A USA Today article laments the cultural amnesia which has settled over the last couple of generations of Americans. There is, it appears, a diminishing awareness of the history, literature, religion, etc. that have shaped our nation, and this causes historical, literary and Biblical allusions to pass right over the heads of many of us:
Twenty-five years after the federal report A Nation at Risk challenged U.S. public schools to raise the quality of education, the study finds high schoolers still lack important historical and cultural underpinnings of "a complete education." And, its authors fear, the nation's current focus on improving basic reading and math skills in elementary school might only make matters worse, giving short shrift to the humanities, even if children can read and do math.
"If you think it matters whether or not kids have common historical touchstones and whether, at some level, we feel like members of a common culture, then familiarity with this knowledge matters a lot," says American Enterprise Institute researcher Rick Hess, who wrote the study.
I recall once referring in a high school class to an event as reminding me of Moses parting the Red Sea and being greeted by a roomful of puzzled faces. When I asked why they were perplexed it turned out that only a handful of students knew what I was referring to and one of them only knew because he'd seen the movie Prince of Egypt.
Even when they're taught history and literature, of course, many students don't learn it, but even so, we do seem to be drinking from many more cultural wells than did our grandparents. Allusions which would have been widely understood a generation or two ago are met with blank looks today, but this isn't so much a failure of our schools as it is a consequence of cable tv and the internet which offer so much variety that we no longer have a shared cultural repertoire. It used to be that everyone pretty much watched the same television shows, saw the same movies, listened to the same music, and read mostly the same newspapers, magazines and books. That's no longer the case and one result is that our cultural heritage feels like it's slipping away from us.
People can argue to what extent this is true and whether it's good, bad or indifferent. For my part, I think it forebodes ill. A healthy society is one in which there is a high degree of cohesion, and cohesion depends upon a shared language, shared religion, shared values, shared literature, shared historical and cultural experience, etc. Modern culture exerts a centrifugal force on society, pulling us away from each other, by limiting the things we share in common, and that's not a good augur for the future. The less we share in common the more difficult it will be for us to live together as one people.RLC