catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 12 :: 2008.06.13 — 2008.06.27


Late night thoughts on the incident behind this issue

'Tis I who shared the anecdote which Kirstin picked up as inspiration for this issue.  The story had its genesis in a dual enrollment English composition class I taught for a community college but which met at a high school.  In the pursuit of essay-writing excellence, or at least adequacy, my class of nice enough and reasonably intelligent seniors read Mortimer Adler's essay, "How to Mark a Book."  Therein Adler writes, "I’d no more scribble over a first edition of Paradise Lost than I’d give my baby a set of crayons and an original Rembrandt!"  As we began our discussion, one of my better thinkers and writers raised her hand and said she didn't understand the allusion to toothpaste in the essay.  As befuddled as she, I didn't understand her inquiry.  After an awkward pause during which I pondered if it were possible that she didn't know who Rembrandt was, even in the most general terms, there flashed from the deleted files stored in the recesses of my brain that “Rembrandt” was also a brand of toothpaste.  Almost simultaneously, I realized this was her sole association with the name. In popular culture, one of those rare artists so distinguished as to be referenced by only his first name has become linked only with a personal care product.  No other students laughed in ridicule, not out of politeness, I suspect, but rather shared ignorance.  The one student I was certain knew who Rembrandt was kept his face studiously glued to his textbook.  I recovered from my astonishment and dismay, explained a bit, and we went on.

I walked out of class that morning wondering if there are any shared referents left in our culture.  The upside of postmodernism is that many long ignored voices, texts and points of view are now accessible; the downside is that the proliferation of same leaves so few shared points of reference as to raise the question of whether such a reality as western culture or American culture even exist.  Perhaps it is elitist to think there was a time when “everyone” knew who Rembrandt was, but on the other hand, opera houses and playhouses on the American frontier in the 19th century presented Mozart and Shakespeare.  When I was my students' age (in the middle 1960s), my parents and grandparents were well aware of Beach Boys, the Supremes, and the Rolling Stones (who, come to think of it, are still around and may be the touchstone we seek!).  Today, with the plethora of musical genres, and groups within each, such transgenerational and transethnic referents are increasingly rare.

If the problem were to be solved by adopting a curiosity and tolerance towards others that lead us to ask, "How's it look from where you stand?" or "What do you know?", we might find ourselves learning a lot about a lot.  But every perspective is shaped by a tradition,  even if the one expressing that perspective is ignorant of it.  Wouldn't consciousness of how one's perspective is not only shaped by, but also in dialogue with, a tradition be useful?  Is it too much to say that is a central part of what education is?  Without such, sincerity and the limits of one's own experience threaten to become the final arbiters of truth.  Barbara Kingsolver, in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, makes the point that young people who are so scientifically ignorant as well as disconnected from how food is produced that they don't know carrots come out of the ground covered in dirt are much more likely to believe in creationism rather than evolution.  Why not?  No shared reference points in science as well as the arts can lead to all manner of flat lander thinking. And one is thereby saved from the challenging intellectual work of puzzling out the relationship between science and faith. 

One encounters this problem in the church with alarming frequency.  I don't expect people to bow down before my academic training in theology nor my long experience in the church, but I would like my informed opinion to be respected as much as their often uninformed, if sincerely held, one. When teaching Comparative Religion, I am mostly amused by how frequently I am branded an ignorant heretic by religiously zealous students forty years my junior. But such is to be expected in a time when all points of view are deemed equally valid, irrespective of the work expended in coming to them. I find myself sometimes wishing the Reformation had never come to pass as it opened the doors of change so wide (and continues to do so) that a shared understanding of what is meant by “Christian” no longer exists, and most adherents intolerantly hold their small piece to be the whole and, of course, true.

In a fine essay “The Impoverishment of American Culture,” poet Dana Gioia wrote:

There is an experiment I’d love to conduct.  I’d like to survey a cross-section of Americans and ask them how many active NBA players, Major League Baseball players, and “American Idol” finalists they can name.  Then I’d ask them how many living American poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors, architects, classical musicians, conductors and composers they can name.  I’d even like to ask how many living American scientists or social thinkers they can name.

Fifty years ago, I suspect that along with Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Sandy Koufax, most Americans could have named, at the very least, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder, Georgia O’Keefe, Leonard Bernstein, Leontyne Price, and Frank Lloyd Wright.  Not to mention scientists and thinkers likes Linus Pauling, Jonas Salk, Rachel Carson, Margaret Mead, and especially Dr. Alfred Kinsey.

I don’t think that Americans were smarter then, but American culture was. …. The loss of recognition of artists, thinkers, and scientists has impoverished our culture in innumerable ways, but let me mention one.  When virtually all of a culture’s celebrated figures are in sports or entertainment, how few possible role models we offer the young.  There are so many other ways to lead a successful and meaningful life that are not denominated by money or fame.  Adult life begins in a child’s imagination, and we’ve relinquished that imagination to the marketplace.

Such is the world in which we live.  Nostalgia, it has been said, is a form of depression.  And as easily depressed as I am about the current state of culture, and as right as I think Gioia is, I also am encouraged by those I encounter who are earnestly seeking to discern what is good and true and beautiful and to find a community through which to live out what is found.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus