This past week at work was intense, to say the least - every day was a long, busy, frustrating day - and at about 5:30 on Friday I found myself in serious need of serious relaxation. I could have achieved this in a number of ways (I have a lot of moonshine). What I chose, however, was to drive to Richmond, to my parent's house, and instigate a seething and personal debate about the role "education" and "higher learning" plays in the retardation of American intellect.
So, I drove to Richmond and ate dinner with the rents and decided that we should talk about how "higher learning" (which will henceforth not be in quotes, although it should be) and "schooling" in general, in America, has caused us to lose any semblance of culture and passion and open thinking. Duly noted, also, that both my parents either are now or have been teachers or professors.
Anyway, my argument::::
French children, as an example, read, among other things, Voltaire, Constant, Balzac, Baudelaire, Proust. They all read these. It is a constant. It is not considered "smart" or "extracurricular"; it is just what they read. The French interns that I work with, for example, consider all Americans to be "Cartesian" ie. followers of Descartes' rational, mathematical viewpoint of the world. I say to them, "Fine, but what are you?" and they say, "We are "Pascalian." We are followers of Pascal. We are passionate, faithful. We weave the fabric of souls." For the French student, Descartes and Pascal represent the two possible ways to view the world. Of reason or of revelation. My point is not any of this. My point is that French students use these authors - Descartes and Pascal - in their natural, everyday speech.
Now before you say, "Oh, well I've read Kant. I understood most of it. I use it in my everyday speech. I'm smart, too," you have to consider that, were you to jump on a bus to D.C., you could not have a discussion about Kant, probably, with any of the passengers, and I'll bet they all graduated high school, and probably half of them graduated college. They are not stupid, by any means, just as a New Guinean who hasn't read Romeo and Juliet is not stupid. They just haven't read the same things you've read. Secondly, the fact that you think reading Kant makes you "smart" is fucking ludicrous.
We're you to jump on a bus in Spain, though, and I think you could talk to someone about Kant.
So, the French like them some French authors, yes? Like the Germans like them some Wagner and Heidigger and Dante and Goethe. Like the English, I guess, like them some Shakespeare and whomever it was who wrote The Importance of Being Earnest. They like him a lot. He's pretty funny.
And it's not a question of QUALITY. I am not suggesting for a moment that any of these authors are either good or bad or readable or unreadable, I am simple suggesting that these other cultures have a literary framework on which one must stand to be considered "educated." They have these books that everybody reads, and maybe understands. These books are part of their culture, like, I guess, anyone from my generation can talk with great knowledge about almost all of the shows on TGIF in the late-80's, early-90's.
So what is the American literary framework? What literature do we all have in common? As a public school student in America, I would say the only literature we all read, and study, and feel is the cornerstone for our country, is the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States (this is one) and the Bible (this is two). From henceforth we will concentrate on the Declaration/Constitution, because we're not legally ALLOWED to read the Bible in school, but that is not to say that most American children cannot quote them some Bible if need be, and do not think that it has had a remarkable impact on our ways of life.
Anway, the Constitution/Declaration are great pieces of literature, written at a time of optimism and original creation. They are wonderful, extremely influential documents to study.
1) I would not consider either of these documents to be passionate or awe-inspiring or of the ability to "weave the fabric of souls," as my French friend said. They are rational, to-the-point (for the most part), and scientific in that they use words to convey a concrete, resolute truth. The Const/Dec, by nature, is a Cartesian document. It had a goal (people are free, let people be free, free the people) and it tried to prove that goal. Nothing flashy. Very impersonal.
2) Because WE ARE ALL SO SMART, we have, over the years, decided that these documents are racist, and classist, and written to further the wealth of the aristocratic government who wrote the documents. We have cast remarkable doubt over two of the only documents that every student is forced to learn.
So where does that put us? We don't have any though-provoking, beautiful pages to stand upon and enter colleges and the workplace with. We have these seemingly fraudulent, poor-intentioned, rational, cold Dec/Const, and then the Bible (although, granted, America is one of the only nations that actually READS the Bible for itself, as opposed to living off the interpretations of other (although, granted, obviously we don't read ALL of the Bible, just the parts in accordance with our ways of life, because, man, have you ever really READ THE BIBLE? It's fucking crazy.)).
That leaves us, I think, with students with a more rational, unpoetic view of education. That leaves us with students who don't stand upon any concrete culture when positioning themselves in life. That leaves us, worst of all, with the "select" students who think they've invented the wheel when the read, and think they understand, Plato's Republic. These are the students that I am worried about, because they are not standing on anything when they make grandiose claims about the ways of the world, the intentions of dictators, what's right for "the people."
My point, in the end, is simply that it's the really passionate, outspoken, "honors" college students who are not thinking for themselves, because they've just recently discovered this world of amazing information and thinkers and novels and great, wonderful documents that say things in a way that these students have never heard things said before, but they (the students) have not been taught to stop, and step back, and look at themselves as they eat this information, and consider where they are, and what they're doing, and what culture they come from when making these statements.
And of course none of this should ever stop anyone from arguing and yelling and making their crazy statements. It's just, like, eating away at the intellectual fabric of the United States. That's all.