The cynicism of modern-day youth presents us with a great teachable moment. We must tell history as a great myth, for myths are often the best way of expressing truths. They are also the lifeblood of civilizations.
“History is marble, and remains forever cold, even under the most artistic hand, unless life is breathed into it by the imagination. Then the marble becomes flesh and blood—then it feels, it thinks, it moves, and is immortal.”—Charles Gayarré, 19th-century American historian
To those who make a living promoting history education, the unprecedented level of cynicism among young people—and indeed among their teachers—poses a great challenge. Television and movies hammer the young relentlessly with the nihilistic message that everything is relative, that nothing is sacred, that there are no taboos, and that heroes and principles are outdated ideas. Meanwhile, most popular music diminishes the ability of the young to reason and rots their very souls. As a result, as Allan Bloom has noted, students usually enter school as clean slates, which makes them nearly uneducable.
Too often, classroom teachers encourage this nihilism, for they too are products of a relativistic culture. Even if a teacher wants to take a stand on an issue of morality or make an aesthetic judgment, he is often cowed into silence by the educationist junta. To suggest, for example, that the music of Mozart is objectively superior to that of Eminem is to be called “judgmental”; to assert that homosexual behavior is immoral is to be deemed “intolerant” or a “hate monger.” The former pronouncement may earn only a reprimand; the latter may well result in dismissal. Alexis de Tocqueville’s assessment that America harbors “little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion” holds true today.
We as a society have lost the true purpose of education, which, as Aristotle argued, is to teach the pupil “to delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought.” Young people must be taught to love truth, goodness, and beauty, and hate falsehood, evil, and ugliness. Yes, we need to teach students to think, but reason must always be subservient to truth. This is the very essence of free inquiry. Yet today to insist that there are objective answers to aesthetic or ethical questions is to be considered narrow-minded and bigoted.
Popular culture has groomed the young to be, in C.S. Lewis’ term, “men without chests,” their souls adrift, believing in nothing, following only the whims of desire. So, how do we encourage students to believe in “the permanent things”? Part of the answer lies in getting students to believe in heroes again and, more broadly, in heroic myth.
In spite of the corrosive influence of much of popular culture, young people retain a sense of imagination. And perhaps because of the vacuity of popular culture, they possess now more than ever hungry souls, eager to be fed. More than adults, children are receptive to myth. And so the cynicism of modern-day youth presents us with a great teachable moment. We must tell history as a great myth.
Myths, as J.R.R. Tolkien observed, are often the best way of expressing truths. They are also the lifeblood of civilizations. It would be difficult, for instance, to overstate the importance of the Homeric epics in shaping the culture of Ancient Greece or the impact of the story of Cincinnatus on generations of Roman soldiers. Modern nations, too, are the products of their myths. The stories of the Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution, for example, have done much to mold modern Britain. Perhaps the decline of the nations of Western Europe can be explained partly by a loss of the power of their myths. When a civilization loses its myths, it is nearing its demise.
In telling the story of America, we have a decided advantage over the Left. Liberals are simply not temperamentally equipped for the task of myth-making. They have lost the sense of the heroic. To them American history is either depersonalized—full of the faceless evils of sexism, racism, industrialism, and dozens of other “isms”—or at least full of the irredeemably flawed. In their eyes, for example, George Washington was first and foremost a slaveholder.
But conservatives recognize that it is possible to admire flawed human beings. We do not expect our heroes to be saints. We understand that though good and evil most definitely exist, men themselves are neither black nor white but rather some shade of gray. We have the sense to look up to men despite their sins. It would be churlish, for example, to condemn in toto the Washingtons of our past for the blinders society as a whole wore.
