America’s Education Failure

The Necessity of Reappropriating Our Cultural Heritage

Thomas Friedman, in his article “U.S.G. and P.T.A.”, highlighted the failure of America’s educational system, and said help was needed from both sides: “top down” from the government (U.S.G.), and “bottom up” from parents and teachers (P.T.A.). He is correct. But we need more than that: We also need to reappropriate our Western culture, which is our national heritage, and without which we can not exist as a country, since all of our ideals, ethics, and mores come from it. Indeed, an important part of our current problems stems from our “cultural amnesia” regarding this irreplaceable intellectual and cultural inheritance—which loss can be seen most graphically in the cynicism, ignorance, selfishness, and mean-spiritedness now running, and ruining, our nation whole and entire.

The Tea Party is the culmination of a degenerate politics since the multiple assassinations in the 1960’s of Martin Luther King, Jr, John F. Kennedy, and his brother, Robert F. Kennedy. These killings, we now know, were political assassinations carried out by the US government through the initiative, knowledge, and support of the wealthy one percent, in order to stifle in America the basic values inherent in Western culture and Christianity, i.e., economic assistance to minorities, the poor, the elderly, and the sick—along with other initiatives to make society as a whole fairer and more equitable; and on the other hand, not to allow large corporations to run roughshod over Americans or America, which, under JFK, meant concretely, among other things, not to get dragged into the Viet Nam war, for which Corporate America and the military lobbied so insistently. In hindsight we can now see what have been the tragic consequences of the deaths of these three great Americans: numerous, costly, and debilitating wars; an absolutist Corporate State; economic decline and hardship for 84% of Americans; a degenerating, and increasingly malfunctioning infrastructure; an inadequate and expensive health care system (now, under Obama, finally about to be improved, unless stopped again by Republicans); a grossly inferior, and deteriorating, public school system; no relief from our dependence on fossil fuels (and therefore our continuing engagement in the Middle East); environmental catastrophes one after another; little progress in trying to stop global warming; the loss of America’s prestige, honor, and influence through unjust wars and the mistreatment and torture of prisoners; and a new “banana republic” status due to an unbelievably high income disparity. These are both the intended and unintended effects of the assassinations—the intended effects welcomed by Tea Party people and Conservatives (Republicans mostly, but also some Democrats).

But mere “structural changes” won’t effect ini themselves a change in America or how it is governed. We need to probe deeper. We need to return to our cultural, intellectual, and spiritual heritage, to the Greeks and Romans, and also, in an informed and spiritual manner, to our Bible, to reappropriate the history and foundational ideas of Western culture—to enflame our hearts once more with the highest ideals, from Moses and Homer on down, which have inspired men to strive for wisdom, goodness, truth, and beauty, no matter the cost. From these historic Western ideals have sprung new ideas of governance, of how citizens ought to behave towards one another, and of how the state ought to act. Just compare, for example, a Saudi Arabia or China or Russia—their governments, and how they treat their citizens—with any modern Western state, and we see how profoundly important our Western cultural heritage really is.

In part, this renewing of the Western mind and soul will need, as an aid, a return to the classical languages of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin; for a full and profound appropriation cannot be accomplished without a knowledge of the sources speaking in their original tongues. A classical and liberal arts education is, I know, hardly a fashionable prescription, though a necessary one. For language is more than a cultural artifact: it is the only means by which a culture can be effectively appropriated. For our nation, in these troubled times, it would be a decided boon: instead of a distorted, false, and propagandistic Fox News, for example, we could read for instruction our Genesis, Isaiah, or John; instead of the empty and mindless entertainment offered on TV, computers, and cell phones, we could be enriched, deepened, and delighted by Herodotus, Sophocles, or Shakespeare; and instead of listening to the empty and twisted sophistry of a Palin or Beck, we could hear the wise and sonorous counsels of a Plato, a St. Paul, or a Cicero. In this educational reform hearkening back to our cultural roots, then, there would be much to be gained and nothing lost—except our cynicism, our ignorance, our empty pride, and our (Republican) uncharitable hearts.

America is at an historic crossroads. We can embrace fanatics and lunatics, like the Tea Party, and go down to destruction—or we can be renourished and sustained by the historic wisdom of our Western culture, and thrive both individually and collectively. But we cannot do both.

Len Sive, Daily Babel