I was watching the MLB channel this morning, and the hosts were discussing the Milwaukee Brewers and their general manager’s statement that the team would “keep its powder dry” until the mid-season trading deadline. All three hosts professed to have no idea whatsoever what the phrase about keeping powder dry meant. In his 1988 book “Cultural Literacy,” E.D.Hirsch, Jr., argued that children in the United States are not learning the basic knowledge that they need to function competently in society. the background information about world, Western and U.S. culture that literate writers and speakers assume their audience already has. The three MLB hosts were all schooled since 1988, and clearly, the problem has only gotten worse.
The phrase at issue is a useful and formerly famous one. It comes from a reported quote from Oliver Cromwell—Teddy Roosevelt wrote a biography of Oliver Cromwell. I bet fewer than one out of a thousand Americans could tell you who he was—during the Battle of Edgehill in 1642. Cromwell supposedly told his Roundhead troops in that opening fight of the English Civil War, ”Put your trust in God, my boys, but mind to keep your powder dry.” The last part of the quote is usually evoked to mean “keep cool,” but the entire quote is more profound. As the late language maven William Safire wrote in the New York Times, it means ”stay calm” but carries an implicit, most ominous threat: ”and be prepared to blow the enemy’s head off at the propitious moment.” Prayer is great, but the Lord helps those who help themselves. Or, as a World War II slogan had it, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!” This was made into a popular wartime song by Frank Loesser, who wrote “Guys and Dolls.” I know: what’s “Guys and Dolls”? What’s “World War II?”
This morning’s depression reminded me of an essay by Patrick Deneen from 2016, titled “How a Generation Lost Its Common Culture.” He wrote in part,
…It’s difficult to gain admissions to the schools where I’ve taught – Princeton, Georgetown, and now Notre Dame. Students at these institutions have done what has been demanded of them: they are superb test-takers, they know exactly what is needed to get an A in every class (meaning that they rarely allow themselves to become passionate and invested in any one subject); they build superb resumes. They are respectful and cordial to their elders, though easy-going if crude with their peers. They respect diversity (without having the slightest clue what diversity is) and they are experts in the arts of non-judgmentalism (at least publicly). They are the cream of their generation, the masters of the universe, a generation-in-waiting to run America and the world.
But ask them some basic questions about the civilization they will be inheriting, and be prepared for averted eyes and somewhat panicked looks. Who fought in the Peloponnesian War? Who taught Plato, and whom did Plato teach? How did Socrates die? Raise your hand if you have read both the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Canterbury Tales? Paradise Lost? The Inferno?
Who was Saul of Tarsus? What were the 95 theses, who wrote them, and what was their effect? Why does the Magna Carta matter? How and where did Thomas Becket die? Who was Guy Fawkes, and why is there a day named after him? What did Lincoln say in his Second Inaugural? His first Inaugural? How about his third Inaugural? What are the Federalist Papers?
Some students, due most often to serendipitous class choices or a quirky old-fashioned teacher, might know a few of these answers. But most students have not been educated to know them. At best, they possess accidental knowledge, but otherwise are masters of systematic ignorance. It is not their “fault” for pervasive ignorance of western and American history, civilization, politics, art and literature. They have learned exactly what we have asked of them – to be like mayflies, alive by happenstance in a fleeting present….Efforts by several generations of philosophers and reformers and public policy experts — whom our students (and most of us) know nothing about — have combined to produce a generation of know-nothings. The pervasive ignorance of our students is not a mere accident or unfortunate but correctible outcome, if only we hire better teachers or tweak the reading lists in high school. It is the consequence of a civilizational commitment to civilizational suicide. The end of history for our students signals the End of History for the West.
During my lifetime, lamentation over student ignorance has been sounded by the likes of E.D. Hirsch, Allan Bloom, Mark Bauerlein and Jay Leno, among many others… E.D. Hirsch even worked up a self-help curriculum, a do-it yourself guide on how to become culturally literate, imbued with the can-do American spirit that cultural defenestration could be reversed by a good reading list in the appendix. Broadly missing is sufficient appreciation that this ignorance is the intended consequence of our educational system, a sign of its robust health and success…
…Our students are the achievement of a systemic commitment to producing individuals without a past for whom the future is a foreign country, cultureless ciphers who can live anywhere and perform any kind of work without inquiring about its purposes or ends, perfected tools for an economic system that prizes “flexibility” (geographic, interpersonal, ethical).
In such a world, possessing a culture, a history, an inheritance, a commitment to a place and particular people, specific forms of gratitude and indebtedness (rather than a generalized and deracinated commitment to “social justice”), a strong set of ethical and moral norms that assert definite limits to what one ought and ought not to do (aside from being “judgmental”) are hindrances and handicaps…
And we wonder why the Parkland students don’t understand the Second Amendment…
(I confess, I had to look up “deracinated…”)