“May you live in interesting times.” Better than being bored, right? Not so fast.
The adage is a purported translation of a Chinese curse. When understood ironically, the message suggests that it might better to live in uninteresting times of relative peace and tranquility. I could use some placid space right about now to relieve the angst-ridden malaise brought on by COVID restrictions. The perpetual flow of absurdity churned out by news outlets, let alone the plethora of “experts” on social media, serves to muddy the already turbid waters even more. I want peace!
One problem, it seems, is that far too many young people are unknowingly unable to navigate the nuances of the English language. Irony, sarcasm, and satire are all-too-often taken at the most basic levels. This misreading of language triggers misunderstandings that sometimes lead to outrage and even hatred. That’s our world in 2020. We are well on the way to becoming America the Illiterate.
More worrisome is the fact that many of the outraged have attended and even graduated from our colleges and universities. With almost two decades as a humanities professor, I know what I’m talking about. Many undergraduates spurn Shakespeare because the language is too difficult. The disdain is not due to the archaic language but because too many readers struggle with interpreting figurative language. How could this be? Most students presumably have gone through twelve years of public school before they go to college.
Even worse, the barrage of destruction as of late — statues of Fredrick Douglas, Ulysses S. Grant, Junipero Serra, among a host of others, defaced and torn down against a background of riots and wanton looting — suggests that many of the agitators have a very shallow understanding of American history. It can only get worse if the New York Times 1619 Project takes root in public schools across the country. One sometimes wonders if it is all an elaborate plan.
That something is amiss in our education system is obvious to anyone who cares to look. The seed has germinated and sprouted: behold the flowers of The Frankfurt School and other Neo-Marxist organizations. Having read hundreds of CVs from newly minted PhDs in Composition and Rhetoric over the past few years, it is safe to conclude that far too many doctoral programs are poisoned with Critical Theory, a philosophy antithetical to Western or, frankly, any value systems. It is a philosophy of destruction. Composition and Rhetoric courses are required for almost every incoming college freshman. We are teaching our young blind hate.
It’s like a bad movie.
Wendy and I have been watching a lot of movies during the COVID pandemic. I was surprised when Wendy confessed she had never seen Idiocracy, a prescient mockery of the times in which we live. During the first half of the film, we were both laughing hard, the tears and belly strain signaling truth emerging from the absurd. By the latter half, we had both quieted down. I looked over to Wendy stretched out on the couch, a microwave popcorn bag agape on her lap, and there was a shade of horror shadowing her expression, the kind of deep-down despair on the abyss of hope. I think she had recognized Idiocracy as a two-sided mirror: the fictional reflection a hilarious depiction of dystopia, the flipside a distorted image of the horror show in which we find ourselves living.
The horror is that we live in an increasingly post-literate society despite the promises of the Enlightenment and related claims of progress. Wrecking statues, rioting, and general mayhem in an attempt to apply coverup makeup to the scars of our past is not progress but an effort to collectively reeducate in the name of a vapid utopia that can never exist in a fallen world. But we don’t have to accept it as inevitable.
Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spake Zarathustra:
“Of all that is written, I love only what a person hath written with his blood. Write with blood, and thou wilt find that blood is spirit.
It is no easy task to understand unfamiliar blood; I hate the reading idlers.
He who knoweth the reader, doeth nothing more for the reader. Another century of readers–and spirit itself will stink.
Every one being allowed to learn to read, ruineth in the long run not only writing but also thinking.
Once spirit was God, then it became man, and now it even becometh populace.”
At bottom, Nietzsche was partially correct, as is much of his philosophy. Our problem is primarily spiritual. To remebdy this we must reclaim the spirit of the written word, the Logos on which we are founded. We must reclaim, however, literacy for as many people as possible, not for the few as Nietzsche would have it. This work begins at home. We can no longer leave it to the schools.