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 time?
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 millenia. They cannot. They do not even know why.
Twilight really 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 frist 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 are empty.
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.
The things 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 Kanmandu 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.
Things grow 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 euqally 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 govermental arrangement but the community of those of discrimination. They will shortly amount to a secret society, perhaps with a distinctive hand-shake 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.
“Elitism” 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 insensitiviy. 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.
Home-schooling, 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 putt a kid with an IQ of 150 in the same room with a barely literate affirmative-action hire clocking 85 is child abuse.
Essential, 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 readfing at the level of the sixth grade, she (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 specializaton 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 usmake the most of it.