An easy and effective way to create an unhappy, mistrustful, pessimistic young adult is to deprive him of any tradition, any heritage or cultural background, or historical shadow. Strip him of a usable, meaningful past and he reaches his maturity at a disadvantage, with no heroic occasion and larger-than-life personages in mind, no lineage he can claim, no descent that has resulted in him. The American founders are just empty names; the language that he speaks never echoes Alfred Tennyson or Emily Dickinson or Robert Frost. He may live in Pennsylvania or the Bay Area, but the years 1776 or 1849 strike no resonant note in his head.
Lots of Millennials are in that condition. The world they inhabit has no depth, no time but the present. The voices of the ages—Shakespeare, Beethoven, Rembrandt—don’t speak to them. Millennials wish to be brave and stalwart, but no warrior models inspire them. They want to fall in love, but the great love stories from Odysseus and Penelope forward don’t show them how. They’re on their own, and they struggle.
It didn’t happen by accident. Millennials went through high school and college after the Western Civ curriculum had been dismantled. The roadmap of American literature (Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, et al.) was already scrapped, the highlights of classical music shelved, the whole idea of a syllabus of common masterpieces discredited. The educators broke down the old canon and put no new canon in its place.
What a terrible thing to do to a 17-year-old. How irresponsible it was for teachers not to tell him that he lives in the wake of Paradise Lost and Vincent Van Gogh and the Empire State Building, that achievements of beauty and sublimity await his attention. He should have been assured that the wide, wide world he would soon enter contains works of genius and insight, ample evidence that things better than social media await him.
Those works would have been a resource in adulthood, helping him absorb the disappointments of a rejection, a job not obtained, money running short, life options shrinking. Aging would be more comprehensible. Love and death, too. A living tradition might also have improved his speech and elevated his tastes, turning him into a more discerning consumer and savvy citizen.
This brings us to the state of Arkansas, where a remarkable effort is underway. Governor Sarah Sanders’ Department of Education has released a new version of English Language Arts standards, which I worked on and which are now up for public comment. They promise to give students precisely the Big Picture of the past that prior cohorts of American students missed. Note the breadth of reading that the following standards demand:
Identify themes in works of American literature (1930-present), including the ways American writers incorporate ancient and religious stories into their writings.
Identify themes in works of American literature, noting the dominant traits from Puritan, Colonial, American Romanticism, Transcendentalism, Realism, Naturalism, Modernist, and Contemporary periods.
Identify themes in works of British literature, marking the dominant traits from Medieval, Renaissance, Neoclassical, Romantic, Victorian, Modern, and Postmodern periods.
The new model also includes a recitation requirement from sixth grade forward. The sentences are clear and direct, the command sweeping. Chaucer, Marlowe, Donne, Wordsworth, Franklin, Douglass, Twain, Pound, Millay, Hughes, Stevens—they’re all included. Taken together, these standards ensure a solid literary formation for Arkansas graduates, an acquaintance with Shakespeare, Swift, Blake, Emerson, and the rest.
Having to study multiple literary periods and movements, and to memorize great poems and speeches every year, students will assimilate the past not as a jumble of this thing and that. No, they will see it as what we noted above: a canon, a whole, superior and uplifting, the best, the most eloquent and smart and affecting—and they’ve got it. They will leave high school ready to talk about Romantic poetry and the Harlem Renaissance, ready to recite “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” and “Because I could not stop for Death.”
Secretary Jacob Oliva and his team have provided Arkansas students a lifelong gift, though the process isn’t over yet. Public comment on the new version has to be examined and appraised. Changes may be made. The literary-historical elements must remain, however . . . they must.
In the past, the debate over Western Civ and the American tradition turned on identity politics: Is the old model too Dead White Male? What it should turn on are the spiritual and emotional needs of the young, one of those needs being faith in a coherent, meaningful universe. An education model built on a multi-century chronology of great books, poems, characters, and plots hands them that faith. What’s going on in Arkansas should spread to every state in the country.