I suspect many members of today’s street mobs have a secret in common: At some deep level, they know they are awash in ignorance of core knowledge. Claiming to be “woke” is cover for the ignorance educrats have systematically instilled in them.
For decades, leftist academics have attacked the study of history and real humanities, and now an Illinois legislator has openly called to abolish the study of history. Recent episodes of Bible burning in the streets of Portland indicate the trashing of America’s cultural memory is well past the boiling point.
Our educational institutions have committed intellectual grand theft. They have withheld critical knowledge from students and replaced it with the poison of identity politics and political correctness. This makes it difficult for students to express independent thoughts, or even to think them. Where does that leave the victims who have been forcibly injected with this ignorance?
They can’t really articulate what has been stolen from them, but they seem to sense the loss deeply. How else can one explain their primal screams and street theater, in which they both accuse and confess “systemic racism?” After educrats and media hounded them for years with the talking point that Western culture is just tales of “dead white males,” how can they even be openly curious about it without the threat of being smeared?
It’s no wonder they can’t, since the rabbit hole into which they’ve been thrown is very deep. Imagine being trained to “think” only with your emotions. The consequence is unbridled passions and confusion, like that of someone who can’t read but pretends to. The resulting impulse undergirds the perverse toppling of a statue of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, or the burning and vandalizing of a beloved elk statue in Portland while “protesting” for justice. Could the angst behind such senseless acts amount to the deep frustration of knowing so little about so much?
If you don’t understand what it feels like to be in the dark about core knowledge, consider the poignant excerpt below. It’s from a 2012 high school newspaper in which a student mourns her ignorance of basic Bible references. The letter illustrates how illiteracy of a huge part of our culture, whether biblical or secular, can cause painful feelings of alienation. While in English class, this student felt disconnected from the culture and from others because of her ignorance.
We were discussing biblical references in passages of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein,’ and how the story of Adam and Eve was reflected into the novel. I thought to myself, Adam and Eve — isn’t that the passage about someone eating an apple? I had no idea what the story was about, and no idea what the lesson or moral was. And this wasn’t the first time something like this had occurred. Genesis? What is that? Moses parting the Red Sea? How did that work? When people bring up these essential topics in religious history, I feel like I am the only one who doesn’t know the story.
My lack of religious knowledge, no matter what religion it may be, is also keeping me from being a well-versed person.
Forget for a minute that today’s public school classrooms are unlikely to allow such discussions. This student felt alone because of her lack of general cultural knowledge of the Western canon. Probably millions of millennials and Gen Zers feel the same way but cannot articulate what it’s like to be in that darkness.
I can personally relate to it. I spent a long time educating myself in the humanities after miseducation in my high school and college years left huge gaps in my own cultural knowledge. It’s a miserable feeling.
Notre Dame Professor Patrick Deneen offered a deep and compelling reflection on this situation, writing in 2016 that “our students’ ignorance is not a failing of our educational system — it is its crowning achievement.” He described his students as “know nothings” while acknowledging they were good test-takers and nice people.
Their brains are largely empty. 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 was Saul of Tarsus? … Why does the Magna Carta matter? … What did Lincoln say in his Second Inaugural? … What are the Federalist Papers? … At best, they possess accidental knowledge, but otherwise are masters of systematic ignorance.
What our educational system aims to produce is cultural amnesia, a wholesale lack of curiosity, history-less free agents, and educational goals composed of content-free processes and unexamined buzz-words like ‘critical thinking,’ ‘diversity,’ ‘ways of knowing,’ ‘social justice,’ and ‘cultural competence.’
On the surface, students seem to make do with what little real knowledge they glean. But mostly they go through the politically correct motions demanded of them by some 90 percent of higher education personnel who are on board with the curriculum of cultural amnesia. When asked a simple question about a basic historical event or classic work, they “avert” their eyes. They panic.
The process of imparting this systematic ignorance has been generations in the making. One of the many turning points in recent times was the gutting of Stanford University’s Western Civilization program. Ironically, Stanford’s program had been immensely popular among students. Those intent on destroying it used the most potent weapon they could: a smear and fear campaign, by which anyone who might promote the program would feel intimidated into silence from accusations of bigotry or white supremacy for supporting it.
When Jesse Jackson and a cohort of activists marched through the Stanford campus in 1987 chanting, “Hey hey! Ho ho! Western Civ has got to go!” that was pretty much all it took to create a domino effect in at least 50 other universities. It’s odd how easily people give up something they love just because of social pressure from a tiny minority.
The upshot is that our institutions — academia, media, government, medicine, and more — are now filled with a lot of know-nothings who pretend to know it all. Most don’t understand basic biblical allusions or standard terms from William Shakespeare embedded in the culture.
They’ve not a clue what it means to “cross the Rubicon.” Maybe they think “baroque” means something doesn’t work anymore, or that “Trinity” only means Neo’s girlfriend, or that Norway (unlocatable on a map) flies the Confederate flag. Perhaps saddest of all is the inability of the culturally ignorant to appreciate good comedy, especially satire.
The Sense That You’ve Been Cheated
Nevertheless, Deneen writes that these students deeply sense a great loss from having the study of their heritage and all of Western civilization stolen from them: “I discern their longing and anguish and I know that their innate human desire to know who they are, where they have come from, where they ought to go, and how they ought to live will always reassert itself.”
The desire for real cultural knowledge is innate because it’s tied into the need to connect with our common humanity as well as to “know thyself.” Identity politics frustrates and mocks those deeply human desires by assigning students into demographic boxes and locking them in. They must spend all their God-given time in those boxes thinking of themselves only as victims or oppressors. Victims must stay where they are. Oppressors must do the hard work of trying to be an “ally,” an exhausting and total waste of life.
Our instinct is to thrash about when locked up for long in any kind of box, but especially that kind. The raging of many of today’s wannabe wokesters likely has much in common with this deep sense of loss. They seem to be trying to make sense of the senseless, thirsting for the real knowledge that comes from open conversations and strong relationships. They don’t know how to go about getting it in a world that seems so hostile to curiosity and learning, to civilization and love.
I’m sure Deneen is right that the desire for real knowledge will reassert itself. The big question going forward is for those who can understand the pain of losing it. How can we begin to rectify this loss, if only for those who are not too far gone down the rabbit hole?