A Culture in Regression
by Fred Reed: An
Intrusion of Reality
The night closes
in. Read the surveys of what children know, what students in universities
know. Approximately nothing. We have become wanton morons. As the
intellectual shadows fall again, as literacy declines and minds
grow dim in the new twilight, who will copy the parchments this
No longer are
we a schooled people. Brash new peasants grin and peck at their
iPods. Unknowing, incurious, they gaze at their screens and twiddle,
twiddle. They will not preserve the works of five millennia. They
cannot. They do not even know why.
does come. Sales of books fall. Attention spans shorten. Music gives
way to angry urban grunting. The young count on their fingers when
they do not have a calculator, know less by the year. We have already
seen the first American generations less educated than their parents.
College graduates do not know when World War One happened, or what
the Raj was. They have read nothing except the nothing that they
read, and little of that. Democracy was an interesting thought.
Ours will be
a stranger Dark Age than the old one. Our peasants brush their teeth
and wash, imagine themselves of the middle class, but their heads
And they rule.
We have achieved the dictatorship of the proletariat. Hod-carriers
in designer jeans, they do not quite burn books but simply ignore
them. Their college degrees amount to high-school diplomas, if that,
but they neither know nor care.
that have forever constituted civilization respect for learning
whether one had it or not, wide reading, careful use of language,
manners, such notions as lady and gentleman these
are held in contempt.
Yet ours is
a curious bleakness. Good things of everywhere and all time lie
free for the having. When I was a child, you went to a library for
books and the libraries often didn't have many. Today you can get
even the Chinese classics, or those of Greece and Rome, or almost
any book ever written in any language, from the web in five minutes.
Do you want Marvin Minsky on finite automata? Papinian and Ulpian
on Roman law? Balzac? Raymond Chandler? Tolkien? All are there.
The same is true for any music, any painting, any movie, almost
any historical curiosity: Ozzie and Harriet, Captain Video, Plastic
Man. You can have cultivated friends in Katmandu or Yuyuni in the
Bolivian alitplano, and talk to them face-to-face with Skype.
This is news
to no one. Yet it may prove important in ways we do not think. The
Internet allows an electronic community of those who have not been
peasantrified. On the Web, learning and taste will live or, perhaps
I should say, hide out. When there is no longer enough interest
in books to support bookstores they close now in droves
the residual demand integrated over the surface of the earth will
provide enough of a market to keep the One True Bookstore, Amazon,
going. Project Gutenberg will do the same for works not in copyright.
worse for the many but better for the few.
Odd: In one
sense the Internet is highly democratizing, giving any teenager
in Tennessee resources greater than those of the Library of Congress.
It does this equally for a Cambodian teenager in Battambang. A bright
youngster can learn almost anything with a cheap computer and broadband:
mathematics, literature, languages.
The net also
allows a terribly needed aristocracy, by which I mean not a governmental
arrangement but the community of those of discrimination. They will
shortly amount to a secret society, perhaps with a distinctive handshake
for mutual recognition. It could become dangerous to speak correct
English. It would indicate Elitism. We live in a society in which
elitism is thought far more criminal than mere pederasty or cannibalism.
of course means only the principle that the better is preferable
to the worse, but society today, except in matters of football,
believes the worse to be preferable to the better. (One does not
readily imagine a quarterback being urged to lower his passing percentage
so as not to wound the self-esteem of his colleagues.)
It is literally
true that the better is suspect. If you correct a high-school teacher's
grammar, she will accuse you of stultifying creativity, of racism,
of insensitivity. If you reply that had you wanted your children
brought up as baboons, you would have bought baboons in the first
place, she will be offended.
it seems to me, becomes a towering social responsibility. I have
actually seen a teacher saying that parents should not let children
learn to read before they reach school. You see, it would put them
out of synch with the mammalian larvae that children are now made
to be. Bright children not only face enstupiation and hideous boredom
in schools taught by complacent imbeciles. No. They are also encouraged
to believe that stupidity is a moral imperative.
Once they begin
reading a few years ahead of their grade, which commonly is at once,
school becomes an obstacle to advancement. This is especially true
for the very bright. To put a kid with an IQ of 150 in the same
room with a barely literate affirmative-action hire clocking 85
is child abuse.
even crucial, to the preservation of civilization in the deepening
gloom is a grim, intransigent determination not to apologize. You
cannot cleanse the schools of teachers who barely speak English.
The country is too far gone. But you needn't be cowed into regarding
cretins as other than cretins. In front of your kids especially,
don't be cowed. If your child in the second grade is reading at
the level of the sixth grade (I have daughters, which clouds my
mind), she is superior. It is not that she tests well,
with the subtle implication that testing well is some sort of trick,
having nothing to do with intelligence, which doesn't exist. She
is smart, literate, superior
(oh, forbidden word).
She will have
figured out the smart part anyway. You need only to
let her know that smart is a good thing.
In an age of
blinkered specialization perhaps we should revive the idea of the
Renaissance man. Today the phrase is quaint and almost condescending
(though how do you condescend up?), arousing the mild admiration
one has for a dancing dog. A time was when the cultivated could
play an instrument, paint, knew something of mathematics and much
of languages, traveled, could locate France, attended the opera
and knew what they were attending. They wrote clearly and elegantly,
this being a mark of civilization. I think of Benvenuto Cellini,
born 1500, superb sculptor, professional musician, linguist, elegant
writer, and good with a sword.
If there is
any refuge, it is the Internet. Let us make the most of it.
is author of Nekkid
in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and A
Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be. His latest
book is Curmudgeing
Through Paradise: Reports from a Fractal Dung Beetle. Visit
© 2011 Fred Reed
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