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25 September 2012


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There is something fundamentally sad about this. When Tocqueville was touring America in early 19th century, he was amazed that every American home, however humble, seemed to have a copy of the Bible and a set of Complete Works of Shakespeare. While we might say that this doesn't seem like such a huge intellectual attainment, one might recall that this was a time when the average European was still more or less illiterate. In comparison to the rest of the world, Americans were much more intellectual on average.

I don't know if the average American today is necessarily less intellectual than comparable cohorts elsewhere in the world--it is a pretty anti-intellectual world we live in today, after all. Still, we don't have anything like the 21st century equivalent of the complete works of Shakespeare at every American home, I am sure...


I am 65 years young and went to one of those "better" schools in my youth. We read the authors Col. Lang loves and I thank heavens for that. My children went to similarly elite schools in their day (the 1990's) and didn't read any of my favorite, defining, and sustaining books. So i would say the curriculum is worse now. If they read any of the great American authors at all, the shortest book had always been chosen. Hemmi ngway? Old Man and the Sea. Steinbeck? The Pearl. Fitzgerald? The Great Gatsby (and they could discuss the movie). Faulkner? Who? Somehow Tale of Two Cities snuck through, otherwise English lit is basically gone. My kids got tired of hearing me rant and decided to read the books I recommended. Turned them into voracious readers of all those thing you g people supposedly don't read anymore.


Sounds vaguely like the Newspeak in Orwell's 1984!


At my private school we read many of the greats, but when I transferred to public we only read chapters and excerpts. Fortunately I had already read most of them, but how can one learn to love literature if he reads Act II, scene 3 of the Divine Comedy and chapter 4 of David Copperfield?
It is well documented and readily evident that public schools prepare children for the assembly line and for being easy to manipulate and control. My public classroom exposure to literature was completely ridiculous. What saved me was a house full of great books and parents who limited my social life and media exposure. When I was bored or ignoring my homework, I read.


Irrespective of that - friends of mine who spent a year in school in the US and found the testing and grading to be a bloody joke. Average students in Germany, they expressed their surprise over consistently scoring As over there.

They were realistic enough about themselves to assess that as ridiculous.

They also noted the utter absence of tests that required students to write and express their thoughts in coherent texts, which is normal here in Germany. Multiple choice tests were dominant, probably because they can be graded more efficiently, and because the results are easier to empirically grasp.


The worst aspect of the decline in education is the associated hubris. We act like the rest of the world yearns to be just like us as if we were the pinacle of human achievement. They don't.


"People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it."


I think you're being a bit melodramatic.

The novel as a form was only really invented in the 18th century and aimed almost exclusively at the market of bored upper middle class housewives stuck in their London houses all day. Even in its Victorian height of Dickens and Thackeray - with all their tricks and cliff hangers in the magazine market - it still only commanded a small part of the human market.

Story telling through drama has been with us since we were cave dwellers. So has straight forward narrative story telling by an individual. It permeates pretty much every culture and still thrives in many parts of the world. It had a very healthy life on dark nights in the West until its place was taken by cinema, the radio and television.

American twentieth century films were absolutely stunning pieces of combined visual and story telling art. You invented it. Admittedly you can't do it any longer (we in the UK do it even worse) but, as you yourself point out, there are the superb TV narratives of HBO. (I can't recall off hand a better piece of story telling than "The Wire" in the whole of 20th century American literature). And now the ROTW has learnt the techniques of great film making - especially the French. Any film with Daniel Auteuil!

And don't forget genre fiction. Crime, science fiction. British science fiction is really good at the moment. And I think your Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games" will be for our younger generations their equivalent of "1984".

Story telling involves both passion and skill. Which its practitioners continue to display and develop into new forms. "The novel" has long since been captured by tedious Bloomsbury-like New York and London in-groups who talk to no one but themselves. Let it die.

William R. Cumming

Interesting post and discussion. Decline documentable in many arenas of American life but always led by the corporate socialists. MSM really has leadership like that of the FIRE sector of the economy, no real reason for obtaining more wealth expect for power over the corrupt political system. But others are also resonsible.

In 1970 40% of undergrad B.A.s were in English and 20 % were history. Now history down to 8% and usually called American studies. Communications Majors over 25% of all undergrad B.A.s.

The college experience is now largely one when on-campus of a sexual or drinking experience not educational. Higher-ED is undergoing fundamental challenges but preservation of independent research and critical thinking not being preserved even as directed research and profit making and on-line education revolutionize the system.

