We no longer have any particular feelings for Western Civilization.


KRISTOL: All traditions are called into question, to say the least, you know.

GELERNTER: Exactly. The Judeo-Christian tradition means nothing to us, except in terms of hostility. And we have a generational shift so that when we start in the 1970s and 80s, suddenly public schools’ and college teaching went way down. Deteriorating. There was that famous report in the 1980s, mediocrity, saying mediocrity in the schools. In 1983 or something like that.

So the schools were failing to teach but at least the parents had been educated before the cultural revolution. You know, they’d been educated in the 60s and the 50s, some by the 40s or the 30s. So they – When their children were taught garbage, when their children were taught nonsense, when their children were taught outright lies, at least the parents could say, “Hold on, not so fast, are you really sure about that?” Or “You know, there are Republicans in this country, too.” Or, “You know, we’ve tried those policies, and they created catastrophes. Are you sure we should do this all again?”

But what happened in – as we move out of the 90s and into the new century – the children educated in the first generation of the cultural revolution in the 70s, in the 80s, in the 90s, those children are now the young teachers. And then the not-so-young teachers. And they’re the parents.

And so the children who were being taught nonsense and garbage and lies in school, instead of going home and having the parents say, “Well, wait a minute, this is really idiotic, by the way.” The parents say, “Yeah, that’s what I was taught, too.” You know, the same.

KRISTOL: The second generation.

GELERNTER: So we have second-generation ignorance is much more potent than first-generation ignorance. It’s not just a matter of one generation, of incremental change. It’s more like multiplicative change. A curve going up very fast. And swamping us. Taking us by surprise.

KRISTOL: And it seems to me – and of course, everyone has his own and so much prejudice is based on where and when you grew up and so forth – but what strikes me is the difference – I mean, people didn’t know much honestly in my generation or probably our parents’ generation.

I mean, there was a lot of faking it. A lot of what was then this middlebrow culture that was kind of vague knowledge of the name of an artist but not really knowing anything about his work. And in some ways the critique, at the time, the whole middlebrow thinking was anti-intellectual, people were almost complacent in it. But there still was this sense that you should know about X, Y, or Z. And it would be good to know more but you’re a busy person so you can’t have time to learn a language or to read or think but you admire the people who do.

What strikes me today is – correct me if I’m wrong – is there’s not even that sense of lack or of not knowing or knowing that you don’t know or admiring the people who really know. It’s almost not even a sense of what it would mean to really know something. Is that exaggerating?

GELERNTER: I think that’s exactly right. It’s certainly not the case that my education in the 60s and 70s, was anything to write home about. It sort of overlapped the cultural revolution, but a good deal of it was before. My parents often said, “Well, you mean they’re only teaching you that, they’re not teaching you this?” My parents themselves complained about the education they had gotten: “We wish we had studied this, we wish they had taught us that.”

But what we used to do and, for example, art education has always been a joke. Music appreciation was never taken seriously. But what we used to do was, at least, expose students to things that they might be excited about, that their own minds would propel them into. So they would know nothing about Beethoven in any deep sense but they would have heard a phrase from the Fifth Symphony, they would have heard a phrase from the Ninth Symphony or the Moonlight Sonata. Doesn’t mean they know Beethoven, but it means if they love music, the door is open, they have some concept of what culture is.

If you are the sort of person who responds to painting or who loves history or cares about writing or poetry, you still know it’s there.

KRISTOL: You have a sense that maybe you should want to know more; then if you have a taste for it, you then actually learn more.

GELERNTER: It’s a good thing to care about these things.

Read the whole thing.  I’m working tonight on some questions that a potential publisher of my Benedict Option book wants to know before her firm decides whether or not they want to make an offer. She asks, reasonably:

What concrete phenomena reveal that we are going into a new Dark Age? Why is Obergefell the impetus and not Roe v Wade?

That’s a good question — and the Kristol/Gelernter conversation gives us most of the answer.

What is a Dark Age? It is a time of mass amnesia. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, a massive amount of knowledge from the Classical world was lost. The monks preserved much of it painstakingly in their monasteries, which became fortresses of memory throughout the long forgetting. I wrote about this phemonenon back in October, in a long post about the work of social anthropologist Paul Connerton. Excerpt from that post:

Connerton says that modernity is a condition of deliberate forgetting, of choosing to deny the power of the past to affect our actions in the present, so as to create a new condition of existence marked by the individual’s freedom of choice. Capitalism requires this deliberate forgetting, and facilitates it, and rites we invent in modern times “are palliative measures, façades erected to screen off the full implications of this vast worldwide clearing operation.” Here is the core:

