Thursday, May 30, 2024
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We disown the past at our peril


THE President of the United States has made clear his intention radically to change the content and tone of education in the US. He prescribes much more emphasis on race, equality and diversity. Perhaps I have missed something, for I didn’t think it possible to have more emphasis on these things than exists already.

The US and Britain have turned themselves into nations that are obsessed with such concerns. We disown the past, pull down statues, ban books of which, by the new fashionable criteria, we disapprove. We attribute blame to ourselves for the imperfections of our ancestors. Great men such as Samuel Coleridge and David Hume are removed from university courses because they are believed to have had connections with the slave trade. How far does this retrospective criminalisation go? Are Italian ice cream sellers to be held responsible for the fall of the Roman Empire?

Every aspect of our civilisation and culture is being revolutionised. It is not only Renaissance cross-dressing comedies that are being remodelled, but only black actors may play Othello and homosexual characters must be played by homosexuals. This perversion of literature and dramas misses the point, which is acting – pretending to be what you’re not. How long before only an actual drunk is allowed to play the part of an alcoholic? Must a real-life murderer be found to act the part of Dr Crippen? (The casting of the sensationally popular Netflix series Bridgerton means there is one show that refreshingly defies this depressing trend.) 

This dismembering of our history and culture and its reconstruction according to recently adopted fads is not merely silly: it is suicidal. For if we cancel aspects of the past, we cannot possibly understand our lives in the present. An analogy may suffice . . .

When presented with the result of a Test Match, we cannot understand how it came about if we discount key events that happened during its five days. Omit all mention of that dropped catch at 3.15 on the Thursday afternoon, or the LBW decision pronounced on the final morning and you know next to nothing about that match.

All the vandalism and iconoclasm we are now perpetrating on our history are, in T S Eliot’s words, nothing but ‘a means of disowning the past’. In those penetrating volumes of social criticism, The Idea of a Christian Society and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, Eliot made a forensic analysis of the details and told us what the consequences would be. Those books were published in the 1930s and 1940s. Tom Eliot, thou shouldst see us now!

Eliot did not live to see the deterioration in the conduct of political affairs and in all our institutions by which every aspect of public life has the appearance of an advertisement and which ‘is destroying the traditional social habits of the people by licensing the opinions of the most foolish’. But he could read the writing that was already on the wall ninety years ago. In summary:

A society which has abandoned its capacity to judge and for which ‘discrimination’ is now only a dirty word has lost its mind and, as a consequence, its morality and its soul. Mr Blair famously told us that the remedy for the decline of public life is education, education, education. But what sort of education? Eliot long ago had an accurate vision of the horrors we now inhabit and the antidote is all in his own view of what constitutes education which, as usual, he states briskly: ‘Thought, study, mortification, sacrifice: it is such notions as these that should be impressed upon the young.’

But where do we look now for education when the idea of the school and the university have been so comprehensively debased? In Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, Eliot warns: ‘These places should not be institutions for the training of an efficient bureaucracy, or for equipping scientists to get the better of foreign scientists. They should stand for the preservation of learning, for the pursuit of truth, and, in so far as men are capable of it, the attainment of wisdom.’

If schools and universities were failing in Eliot’s day, they are nothing short of disastrous today, having taken into themselves the historical denials, the wokeness and the gospel of political correctness: things that are alien and poisonous to their existence. The health and strength of our civilisation and the cure for our woes is to understand the nature of our cultural history and so to imbibe it, so that it becomes the motivating part of us. This is a living process and an active vocation. And what nourishes this vocation is tradition, which is not a fossilised thing or part of the heritage industry: it is the constant renewal of our culture by innovations which are created out of a past that has been digested, a history that is understood.

And what needs to be understood is that Western civilisation was formed to a very large extent out of Christianity and it will not survive the neglect of the faith. The enemy of a living religious culture is the utilitarian principle which in our day has degenerated into the worthless nostrums and hackneyed shibboleths of faddish secular pretentions. It might be asked, if Christian civilisation is supposed to have been in the wrong all these centuries, on the basis of what is it supposed we can put it right? Even recent unbelief has its roots in faith: Nietzsche could only say that God is dead because Moses had first said that God is alive. It is spiritual truth alone that can repair us, and this requires, as well as intelligence, reflective contemplation on the whole history of what has made us and not on an impotent, expurgated version of that history.

Eliot saw where our censored speech and writing and our disowning of the past would lead to: ‘We are told now that the highest achievements of the past in art, in wisdom, in holiness were but stages in development which we can teach our youngsters to improve upon. We are told we must not impose traditional culture upon the young, though we may impose upon them whatever political and social philosophy is in vogue. There is no doubt that we are destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the barbarian hordes will encamp in their mechanised caravans.’

Why, this is hell – nor are we out of it.

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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