The rising generation of leaders knows next to nothing about the great thinkers who have shaped our history. Who can blame them? They have been educated during the Great Forgetting. We have embarked on a remarkable experiment: a society governed by those who have little knowledge of the humanities, which means no informed sense of who we are and where we’ve come from.
In a review of a book by Doug Stokes, Against Decolonisation: Campus Culture Wars and the Decline of the West, Charlie Bentley-Astor makes telling observations about her recent undergraduate education at Cambridge University. “I took an undergraduate degree in English but, by the end of the three-year course, I had not studied Milton or Coleridge, Wordsworth or Shelley, nor Keats or Collins or Dickens. These writers were replaced by black, female, and ‘queer’ writers, often for no other reason than that they are black or female or queer.” Student activists at Cambridge dictated terms to supine university staff. They had the library reorganized. “Foucault takes pride of place on the top floor, whilst Chaucer and Shakespeare have been relegated to the basement.”
It’s a story that could be told by countless others. During the last three decades, most universities in the English-speaking world have pivoted away from required classes in the literary canon and Western civilization. Those classes have been replaced by a wide variety of courses that satisfy vaguely formulated general education requirements. This fall at Harvard, a class titled “Anime as Global Popular Culture” satisfies a Gen Ed requirement in “Aesthetics and Culture.” For a class in “Histories, Societies, Individuals,” another Gen Ed requirement, a number of options address one or another aspect of the race-in-America theme. Or you can take “Mexico and the Making of Global Cuisine” in the spring. For the “Ethics & Civics” requirement, you can choose “Ethics of Climate Change.”
This is not to say that no students at Cambridge and Harvard read Plato’s Republic, Augustine’s Confessions, or John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. One freshman class, “A Humanities Colloquium,” promised to take students from Homer to Gabriel García Márquez. There are no doubt upper-level classes in which students read Immanuel Kant and perhaps even Thomas Aquinas. But these offerings are a thin stream compared to the broad river of classes that reflect a university culture with little regard for the humanities. I received my undergraduate education more than forty years ago. Universities were already unsure of themselves in those days, but most still required a year-long class in Western civilization and a foreign language. English classes covered seminal books by the famous dead white males who were never assigned to Charlie Bentley-Astor. Even an ignorant freshman like me knew vaguely that these authors should be read by anyone who wished to become an educated person.
In spite of Jesse Jackson, who in 1987 led Stanford undergraduates in the chant “Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture’s got to go,” for the most part the slide toward cultural ignorance was not planned or contrived. The Great Forgetting does not ban books. It is not an enforced erasure. Rather, it has been a slow process resulting from transformed priorities. My father told me that I should spend my undergraduate years acquiring culture or, better, being cultured by those who were learned in our cultural inheritance. “If you want expertise for a job, go to law school,” which was what he had done. Today, we educate for success. Parents and students demand “marketable skills.” Or we aim for technological prowess, or equity, which is likewise an outcome-oriented goal. None of these educational missions require humanistic knowledge. Given limitations of resources and time, Calvin, Condorcet, Carlyle, and Conrad die from neglect, fading into a hazy background of which students (and increasingly faculty) are only vaguely aware.
Cultural forgetting is like bankruptcy: It happens slowly, then quickly. We have arrived at that inflection point. Baby boomer professors were unwilling to convey the importance of reading Dryden, Pope, and Swift. Today’s rising generation of miseducated professors are unable to do so.
How did we come to the point where so little of our cultural inheritance is passed down? Much has been made of the suicide of the humanities. In “Truth, Reading, Decadence” (June/July 2021), Mark Bauerlein charts the shift in English departments from love of literature to infatuation with the exciting new insights of “critical theory,” to today’s tiresome and self-referential scholasticisms of queer studies, women’s studies, and the rest.
Mark is certainly right that most students flee from these courses to other subjects. The students are not stupid. The content of an English course titled “Climate Change Literature” (offered at Harvard) is all too likely to be composed of bad social science, potted history, and third-rate philosophy.
Yet the self-mutilation of the humanities is only part of the story, and not the most important. During my lifetime, I have witnessed a dramatic shift in the way educated people think about society and their own lives. In 1964, Robert F. Kennedy spoke to an audience at Columbia University. He referred to his brother’s favorite quote from Dante’s Divine Comedy, recited lines from Sophocles, and ended with a (modified) quote from Archimedes: “Show me where I can stand, and I can move the world.” By the time Bill Clinton arrived on the national scene in the 1990s, well-placed, ambitious people were adopting a very different manner. They recognized that impressing others now required showing mastery of policy and appealing to economic principles, or some other theory of society. The lens had become scientific and technocratic rather than literary and humanistic.
