Recently, I was asked by an Italian author and journalist, working on an article for Il Giorno on the subject of “mute liberalism” and political correctness in the U.S., for my impressions of the “decadence” afflicting American culture. He wanted to know what the reasons were for what he saw as a political and cultural wasting disease and, in particular, when the inexorable slide began into self-censorship, pervasive hedonism, the debasement of the social and intellectual elites, the abandonment of republican principles and the reversal of traditional social roles.
This was a question too vanishingly large to answer definitively, but it did get me thinking once again about some of the factors that might have caused—as Québécois producer Denys Arcand put it in the title and story of his sadly amusing film—the The Decline of the American Empire, a film modeled on Edward Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Decadence, of course, is not solely an American phenomenon; no Western country is exempt from the vectors of degeneration at work in the liberal/democratic sphere today. But what happens to the U.S., as the guarantor of Western freedom and prosperity, happens to the rest of us. With America in decline, none of its dependents—and we are all its dependents, however loath we may be to admit it—will be spared. Indeed, most Western countries can survive their moral and political deterioration so long as America is willing and able to support them militarily, fiscally and politically, which is, for example, the story of ungrateful Europe since the Marshall Plan. Such is no longer the case. This is why the preoccupation of non-nationals—Italians like my interviewer, Canadians like me—with the fortunes of the U.S. is an issue of primary concern.
In any event, the “decadence” my interviewer was referring to obviously began a long time ago—when exactly is another question. One thinks of deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida’s theory of receding origins, the elusiveness or “eclipsing structure” of all beginnings. On the American historical scene, one could go back to the slave plantations and the Civil War, to the Salem witch trials, or to the bitter duels inherent in the very founding of the Republic between central-government Federalists and states-rights Republicans, a dispute that remains a political fracture to this day. Differing understandings of the Greek and Roman classics regarding the nature of enlightened rule and the proper relation between the governing and the governed were also a locus of contention. As Ron Chernow writes in Alexander Hamilton, commenting on the discrepancy between intention and result that has never been fully resolved, “Today we cherish the two-party system as a cornerstone of American democracy. The founders, however, viewed parties as monarchical vestiges that had no legitimate place in a true republic.” But why stop there? If one wishes, one can go back to the Mayflower and the Arbella and before. A prior “originary” point of decay can always be found.
To focus on the contemporary, certainly John Dewey’s left-oriented “progressivist” and “child-centered” education program, developed mainly in Democracy and Education, which took root in the 1920s, is a reasonable place to start our investigations. Briefly, Dewey believed the child should never be “forced” to learn but rather encouraged to follow his own natal interests—a theory earlier elaborated in the Romantic school of poetry, for example, William Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode where we read that the youth “trailing clouds of glory” is “nature’s priest,” possessing an innate apprehension of the divine. Wordsworth’s exaltation of the child melded seamlessly with his revolutionary belief as a young man in the re-pristinizing of society. It comes as no surprise that the Movement’s enfant terrible, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who espoused similar sentiments, particularly in poems like Queen Mab and Prometheus Unbound, earned the praise of Karl Marx. Shelley yearned for the day, as he wrote in Mab, when the “hands/which little children stretch in friendly sport” would become the emblem of a renewed social contract. Dewey’s oeuvre was clearly influenced by the rejuvenative assumptions of his nineteenth century Romantic precursors.
Unfortunately, a return to origins or the projection of initial states isn’t how the world works. It escaped Dewey’s proselytizing ardor that prior learning and hard study, guided by erudite masters, are necessary for a young person to discover what it is in the world that genuinely interests him and what his condign aptitudes really are. This is the only route to maturity, competence and achievement. “Nature’s priest” has no future unless he is a prince of learning. Failing to understand the need for pedagogical and curricular discipline, for a wide-ranging and classically imposed syllabus, and opting instead for catering benignity in both the formative and later stages of education is a surefire recipe for producing the moral narcissist who is his only truth. The casualties of this retrograde approach, in Peter Wood’s succinct articulation from his online essay The Architecture of Intellectual Freedom, are “men and women capable of wise and responsible stewardship of a free society.”
Dewey’s ideas percolated slowly through American culture and took off in the incendiary ’60s, with the free speech movement at Berkeley, the psychedelic dumbing down of the youth population, the takeover of the universities by student radicals, and the insidious inroads made by the destabilizing emigré Frankfurt School, especially Herbert Marcuse of “repressive tolerance” fame, who, in essence, popularized the Marxist theories of Antonio Gramsci and Georg Lukács. The world had to be purified by the exploited masses and remade in the image of youthful innocence, a revisionary project that inspired the young, the callow and the doctrinaire. These notions captured the American seminary and poisoned the minds of generations of students. After that, the die was cast, and America was on the road to becoming a European failure.