Broader questions like demographics, the death of gasoline warfare, political corruption, and even survival of public libraries usually ignored.

Yet there is some cause for hope because the human spirit does seem to be on somekind of longterm quest beyond its often focus on wealth and power.

No doubt that this century will be important in answering whether humanity and its survival in the fullest sense will occur.

The search of intelligent life on the planet brought me to this blog and its posters and comments. Thanks to all for that. Perhaps islands of knowledge and wisdom is all that we as humans can hope for. Entire continents of knowledge and wisdom never existed and now even more out of reach. Personally I believe MALTHUS should be studied closely. Also Smith and Hume who feared the death of CAPITALISM by its inherent greed.

Realities of most of human kind rarely intrude on the political class of Washington and elsewhere only by revolution or technology. Perhaps a search for personal meaning and higher purpose is unlikely except as an exception not as a universal.

Hope does spring eternal except for some.


Approximately one hundred years earlier they also had a copy of "The Last of the Mohicans" in every home, but I confess that that was very difficult to plod through. I think I forced myself to finish it, but it was torture. I don't blame J F Cooper. I hope it has something to do with my being female. It was the same with "Ivanhoe." Lack of testosterone?

On another note, I love how over one hundred years later, much of "Democracy in America" still rings true.



A shift to other forms of literature would be a saving grace. Do you see indications that thgis is occurring? pl


I think a people faced with economic uncertainty lose the arts. And as the middle class becomes more secure, they rediscover literature. I think this is as true in India as in the US of A.


Not really. Newspeak in Orwell's vision was ultimately created by people who knew what they were doing and why. The thesis of Voltaire's Bastards is that the West has become trapped by expert management who see every problem as yielding to the same set of tools, and discount the roles of experience and memory in dealing with problems. It's this concept of all problems yielding to the same set of management tools that leads both to the mutilation of language, simply because if you want a high position you have to speak the language managers speak. In his book it also explains why things are largely run by people who have no understanding of what they are doing and why.

Babak Makkinejad

Yes, you probably would not enjoy Conrad or O'Brien either.

Babak Makkinejad

Yes, you are right; films have the potential to rival great works of literature in creating a world which one inhabits for the duration of the movie - just like Proust created a world or Tolstoy.

There are several impediments to that, however. One is the extreme cost of creating a film; a creative genius, like Trollope, would not be able to afford making a single movie to tell his story; to create his world - so to speak.

Secondly, and related to that, is the fact that movies still in their infancy as an art form. Centuries of work lies ahead for their improvement.

Thirdly, the visual impact of the movies will make watching certain scenes obscene and sickening; as opposed to reading the description of such scenes in novels, contemporary accounts, and court proceedings.

I recall the director of the "Killing Fields" mentioning that after a screening of his movie in Cambodia, one of teh audience told him: "This was a good movie; but the situation was much worse than you have depicted." And the director replied that he had wanted to make a movie that people would watch and not get sick watching.

That task still best left to text.


I would argue that TV does too much of the work for the watcher. I, too, enjoy a brilliant show, but they render us more passive than a book. At least w/ plays of old, many people had to read them or act them out b/c players weren't to be had at the drop of a hat by those outside of court. Books have to be imagined.

I include well-written histories and commentaries when I speak of literature. Today, people need visual stimulation which, I would think, leads to less reflection. The average child has so much available at the click of a mouse, but most teens and young adults spend the time on social networking sites. The potential for great works is there, but overwhelmingly untapped. My generation and the subsequent one are less engaged and more likely to be spectators. I think that has consequences I can just begin to understand.


They also had zero radios or televisions and only candles or kerosine lamps.

William R. Cumming

JonF! The Japanese 11th Century "Tale of Genji" by a largely unknown Lady Muraski is now largely acknowledged as the first NOVEL in existence. Perhaps the poems of Homer also had elements of the NOVEL in Western Civilization. This has 4 major English translations.

But perhaps lost in time are other earlier efforts that otherwise would deserve consideration.


Thanks, Jane, but a Rhodes Scholarship is a credential. It is a public affirmation. America is full of people who earn credentials. That is distinct from people actually being educated.


