Happy Birthday, Mr. Lincoln

Today marks the 206th anniversary of the birth of President Abraham Lincoln, one those of providential events in America history, and it should be noted. The nation once celebrated the date with a national holiday, but the Great Emancipator was eventually downgraded to sharing a day with George Washington, the Father of Our Country, with the imprecise name of Presidents’ Day suggesting they might also share the honor with some of the lesser figures who have occupied the office, and the lack of attention paid is not only a show of national ingratitude but also indicative a dangerous lack of historical perspective.
Lincoln got some favorable publicity a couple of years ago when Steven Spielberg released a sympathetic bio-pic, which received mostly favorable reviews from conservative critics despite a screenplay by the liberal writer Tony Kushner, and a semi-scholarly history of his administration became a best-seller back when Barack Obama was first running for office and being touted as the new and improved version of Lincoln, but even all the hype attendant to a Spielberg release or an Obama campaign cannot elevate Lincoln to his deserved prominence. A friend swore to us that he had spoken with some young people at the local university about the Lincoln movie when it came out and was told that they liked most of us but were unpleasantly surprised at the end when the titular character was assassinated. Despite the daily reminders of his face on five dollar bills and pennies, and despite his name on cars and tunnels and logs and countless road signs, we suspect that by now most Americans are only slightly more familiar with the story of Lincoln.
There was another recent movie about Lincoln as a zombie hunter, but that probably didn’t fill in many gaps in the public knowledge, and the schools don’t seem to be doing much better. We suspect they’re probably too busy telling their empty-headed charges about Emma Goldman, Malcolm X, Christine Jorgensen, and similarly significant historical figures who are more useful to the narrative of an America exceptional only for its racism and sexism and homophobia muddling along toward the liberal future only because of protest movements and higher taxes and bureaucratic control. To the extent that Lincoln is taught, the lessons are likely to come from Richard Hofstadter’s widely published essay “Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth,” which found the Emancipation Proclamation insignificant and preferred to focus on the speeches Lincoln made to deal with the racist realities he confronted in mid-19th Century America and how they fell short of the standards of late-20th Century liberalism. Such Lincoln-bashing has become something of an academic cottage industry, and is also common in the entertainment industry. When not axing zombies Lincoln can also be found in a trendy art-house flick from a few years back called “Confederate States of America,” which imagines an alternative history in which the Confederacy won the Civil War, and takes the boringly uncontroversial view that things would have gone badly, but with an unmistakable sense of moral superiority it portrays Lincoln, whose visionary leadership was singularly responsible for preventing that historical calamity, as a racist, a rube, a tyrant, and a coward. To our dismay, we have found this is a fashionable opinion.
One must somehow dismiss Lincoln, of course, to sustain that broader narrative about America being unexceptional except in its sinfulness. That narrative must be sustained, of course, to justify America’s retreat from the world and its apologetic unwillingness to bring any of its values to bear on the rest of the world. When the current occupant of the White House tells a prayer breakfast gathering that America should not “get on a high horse” when Islamist terrorists behead or crucify or burn alive their captives because a Christian America once had slavery, it is inconvenient to recall the far more eloquent and explicitly theological words that Lincoln used in his Second Inaugural address to explain a bloody war that ultimately abolished slavery. Because Lincoln cannot be denied credit for preserving the Union of these States, those who decry that outcome because it has failed to meet early 21st Century standards of liberalism must denigrate the accomplishment.
None of these critics are nearly so wise as Walt Whitman, America’s greatest poet, nor did they have the experience of the full horror of Lincoln’s war that Whitman endured as an ambulance driver in the bloodiest battles of that conflict, and neither do they have Whitman’s true vision of America’s once and perhaps future greatness. We’ll let Walt have the final words on this anniversary of Lincoln’s birth:
“This dust was once the Man,
Gentle, plain, just and resolute — under whose cautious hand,
Against the foulest crime in history known in any land or age,
Was saved the Union of these States.”

