America Needs a Renaissance

Progressives have been working for a long time to change the culture from the inside out. No revolution necessary.

Just run for political office on a moderate political platform, then change the very structure and meaning of government once in office. Just make sure children spend ever increasing hours in schools at an ever younger age, then teach them – again and again and again– how to become global citizens. Just use movies and television shows to make conservatives look foolish and mean. Just emphasize the “news” that makes liberal politicians look good. Just create a bureaucratic super-structure that can promote the agenda, even when conservatives are in office. Just marginalize the Western tradition, the founding ideas, and the great books and marginalize professors and teachers who take them seriously. Once you’ve done all this, claim to be the only able representatives of America’s intellectual, artistic, and literary life (Conservatives, by contrast, can then be portrayed as narrow-minded capitalists with little regard for culture.)

There you have it. You’ve not only transformed America; you’ve convinced much of America that you are the only ones sensitive and smart enough to guide it. You are the new elite, and your conservative opponents even do you the favor of calling you such. But the “culture” you created isn’t working out so well. A cursory look at our movies, our television shows, our anxious and overwhelmed children and teenagers, our pathologies, our addictions, our dearth of historical knowledge, our dumbed-down society, our increased willingness to let the end justify the means and to find excuses for irresponsible, violent and abusive behavior, reveals that we are a culture in trouble.

Years ago, I realized the depth of change in our schools and institutions and saw how it was transforming childhood. I kept asking friends, “Shouldn’t we protest when schools subject our children to indoctrination exercises, and routinely send teachers to seminars on how to promote social and political causes? Shouldn’t we question history textbooks that are so thoroughly re-written that the founding principles, the birth of the United States, and the dangers of communism and fascism are all but forgotten? What will happen to our country when these kids reach voting age?” But most parents seemed more concerned about their children’s outward displays of accomplishment than about their children’s actual moral and intellectual advancement. As long as their children were getting good grades, excelling in “activities,” and building good resumes, parents didn’t want to rock the boat.

Thus, American schools choose curriculums with immunity. Captive students are continually reminded of the low points of American history and taught to look at American history “critically.” They receive little, if any, instruction on the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, or the spirit of liberty. American society, they are told, is still dominated by racism, sexism and class distinctions. Classic literature is replaced with ‘edgy’ works that drive home the same negative message. In multicultural festivals and in “cultural studies” textbooks, however, students experience upbeat portrayals of other cultures. Little or nothing is said about the oppression, poverty and restrictions on freedom in many of the far-off lands they celebrate.

Rather than being permitted to appreciate that America, at its best, unleashes human potential and champions human rights, students are asked to identify their “cultural roots,” the implication being that any “roots” worth having are non-American ones. The modern concept of cultural identity thus, ironically, contributes to children’s sense of uprootedness. It takes the ground out from under them by implying that the ground they are standing on is not theirs. It belongs to some “other” (i.e., the affluent white male). Children are taught to seek their identity as a distinct caste – resisting and even despising the American norm. That this is the teaching of alienation and that it is particularly discouraging to children in our inner cities is rarely addressed. As conservatives reach out to ethnic groups, they must address the problem of an education that denies our common American bond.

Alongside of the program for political change is the program for moral change, and it relies upon similar tactics: Use the media; make anyone who doesn’t agree with the wholesale rejection of tradition look mean and stupid; teach children to question the outmoded ‘values” of their parents. Toward this end, saturate society with so much crudeness and crassness that we’re finally incapable of being shocked. Mock the idea of virtue. After all, how much change can be achieved if people don’t embrace the idea that each culture defines its own good — and that the current culture’s definition is the best so far?

I was going to title this piece, “It’s Our Turn to Change the Culture.” But change is easy. A renaissance is going to be hard. We must study the best traditions for inspiration, while being open to the best innovations. We must seek and find intellectual, cultural, political, and moral rebirth. It’s time for people who take the lessons of history and the idea of America seriously to step up and speak up –even if it requires questioning those “elite” universities we’d like our children to attend. The answer to the conservative’s current quandary is not to be more current. It is to be more brave.