It would be interesting to see what view we came up with. Given the latest issues in the ME over religous interpretations of civil law perhaps Adam's comments "A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law" circa 1765 would be worth a reading?:



You are spot-on, I would expect that many Americans, when asked who Dante Alleghieri is/was- would reply that he is a linebacker for the Texans.

The Moar You Know

My wife's a high school English teacher, Colonel. She's trying. But she'd be the first to tell you it's a losing effort. The reason (one, not plural) would surprise you. It's the parents.

If little Johnny or Jane don't want to learn, these days the parents will back them up to the hilt. Administrators and school boards always cave to angry parents (they vote them in or out of office, after all) and as a result we have a school system in which a student can enter high school, do no work whatsoever for four years, and graduate on time with a 4.0 average if the parent is determined enough to make it happen.

You'd be very displeased to discover how many parents are determined to make that happen.

I don't understand this. When I was in high school (incidentally, in the same district where my wife now teaches, we both have quite a bit of history in the area), back in the 1980s, if I didn't do my homework, I'd get punished. If I'd talked back to a teacher (happens every day to my wife) or set the building's bathroom on fire (also happened to my wife about three weeks ago) I'd have been backhanded hard enough to lose some teeth and then my parents would have turned me over to the cops.

These days, the parents in my wife's district, one of the richest in the nation, will call her and yell at her for an hour for daring to put any incident, or grade lower than "A", on their child's record. In the case of the darling young chap who set the fire, his father didn't bother to call, he just simply went and filed a lawsuit against the district for suspending his child for a month. He may be suing the police department (who arrested the little thug for arson) as well, we haven't found out the status of that threat yet.

When we do a social function, people are always asking my wife what's wrong with the schools. She's quit answering. Turns out they really don't want to know the truth.

That, to me, is the worst part. They don't want to know. Much easier to blame the teacher's unions, or the lack of prayer in schools, or anything they can think of...except for themselves.


I would make the argument that people learn the things they need to learn as a matter of survival in their culture. Adaptability trumps even critical thinking I'm afraid.

As far as great works of literature, I have no doubt there are one or two being written now, but how would we know? Was Melville, Poe, or Faulkner carried about on golden chairs by their peers lest their feet touch the ground? I believe more than one of our "great artists" died drunken in some gutter or another, only to be conducted to some lofty height at a later date. Surely Twain enjoyed some noteriety in his day, but the man was constantly broke and had to huck his written and verbal wares to make the rent on more than one occasion. Even Picasso wasn't considered anything special until after his death. If we were in 1930s Paris looking at a Picasso paiting and lamenting the lack of an new "great art", would we have ever been aware of the irony? So who are the greats today? Bansky maybe? JK Rowling (she's only written one series mind you)? Someone in Asia or India or Iraq or the Sudan or ? that isn't even on our radar? How many Europeans knew who Walt Whitman was jut after the American Civil War? Probably not a whole lot.

See what I mean? I think this dressing down of the new generations is rooted more in our nostalgia than in their education. As a whole, they don't read great literature because it doesn't serve them to do it (as a whole, there are always the exceptions.) They don't learn nearly at much at school that is useful for their lives as they do on the internet, so why focus on school for them? It would be like West Point in 1940 having the options of focusing on mechanized warfare vs. the history of the muzzle loaded rifle. Which is the better choice?

Before everyone descends on this post like hungry beasts, consider this: at the time of the American Revolution, how many of the people who secured the freedom to write that beautiful constitution or bill or rights could actually read it? Could read anything at all? They didn't need to be able to read, they needed to be able to fight and win so that the few who could read were able to write what they did.

The same thing is happening now, we're just too old or nostalgic to see it ;) I suspect the American spirit has a few great works and surprises left in its bag of tricks, but that's a game for our children rather than us.

The Moar You Know

"Spend American money on the American people?"

That would make you a socialist, as I understand the current popular (certainly not close to correct) definition.


You're in good company re Cooper, and it's not because of your sex: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/HNS/Indians/offense.html

The beaver


Just have to see the panoply of reality shows on the TV station for the past 10 yrs to understand how low what you are stating. Some are more interested to watch the "frasques' of the Kardashians (spelling?) or some trash every week than reading some good books ( history, literature, or even current affairs or politics). Forget about the newspapers - if it is not for sports or tabloid news - they are useless for most.
What I find distressing or shocking: with all the tools available at their disposal, some students don't know how to use the web to research a topic-
"which key words should I use" ?
"How come you've managed to get all that info/"
You get the idea.

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