— Bud Norman

Back to School

All the fresh-faced youngsters in these parts are already back in class, judging by the emptiness of the parks and the flashing yellow lights that are once again slowing us to a 20-mile-per-hour crawl through the school zones, and we can’t help feeling a bit of sympathy for the little bastards. Way back in our school days the glorious Huck Finn freedom of summer vacation lingered into the early days of September, and the thought of being stuck behind a cramped desk while the days are still long and hot and full of possibilities seems tantamount to child abuse.
A friend of ours shrugs off such complaints about the extended school year, saying that there’s more for the kids to know these days. He has a point, perhaps, but there has always been more to know than could be fit into any amount of schooling, and we’re not at all sure the kids will be learning any more of it in a classroom than they could on their own. Our summer vacations always proved more educational than our time in school. We were fortunate enough to have parents who provided plenty of books, museum visits, and permission to stay up all night for the invaluable history lessons on the late, late movies, but any kid with a yearning to learn won’t stop when the class bells rings and will likely begin to learn with even great enthusiasm after it does. When you take into account the desultory sorts of schools we attended, and what we can make of the schools the kids are trudging off to nowadays, those extra days of summer vacation seem all the more valuable.
All of the teachers we know assure us that the schools are much better now than when we were stuck there, and to back it up they cite all the same test scores and statistics that the school board and teachers’ union lobbyists use to justify their budgets, but we have our doubts. Our friends over at the wichitaliberty.org web sit delight in debunking the inflationary methodologies behind those encouraging numbers, and their conclusions are almost always corroborated by our occasional conversations with young folks, most of whom we regret to say are every bit as stupid as they look. It’s not so much what they don’t know, which is voluminous enough to fill a lifetime of year-round schooling, and includes the basic facts of 20th Century history and a rudimentary understanding of economics, but rather the blissfulness of their ignorance that is so appalling. There’s almost a sense of pride in not being the sort of bookwormish dork who would know who Winston Churchill is or have read about the consequences of Marxism, and after so many of the self-esteem fad they’re fully assured of their right to an opinion no matter how uninformed it might be. They know all about how global warming is killing the poor polar bears and the venal racism of the founding fathers and the oppressiveness of western civilization, and they know that governments exist to take stuff from people who have it and give it to people who don’t, but they don’t know enough to question whether any of that is true.
We know some smart kids, too, most of them home-schooled or privately educated, and in some cases they’re smarter than the smart kids we knew in our youth and have since become successful in life, but for the most part they don’t seem to question much. The smart kids of today got an early start of highly regimented education, and by first grade were checking their day planners and telling a classmate that they’d love to do the sandbox thing but are booked up with violin lessons and French lessons and Pilates, and while the results are often impressive this lifestyle does not encourage a necessary degree of rebelliousness in a child. Our classmates of the ‘60s and ‘70s were rebellious far beyond that necessary degree, and took a healthy skepticism of authority into a sickly cynicism, but it seems that educators have now gone too far in rectifying that.
This combination of ignorance, unquestioning obedience, and unearned self-esteem is perfectly suited for the modern age, when politics make improbable promises and imposes ever-expanding restrictions and assures the people who fall for it that they are the ones we have been waiting for. All the virtues required for a different sort of politics — freedom, self-reliance, and suffering the bumps and bruises of a mean old world and realizing one’s small role in it — seem absent from modern education. Those lessons are best learned during summer vacation, though, and even though our own school days have long since passed we still hate to see it end.

— Bud Norman

Rotten to the Common Core

For all the dire economic news and reports of political dysfunction, the most disturbing story of the past week was about the decision to replace literature with bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo in the nation’s schools.
Something called the Common Core State Standards in English, which has been embraced by 46 states, requires that 50 percent of all the required reading in elementary schools and 70 percent in high schools be non-fiction. Suggestions for the new assignments include Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” an excellent and surprising recommendation, but also such dry governmental fare as the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s “FedViews” and the General Service Administration’s “Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management.” The educrats responsible for the diktat insist that it’s no big deal, except to the extent it will better prepare the youngster to take their rightful places in society, but we are not reassured.
Any federal “one-size-fits-all” plan for education is destined to fail. What’s needed in a rural Kansas classroom might not be suited to the children in a crumbling inner-city school back east, and within either group the educational needs and capabilities of the individual students will vary even more widely. Each of the 46 states that have signed on to the new standards would do better to allow their school districts to decide what’s best for their charges, and the districts should leave the matter to every school, where the principals should in turn leave the matter to the discretion of the teachers whenever possible. If at any point in this process anyone concludes that the teachers aren’t capable of making the best decisions, they should reconsider their hiring standard for teachers.
There are several things about this particular plan, though, that are especially galling. It’s partly a very personal distaste, as literature afforded us the few enjoyable and genuinely enlightening moments of our desultory schooling, but it’s also an affront to our political, cultural, and educational sensibilities.
How very frightening, for instance, is the assumption that all functioning citizens of the brave new world of the American future will be required to slog through the turgid and deliberately incomprehensible prose of bureaucratic regulations. This assumption is likely correct, alas, but all the more reason that young people should instead be reading Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” to be properly forewarned about the sterile society they’re about to inherit. Perhaps the point of the new standards is to shield the children from such subversive material. Without sufficient regulation some old-fashioned English teacher in flyover country might expose his students to Walt Whitman’s admonition to “Resist much, obey little,” and there’s no telling where that might lead.
Neither do we care for the inevitable cultural effects of this plan. The communication skills of the young people we encounter today are barely sufficient for “tweets” and text messages, and further evidence of the country’s increasing illiteracy abound. We note from the Washington Post’s account of the controversy that the man who played a key role in foisting the new standards on the country was unable to get through a speech at the New York State Education Building without resorting to an expletive that the more genteel editors of the paper felt obliged to delete. Holding up the jargon-laden soporifics of the General Services Administration as a model of well-written English will not better the situation at all.
In addition to teaching people to coherently and more elegantly express a thought, literature from sources other than the Government Printing Office also helps people formulate an idea. Those seeking any insight into human behavior, man’s relationship with God, the history of civilizations, or anything else that might be useful to a sentient being as he avails himself of whatever’s left of his freedom would do better to check with Mark Twain, Robertson Davies, Joseph Conrad, or a number of other dead white men than the GSA. Great literature fires the imagination and prompts one to ponder all the possibilities, which is precisely why it has lost favor with the generations raised on our empty-headed pop culture, but the country should expect its schools to remedy such cultural dysfunctions rather than acquiesce to them.
The proponents of these new standards will no doubt argue that anyone who can master the complexities of executive orders and bureaucratic reports should then be able to cope with mere literature, but deciphering the archaic language of William Shakespeare is more challenging and yields a better understanding of a vast world far more complex than anything dealt with by the Bureau of Weights of Measures.
Great literature is also a link to the past, with all its accumulated wisdom and warnings, and one wonders if the new standards are meant to create a break from that past and allow those who would impose their one-size-fits-all solutions on a new and more meticulously planned society. This distinct possibility is perhaps the most troubling aspect of the plan. Economic and political problems come and go, but when a culture goes it’s gone.

— Bud Norman