Conservatism in Class

Of all the specimens of conservatism, none has been so vanquished and expelled, so dispirited and demoralized, as cultural conservatism.
Conservatism in Class
Books on a shelf at the Orange County Classical Academy in Orange, Calif., on March 10, 2021. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
Mark Bauerlein

Of all the specimens of conservatism—social, religious, libertarian, America First, and so forth—none has been so vanquished and expelled, so dispirited and demoralized, as cultural conservatism.

In the place where cultural conservatism should prevail, that is, high schools and colleges, progressive ideology and liberal tastes have sent it to the sidelines for good. The exile has been so complete and longstanding that Millennials and Gen Z-ers don’t even know what it is.

The damage is severe. Cultural conservatism gives to the young what they sorely need: a tradition, an inheritance, a meaningful past that they can claim as their own. Progressives treat the past as a time of injustice and error; cultural conservatives treasure the past as a reservoir of wisdom and beauty. A classroom built on cultural conservative values offers rising generations a canon of masterpieces, from Virgil to Shakespeare to the Great American Novel; music achievement, from Bach to Beethoven to the best American jazz; architecture, from the Pantheon to the Chrysler Building. It assembles a chronology of a nation’s pivotal moments: Plymouth Rock, July Fourth, Gettysburg, Black Thursday. ... Heroes and villains are remembered, too: Julius Caesar and Augustus, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, Washington and Benedict Arnold.

This collection of renowned things and figures doesn’t impress the progressives who run the school systems, although it isn’t easy to see why. Such lineages enrich life. Moral instruction may be gathered from them, good and bad leadership described in Plutarch, ardent love stories that don’t end well, friendship and loyalty and betrayal. Tastes are improved as youths compare the verse of Emily Dickinson to the chatter of social media. The world is a better place when it’s filled with momentous occasions. Time isn’t just one thing after another. Actions come to an epoch-making head, lasting works of art are created, and people know that the human story has heights and deserves monuments, not the cheap cynicism that prevails among our pseudo-worldly youth.

What a crime it was for progressive educators to strip Western Civilization from the curriculum, to explode the satire of Dryden, Swift, and Pope; the ballads of Burns, Wordsworth, and Coleridge; and the melodies of Mozart, Chopin, and Puccini. It was done, of course, in the spurious name of multiculturalism. We lost Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Bernini because those stupendous talents were judged “irrelevant” to 21st-century Americans, especially the nonwhite students. In effect, the long shadow of greatness was blocked by an idea that ended up harming the ones that it was supposed to endow, for relevance can’t provide the existential support that a superior tradition does. The relevance argument says students in a class are more comfortable and motivated when course materials reflect their identity and experience. A black student performs better, it’s said, when some black authors are on the syllabus, and not old ones, either. They must be contemporary in order to “say something” to the kids.

But that “reflection” doesn’t compare to the larger sense of time and tradition that comes with a syllabus that imparts works of brilliance and events of magnitude. The relevance approach is narrowly personal; tradition is widely personal. Relevance throws the youth back upon his sole self; tradition opens the youth to epic history, Great Books, and beautiful paintings, which makes that self more capacious than it was before.

In most schools, it never happens. That’s why so many parents are pulling their kids out and sending them to classical schools. There, the legacy is preserved; the concerns of the present don’t cancel the past. The psychological benefits of a meaningful inheritance are enjoyed, although progressives rarely acknowledge them.

Students memorize and recite poems and speeches in classical classrooms, an exercise that progressives regard as oppressively rote but which students appreciate deeply once the task is completed. They’re told that the trials of Odysseus are indeed relevant—who in the world hasn’t faced a Scylla–Charybdis situation?—and they like the idea of a legendary hero offering lessons in leadership directly to them. The most important book in U.S. history, the King James Bible, isn’t banned from the syllabus.

Classical schools form but a small part of the education environment, but they’re growing all the time. Meanwhile, public schools are losing students. Perhaps this is merely the natural process of a superior product outperforming an inferior one. Perhaps public educators will notice the trend and attribute it, at least in part, to these rival curricula—classical versus relevant—and proceed to adopt some classical elements into those slipping schools.

As things shake out one way or another, however, let’s not fail to regret the fact that two generations of Americans have been robbed of a healthy formation. When we see young Americans expressing wild political opinions and behaving in senseless adolescent ways, we should include among the causes a schooling that didn’t introduce them to beauty and sublimity or orient them toward the transcendent and tender models of virtue and sacrifice.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Mark Bauerlein is an emeritus professor of English at Emory University. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Post, the TLS, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.
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