Saturday, September 5, 2009

A Confederacy of Nincompoops

Since the decline of Western Civilization--at least as manifested in these United States--currently shows signs of accelerating rather than abating any time soon, I thought I'd post this both on Owl's Farm and here on the Owl of Athena because it relates both to political economy and to education.

I have, of course, stolen the title--cheesily altered--from John Kennedy Toole's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. His hero, Ignatius J. Reilly, was a fully-realized snark and I loved the book--but haven't read it in twenty years. If Toole had lived to see what happened to New Orleans a few years ago, he'd probably have written a sequel; but the world was already too much for him, and he died by his own hand over ten years before A Confederacy of Dunces was finally published.

Toole was a latter-day Jonathan Swift, critical of cultural excess and stupidity in the '80s, and he drew his title from Swift's own "Thoughts on Various Subjects": "When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign: that the dunces are all in confederacy against him."

Now, I'm not saying that Barack Obama is a "true genius," even though he well may be. He is, after all, a politician, and he seems poised to weasel out of a host of platform promises in some Quixotic quest of his own--bipartisanism. But for sure, the dunces and nincompoops have arisen, if not in actual hoards, at least in loud numbers that make the evening news every bloody night, and promise to make it more and more difficult for him to accomplish what he was elected to do.

Another of Swift's aphorisms (from the same source as Toole's title) speaks to the current phenomenon of loud-mouthed, ill-informed rantings that go on in the so-called "town meetings" and that may well signal the end of civil discourse in this country.

Few are qualified to shine in company; but it is in most men's power to be agreeable. The reason, therefore, why conversation runs so low at present, is not the defect of understanding, but pride, vanity, ill-nature, affectation, singularity, positiveness, or some other vice, the effect of a wrong education.

Or of no education at all, perhaps. Otherwise, why would any reasonable human being yank a kid out of class in fear of being "indoctrinated" by the duly elected President of the United States? The promised topic is a pep-talk on staying in school in order to excel in life. Objections to the address on the basis of some paranoid fear of subliminal persuasion to embrace Socialism sounds to me like these parents--who really don't want their kids in public school anyway, but can't "afford" to home school them, or sacrifice anything to send them to private parochial schools--just don't want their children educated at all, in any meaningful sense of the word.

They want the Bible taught in school, but they sure as hell don't want Biblical hermeneutics taught because that might cause kids to question particular interpretations of the book itself, or perhaps to insist that it be read in context. They want Creationism or Intelligent Design taught to "balance" the godlessness of "Darwinism," and they don't "believe" in the evidence emerging from science in regard to climate change. They want their kids to read "the classics," but only the ones they approve of. History has to tell it the way it was told when they were kids, despite any evidence that's emerged during the last hundred years or so that contradicts received views. And the United States must never, ever, be portrayed in a negative light. Art history can be taught, but parents want to be insured that little Chase won't see breasts on a Greek statue, or little Britney won't see the giant phallus on a Pacific Island totem, so don't take 'em to a museum.

I know that not all parents act this way, but the furor over President Obama's speech has brought back a flood of memories about recent skirmishes in local public schools, and the constant battles that go on over Texas textbook choices. I long for a new William F. Buckley to appear to bring intelligent voices back into Conservative conversations. David Brooks and Rod Dreher can only pull so much weight, and even they're drowned out when the screamers take the podium and start out-shouting reasonable discussion.

The truth is, if we keep on this path toward willful ignorance, afraid to let our children make up their own minds about issues, they'll never learn to think critically, and there won't be anyone around in the future to solve the problems we're not addressing today.

As I discussed the Norman Conquest in my art and design history classes this week, I was once again reminded that our children don't know much about the history of the world. Medieval life is a mystery to them (except the Disney or Monty Python versions), not because it's not especially interesting, but because some nincompoop school system doesn't think "ancient history" is very important. This despite the parallels between the Middle Ages and the present that keep popping up.

Around here it's because you'd have to talk about controversial religious matters, and point out conflicting ideas about the role of religion in the formation of the modern world. But modernity and change are issues that parents don't seem to want to deal with, and they don't seem to be particularly worried about being condemned to repeat what we've forgotten about history.

The focus on education is increasingly seen as "elitism," even as we're told to send everyone to college who can breathe, whether or not he or she is really interested in doings so, or prepared to work at it. Those of us who have gone beyond college are suspect, because so many of us favor thinking carefully instead of proceeding headlong into an argument with nothing but opinions as grounds.

Among Swift's other remarks (not all of which are particularly useful) is this: "Some people take more care to hide their wisdom than their folly."

Some people seem to be reveling in their folly, at the expense of ever attaining wisdom. The old guard--the politicians and commentators who could discuss issues rationally despite their differences, like Ted Kennedy and Bill Buckley--is gone, and I for one miss the folks who could keep us honest and reasonably well-informed. Their measured assessments of current issues are swiftly being replaced by squawking and flummery, and our country is intellectually poorer as a result.

Images: William Hogarth's Chairing the Member, from The Humours of an Election series, 1755. When considering how to "illuminate" this post, I immediately thought of Hogarth's rabble-rousers in this series on popular elections. New Orleans, Mardi Gras Day, 2006: Rex Parade float commemorating A Confederacy of Dunces on Canal Street near the corner of Charters. It's good to see that Toole's book is still celebrated in his home town. Photo by Infrogmation. Jonathan Swift, portrait by Charles Jervas, 1718. All from Wikimedia Commons.