Why do we keep seeing the same characters rehashed and rebooted? Television has featured six versions of Spider-Man and five versions of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the last three decades. Since 1989, five men have played Batman in live-action--more if you count animation. It seems that some franchises will not end until they are box-office bombs. I complained to a friend from high school about this recently. Can’t we see something new? Can’t we let a great fictional universe end on a high note? Can’t the 80s and 90s just be over?
“No,” my friend replied, “because we have no common culture anymore. It’s the easiest way for parents to connect to their kids.”
It is true that students are less likely than ever to read the same books as their parents did in school. Americans as a whole is moving this way religiously too; “spiritual but not religious” people practice a DIY spirituality as they walk away from organized religion. Our entertainment is fragmenting us too. Fewer people than ever watch the same shows as their fellow citizens, a far cry from the 80s and 90s when millions of people watched the same three networks every night. New York Times reporter Josh Katz noted that Americans’ preference for Modern Family or Duck Dynasty was an accurate predictor of their geographic location, political persuasion, and even the car they drive! In a time when the only thing Americans seem to hold in common is lamenting how little we hold in common, yet another version of the Smurfs binds us across time and space in the epic struggle of blue munchkins against a balding, middle-aged wizard. So much for our common culture!
According to Tracy Lee Simmons, the ancient Greeks believed education (paideia) had at least as much to do with “enculturation” into humanity as it did with learning a set of skills. Students needed to have common culture inculcated into them, often at the expense of their individual preferences. This process had a strange effect. Instead of making the students all the same, making them adopt a common culture freed their thinking. School freed them from the whims of their fickle appetites or whatever their friends or political leaders told to them think. The mature student would be liberally-educated, having taken many classes in the “humanities” (those classes in which students seek the answers to the hardest questions of life). The Romans believed that this humanitas was an excellence that came only through the exercise of the reason, contemplation, and self-denial.
Put simply, you have to learn to be human so that you can be your truest self.
Education used to tie students across the Western world together. From Athens and London to New Albany and Paducah, anyone who received an education would have started it reading Homer or Aesop. These stories became cultural touchstones, ways that people across the Western world could relate to one another. They were books we’d all read. Even the poorest and least-educated people were familiar with some of these works. When Alexis de Tocqueville trekked across America in 1831, he noted that every log cabin in America had a copy of Shakespeare and the King James Version. Is it any surprise then that most English book titles or stories reference the Bard or the Bible?
Your studies in physics, Latin, and geography humanize you. They are intended to broaden, enlighten, and deepen your souls. You are being brought into the common culture of the West by the books you read in your classes, the uniform you share with your classmates, and the relationships you form with your teachers. It all might seem pointless, stifling, or boring. Our prayer is that you will one day look back and see that reading a set list of books, dressing a certain way, and taking particular classes granted you a gift too often withheld in our fragmented times--the gift of culture.
And with any luck, you won’t be another rehash of the Smurfs.