In watching the 2016 campaigns unfold, it’s hard not to be depressed.
It feels to many like America and the West are in decline. Demographic and economic struggles, threats from parts of the Muslim world, increasing tensions with China and Russia, and racial tensions weigh heavily upon many Americans today. At the same time, it feels like neither of the country's main political parties offers any cause for hope or way to stop the decline.
But the fact is that we shouldn’t expect too much from political solutions at this point. Reforming and reinvigorating America and the Western tradition will probably need to be a grassroots effort before it’s a grass-tops effort. It will be difficult, but it can be done.
One place to start is education. As it has been famously said, “A nation without a past is a lost nation, and a people without a past is a people without a soul.” The reality is that the past for most people in America today is the Western tradition, and several generations of American students now have been largely cut off from this past. They haven’t been adequately exposed to the great works of history, philosophy, literature, and art that formed much of the West as we know it (or don’t know it) today, and that represented its greatness. As a result, when confronted with the decline of America, many do not have a strong sense that there is anything worth preserving.
Daniel Johnson at Standpoint Magazine agrees that the need for the West to rediscover its tradition is urgent. In a recent talk titled “What Made the West Great Is What Will Save Us” he said:
“There are numerous viruses attacking the Western body politic, but only one medicine. To face the future unflinchingly, we must return to the past: listen to the patriarchs and prophets, the ancestral voices of our literature, break open the arsenal of our intellectual history, and mobilise the resources of righteous indignation against the dominions, principalities and powers of darkness that threaten to overwhelm us. The great books, from Homer to Shakespeare, from Plato to Pascal, from Dante to Bellow, must once again not only be assigned to every student, but learned where possible by heart. The music of the masters, from Gregorian chant to George Gershwin, from Sebastian Bach to James MacMillan, from Palestrina to Arvo Pärt, must not only float across the courts and quads of our colleges, but fill our airwaves and headsets. The art and architecture of the West must not only fill our galleries and screens, but be protected from the vandals who threaten antiquities from Leptis Magna to Palmyra.
In short, we must celebrate Western civilisation as the living, breathing, flourishing organism that it is. Unless the coming generations embrace its treasures and make them their own, we will forfeit all that the children of Abraham have created to give glory to God [note: Johnson originally delivered this talk to a Jewish audience in Jerusalem], all that has ennobled the West and enabled the rest of humanity to be more humane.”
Such a large-scale effort to relearn the Western tradition does not imply that we must exclude modern developments in thought and education. It simply means that we need to better complement them with an appreciation for the past contributions that made these developments possible, and that formed the identities of most of those who dwell in America. Anything less amounts to what one professor recently called “civilizational suicide.”
“A nation without a past is a lost nation…”