Years ago, long before cable and streaming, a film from Hollywood’s golden age starring the sublime Leslie Howard, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), frequently aired on television. At a moment of high danger, facing death, the elegant Sir Percy Blakeney finds strength in reciting poetry. Since he’s engaged in courageous opposition to what the Revolution at its bloodiest is doing to France, what comes to mind is Shakespeare’s Richard II, in which John of Gaunt memorably describes England as
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in a silver sea. . . .
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
I don’t remember what tender age I was when I first took in that moment in the film but I recall being enchanted. It was an early lesson in the inspirational power of art and culture as an intrinsic part of one’s being, one’s spiritual makeup, one’s emotional constitution. (As it turns out, Sir Percy escapes death, but the lesson remained.)
When I started stumbling into what used to be called “the life of the mind,” literature, art, music, and culture were considered central both to personal development and to understanding the world.
Lionel Trilling, F.R. Leavis, Cleanth Brooks, and other major critics had written about fiction and poetry with larger implications for both the individual and society (to use one of the categories common to freshman readers back in the day). Kenneth Clark’s monumental, groundbreaking television series, “Civilisation” (1969), illustrated the great aesthetic achievements of the West and in the process showed how they were foundational to our shared culture and way of life.
It was not surprising, then, that when countercultural radicalism began to invade the academy, around the late 1970s, it aimed its fire first at literature. The result was the “canon wars,” as they were named, over the body of great works that until that point had loosely and generally constituted the college curriculum. What should be taught about the other arts also became contentious, since they too had their lion’s share of “dead white male” achievements. The canon did succumb to incorporating lesser works by so called underrepresented authors from underrepresented groups, and the other arts fields followed suit, which measure turned out to be the first step in largely extinguishing the tradition and the idea of excellence altogether in the curriculum, but that gets a little ahead of the story.
One day, it seemed, there had been a shift in response to the radical countercultural assaults. The baton had passed from the English departments to Political Science, it seemed. The thing that bound us was not so much culture as creed, it was said, the American Creed. America was an idea, founded on a proposition, as Lincoln had posited in the Gettysburg Address, built on self-evident truths floating above history and aspirational for all humanity. “Culture” became a bad word, almost. As “race” had been perhaps seventy years earlier, culture was seen as a proxy for attempts to “exclude” (also eventually a bad word), implying that, God forbid, some segement of humanity might feel they weren’t immediately recognized as contributors to the exceptional nation built on universal truths shared by all.
Allan Bloom laid out the underlying ideas most explicitly, perhaps, when in the introduction to his seminal book, The Closing of the American Mind (1987), he declared, “It is possible to become an American in a day,” that is, through acceptance of the natural rights to freedom and equality that are set forth in the Founding and that constitute the true brotherhood of man. Moreover, Bloom’s “early experience of American simplicity” had convinced him that we could actually “begin with nothing, that uncultivated nature sufficed” (an echo of nineteenth century Transcendentalist Theodore Parker, who believed that the Declaration of Independence “went behind human history” to state “the new idea” of a nation founded directly on nature itself).
Eventually, however, Bloom realized that students were arriving on campus with thinner and thinner cultural formation, obviously undercutting their capacity to absorb a real education altogether. “[I]t is clear to me now,” he stated, “that nature needs the cooperation of convention, just as man’s art is needed to found the political order that is the condition of his natural completeness.”
Despite Closing‘s being a runaway bestseller, Bloom’s concluding insight got lost in the commotion of those years, as the idea of America as a procedural or propositional nation with no particular or necessary cultural basis took greater hold.
There was constant discussion of the abstract principles of the American Founding as crucial to our identity and self-understanding. Many estimable scholars and intellectuals—Gordon Wood, Bernard Bailyn, Paul Johnson, and James Q. Wilson to name only a few—sounded this theme in good faith. This is fine as far as it can go, but it can only go so far. You felt that if a boy and a girl went on a date, they would need to take along a copy of the Constitution and spend the evening discussing the Declaration of Independence. Not a bad thing to be sure, and certainly better than the drunken hookups we’ve heard about, but not enough to sustain a full relationship and a human life.
Best I can make out, this stance seemed to arise especially in order to deflect any concern or criticism about the large scale Third World immigration that eventually followed the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, the results of which were becoming more and more evident in the 1980s. We are a nation of immigrants was the frequently heard refrain, and, moreover, assuredly a creedal nation, as elaborated in the Founding and accessible to all mankind.
This was not exactly new, of course. I grew up hearing the American-in-a-day trope, and can remember teachers using those very words. As events unfolded, however, and history began to teach its lessons, those who were paying attention could discern that that expansive and idealistic sentiment had been made possible to a certain extent for the earlier waves of immigrants because more practical people had taken measures to secure the underlying culture that supports it, not least through confident insistence on assimilation. By contrast, with the counterculture of the 1960s and the eventual onset of multiculturalism in the 1980s, together with societal self-flagellation for past and present misdeeds, real and imaginary, that kind of confident cultural assertion was no longer operative.
This is something President Ronald Reagan intuitively understood. Not too long after Bloom’s book, in his Farewell Address from the Oval Office in January of 1989, Reagan took note of what was happening, citing changes in the popular culture, of which he himself had been a part as a Hollywood actor and president of the Screen Actors Guild early in his career. Reagan rhetorically asked, “are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world?” He continued:
Those of us who are over thirty-five or so years of age grew up in a different America. We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American. And we absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions. If you didn't get these things from your family you got them from the neighborhood, from the father down the street who fought in Korea or the family who lost someone at Anzio. Or you could get a sense of patriotism from school. And if all else failed you could get a sense of patriotism from the popular culture. The movies celebrated democratic values and implicitly reinforced the idea that America was special. TV was like that, too, through the mid-sixties.
