One of the main factors implicated in the atomization of contemporary life, both as cause and effect, is the brunt and tenor of modern liberal education. For it cannot be denied that liberal education in the classic sense—defined by Matthew Arnold as “the best that has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits”1—has severed its mandate to instruct and enlighten from the archive of the past and has been replaced by the concept of specialization. The student is no longer considered as a living vessel to be filled with the cultural incunabula that binds him to his civilization and strengthens the sense of shared community. He is instead conceived either as a kind of mental putty to be kneaded into a specific, preordained shape or as a tabula rasa to be written over by the hand of narrow political doctrine. In other words, he is not to be educated in the true sense of e-ducere—to lead out of ignorance—but rather trained and indoctrinated.
This is precisely the argument that the late president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, makes in his Summer Meditations, in which he laments what I like to call the new scholasticism, that is, the production of “idiot-specialists.” On the contrary, in order to fulfill its legitimate purpose, the educational institution must “send out into life thoughtful people capable of thinking about the wider social, historical, and philosophical implications of their specialties.”2
Rather than analyzing the particular forms and symptoms of our current educational failure, this essay sketches in broad strokes the historical-cultural climate within which the marked contraction and deformation of education has occurred. Every historical era is more or less of a piece, unified by a set of social assumptions, cultural imperatives, unconscious enthusiasms, defensive strategies, standards of conduct, and intellectual paradigms that form what is loosely termed “the temper of the times”—a composite structure of thought and behavior historians call the Zeitgeist. Our own accelerated period of technological advancement coupled to a neoliberal or progressivist (or what amounts to the same thing, reactionary) political and economic framework would constitute such a coherent historical unit—coherent even in its manifest incoherencies insofar as incoherence is a central and determinate coefficient of contemporary cultural life.
For reasons that lie beyond the scope of this discussion but which any competent historian would be able to assay, our time is characterized by the breakdown of the social covenant that specifies our concern for one another as citizens of a polity, our curatorial obligation to the past, and our custodial responsibility for successor generations. Certainly, in the liberal democracies of the West, we have become a society of what Christopher Lasch has called “minimal selves,”3 isolated from one another, cut off from the knowledge of the past, alienated from any presentiment of a viable future, and turned in upon the peristaltic twitch of our own fearful and insular existence. We inhabit a narrow and selfish world of personal preoccupations and minimalist loyalties, of reverie, appetite, anxiety, resentment, and cynical self-promotion at the expense of a sustaining cultural environment. True, it was always bad; today, I suspect, it is worse.
The primary psychic factor that now controls the nature of our relations with one another is a profound and disorienting sense of distance. This factor, which has acquired the range and force of a cultural determinant, is felt and perceived as a lacunary space that we are unable or unwilling to traverse and that is mediated temporally as a preconceptual experience of social and historical discontinuity. We now find ourselves entangled in the coils of a strange and perhaps insoluble paradox. Inhabitants of a world that has contracted geographically to a mere point in space, McLuhan’s vaunted global village whose various districts and “neighborhoods” we can visit in a matter of hours or Internettian seconds, we are at the same moment radically sundered from the weave and current of a shared tradition and profoundly disengaged from one another as individuals. We have become a colony of monadic selves, internal exiles, resident expatriates who combine only out of expedience, motivated merely by short-term payoffs, the defense of entrenched interests and constituencies, or the safeguarding of material as well as psychic possessions.
The truth is that we have forfeited the long view, the expansion of the everyday circuit, in the name of the quarterly return not only in the realm of corporate investments, but in every aspect, phase, and passage of reciprocal existence. In the travesty of communal life as we experience it today, the contract has replaced the covenant, the letter triumphs over the spirit, lifestyle deputizes for life-history, legality has overthrown morality in a sort of anticultural putsch whose implications are devastating for the preservation of any plausible commonality, and the present has suppressed the past while simultaneously disenfranchising the future. Life dwindles to the momentary and the local, the hic et nunc, in a parody of relevance sustained by largely imaginary gains and a monumental ignorance as we succumb to the dyslexia of the visionary faculty, the inability to read the historical “life-world” in which we live and, accordingly, even to recognize our calamitous failure to get our priorities straight.
Thus the sense of relationship to which we now accede tends to be either forced or delusory, and therefore almost always arbitrary rather than authentic, therapeutic rather than healthy. As for the fabled Internet, that parallel universe in which we supposedly experience a renewal of communal life, it is merely television refictionalized, since it creates an even more effective and invasive illusion of communal solidarity. As Umberto Eco puts it in his famous Internettian conversation with Patrick Coppock, only “when Internet really becomes a way of implementing—through virtual communities—face-to-face communities” only then will “an important social change” have occurred.4 Eco, who is also something of a wag, may have had online dating in mind. However implausible at first blush, using the virtual to facilitate the real is a potential benefit conferred by the Internet.
Nonetheless, the malaise from which we suffer today and which disables us at every level of our lives together is a form of social distancing, an acute crisis of shared meaning, or, in short, a profound anxiety of contact that may be in part explained by our reluctance to disclose our essential shallowness or emptiness to one another—our lack of what William James termed “substantive excellence.”5 We may observe this distancing effect, this bizarre withdrawal syndrome, this shrinking away from genuine mutuality, in almost every facet of contemporary life—from the growing power of self-perpetuating bureaucracies and the slow grind of proliferating committees whose function is to dilute or postpone solutions to pressing issues and problems, all along the gantlet to the moral evasions of political correctness, the reluctance to intervene in the predicaments of others for fear of casual violence or legal reprisal, and the excesses of a kind of commodity fetishism that help us to forget, so to speak, who we are not. Thus the craze that not long ago swept the Internet of making contact with the most isolated listening post in the world, the Mojave Phone Booth, which created a temporary network of desert callers and phone fetishists reaching out for “community.”
In the world we live in today, few of us are really privileged. And few of us are in touch with our history, our culture, our tradition, our fellow man—or with ourselves. The proof is all around us. How, under these conditions, to set about the process of renovation is as daunting as it is problematical. But we must start somewhere. And a good place—perhaps the only place—to start is with a sense of something lacking, with dissatisfaction with ourselves, with a desire for retrenchment, that is, with a recognition of our predicament on the part of a growing number of people. A long shot at best, but there are encouraging signs on the horizon—the Tea Party, charter schools, conservative bloggers and writers, the organization for which I am now writing (the National Association of Scholars), courageous individuals capable of resistance and even of self-sacrifice, reflective and proactive parents. The classroom is not the only place where we could begin to regain a sense of connection with our history and culture, but of course it remains a primary locus and ideal arena where genuine education can be transacted and transmitted.
One thing is certain: awareness precedes meaningful action. To reverse an ironic phrase from Alice Miller, who writes about the betrayal of the child, Thou Shalt Be Aware.6