The Great Forgetting/Relearning

Odysseus Leaving the Land of the Lotus Eaters

I don’t know if I can call it one of my favorites, but the Kipling poem Gods of the Copybook Headings has a certain fun about a deadly serious truth.

What the poem refers too is an old teaching practice. A sentence (in Latin sententiae) was placed at the top of the page. The student would copy that sentence until memorized. The sentences were normally aphorisms or short bits of wisdom. In Christendom they were often taken from the Bible, but the Greeks and Romans and an occasional bit of old wives tales would be found. The purpose of education was the gathering of wisdom. Seeing as wisdom is uniquely unsuited to be taught in a classroom, the methodology was memorization with the hope that phrase would come to mind before it was too late. Kipling, the poet of the Empire, lived long enough to see his son die for that Empire and to see it dissolving. The God’s of the Copybook Headings had not been heeded and were extracting their due.

We don’t use that method of teaching. First because wisdom is no longer the primary goal of education. And second because its is boring which isn’t as shallow as it might sound. But the end point is that certain pithy ways of retaining wisdom from generation to generation have been lost. Or they have become the domain of specialists – like parish pastors or “Grandma Schmidt”. You know Grandma Schmidt – that old woman who if you really want the answer to almost anything in life you ask her. She looks you up and down, takes your measure if you can handle the truth, and then either tells you what you don’t want to hear or asks if you want a cookie.

Ross Douthat here has caught one of the strains of our forgetting. Rod Dreher also echoes. We have forgotten what marriage is about. (The God’s of the Copybook Headings will show up for payment at a later date.)

If gay marriage is simply a basic natural right, of course — the formal legal expression of our right to love as we wish — it shouldn’t be up for reconsideration under any circumstances. This is a widespread view of wedlock, and it may already be the dominant one. But Regnerus’s study is a reminder of why marriage has traditionally been regarded as something other than just a celebration of love and a signifier of civic equality, and why the rationale for the institution has involved a child’s rights to his or her biological parents as well as in two lovers’ rights to one another. Marriage’s purpose, in this sense, has not been just to validate the consenting adults who enter into it, but to provide support and recognition for a particular way of bearing and rearing children – one whose distinctive advantages remain apparent, even as that recognition declines and disappears.

Meanwhile, our new meritocratic philosopher-kings are relearning something. While they are diligently forgetting sexual mores and familial common sense, they are starting to realize old rules about solidifying social status. The old WASPs knew a thing or two. They didn’t much care if FDR was a C student at best. In fact is was probably a better sign that he wasn’t wasting his time with distractions like learning stuff. Instead he was building the networks of the right people and stoking the ambitions of the family among people born to it. Tyler Cowen passing along a fellow economist’s relearning. Of course, being modern meritocrats and not old WASPs he calls it a completely non-poetic “social capital”. Ross Douthat and an older world might just have called it privilege.

Of course Jesus confronted this in a bunch of ways. Mark 10:17-27 and Mark 10:32-45 are a couple with some copybook style sayings. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” and “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”

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