I seriously hate declension narratives. Anything that starts out with, “Once upon a time, there was a golden age, and then the barbarians came and wrecked it all…” gets me going for my guns. Even when it’s a reasonable enough story, because now and again there’s something to claims of degeneration, failure and loss. The problem is that even the reasonable arguments drift quickly into the borderlands of exaggeration and from there often just go ahead and boldly march into being a big lie.
A very large number of the popular narratives of decline and fall that have circulated in American society for the last thirty years or so, for example, take conditions that were a brief, specific consequence of the post-WWII reorganization and affluence of American society and start to reframe them first as a general part of the entire 20th Century, then as something basic to American history all the way back to colonial settlement, and then leap the Atlantic and usually plow straight for the Aegean, coming to rest in Greece, Rome or Jerusalem.
If you want to argue that there was some social or institutional condition in 1955 or 1960 in the U.S. that was admirable and is now lost, you might have an argument. If you’re going to start getting all moony about the loss of the entire history of Western Civilization, you’ve got a harder job ahead of you, and typically those who do so don’t treat it as a harder job, but instead puff and blow more insistently the more eye-rollingly hilarious their glossing of the past becomes.
A prime example: this book review by Christoper Orlet, via Erin O’Connor. I hope that it’s not an accurate description of the book it purports to review, since Orlet’s comments are a generic sort of declensionist rant that I suspect he could serve up whether he was reviewing a book about higher education, discussing the new Indiana Jones film, or grousing to his family over dinner about life in general.
Try this passage:
AT ONE TIME the purpose of a university education was to give future leaders an opportunity — before they shouldered the dull burdens of civic responsibility — to explore the purpose and value of life. By instilling a strong sense of history, of reason, of logic, of the best of what has been thought and said, a background in the Humanities would prepare a young scholar for whatever may lie ahead.
This, at least, had been the belief going back to Plato’s Republic.
Or how about this one:
The Sixties Generation broke with this four-thousand-year tradition. If the bugbears of early 20th Century radicals were the consumer-driven economy and the thoughtless pursuit of material comfort, then the Baby Boomers’ bete noire was Western Civilization and all it entailed.
From then on, social change, rather than concerns about work and consumption, would be paramount on college campuses. Such change would not come from the government or the people, but from the university, since the university was uniquely situated to tackle moral issues. After all where else could one find so many smart, morally superior persons? First, however, the university, and its Humanities departments (the propagandizer of the elitist, racist, sexist, imperial tradition of Western culture) must change and adapt.
In the subsequent 40 years the radicals and their political agenda have triumphed unopposed on the college campus, so much so that today’s student is compelled to conform to an intolerant progressive doctrine if he hopes to receive his sheepskin. Students are now told that there is a single right answer and, like the Sphinx, only he, the professor, possesses it.
As I said over at O’Connor’s blog, is Orlet seriously trying to argue that there has been a continuous tradition of scholarly humanistic inquiry for the last 4,000 years that was about liberty, freedom, open-ended explorations of the purpose and value of life, that stood unblemished until the dirty hippies came along forty years ago and turned it to indoctrination?
I can’t think of a better proof of declension in the quality of historical education, if Orlet claims to be historically literate. Seriously, it would help, if you want to complain about the declining quality of the humanities, to not be a historical dunderhead on a fantastic scale, to demonstrate some degree of erudition. I’d really like to hear more about the democratic humanities in the West as practiced in universities and their open encouragement of free-thinking liberalism in 8th Century Europe. Or, hell, why not classical Athens? Right, right, I know, short reviews demand generalizations, just making a point to start debate, the usual excuses.
I think this is a generic kind of fallacy that slips into declensionist stories, and not just conservative ones, a misrembering and compression of the details and messiness of history as we have lived it. I’m not going to be so much of a prig for accuracy as to argue that fantasies about the past don’t sometimes have a constructive, healthy relationship to transformations of the present. The general problem with delusions about decline, however, is that they mislead us into thinking that we are trying to restore some past covenant or arrangement when what we are really trying to do is create something that has yet to exist. On that confusion, both bad and good projects often run aground, but not before they do a lot of collateral damage in the process.