“Are we not witnessing,” asks John Agresto in Academic Questions (Vol.29, No.2), “something that looks to be the…purposeful eradication of what it has historically meant to be educated?” The mission of the university is now the inculcation of intellectual conformity, a duplicitous “inclusiveness” that banishes dissenting voices, “social justice,” and discursive closure, coddling students into a condition of protracted puberty as the academy devolves into “separate programs of grievance and outrage.” In this way, students, stunted in their development, become the shock troops of the new world order as they have been taught to see it. And as we know, and as university policies have made glaringly public, children throw tantrums and don’t like to be contradicted.
What we see today, then, universities as centers of leftist indoctrination, the shutting down of intellectual debate (cf. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind), a generation of “snowflake” students who are preoccupied with frivolities like trigger warnings, microaggresssons, transgender bathrooms, and “safe spaces” where they will never be exposed to an unfamiliar or conflicting idea, and the sniveling infantilization of the entire academic cohort—flows directly from Dewey and his followers. These pedagogical dissidents prepared the ground for the subversive agenda of the Frankfurters by engaging in an act of cerebral softening, that is, promoting the student over the teacher, the child over the man (or woman), and feeling over thought—hence the continuing prominence of the “self-esteem” movement that slashed-and-burned its way through the educational landscape.
One also recalls the baneful influence of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire in his immensely popular The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, who argued against the “banking model” of education—students as vessels to be filled, like piggy banks with coins—and insisted that teachers have little to actually teach their students. Their job was to help them to understand their need for liberation from the engines of oppression—a more incendiary version of Dewey’s contestation. Adapting the theories of postcolonialist Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Freire’s Manichean paradigm saw traditional teachers as the colonizers, students as the colonized. The student proletariat was to rise up and seize the means of academic production and, ultimately, the machinery of culture and state.
Thus, students were empowered, staff and administration were intimidated, cognitive regression was guaranteed, and the educational establishment at all levels, from primary to post-graduate, was critically breached. The K-12 level was populated chiefly by teacher-trained incompetents and fellow-traveling principals who served as the hoplites of the cultural left. The university was now home to a liberal professoriate comprising individuals who specialized in a single discipline, adopted the approved dogmatic convictions of the progressivist elect, acquired the appropriate exclusionary jargon, and proceeded to turn their classes into nurseries of ideological pap. With very few current exceptions, like Hillsdale College and the University of Chicago, universities have been unable to resist the annihilationist invasion of political correctness, typified by speech codes, rape hysteria, affirmative action mediocrity (evasively labeled “mismatching”), anti-Western sentiment, and the tendency to totalitarian forms of repression. The general decline in mental acuity, scholarly discipline and historical knowledge was a foregone conclusion, and we are reaping the blighted harvest of that Jacobin declension today.
Indeed, the adolescent fervor for “revolution” damn the consequences duly convected into the domain of adulthood, as the feral children of the left, whose minds were polluted by the sentimental and reductive theories of the Dewey-inspired and revisionist brigades, graduated into the various positions of cultural authority—media, education, entertainment and government. Our grown-up Magikarps—timid university presidents and academic leaders, the general run of invertebrate politicians and corrupted journalists, the great majority of Hollywood and sports know-nothings—are essentially children, and children cannot hope to survive in a world without real adults, or too few adults to manage the vast playpen that has become almost coterminous with society as a whole. The commonplace adage that the inmates have taken over the asylum is fundamentally mistaken. Rather, the children have taken over the crèche.
Such is the damage the educational institution has wrought in a culture spoiled by affluence and forgetfulness—a culture that has shucked the past and de-realized the future. The falling off from academic integrity and rigor explains why almost everything from political culture to cultural politics smacks increasingly of retardation. And it accounts in large measure for the descent we are observing. For children, who have no knowledge of the history of their civilization and no sense of an empirical future, cannot think rationally, they can only feel and act upon their feelings. They live in a realm defined by the present and the imaginary. They are the low-information voters, partisan pedants, liberal socialists, leftist ideologues, suborned journalists and entitlement parasites of the current day, living in a make-believe world that is running out of time.
As conservative thinker Richard Weaver wrote in Visions of Order, published in 1964, “without memory and the extrapolation which it makes possible, man becomes a kind of waif” mired in mere presentism. “Under the impossible idea of unrestricted freedom,” he continues, “the cry is to bury the past and let the senses take care of the present.” As the same time, the future takes on the form of a mythical construct, the dream of a golden age that exists only in the cradles of desire. The upshot is truly alarming: a juvenile public cocooned in the utopian silk of destructive illusions. The waifs appear to have won the day.
A culture or a nation run by children must inevitably falter and decline—unless it can recover its mind and purpose, an eventuality that seems less likely with every passing day. Children always leave a mess behind them that needs to be cleaned up by others, assuming there are enough others around to tackle the job. Children have by their very nature no sense of productive order and plainly no conception of the social, political and economic future. That is why we may not have one.