Under the conditions of modernity the celebration of recurrence can never be anything more than a compensatory strategy, because the principle of modernity itself denies the idea of life as a structure of celebrated recurrence. It denies credence to the thought that the life of the individual or a community either can or should derive its value from the acts of consciously performed recall, from the reliving of the prototypical. Although the process of modernisation does indeed generate invented rituals as compensatory devices, the logic of modernisation erodes those conditions which make acts of ritual re-enactment, of recapitulative imitation, imaginatively possible and persuasive. For the essence of modernity is economic development, the vast transformation of society precipitated by the emergence of the capitalist world market. And capital accumulation, the ceaseless expansion of the commodity form through the market, requires the constant revolutionising of production, the ceaseless transformation of the innovative into the obsolescent. The clothes people wear, the machines they operate, the workers who service the machines, the neighborhoods they live in — all are constructed today to be dismantled tomorrow, so that they can be replaced or recycled. Integral to the accumulation of capital is the repeated intentional destruction of the built environment. Integral too is the transformation of all signs of cohesion into rapidly changing fashions of costume, language and practice. This temporality of the market and of the commodities that circulate through it generates an experience of time as quantitative and as flowing in a single direction, an experience in which each moment is different from the other by virtue of coming next, situated in a chronological succession of old and new, earlier and later. The temporality of the market thus denies the possibility that there might co-exist qualitatively distinguishable times, a profane time and a sacred time, neither of which is reducible to the other. The operation of this system brings about a massive withdrawal of credence in the possibility that there might exist forms of life that are exemplary because prototypical. The logic of capital tends to deny the capacity any longer to imagine life as a structure of exemplary recurrence.

What does this mean? He’s telling us that in modernity, the market is our god. It conditions what we imagine to be possible. We can’t dream that life should be ordered by rituals that bound and define our experience, and link it to the past, to a sacred order. There is no sacred order; there is only the here and now, the tangible. The world exists to be remade to fit our desires. There are no ways of living that we should conform our lives to, no stories that tell us how we should live. When Connerton says that in modernity, and under capitalism, we can hardly “imagine life as a structure of exemplary recurrence,” he’s saying that we can no longer easily believe that we should live according to set patterns of thought and action because they conform to eternal truths.

Why was Obergefell the tipping point? (And believe me, it really was; as longtime readers know, I’ve been writing about this stuff for at least a decade, but few people paid attention until Obergefell.)

The Obergefell ruling was only possible as the conclusion of a long period of the dissolution of the ties that bind (in the Connerton sense). When the Supreme Court can find in the Constitution the right to deny not only biological reality, but virtually the entire history of Western thought and practice about sex and social relations, we have entered into uncharted waters. Obergefell is critically important because of what it says about individualism and desire in our post-Christian culture, and because anti-discrimination principles will be the instrument in which Christian individuals and institutions are banished from the public square, both in law and in culture.

In short, Obergefell is a condensed symbol of nominalist, therapeutic, individualist culture, and how it has conquered the American mind and the American Establishment. Roe v Wade was a part of this long march away from our past, and anything that would restrict individual liberties because of a Christian moral order, but it wasn’t as revolutionary. Roe did not challenge the basic idea of gender, marriage or family, much less write the cultural revolution that did into constitutional law.

What does this have to do with Kristol and Gelernter? Notice this from Gelernter:

So we have second-generation ignorance is much more potent than first-generation ignorance. It’s not just a matter of one generation, of incremental change. It’s more like multiplicative change. A curve going up very fast. And swamping us. Taking us by surprise.

Young adults today, especially many Christian ones, cannot explain in even a rudimentary way why we believe and do the things we do. It’s all about individual choice and preference for them. And so they don’t really know that they are guided by their own passions, and that these choices are being made for them, because neither their parents nor their normative institutions gave them any grounding in the past, or outside of themselves. Their religious institutions have by and large been conquered by Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, an infinitely malleable faith that bears only tangential resemblance to what came before it.

And here is Kristol, again:

What strikes me today is – correct me if I’m wrong – is there’s not even that sense of lack or of not knowing or knowing that you don’t know or admiring the people who really know. It’s almost not even a sense of what it would mean to really know something. Is that exaggerating?

Gelernter says it is no exaggeration. I have heard the same thing from other college professors, men and women who teach at Christian colleges. Most of the kids they teach don’t know what they don’t know, and critically, don’t care.

The Benedict Option has to be about learning to love the past, and to care about it, to the point of suffering for it. And not just “the past,” which can become an idol, but the God and the faith that comes to us through the past, in Scripture, and in Tradition. We cannot make it up as we go along. Churches that do this in an attempt to be relevant and seeker-sensitive are preparing their flocks for assimilation to the secular culture.

The Czech dissident novelist Milan Kundera wrote, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” The struggle of Christians in the West today is not the struggle of conservatives versus liberals, but the struggle of remembrance against amnesia. I’m reading a history now recommended by Yuval Levin, The Final Pagan Generation, by Edward Watts. It’s about fourth-century Rome, which was the tumultuous century when the Empire left behind its paganism and embraced Christianity. The thing that impresses me so deeply about this book is how the pagan elite didn’t see what was coming until it was too late. They really did lack the imagination to grasp how radically things were changing.

This is true for Christians in America too.

UPDATE: Look, if you want to see this post as an opportunity to gripe about Bill Kristol, Iraq, and neocons, I must warn you that I’m not going to publish those comments. Stick to the subject matter of the post.



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