It’s not just public figures. In my parent’s generation, poetry still had currency, and novels served as touchstones. One read Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, and John Updike to gain insight into what it meant to live in postwar America, where a once powerful and complacent social consensus was becoming threadbare, unable to contain explosive anxieties and urgent desires. In the 1970s, ambitious films by young directors superseded the novel for a short season. Today the narrative form has lost its relevance. Those under fifty rely on sociobiology, brain science, game theory, or market models to interpret their experiences. Many believe that we can gain insight by modeling the human mind as a combination of hardware and software. Pseudoscientific journalism of the sort mastered by Malcolm Gladwell offers a more accessible version of post-humanistic, supposedly scientific insight into the human condition.
It is telling that more than half a century ago, the best-selling books about unhappiness were novels like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and Rabbit, Run, whereas in our time they are popular-psychology books such as Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. (See Julia Yost’s assessment of this phenomenon in “By Our Wounds We Are Healed,” October 2021.) If one is inclined toward cultural progressivism, “critical theory” in one form or another (structural racism, patriarchy, cisgendered privilege, and so forth) supplies the key insights. Compare Ibram X. Kendi’s best-selling How to Be an Antiracist, a combination of confessional writing and gimcrack social theory marketed as a stern self-help book for white people with Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, Invisible Man.
These trends—the “rigorous” science, the therapeutic ethos, the ersatz critical theory—constellate into a technocratic outlook. We look to “theories,” not just to solve technical and economic problems, but also to manage society, even our souls. Science has a history, of course, but its rhetoric is universal and timeless. “Best practices” and “Follow the science” do not require one to know anything about the past. This aura of timelessness is as true for postcolonial theory as it is for the laws of supply and demand. Therefore, in a technocratic regime (which, again, governs our souls as much as society), especially one that gives a prominent role to market exchange, knowledge of the history of Western civilization has limited salience. Reading Shakespeare provides no “value added.”
West Virginia University recently abolished its foreign language department, not because of an animus against German, French, or Italian, but because students no longer enroll in these majors. Fewer students means fewer teachers. Over the next two decades, faculty staffing in the humanities, even at richly endowed private universities, is likely to be halved, and then halved again. Humanistic study will not be eliminated. But it will be marginal and culturally irrelevant in the coming world of algorithms. We are well along in the Great Forgetting.
It’s interesting to note that the task of remembering is now largely taken up by religious people. Yes, there are secular folks who care about Virgil and Dante, and there are classical schools that are not religious, at least not officially. But for every non-religious individual or institution, there are nine, perhaps ninety-nine, motivated by religious faith. Many classical charter schools are not allowed to promote religious identity, yet they are populated by religious people. After the collapse of Roman authority in the western half of the empire, Christians, especially monks, preserved ancient learning against the darkness of an earlier season of forgetting. That pattern seems to be repeating itself.
Loss of Reality
As our society “decultures,” our outlooks become more mechanical. John Henry Newman recognized that the most important intellectual virtue is good judgment, what he called the “illative sense,” the capacity to round out a body of evidence, which is never complete or definitive, into a firm conclusion. This capacity requires a taste for reality, one that can distinguish subtle shades of significance.
A good scientist has this capacity. But it is focused. The entomologist knows insects; the astronomer knows the stars. The wisdom we need to govern our society and our souls addresses the full human condition, a richly varied reality, parts of which can be studied scientifically, but the whole of which cannot be subsumed under a theory. For this reason, humanistic study is crucial, for it plunges us into the stream of human endeavor, speculation, lament, celebration, and more.
I don’t want to oversell books, even great books. Many students in my generation and earlier ones were assigned and dutifully read the canonical authors but gained little insight. It’s tempting to go through the motions, especially in required classes. In truth, life itself is often the best instructor. An older generation of faculty looked back on the late 1940s as a golden moment for good reason. Returning GIs were not just a bit older and more mature than the usual freshmen. They had a richness of experience that came from participation in great and consequential events.
