Monday, February 27, 2012

Looking Backward(ly)

One, almost palpable, aspect of growing older is the increasing amount of nostalgia that permeates one's view of the world at large.

As we grow older, and as change becomes a significant feature of the presentness of the world we inhabit, we begin to remember the past almost as a physical space: houses, landscapes, objects, people. Historians and archaeologists probably suffer more than most, because we "remember" not only our own pasts, but those of others. Whether or not we bathe our visions in some kind of gauzy, golden light, masking difficulties, injustices, or even horrors, we nevertheless tend to paint our ideas of the future with the palette of the past.

Several recent events and observations have brought all of this to mind, the most recent of which is the Academy Awards ceremony (with its focus on early cinema), coupled with Pat Buchanan's departure from MSNBC.

Mind you, I've never thought much of Buchanan's picture of the world which, as Brian Stelter mentions in today's New York Times, is firmly rooted in the idyllic Ozzie and Harriet past that coincides with my own childhood in the fifties. But while my childhood was populated by multi-racial people and multi-cultural life, Buchanan's was white, straight, Catholic, and (in his mind, at least) hewed to those fine Republican values inherited from our Founding Fathers. In my case, although both of my grandmothers and one of my grandfathers were of Canadian extraction, immigration wasn't really part of our background; both my father's and mother's families had been in North America since the Revolutionary War. I'm not sure how long Buchanan's people had been in this country, but like many of his fellow (Tea Party) Americans, he seems to think that early immigrations from Europe were somehow different from those occurring now.

Buchanan's beliefs and politics were informed by Catholicism as practiced in America the Beautiful, while mine were informed by Catholicism practiced in Japan and Taiwan, preached by priests from Italy and China, and were severely tested by Vatican II. By 1963 I had left the Church, primarily because it had rejected many of the traditions it had accrued through time (Latin masses, smells and bells) and that had kept me "faithful" for as long as I was. Having not grown up in suburban America, however, I never did form an attachment to its mythical elements. Not being exposed much to television probably helped.

I try to be a realist, and to ground my hopes for the future in a clear sense of what has actually happened rather than some imaginary Golden Age. In doing so, I am constantly reminded of the criticism directed at William Morris's Medievalist socialism. Whenever I mention his work (at least when the immediate response isn't "Oh, yeah, the wallpaper guy"), the comments that follow usually point out that the Middle Ages he so admired had been radically depopulated by plague, and, besides, who would want to live that way, anyway? And post-apocalyptic films and fiction play on the notion that "Medieval" equals "Stone Age." Get rid of what we have now, the novels all suggest, and we'll be wandering down interminable roads, eating one another, living in squalor, and/or we'll become victims of one or another rampantly repressive ideology. (Update, October 24: a terrific new example is the television series, Revolution.)

All of the above will, according to the Buchananesque prognosis, be caused by lowered birthrates among the middle class (due to the use of abortion as birth control), increasing immigration from third-world countries, rising diversity in the armed forces (gays, women, folk of color), godless humanists, and all manner of plagues and diseases brought on by our increasingly wanton ways. Liberals in general, and Barack Obama in particular, are "destroying America," as I've heard over and over again from participants in the Republican caucuses As Seen On TV. What can only follow is the end of Western Civilization, or at least of American Exceptionalism, as we know it.

Of course, I'm not at all convinced that this is a bad thing. A smaller, multi-racial, more culturally diverse populace might well lead to innovative solutions to economic and social problems. If the self-described Conservatives want smaller government, the only way we can accomplish it is to decrease our population. If we want to increase self-reliance, we need to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels, foodstuffs, and technology from foreign sources, and re-learn how to make many of the products we now buy from others, such as textiles.

Pat Buchanan's idyllic mid-century America was only half the size of the current one. Women were only just beginning to acquire the ability to pursue careers other than child-rearing, and Blacks were still being seated at the back of the bus. We were involved in or heading into an interminable series of conflicts (Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, Iraq and Afghanistan), and barely averted World War III more than once in subsequent years. Divorces were rarer (although not in my family), but perhaps only because they were harder to get. Infant mortality has declined significantly since 1950, but minority children die at a much higher rate than whites, and the overall rate in the US is rather embarrassingly higher than for any other developed country. The effects on BabyBoomers' lives may not have been as devastating as the Black Death, but neither are they all that laudable.

If nostalgia is, at best, an ambiguous condition, I'm not sure that future generations will be affected by it much at all. As I struggle to reach new crops of students by instilling an interest in the past and what it can teach us, I find myself swimming in a rip-current of apathy, if not antipathy. Fewer and fewer of my pupils consider the past as particularly valuable; instead, they wonder what it has to do with them, now. "How is this information going to help me in my career?" they ask. The question is genuine rather than churlish. They really do want to know what utility I can offer, but I'm never sure how to answer them. The old saws about how general education will make them better people, or how knowing the past will help them avoid making the same mistakes don't hold much truck with a group hell-bent on fame and fortune in the game or fashion industries. The best I can offer is that the past, especially in the visual arts, represents a gold mine of ideas and images. At least as long as you cite your finds properly.

From an archaeological perspective, the present is the surface, under which lie immeasurable treasures. Education provides only what amounts to a surface collection of odds and ends that indicate what one might find underneath. The more practical contribution schooling makes to our future lives is to provide us--if we're fortunate to have decent teachers--with the tools we need to excavate the past, connect the ideas and objects we locate there with our contemporary needs and desires, and interpret them carefully and fairly. My parents and grandparents told me stories about my ancestors that made me want to know more about "the olden days." But they also insisted on telling me how hard it had been, and ultimately how unfair things were for others who didn't fare as well as we had.

If real knowledge and wisdom don't somehow emerge from the massive piles of information being heaped on this generation, in their future nostalgia might simply become a dismal undertaking, rather than a potentially rewarding exercise in plumbing memory. Rather than longing for imagined, distant glory, we should be showing our kids how to reflect critically on what they remember in order to faithfully craft the stories they tell their own children.

Note: This essay has concurrently been posted on Owl's Farm.


Image credit: In truth, I don't know where I got this; it was just in my archives for use in class. But the image is a bas relief designed by Philip Webb and executed by George Jack on a cottage in Kelmscott, Oxfordshire. I think the relief was commissioned by Jane Morris, in memory of her husband, and certainly captures his pensive demeanor. I have a copy of it at my desk at school.

1 comment:

David C. said...

Thanks for a thoughtful essay which serves as an antidote to Mr. Santorum's toxic condemnation of President Obama as a snob for encouraging higher education.