June 5, 2022

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Marriage and Reading as Elite Customs (Peter Lawler, May 28th, 2022, Imaginative Conservative)

Big Think essayist Pamela Haag very incisively described 15 purported human goods Americans used to share in common that are now becoming "elite customs." They're obviously not all equally good, and one or two, in my view, aren't good at all. Let me reflect on the two that seem to me most fundamental--marriage and books. [...]

Americans across the board used to be big on both getting married and marital fidelity. Not only that, it wasn't uncommon to marry outside of one's "social class." The rich kid in a small town went to the public school and met girls from all over town. And, he could generally marry the girl with whom he happened to fall in love. You would think that our sophisticates-influenced by feminism, the Sixties, and all that-would think and act as beings who've transcended, through their enlightenment, the confines of monogamy. Sometimes they actually do talk that way, but increasingly they aren't acting that way. Stable marriages with children are once again the norm, and divorce rates are in decline. Meanwhile, more ordinary Americans typically talk "traditional values," while they increasingly lack what it takes-both economically and culturally-to practice them. So broken families, single moms, and all that are increasingly the norm.

Not only that, it's easy to see the "powerful trend" of "assortative mating." Like are marrying like. Our cognitive elite is living both geographically and emotionally detached from more ordinary Americans. Its children are attending schools full of kids like themselves. Despite all our elite talk about "diversity," that assortative tendency persists from kindergarten to law school. Our schools across the board are more stratified by I.Q. and parental privilege.

It's very possible to exaggerate even powerful mating trends, but they can't be good for equality of opportunity for all our kids.


Americans of all incomes used to regularly go to libraries, and kids read plenty of books in public schools. Another great leveler in our cities, of course, was the fine inter-class education available to Catholic kids in the virtually free parochial schools. Now the habit of going to the libraries (where books can be borrowed for free) has almost disappeared. Wealthy and sophisticated kids have plenty of books at home. Their parents buy them in bookstores but especially online. Their parents also have the time and inclination to read to them. But that time disappears when families are broken or when both parents are stuck with tough jobs.  And as the bottom part of our middle class continues to get detached from institutional religion--from churches--reading the Bible and related books also withers away. (It's important to add when that detachment doesn't occur, neglected but important counter-trends develop, such as home schooling, which is typically very bookish.)

American kids, more than ever, are stratified into those who read--those who have regular access to books--and those who don't. I'm not talking here about basic literacy, but being open to the human good that is the enjoyment of literature. I could go on to explain that it's the capacity to enjoy and really see what's  going on when words are deployed well that's a virtually indispensable prerequisite for any position of leadership. But I want my main takeaway to be that reading is indispensable for beings with souls.

Our wealthy and sophisticated kids go to schools where books are still taken seriously (and sometimes very seriously), if only as the necessary path to become academically accomplished enough to be admitted to an elite college. Meanwhile, in ordinary or worse public schools-especially in our secondary schools-"real" books have been slowly disappearing. And the new Common Core Standards seem to be somewhat about taking out what books are left. Fiction is to be mostly replaced by informational nonfiction, and apparently even To Kill a Mockingbird may not have much of an educational future.

If anyone were serious about reinvigorating the public schools as the great American vehicle of equality of opportunity, there would be more attention to having kids read "real books"--great literature--than ever. Liberally educated teachers would lovingly read Mark Twain or even Harry Potter aloud to our little children to compensate for what they're not getting at home. And lots of classroom time would be given over to children reading to each other. Kids would really be held accountable for what and how well they've read in grade after grade. I'm not denying for a moment that we can find this kind of attention in some of our very non-elite schools, and sometimes in surprising places. But if we're going to having national standards, nothing should be more important.

The same compensatory bookishness should animate our nonselective colleges. But they, instead, follow the lead of the public schools and their educational experts by being about acquiring skills and competencies while bypassing the "content" found in this or that real book.