I certainly learned a lesson or two in the school of life. During my high school years, I spent a summer as a kitchen assistant and pot washer in an Italian restaurant in Baltimore. When cooks were going full throttle during busy times, the atmosphere was high-spirited. There were times when I was chewed out for being too slow and not anticipating needs, yelling sessions during which I learned elaborate combinations of obscene words, a species of creativity heretofore unknown to me. I cannot distill a “lesson” from those hours in the hot restaurant kitchen, any more than I can boil down Milton’s Paradise Lost to a one-sentence statement about its “point.” Rather, my mind was infused with new and vivid material from the great gallery of the human condition.
Here as well we are embarked on a Great Forgetting. I have the impression that the most talented students at our most prestigious universities—those most likely to be assigned responsibilities for the future of our society—undertake internships, but rarely work at the numbskull jobs that expose them to people outside the charmed circle of the clever and well-placed.
This social isolation of our elite is compounded by the triumph of screens. Not only are few bright young people reading Hemingway; they spend endless hours looking at their smartphones, where reality is mediated and curated. A person educated in game theory (or any other theory of human motivation and action) and socialized by social media is so removed from the breadth of human experience that good judgment about how to navigate through life becomes elusive. I’m not surprised, therefore, that mental illness and other dysfunctions are on the rise—and that our institutions and political culture are eroding. These days our intuitions and sensibilities are not well-trained by reality.
As with the task of passing down cultural inheritance, men and women of faith have important roles to play. Priests and pastors need to preserve the tangible reality of worship. Fortunately, the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist require the visible signs of water, bread, and wine. Hymns and songs are anchored in the human voice. But the potency of the real needs to be embraced in every possible way. The installation of screens of any sort in churches should be resisted. I advise getting rid of microphones whenever possible, as well as amplified music. (Orthodox Jews have the advantage of ritual prohibitions against turning devices on and off, limiting the electronic invasion of the sabbath.) Processions should be emphasized. Christians should consider adopting the Jewish tradition of asking all in attendance to sprinkle dirt after a casket is lowered into the grave. Our taste for reality needs to be engaged and trained so that we can taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
Alone in the Godless World
The more modern, the more alone.” The formulation is David Goodhew’s as he outlines the results of research into the strong correlation between unbelief and the collapse of community in the secular West. He reports, “In 1990, 55 percent of U.S. men said they had six or more close friends; by 2023, that figure had halved.” Apparently, the proliferation of Facebook friends isolates rather than connects us. Other metrics, such as civic involvement, also show decline.
As we know instinctively (and by the authority of Scripture), it is not good for men and women to be alone. It’s not good for us physically: “One study suggests that loneliness is as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.” And it’s certainly not good for us spiritually.
Well-educated denizens of today’s postindustrial global cities have noticed the community deficit. Goodhew draws attention to the Sunday Assembly movement, “a self-styled ‘Church for Atheists’” that was launched in 2013, gathering people to sing, listen to inspirational talks, and enjoy fellowship. Designed to be a lot like a Protestant congregation, just without any talk of God, the Sunday Assembly saw some success, along with lots of fawning coverage in the secular press. But it soon petered out. Today there are only twenty-two branches worldwide. I’m not surprised.
Goodhew sees a pattern. “Without [a] doctrinal scaffolding, such communities have proved short-lived.” In the middle of the twentieth century, the Communist Party required doctrinal commitments, and it created a tight-knit community of true believers. The transformation of progressive politics into a self-referential, therapeutic project like today’s identity politics undermined Marxist doctrine, dissolving the old bonds. “Saying, to quote Bob Marley, that we can just ‘get together and feel all right’ is empirically untrue.” The same holds for putting signs in front of your home that declare, “Hate has no home here” and “No human is illegal.”
By Goodhew’s accounting, the greatest strength of doctrinally robust Christianity rests in its realism about sin, evil, suffering, and death—and the consolations it offers. The Sunday Assembly seeks to uplift: “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More.” Its gatherings promise to help people “live the lives they want to live and be the people they want to be” in “the awesome world we live in.” As Goodhew notes, everything is “achingly nice—and that is its biggest problem. It only works in a nice world.” Which of course is not the world in which we live.
One need but read 1 and 2 Kings to learn that Judaism and Christianity are not religions for nice people in a nice world. Our faith offers realism, but also hope and love. There is darkness, yes, in the world and in our hearts. But there’s also a thirst for transcendence—which is slaked, never completely in this life, but with a lasting sweetness, like honey from the comb.
