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Kids These Days

From Donald Kagan's farewell speech upon his retirement from Yale:

Whatever the formal religious attachments of our students may be, I find that a firm belief in the traditional values and the ability to understand and the willingness to defend them are rare. Still rarer is an informed understanding of the traditions and institutions of our western civilization and of our country and an appreciation of their special qualities and values. The admirable, even the uniquely good elements are taken for granted as if they were universally available, had always existed, and required no special effort to preserve. All shortcomings, however, are quickly noticed and harshly condemned. Our society is judged not against the experience of human societies in other times and places, but against the Kingdom of Heaven. There is great danger in this, because our society, no less than others now and in the past, requires the allegiance and devotion of its members if it is to defend itself and make progress toward a better life.

Traditional beliefs, however, are not replaced by a different set of values resting on different traditions. Instead, I find a kind of cultural void, an ignorance of the past, a sense of rootlessness and aimlessness, as though not only the students but also the world was born yesterday, a feeling that they are attached to the society in which they live only incidentally and accidentally. Having little or no sense of the human experience through the ages, of what has been tried, of what has succeeded and what has failed, of what is the price of cherishing some values as opposed to others, or of how values relate to one another, they leap from acting as though anything is possible, without cost, to despairing that nothing is possible. They are inclined to see other people’s values as mere prejudices, one no better than another, while viewing their own as entirely valid, for they see themselves as autonomous entities entitled to be free from interference by society and from obligation to it.

The whole thing is very much worth reading, and you can find it here. But this section in particular struck me, especially those last two sentences. And it isn't just the young people: the syndrome is widespread among my generation. They see themselves as judging their own society from outside as if they had no part in it, and, more significantly, as if it had no part in them--as if they had come into being already transcending their own culture, and rather contemptuous of it. Of gratitude for their heritage and what it has given them, there is little or no trace. It is difficult to see how a society can survive if this attitude is sufficiently widespread, and it is most widespread among the elite.



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It amazes me the degree to which some of my mother's contemporaries are absurdly pliable and responsive to changing convention. A large bloc of those Kagan's elders might have been teaching in 1950 seem to have no fixed standards at all.

There was an interesting piece years ago in Caelum et Terra, or maybe it was just a few paragraphs in a piece, but it talked about Ann Landers and Dear Abby, and their lack of discernment as to what was just convention and what was a serious moral issue. They are (or were) a good instance of the pliability. In 1965 they were as appalled by long(ish) hair on boys as by sexual liberty; twenty or thirty years later they were ok with open homosexuality and couples living together.

Not sure it's so much pliability as confusion, which was then cleared up by Phil Donahue and Oprah.

I think we have discussed this before. Esther Lederer's 1957 Current Biography entry had this line: "she has no respect for women who cannot make their marriages 'work'". At one time Current Biography submitted drafts to subject to correct errors. It is a reasonable wager she signed off on that.

I agree with you, an aspect of her durability (and that of her sister) was that she was always riding the wave, and I would wager without giving it much thought.


I should mention that there was one women in my mother's circle of friends who maintained over many decades a fairly fixed set of standards and read more deeply into certain subjects as she grew older. The reaction to her among a number of them was to be irked, bored, and impatient with her (and her husband, who was of similar kidney).

What's engaging about that crew is that about 3/4 of them did all the right things and did so without much wasted motion. They were much more vigorous in their 70s than there own parents had been and most lived to enjoy the fruits of the well-being they created around them. And yet, I am not sure most of them had an principles at all... Contemplating that is really very disconcerting...

I think that would be an argument for Russel Kirk's commendation of custom, prejudice, and prescription, or however that goes. It's probably unreasonable of us to expect that everyone have a a clear and consciously held, maybe consciously thought-out, set of principles recognized as abstractly sound and binding. When a culture goes off the rails, most of its people will go off with it.

"Not sure it's so much pliability as confusion..."

A confusion deliberately sown by cultural revolutionaries. It did its work.

Phil Donahue...ugh...haven't thought about him for years. I admit to having a bit of a soft spot for Oprah, because of her roots, and her rise from them. But then I've never paid much attention to what she actually says.

Fr. Neuhaus on Ashley Montagu (a Donohue guest at one point):

I remember years ago where my own personal involvement in the pro-life cause really began, long before Roe v. Wade, when it was then called the movement for the liberalization of abortion law here in New York and California and Hawaii. In the Williamsburg/Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, in St. John the Evangelist Church of which I was pastor, I read an article in Harper's magazine by Ashley Montagu, an anthropologist at Princeton (where does Princeton get these kinds of leaders?). And this article was about what makes a life worth living. And he ran through, as you might imagine, a number of criteria of what constituted a life worth living. Obviously physical health, being in a solid, secure family situation, having economic security and prospects of an educational and career future. I think there were ten or eleven criteria, measures of a life worth living. And I recall it was an Advent Sunday in 1964--I realize I don't look that old--and I was standing at the altar at St. John the Evangelist looking out at the three or four hundred people there attending the liturgy. And I realized, looking over all these black faces of people--almost all very poor--that in Ashley Montagu's judgment not one of them had a life worth living. Not one. Not one could meet more than two or three of the criteria, in his view, necessary to a life worth living.

And this--I have to say it--hit me...Kaboom! A great evil is afoot here--What is this man saying? And people who say these things and think this way--what are they saying? They're saying, of course, what anybody should recall if they're at all literate about the history of which we are a part; they're saying that there are very, very large numbers of people living lives that are not worthy of life. And anybody who has any literacy with regard to the times in which we live will recognize that phrase, and where it was used before. Lebensunwertes Leben. Life that is not worthy of life

That brings a number of things to mind, including the thought that I really should get around to reading Paul Johnson's Intellectuals and/or Modern Times.

Gosh, Neuhaus was good; miss him.

One of the things that made Donahue so dangerous was that he touted his Roman Catholic faith at practically every turn. It gave an extra stamp of approval to what he said for many, I think.

Oprah is just such a nice, kind person that whatever she says is taken seriously by her audience because they love her. And she's apparently never met a New Age idea she doesn't like.

Re A confusion deliberately sown by cultural revolutionaries: Yes, and the rapid pace of the societal changes taking place didn't help.

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