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Philistinism and Failure

It isn't just that America takes 31st place in the quality of students' math skills: "In the U.S., 6.04 percent of the report’s subjects were classified 'advanced,' meaning they scored at least 617.1 on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test. Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, and Finland led the pack at more than 20 percent, and 12 other nations more than doubled America’s percentage," according to a team of Stanford and Munich researchers. It isn't just that China has a six-to-one advantage over the United States in numbers of classical music students. It's that the intellectual foundations of all currents in American politics, right as well as left, are poorly understood by the public intellectuals who espouse them. We see the result of that in the Republican Party's miserable performance after 2001: We took a wartime mandate and dissipated it in ideologically driven schemes that helped propel Barack Obama to power.

A generation of teachers arrived in America from Europe during the 1930s and 1940s, great and good thinkers as well as subversive and malicious ones. We are their idiot grandchildren. For better or worse, they read Latin and Greek and spoke the major modern languages and had the major elements of our culture at immediate recall. These are the highbrows whom Siegel derides, forgetting that the right depended on its intellectuals no less than the left.

According to Siegel, American culture was doing just wonderfully during the 1950s before the highbrows came along to ruin things:

In 1947, notes Alex Beam in his recent book A Great Idea at the Time, Robert Hutchins, then president of the University of Chicago, and the autodidact philosopher Mortimer Adler launched an effort to bring the great books of Western Civilization to the people. In 1948 Hutchins and Adler drew 2,500 people to a Chicago auditorium to hear them lead a discussion of the trial of Socrates. By 1951 there were 2,500 Great Books discussion groups, with roughly 25,000 members meeting “all over the country, in public libraries, in church basements, Chamber of Commerce offices, corporate conference rooms at IBM and Grumman Aircraft, in private homes, on army bases,” and even prisons. At the peak of the Great Books boom, Beam writes, 50,000 Americans a year were buying collections of the writings of Plato, Aristotle, the Founding Fathers, and Hegel at prices that “started at $298 and topped out at $1,175, the equivalent of $2,500 to $9,800 today.”

This was the danger against which critics of mass culture, inflamed with indignation, arrayed themselves in righteous opposition.

Imagine: Americans gathered around the kitchen table or the corporate conference room, reading not just Plato, but also Hegel! Didn't GE Theater serialize Die Phanomenologie des Geistes in 1954, or was it Alfred Hitchcock Presents? There we were, innocently comparing Plato's Nomoi to the Nichomachean Ethics, when the Frankfurt School came along, inflamed with indignation, and tricked us into having a counterculture.

Siegel isn't even wrong, to paraphrase Wolfgang Pauli. He doesn't know enough to be wrong. America buried the horrors of the Second World War in the universalism of mainline Protestantism, which extended the idea of Social Gospel to the world. America as leader of the Free World could make our own destiny and solve the world's problems. When America encountered real horrors in the form of Asian Communism, our national religion centered in mainline Protestantism cracked apart within three years, between 1965 and 1968. Our culture was inadequate and vulnerable as we entered the 1960s. It is inadequate and vulnerable now. It cries out for a tough critique, not the self-congratulatory complacency that Siegel proposes.