Thoughts on the eve of American Independence Day: On literary culture in modern democracy

TocquevilleHopeFor the first time in years, we Americans have something to celebrate tomorrow: thanks to the leadership of President Obama, the United States is slowly regaining some of the integrity and respect we once enjoyed in the eyes of the world’s peoples. We can now look into the eyes of our neighbors abroad and start to renew the crucial dialogues that rely on us, as citizens in the largest and most powerful nation on earth. Still, I am haunted by Tocqueville’s prescient warnings about the ugly anti-intellectualism that dogs this country. As he wrote in 1835, “Je ne connais pas de pays où il règne, en général, moins d’indépendance d’esprit et de véritable liberté de discussion qu’en Amérique” (De la Démocratie en Amérique).
What role can and should literary culture play in our modern democracy? A vigorous, probing, actively audible one. We must change attitudes, so that scholarly debate and cultural engagement reach out to our young, instead of appearing to be an affair for established elites alone.
Culture can communicate, but that is not enough. Writers, like their fellows in the other arts—film makers, artists, cartoonists, and most recently twitterers—can wield a powerful impact in war and turmoil to denounce injustice and expose hypocrisy. But culture should not be reduced to a tool or means to an end. Readers tire of useful books and worthy lessons, no matter if they do tell us things we should want to know. Culture needs to embrace and communicate beauty, wonder, mystery and fun, for we all need to feel those profoundly human sensations too.
For a revolution to impact American education today, as I hope it will, we need to impart to students their tie to our culture. We need to open our culture to their contributions, in ways that students themselves will envision tomorrow. As a scholar of literature, I am most curious about the fictions they will write, film, and give form to in their art. How will the skyrocketing numbers of poor and unemployed fare in their eyes? Will today’s recession give rise to a new John Steinbeck or Zora Neal Hurston? Or will they tackle the “high culture” of complex characterization and try to immortalize the longings of a philosophical everyman, like Joyce, Proust, or Woolf?
More importantly, how will we educators incite our young people to read and contribute to our culture, first in the classroom, and then through the various outlets open to us all? Be they scholarly journals, newspapers, websites or popular magazines, our world is dominated by a competitive, exciting marketplace of ideas. We need our young to join in, and to want to keep it alive.
This is the challenge. Let our work be infused with a democratic appreciation for merit wherever it may be found. Let our new American geniuses emerge, and be appreciated, in media small and large, discussed, contested, and embraced with vigor and passion. Let us revel in intellectual debate, thoughtful exchange, and admiration of beauty. Let us prove Tocqueville wrong!

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