If you have ever seen the play Our Town, you will probably be humming the old hymn "Bless'd Be the Tie that Binds" for several days. There was a time in history when the tie that bound people together in community was religion. When that tie is broken, we are fragmented and left grasping for artificially generated projects that will keep up our community spirit.
Richard Weaver, the quintessential conservative, says that the liberal's solution to fragmentation is to
"let religion go but to replace it with education".
Not just the education of youth in the classroom, either. He means the day in, day out indoctrination of the entire citizenry through every channel of life and entertainment available. Weaver has dubbed the machinery that makes this possible "the Great Stereopticon" and it includes the press, motion pictures, radio, and T.V. (he wrote in the 1940's before internet).
Do you view new technology as progress? When a new device becomes available and affordable for home use, do you evaluate what it will take as well as what it will give? I confess to being sensitized to this type of critical thinking only very recently. I need men like Richard Weaver and Neil Postman to help me evaluate the choices.
As an example, take the newspaper. The pre-selected news articles are carefully arranged and worded to grab our attention. The press is something Americans are typically very proud of. It gives us information, disseminates issues and ideas. But what does it take from us?
Weaver contends it has taken away the art of discourse. Because we are passive recipients of information , we usually do not actively engage in serious discourse with others on these issue. Plato said that truth often leaps up between people engaged in discourse "like a flame." That doesn't happen when we each read the issues silently and alone. Discussion is minimized, deep reflection is discouraged because of the sheer number of ideas and articles to which we are exposed.
"...the decay of conversation has about destroyed the practice of dialectic."
The press has also taken away our modest sensibilities, sanctioning the romantic ideals of emotion and sensation. The dark, the gruesome, and the depressing articles take precedence over all else because that's what sells newspapers.
John Adams wrote, at the age of 70:
"I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid, and I find myself much the happier."
I haven't entirely given up the newspaper, but I have given up the evening news and TV and I'm spending that time reading more deeply. I agree with John Adams-- meaty books contribute to my happiness. My husband is farther along than I am on this path. He can read the greatest book, the Bible, for three hours at a crack. And do you know what? When we are both reading substantial books, I find we have fodder for the most interesting conversations! I have experienced Plato's thrilling "flame that leaps up" when a truth is uncovered in the course of discussion.
Weaver's criticism of movies is a little different from what you have come to expect from most conservatives. Rather than to criticize the raw language, the sex scenes, and the violence, he zeroes in on the marring of the hero-image. The role models on screen he describes as "egotistic, selfish, self-flaunting, flippant, vacuous-minded." Virtue requires examples of highest quality and those models are not, he says, being promoted in the cinema.
Radio/T.V. is the third part of the stereopticon. Radio is inescapable, a "cheerful liar". The tragedies of the day are delivered in polished monotones.
"This is the voice of the Hollow Man",
dead to sentiment. Radio provides one-sided conversation, a conversation monopolized by one partner and rendering the listener mute.
The stereopticon brings a constant barrage of the cynical, the brutal, and the negative. How does this affect our psyche? It chips away at our very souls and it cuts us off from the past.
"Technology emancipates not only from memory but also from faith."
"The man of culture finds the whole past relevant."
How can we find relief?
- From nature
- By returning to primary data: good books
- By remembering the enduring forms, the great universal ideas of the ages
- By turning away from the brutal and sentimental
It's an upstream battle. I think Weaver would have been encouraged by the homeshool movement, had he lived long enough to see it. Many homeschool families I know have turned off the TV or severely limited it. Nature studies are a standard part of homeschool curriculum. And of course classical education may be a small minority, but it is still very much alive.
This chapter has strengthened my resolve to be one of the minority.