Reagan had put his finger on the heart of the matter. What he was talking about was a culture—a culture that valued itself, that conveyed its ethos and its ideals in a direct and natural way, not through a disembodied, bloodless creed of universal abstractions, but through a whole way of life, a specific sense of virtue and goodness, an ideal of heroism, a love of country that could be felt "almost in the air." From high to low a country expresses and transmits itself through forms that touch the whole person. The severance of the American ideal from a distinct American culture has managed to change wine into water, thinning out the universal values so that they no longer arouse affection.
As the United States approached the nineties, Reagan observed a troubling change. He saw that younger parents "aren't sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style." He cautioned that “freedom is special and rare. It's fragile; it needs [protection], and warned “of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.” He recommended starting “with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual.”
Wise and prophetic words from our fortieth president, unfortunately pretty much unheeded. A number of writers were calling attention to the problem Reagan described, but it appeared finally to crack open in the wider public consciousness with Samuel Huntington’s forthright Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity (2004). Huntington challenged the universalist position directly, insisting that the American Creed—“liberty, equality, individualism, representative government, and private property”—derived from its Anglo-Protestant roots in Europe. He pointedly asked, “Would America be the America it is today if in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it had been settled not by British Protestants but by French, Spanish, or Portuguese Catholics? The answer is no. It would not be America; it would be Quebec, Mexico, or Brazil.” (Which is why NAS’s counter to the 1619 Project is not 1776, as important as that date is, but 1620, the year in which the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower and signed the Mayflower Compact.)
At the point we began to hear Andrew Breitbart’s pronouncement that “politics is downstream from culture,” sometime in the 2000s, it seemed we had come full circle. We had more or less reinvented the wheel, and were much the worse for the wear of the journey. Still, we might also have had a grim chuckle or two when we realized that the truths and ideas supposedly shared by all humanity and that had justified the enormous flow of immigration through the decades around the millennium and had aggressively silenced opposition to same, had actually been superseded by tribalism and group rights, turning America into the opposite of what the Founders had built. So far from being seen as universal, America is now cast as “white supremacist.”
In the vein of cherishing our culture, we present the feature of this issue, “Assault on the Arts,” aimed at recovering some of what has been eclipsed in the radical attacks of recent decades on the arts and the teaching of the arts. All the articles in this feature call attention to the depredations of radicalism, but they also reprise a sense of more traditional understandings. Rachel Fulton Brown, “Make Art—and Academia—Medieval Again,” considers the implications of the Gothic in much university architecture. Michelle Marder Kamhi, “Art History Gone Amuck,” locates the origin of the muck in modernism, even before postmodernism took hold of things. Gorman Beauchamp, “Autistic Criticism,” finds unintentional humor in criticism based on narrow concerns arising from sex and race. In “Countering the Counterculture: ‘A little management,’ Thomas L. Jeffers evokes the still valid traditional understanding of the power of literary artistry against the shopworn fads of recent decades. “Statues Come Down” is Lauren Weiner’s judicious assessment of the monument controversy in its early days. In “A Broken Vessel: Identity Theory and the Fragmentation of Poetry,” Jane Clark Scharl brings out the larger capacities of poetry while lamenting its present evisceration in academia.
In Articles, Daniel Pipes writes a sprightly piece about a sprightly book that extols the greatness of Western culture, “How Fares Western Civ?” AQ Managing editor Seth Forman introduces a startling idea, that online learning may diminish the credentialing power of the college degree in “Online Learning and Higher Ed’s Dark Secret.” In “Variation and Diversity: A Tribute to Freeman Dyson,” John Staddon offers an informative account of this exceptionally gifted scientist, who passed away earlier this year.
“Decolonizing the Curriculum,” as James Lindsay shows, entails “the sleep of reason”—opposition to rationality and even the embrace of witchcraft. Juliana Geran Pilon’s “Scholars vs. Ideologues” is oddly reassuring, showing that radicals of the past were as hateful as today.
In a review essay, “Identity Politics and the New Culture Wars: Causes and Effects,” Matthew Stewart considers two books with different assessments of the culture wars, Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics by Mary Eberstadt, and The Problem with Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars by Meghan Daum.
This issue features an extensive roster of reviews of significant new books bearing on higher education, including Robert Maranto on R. Shep Melnick’s crucially important The Transformation of Title IX: Regulating Gender Equality in Education, which explains how blatant injustice developed from those fatal thirty-seven words. Steve Balch exposes the duplicity of Melvin I. Urofsky’s The Affirmative Action Puzzle: A Living History from Reconstruction to Today. Stephen Baskerville appreciates The Breakdown of Higher Education: How It Happened, the Damage It Does, and What Can Be Done by John M. Ellis, past president of the California Association of Scholars, and Michael Rectenwald eviscerates The First: How to Think About Hate Speech, Campus Speech, Religious Speech, Fake News, Post-Truth, and Donald Trump, by Stanley Fish, the extreme relativist whom Camille Paglia called the “totalitarian Tinkerbell.”
Books taking in the wider culture, which impinges on higher education, of course, are Joseph Epstein’s The Ideal of Culture: Essays, reviewed by Dan Asia. Donald M. Hassler continues to assess and appreciate the scholarly work of NAS Director of Research David Randall, whose latest book is The Reconception of Rhetoric in 18th Century Thought. And David Randall himself considers Christopher Caldwell’s provocative and disturbing thesis in The Age of Entitlement: America Since the 1960s.
We have a larger than usual poetry corner in this issue, with poems by Jonathan Chaves, Donald M. Hassler, and Robert Maranto inspired by the coronavirus shutdown, and, we hope, inspiring despite it.