[A video version of this post is at the bottom of the page.]

I was reading Climbing Parnassus, a book-length defense of learning Greek and Latin, and it goes into historical depth about the role of education as a preserver of the best of culture. This resonated strongly with me, because I think it explained my own revulsion at most educational practices today: perhaps what bothers me the most about the way children are educated by our schools is the fact that they are left almost completely ignorant of the substance, the foundation, and the beauty of Western civilization.

But the problem is not just a matter of ignorance of books and art. The problem is that knowledge of Western culture has a moral function—it is enculturating. Despite spending thousands of hours in school, students learn little of what can be called the ethical culture of Western civilization, apart from a few lessons drilled home especially hard, such as empathy, ethnic tolerance (not intellectual tolerance), and egalitarianism. Heard only in faint echoes in most classrooms, or in many cases long gone from them, are the texts, the art, and the discussion that would inculcate the rest of the great virtues: self-discipline and hard work, critical thinking and suspicion of superstition, love both as a romantic ideal and as the agape that drives our regard for all humans and maybe all life, good sense or wisdom, and so on. This has been the case since I was a student, and probably since before that, and I think it’s gotten worse. As a result, our popular culture has become crass, rude, and in a word (which would not sound so quaint if we all studied classics more) barbaric.

In largely the same way, despite a few perfunctory efforts here and there, most of our students emerge from high school largely ignorant of the Constitution and our civic culture. First, they lack the education to appreciate The Federalist and The Anti-Federalist, or even to read and understand the founding documents themselves, but beyond that they are simply ignorant of the concepts and the defenses of them that, together, undergird our free republican form of government. They have virtually no clue about such things as freedom of speech, freedom from warrantless search, division of powers, and many other things that one must understand well in order to criticize politicians who, today, are actively trying to limit these aspects of our government. And as a result, the government of what was once supposed to be “a city on a hill” standing for freedom, tolerance, and civic virtue has become a nanny state, constantly rescuing us from ourselves, and one of the largest and most powerful governments in history. As the three branches of government each slowly, gradually remove more and more of our liberty, most of our people lack the tools to articulate or even appreciate objections, and those who have such tools are misunderstood and smeared.

Two historical movements, among others, have brought us to this situation. The first is progressivism in education, beginning with Dewey and his colleagues in about the 1920s. This was a profoundly anti-intellectual movement and transformed education from being a force for the teaching of the entire body of Western culture and values to a bland, smothering force for vague “life skills” and “socialization” and “creative self-expression.” It is progressivism that has left our students incapable of understanding and appreciating our civic culture and values, leaving us open to gradual but inexorable domination of what might aptly be described as a new empire.

The second—and please don’t misunderstand here—is the decline of religion as a serious cultural force for most people. I hasten to add that I’m agnostic, not a Christian, and I know very well that religion still does influence politics, mostly on the right. That’s not what I’m talking about. Apart from a small percentage of evangelical Christians, few Americans (and of course many fewer Europeans) take religion seriously, as providing a broad moral basis that structures how we live our lives. Critics of the religious right often seem to forget that Christianity as a moral culture, beyond its religious and political tenets, instructed people to work hard, to hope for a better life, to treat others kindly and donate to charity, to practice the graces of humility and self-respect, to rein in our passions and practice moderation, to take responsibility for ourselves and our dependents, and much more. It wasn’t all good, but much of it was. It taught the very idea of obligation, which has grown much weaker for many of us. It was an organizing, all-encompassing, core part of the Western civic culture. But really no more. Many don’t go to church; many of those who do go to church don’t believe; even those who do believe don’t take religious moral strictures very seriously; even if they do, they probably don’t understand them well; and finally, those who understand them aren’t supported by most others, who are both ignorant and deculturated, and all too willing to “tolerate” all manner of sins. So, as I say, as a serious cultural force, inspiring us to live well, religion is a pale shadow of its former self. Even as a nonbeliever, this strikes me as a truly profound loss.

So we lack both the education and the cultural strength to resist enslavement both to our passions and to our government.

This is why it is so important that we reinvigorate our commitment to the liberal arts and that we show educational progressivism the door. I don’t know or particularly hope that we will get religion per se back; I think relearning the classic virtues and the civic culture of the early United States could heal many ills. But if that is not enough, then perhaps we do need some sort of ethical cultural movement, something not associated exclusively with the left, as what goes under the name “ethical culture” is.

We can hope and we can make efforts. But I fear that we’ll simply continue to leave our children largely incapable of assimilating Western culture, while we allow our governments both in North America and Europe to grow and become more authoritarian and centralized, running up massive debts. I fear the results of that situation. Our children and grandchildren will be very lucky if it ends well.