Back in January, before COVID-19 bolted the doors to my public library, I entered the vestibule and saw that the tiny used bookstore located there, the proceeds from which help support the library, sported a cart in the hallway containing volumes from the classic “War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies,” with a sign reading “Make An Offer.” Stunned that the library was discarding this magnificent 128-volume resource, and certain that the librarian I knew at a small nearby college would love to own these books, I stepped into the store and offered the volunteer behind the desk a low-ball price of $60. “We can’t do that,” she said. “We’ve been selling the books for $4 to $5 apiece.”
Her answer shocked me. Not only was the library selling off a seminal historical work, but the volunteers in the bookshop were letting it go piecemeal, one or two books at a time.
The library had once kept “War of the Rebellion” in its Virginia Room, so I went there and mourned the empty shelves. Did the librarians get rid of the set because they needed the space? Possibly. Did they let it go because no one was reading these books? Possibly.
Did they make a mistake? Definitely.
Discarding the Past
As a former bookseller and a lover of history, I believe those books should have been sold as a set—not for the price I was offering, which was ridiculously low, but for hundreds of dollars to a history buff or to another library.
Much more importantly, I believe the library should never have sold the “War of the Rebellion” at all.
On a much smaller scale, the careless discarding and breakup of that monumental collection is like knocking down the Lincoln Memorial and selling it off in pieces. During the Civil War, the capital of the Confederacy was in Richmond, many of the South’s greatest military leaders were Virginians, and the state saw more major battles fought within its borders than any other. If nothing else, the library should have kept “War of the Rebellion” as a monument commemorating the state’s history.
Rewriting the Past
The library was guilty of negligence in shedding itself of these volumes, but others today often seek to reevaluate our history and civilization in the light of their own prejudices. In “America’s Big Museums on the Hot Seat,” which appeared in The New York Times in mid-March, Holland Carter calls on art museums to use the closures brought by the pandemic to “take stock of themselves, and for us to acknowledge their virtues but also to consider the present turbulent state of the art institutional soul.”
Though many readers of Carter’s piece, including me, were probably unaware that museums and their institutional souls were in a “turbulent state,” Carter offers several recommendations to museums during this shutdown:
In 2020, after the decades-long surge of identity politics, with its demands for inclusiveness and historical truth-telling, the traditional museum is on the hot seat. And a political present charged with racial bias, misogyny and economic inequality, has upped the heat. The result is a new institutional self-consciousness. Our big museums are feeling compelled to acknowledge that they are products of an earlier, ideologically fraught time. To retain credibility they need to rethink what they were and are.
They need to rethink the Temple of Beauty branding they’ve coasted on from the start. They need to acknowledge the often conflicted relationship between aesthetics and ethics. They need to address what their collections leave out. They need to reconsider their own role as history-tellers and history-inventors. In short, they need to redefine what “encyclopedic” and “museum” and “art” can mean.
In short, let’s give our museums a makeover by applying identity politics, judging art and the past through the lens of race, feminism, and gender.
Carter has a five-point plan for art museums in “a post-coronavirus future.” These are “Go for Truth,” “Rewrite History,” “Redefine Expert,” “Rethink Big,” and “The Answer Is in the Art.” His first two points are the ones most likely to confuse his readers. In a culture that worships relativity, promotes narcissism, and spurns the ancient triad of truth, goodness, and beauty, how does one “go for truth”? As for rewriting history, many in the last 50 years have labored long and hard to do that very thing, most often judging our ancestors not by the times and circumstances in which they lived, but by our own beliefs and prejudices. How much farther down that road must we go?
In addition to our careless approach to our civilization and the incessant demands by our intelligentsia that we reconstruct our history, we encounter another foe in our culture wars: ignorance.
In his online article “How Low Can Higher Education Go?” John Ellis has excerpted part of his new book, “The Breakdown of Higher Education: How It Happened, The Damage It Does, and What Can Be Done.” Ellis scores many points regarding the failures of university education, one of which addresses this cause for the plunge in literacy rates among graduates:
The period from 1992 to 2003 was the crucial time when the politicization of the nation’s college and university faculties suddenly gained enormous momentum, resulting in an already pronounced tilt to the left, which quickly turned into the virtually one-party campus. Can it really be a coincidence that the literacy of college graduates plunged disastrously at the same time?
Ellis is the chairman of the Board of the California Association of Scholars, an organization “persuaded that only through an informed understanding of the Western intellectual heritage and of the realities of the contemporary world can citizen and scholar be equipped to sustain our civilization’s achievements.” He points out that the radical politics of the campus are now wending their way through government and the private sector, infecting everything from state bar associations to journalism, and even art schools, where students learn social justice activism from politically motivated professors rather than the ideals of beauty and the mechanics of drawing and painting.
What Can We Do?
Philosopher Roger Scruton once wrote, “Beauty is vanishing from our world because we live as though it did not matter.”
A civilization can vanish in the same way. The careless, the malicious, and the ignorant—they are, wittingly or unwittingly, allies in this destruction. They live as though culture did not matter.
We can resist this demolition by turning Scruton’s quotation on its head and live as though culture does matter. We can learn and honor our history, study and treasure the arts, and live by the ancient virtues rather than by slippery values. We can educate our children to do the same.
And we have comrades in this fight, warriors like John Ellis, outfits like The Epoch Times, our like-minded friends, and our family. In addition, we have the examples of such men and women as William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, George Washington, Emily Dickinson, and a host of others whose bones may now be dust but whose ideas, words, and deeds shine brightly as the stars.
If we stand with this stalwart company, the living and the dead, we can and will preserve our culture.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.