After our son died, family, friends, and strangers cared for us. It’s love’s natural response to suffering. That love was profoundly deepened and focused by the theologies and rituals of church and synagogue. These theologies and rituals allow us to speak honestly about the darkest realities of our mortal lives and, in the flash of an eye, to testify to life’s undaunted wonder and promise. In our time of greatest anguish, a priest who is a close friend told us that the loss of a child evokes in others the most profound and literal condolence, the “suffering with” that binds hearts together, and that this suffering would be for us a painful but powerful grace. He was right.
We don’t believe in doctrines or participate in worship because doing so builds and sustains the kinds of communities we need in times of trouble and loss. We do it because we’re drawn to truth; we look to the Lord, not to each other. Secular modernity promises that we can have fraternity and solidarity without looking upward. We are to cast our gaze toward our fellow man, and that, we are told, will be enough. But as St. Augustine observed long ago, we turn either toward God—or toward ourselves. As Goodhew notes, modernity is animated by expressive individualism. A generous humanism of solidarity sounds good, but it gains no traction. Communities without transcendent loyalties, without the upward gaze, disintegrate into theaters of self-expression and arenas for self-interested transactions.
“There is a deep ache within Western culture for community.” We cannot confect solidarity for its own sake. Enduring communities arise to serve something higher than our worldly desires and needs. The strongest communities serve that than which nothing greater can be conceived: God.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ John Rose was a junior fellow during our halcyon early days, a period that I refer to as the Wabash Years because a stream of talented and interesting characters made their way to First Things from that fine Indiana college at that time. Now associate director of the Civil Discourse Project at Duke University, John teaches a popular course, “How to Think in an Age of Political Polarization.” It’s a rare 2023 classroom in which students actually say what’s on their minds. John reports: “We talk a lot about courage—finding the courage to speak, to dissent—and I’ve observed that courage is contagious. Students will follow upon a brave comment with another brave comment.” I’ll add that it takes a lot of courage for a faculty member to venture such a course, allowing students to discuss, even debate, topics such as abortion, transgender athletes, police and violence, and even the cogency of the very notion of “race,” topics that today’s commissars (many with faculty appointments and administrative posts) have decreed closed questions. Knowing John as I do, I’m not surprised by the success of his course. He has courage, yes, but he is also blessed with a warm kindness that burnishes his rock-solid Christian convictions. Read more about John and his course (and about a surprise classroom visit by Jerry Seinfeld during a discussion of comedy’s disruptive impieties) in the university’s official organ, Duke Mag.
♦ For a long time, it was difficult to find a copy of Ernst Jünger’s 1939 work of fiction, On the Marble Cliffs. I’ve wanted to read the book for a long time, a desire heightened by Russell Berman’s fine discussion of it in “Standing Against Tyranny” (November 2020). Fortunately, New York Review Books published a fresh translation earlier this year. After receiving my copy, I could not put it down. It’s not a novel so much as an extended prose poem about a man and his brother whose desire to escape from history is foiled by their incarnate humanity. Fantastical and dreamlike, the pages are nonetheless suffused with an unflinching realism about the human condition. The conceit that On the Marble Cliffs should be read simply as allegory for resistance to Nazism is not plausible. But this reputation is not entirely inapt. Like Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle, On the Marble Cliffs belongs on the shelf dedicated to the question of how to preserve one’s spiritual integrity in evil times, a question of growing relevance these days.
♦ C. P. Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians” offers insights into the use and abuse of crises. I’ve updated his famous poem.
What are we waiting for, glued to the evening news?
White supremacists and semi-fascists are due here today.
Why don’t politicians do something about the open border?
Why do legislators ignore those dying of overdoses?
Because white supremacists and semi-fascists are coming today.
It would be irresponsible to be distracted.
Why is the President denouncing his opponents as racists?
Why issue executive orders in defiance of the Constitution?
Because white supremacists and semi-fascists are coming today
And the President can’t wait for Congress to act.
It’s an emergency. He must address the threat.
Why is our society docile as billionaires shower money on rich universities?
Why are they so confident that no one will challenge
the system that made them so wealthy?
Because white supremacists and semi-fascists are coming today
and the impending doom dazzles columnists
Why do graduation speakers always sound the same note?
Why are we endlessly catechized with rainbow rhetoric?
Because white supremacists and semi-fascists are coming
and the people must be prepared.
Why the confusion in the universities?
(How silent the diversity deans have become.)
