If you’re a progressive, you might think that it’s no problem identifying the right side of history. Anything that promotes “social justice” is on the right side. Any innovation that promises to conquer the limits of human nature is on the right side. Anything that expands the empire of rights is on the right side.
President Obama was particularly fond of distinguishing the right side from the wrong side, invoking the phrase over and over in his weekly addresses. His political opponents, as a rule, were on the wrong side. Republicans could use Leninist language too, albeit ironically, as when Ronald Reagan used to claim that various statist policies would eventually be “left on the ash heap of history,” consumed by fire and brimstone like the cities of the plain.
“Being on the right side of history” is a way of thinking about the future that descends from Hegel via Marx. The future, inevitably, is going to be better than the past, perhaps after a revolutionary struggle, and those who stand in the way of utopia will be condemned by history. Progressives who think in this Marxoid way seem not to realize that historians will not always be on the same side of history as most of them now are. Future historians may someday, perhaps quite soon, reject the whole idea that history has a “right side.”
Real historians know that historiographic models change along with history. We know that since the ancient Babylonians human beings have imagined their histories to unfold in many different patterns. Graeco-Roman antiquity, for example, saw history as a tragic cycle rather than as a shining path to an illimitable future. Empires rose, empires fell; another empire would inevitably take the place of the current one. Precise predictions of the future were difficult, too, since you never really knew where you were on the cycle. The Roman historian Sallust in the first century b.c. was sure Rome’s ruin was imminent. He was off by only five hundred years. Machiavelli, who knew better, was skeptical that you could ever tell whether your own republic was rising or declining.
Since the Renaissance, Western models of historical change have been more upbeat. The Renaissance itself—in the person of Flavio Biondo, the great historian and papal official—invented the concept of a Middle Age, a period of some centuries when barbarism reigned before the humanist Revival of Antiquity. The medieval period, as Christian humanists like Erasmus saw it, was a dark valley between the twin peaks of antiquity and the present.
In the early modern period, historians and philosophes switched the Golden Age from antiquity to the future. The French Enlightenment saw a future where science and reason triumphed over superstition; the Scottish Enlightenment believed that economic and political freedom could usher in a new and higher civilization. Both models assumed that present times, with their comparative ignorance and unfreedom, would recede backward into a medieval period of darkness and barbarism as humanity advanced. Better not be barbaric or superstitious or history would condemn you.
Lately I’ve been toying with the idea that the champions of woke could wake up one fine morning and find themselves to be medieval. Polite opinion would regard them as backward and uncivilized. Their jargon would sound in educated ears like the jabbering of barbarians. Implausible? History never unfolds the way we think it will, but here’s one possible scenario.
Let’s assume, a decade hence, that current trends in American K-12 education have continued and intensified. Educators adhering to the “successor ideology” in public schools and prestige private schools go on teaching a caricature of American history, no dissent allowed. They prohibit the study of Western civilization, alleging that it is an instrument of white supremacy. Most literature written before the year 2000 is banned. Children continue to be “trained” by DEI consultants and are required to attend politicized courses in ethnic studies, such as those recently imposed on California schools. Even mathematics is pressed into the service of eradicating Old Think. Any genuine, open-ended search for truth and self-knowledge continues to be discouraged. Students don’t need to think for themselves; their teachers already know what they should think. Any desire to distinguish oneself, to acquire honor and merit, is suppressed as an affront to “equity.”
Now let’s assume that the classical education movement continues to grow and mature into a parallel educational system, as seems to be happening at present. The trend of parents choosing homeschooling or hybrid schooling over district public schools, or classical schooling over woke private schools, intensifies. Currently classical schools educate about 2 percent of K-12 students; classical homeschooling and hybrid schools account for another 2 percent. Let’s assume that these alternatives continue to expand at the current rate and, ten years hence, are educating, say, 10 percent of school-aged children and teenagers.
How are the two populations of high school graduates going to compare after a decade of independent development? The graduates of woke K-12 education are going to be incurious ignoramuses. Even if they possess a lot of raw intelligence, they will be intellectually torpid because a system of schooling that aims at indoctrination must smother natural curiosity and a sense of wonder about the unknown, the spring of all true education. They will lack creativity because knowledge—knowledge inside your head, not merely retrievable data—provides the raw material of the imagination.
Meanwhile, children brought up in classical schools will know stuff. They will have a much fuller grasp of the amazing story of America. Having taken courses about Western civilization, they will have a grasp of the broad sweep of history, and they will be able to compare Western achievements fairly with those of other civilizations. They will have been brought up on a rich diet of Western art, architecture, music, and literature. They will have been taught that good character is a person’s most valuable possession. They will have been taught logic (the art of reasoning) and rhetoric (the art of eloquence and persuasion).
So ten years from now, which group of high school graduates will constitute the elite? I don’t mean the credentialed elite, but the true elite—the young men and women with the best characters, the best skills, and the best, most creative minds? I think we know the answer to that question.
If it seems fanciful that a new elite could arise beyond the control of the present oligarchy, consider what happened in the early Renaissance. Back in the fourteenth century, the followers of Petrarch came to believe that the education offered in Italy was too rigidly vocational. Schools taught literacy and accounting; universities taught law and medicine. (Only a tiny minority in the religious orders studied theology.) Law schools taught litigiousness and avarice rather than justice; the science of the medical schools was a learned ignorance. The dog Latin used in schools was utilitarian and full of jargon, lacking beauty and a personal voice. The Christian humanists who followed Petrarch’s lead founded a new kind of education: the humanities, which taught eloquence, good character, and a command of great literature. Within seventy-five years of Petrarch’s death, that education had conquered the schools of Italy. Those educated in the humanities constituted a new elite; they had “true nobility,” not a nobility based merely on inherited social rank. History was no longer hurtling downhill; it was on an upward trajectory toward a new Golden Age.
Real educational revolutions are rare, but they are possible. A day may well come when a new elite that deserves the name will regard their woke peers, possessing credentials but no virtue, with a mixture of pity and disgust. History will once again have waved its magic wand and declared that the evil age we have been living through was an age of barbarism. Maybe, just maybe, in the future of America there lies not some woke utopia but a Renaissance of the Western tradition.
James Hankins is a professor of history at Harvard University.
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