We are speaking of education here, but education is not only and exclusively education; it is also an expression and a symptom of the culture in general. And thus, it is not only students who are at risk, but all of us in whatever field, niche, or social category we may find ourselves. This is precisely the argument that the late president of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel makes in his Summer Meditations, in which he stresses that the only way to fulfill the purpose and historic mandate of the schools is to eschew the production of “idiot-specialists” and “to send out into life thoughtful people capable of thinking about the wider social, historical, and philosophical implications of their specialties.” And not only of their specialties, of course, but of the social, cultural and political world in which they will be constrained to live and for which they will be held accountable.
In 1695, the Puritan divine Timothy Cruso, after whom Defoe may have titled his famous novel, wrote: “The days wherein we live are extremely evil, but we have yet a sad and doleful prospect of the next age becoming worse. … We see such crowds and swarms of young ones continually posting down to hell, and bringing up so much of hell in the midst of us…we cannot but use some Christian endeavors to open the eyes of these mad prodigals, and to fetch them home.”
Christian endeavors aside, such fears and imprecations are fashionable in every age and testify as much to the inevitable incompatibility of the generations as to the progressive regression of history. Nevertheless, I sometimes wonder if a time will not eventually come in which the apocalyptic platitude manifests as ineluctable fact, in which the fears of conservative parents are ultimately and unexpectedly realized in their refractory offspring, victims of a feckless and corrupt Academy. I suspect we may be there now.
Perhaps we can start by re-reading the Phaedrus, that is, by recognizing that the past has much to teach us and that we are not free-floating, ahistorical particles who owe nothing to the archive of our civilization. For we, too, like our progeny, will be held accountable.