Why are the columnists grasping for words,
trying to find new themes?
Because night has fallen and the white
supremacists and semi-fascists have not come.
And some of our sociologists are saying that there
are no white supremacists or semi-fascists any longer.
Now what is going to happen to us without white supremacists and semi-fascists?
Those people were a kind of solution.
♦ A recent Pew Research Center study provides data on American attitudes toward marriage and family. One set of polling questions sought to draw out what Americans think important for a fulfilling life. Seventy-one percent of respondents said that having a job or career that they enjoy is Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Western Civ has got to go extremely or very important, with four percent saying that the satisfying work is not too or not at all important. Being married? Twenty-three percent say that marriage is extremely or very important, while 44 percent said it’s not too or not at all important. Having children? Twenty-six percent said very or extremely important; 42 percent said not too or not at all.
The polling shows that women are slightly more likely than men to give priority to job and career (74 percent vs. 69 percent). Women are less likely to identify marriage as very or extremely important for a fulfilling life (18 percent of women as compared to 28 percent of men). Men also give more importance to having children than do women. Not surprisingly, here as elsewhere fundamental moral and cultural priorities track the left–right divide. More than 30 percent of Republicans think marriage and children are very or extremely important; less than 20 percent of Democrats agree.
We must guard against reading too much into polling data. Nevertheless, these results suggest that the downward trend in marriage rates and decline in fertility rates will continue, not primarily because of economic pressure on families or the lack of marriageable men (although these factors no doubt have an effect). Rather, the declines are largely driven by the fact that most people don’t think marriage and children are all that important. We are socialized to be expressive individuals concerned primarily with our own self-curated lives.
♦ Ephraim Radner, from his forthcoming book, Mortal Goods: Reimagining Christian Political Duty: “One cannot be a slave to what one offers up.”
♦ Genevieve Medow-Jenkins, heir to California’s longstanding tradition of alternative spirituality, founded Secular Sabbath. It’s a spa-day program that promises to connect you to a “higher power.” Reading about her venture made me marvel. It’s so very American: Reinventing religion while making money. Mary Baker Eddy would be proud!
♦ Apropos of my reflections on the Great Forgetting, this is Walker Percy, writing in Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book: “You live in a deranged age—more deranged than usual—because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.”
♦ From Iain McGilchrist’s massive book about everything, The Matter with Things:
If you had set out to destroy the happiness and stability of a people, it would have been hard to improve on our current formula: remove yourself as far as possible from the natural world; repudiate the continuity of your culture; believe you are wise enough to do whatever you happen to want and not only get away with it, but have a right to it—and a right to silence those who disagree; minimise the role played by a common body of belief; actively attack and dismantle every social structure as a potential source of oppression; reject the idea of a transcendent set of values.
♦ On an evening during New York’s Fashion Week in early September I found myself at a fashion show in a dark Brooklyn warehouse that featured the latest garments by Elena Velez, a hot young designer. Although my wife needles me about my fancy suits, I’m not a regular at fashion shows, especially not the kind with throbbing techno music and models who, at the end of the show, grapple with each other in the mud, a spectacle that topped the top-ten lists in Fashion Week recaps. But I had a reason to attend. Velez titled her show The Longhouse, drawing on a First Things web essay, “What is the Longhouse?” published last February. In the notes for the show, Velez wrote: “Situated in the allegorical chthonic swamp [the mud in which the models wrestled], The Longhouse is both a celebration and exorcism of contemporary feminine influence.” Count me unqualified to judge whether her couture and her show succeed on those terms. Nevertheless, I’m pleased that material published by First Things influences up-and-coming creators of culture such as Elena Velez.
♦ Fred Boley, O.P., of Jefferson City, Missouri would like to form a ROFTers group. You can contact him at email@example.com.
♦ We have a passel of ROFTers leaders who are eager for new members.
Rev. Paul Stallsworth of Kinston, North Carolina has issued a welcoming call. To join the group, get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The group in Abington, Pennsylvania seeks new members. Contact their leader, Maurice Lee, at email@example.com.
The ROFTers group in Rochester, New York is celebrating its fifth anniversary this fall and welcomes new members. Contact group leader Alisia Chase at firstname.lastname@example.org.
♦ If you’d like to start a ROFTers group, send us a note at email@example.com, and we’ll get the word out. Interested in joining a group? Check our list at firstthings.com/rofters to see if there’s one in your area.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.