This is not to say, of course, that we cannot differentiate among those with similar flaws, say, in the case of slaveholding and racial attitudes. Washington provided for the eventual freedom of his slaves in his will and treated his slaves well by the standards of the day, refusing to break up families. There are also hints that he held out the possibility that the black man could one day be the white man’s equal in America. James Madison, on the other hand, sold off his long-time valet-slave at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, worried that Billey’s “mind is too thoroughly tainted” with notions of liberty “to be a fit companion for fellow slaves in Virga [Virginia].” In another instance, Madison also served as a pimp, arranging the purchase of slave for a visiting French woman who wished to conduct sexual experiments among blacks.
We must use all the tools we can in conveying the heroic myth to the young. Teachers must inspire students with stories of the resoluteness of George Washington, the brilliance of John C. Calhoun, and the courage of the Apollo 11 astronauts. Writers must pen historical novels and popular biographies. Scholars must compose sweeping narratives of the past that will appeal to a general audience.
But we must do more. We need to appeal to the emotional as well as intellectual nature of the young. In doing this, we must turn to the example of Richard Wagner. Though many conservatives consider music’s founding father of anti-intellectual Romanticism an enemy, Wagner correctly understood that a people need a cultural-national myth presented to them through a medium that acts upon their emotion at least as much as upon their reason. For Wagner this meant creating a new synthesis of music, verse, and staging. What we need is a new Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk.
I speak of cinematic portrayals. We must appreciate and utilize the power of dramatic films to influence society. Kids believe—truly believe—only what they see. If it is not on video, it is not real to them. Films that deal with historical figures and events are for young people the primary source of information about the past. Mention Mozart in a class, and they will describe the childish behavior depicted by Tom Hulce in Amadeus. Mention the Romans, and they will eagerly recount Russell Crowe’s exploits in Gladiator. And what student—or adult, for that matter—can think of Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace and not picture Mel Gibson? We cannot cede this ground to the likes of Martin Scorsese or, worse, Oliver Stone.
Some may argue that the medium of video is inherently inferior to the written word and even deleterious to the imagination of the young. It is also claimed that video is incapable of conveying ideas to the audience. But this is nonsense. Though it is true that video should not be used to the exclusion of the written word in telling stories of the past, the visual presentation of myth and story has been used throughout history to inspire, influence, inform, and entertain. The plays of Shakespeare, for instance, were written not to be read on the page, but to be performed in the theater, where their power is greater. Likewise, merely reading the libretto of a Mozart opera affects the intellect and soul of a person far less than seeing a full production in the opera house.
By advocating the paradigm of the historic myth, I am not calling for fictionalizing history. Facts must be respected. But as every historian knows, facts do not speak for themselves. History is an art as well as a science. “History is a mode of thinking that wrenches the past out of context and sequence,” Forrest McDonald has argued, “out of the way it really happened, and reorders it in an artificial way that facilitates understanding and remembering.” Historians must simply remember that their job is at heart storytelling, which requires having a viewpoint in regard to the story. So-called “objective” history is impossible, and attempts to attain it result in boring history.
Historical novels and film, the most powerful means of telling the heroic myth, must especially be allowed artistic license. The novelist or director must be true only to the general outlines of the story and the character of the heroes. For example, it matters little that Braveheart invented a love affair between William Wallace and a French princess, but it matters much that a miniseries about George Washington depicted the Virginian making a crass joke about Henry Knox’s weight to get a cheap laugh from the rank and file of the Continental Army. The former story accurately highlights the charisma of Wallace; the latter scene paints a scandalously false picture of Washington’s character.
And, finally, let us not forget to include humor in telling the story of America to the young, which will help to avoid boring them. Kids like people who can be funny. In telling the story of this nation’s founding, we ought to include humorous episodes as well as the occasional witty barb uttered by famous men of the past. For example, I look forward as I grow older to having the opportunity to employ George Mason’s retort to a federalist at the Virginia Ratifying Convention. This younger gentleman was so angered at Mason’s opposition to the Constitution that he accused the aged Virginian of having lost his wits. To this Mason responded: “Sir, when yours fail, nobody will ever discover it.” What a great line for a movie.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in April 2013.
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