(Last week I wrote “discrete” when I meant “discreet.” Write long enough and you do something stupid. Two often, one falls into one or to errors. Apologies.)
Here is a news item that I once might have made up as parody. It is hard, though, to imagine anything too absurd not to exist in a university.
“Female Arizona State University students can receive extra credit for defying social norms and refusing to shave for 10 weeks during the semester.”
Accompanying the news of this enlightened policy was a photograph of the beneficiaries triumphantly exhibiting their armpits. The children were of course trying to shock, which is normal among adolescents. What once would actually have shocked is that the alleged adults in the alleged university encourage their alleged scholars in extended juvenility. (Stray thought: Why are so many feminists ugly enough to make a freight train take a dirt road?)
Said one of the participating students (I use the word so loosely that it might well cast off and set out into life on its own):
“The experience helped me better understand how pervasive gendered socialization is in our culture. Furthermore, by doing this kind of activist project I was no longer an armchair activist theorizing in the classroom. So much is learned by actually taking part in the theory or idea we learn in the classroom, and we could benefit from this type of pedagogy being taken up by similar classes.”
This solemn gibberish begs for parody, but on contemplation I am more sad than amused. These pitiable girls go through the forms of schooling, but learn nothing beyond a pseudo-intellectual drivel of pubertal rebellion. The story is not an anecdote but a condition, repeated at hundreds of pretend-universities across the land.
And this in institutions that once existed to pass along civilization.
The bleakness of American culture leads one to despair. Subtract technology and nothing is left. Music? Classical composition is dead. The symphony orchestras hold on by their teeth. Opera is unheard and almost unheard of. Book sales drop, and those that sell are mostly trash. Poetry is dead, Shakespeare a comic shorthand for ridiculous irrelevant pedantry.
Talented painters abound, but the nation has no interest in them. Sculpture means curious blobs and shapes said to be art and chosen by suburban arts committees. Theater? How many people have seen a play recently other than a high-school production?
In all the things that once marked civilization, the United States has become a desert, a waste of self-satisfied, pampered, arrogantly ignorant sidewalk peasants. This is curious, since anything the cultivated might want awaits on the web. One may think of Amazon as an automated fifth-century monastery, saving things of worth for an awakening centuries hence.
The female of the race being more susceptible to hysterias than the male, it is not surprising to see theatric idiocy of lofted armpits in departments of Women’s, Transsexual etc Studies. Males seldom show such symptoms of psychiatric stress as bulimia and anorexia. Yet a similar infantilism seems to affect the boys. Girls exhibit a desperate feminism while boys retreat into video games. In their mid-twenties both seem farther from adulthood than my generation was at sixteen. Why?
When I was a stripling in rural Virginia a dispiriting number of years ago, we rebelled with expected hormonal punctuality, knew more than our parents about everything, and behaved with the proper amount of reckless stupidity. Yet we did not cling to our pubescence. The reason, I think, was that we were trying to be adults before we were ready, rather than avoiding adulthood after it was proper. These are very different things.
It is traditional for the old to view their youth in roseate hues it never had and speak of walking barefoot twelve miles daily to high school through eighteen inches of shark-infested snow. We didn’t. Nobody in King George Country was hungry or close to it. I certainly was not.
Yet I remember getting up before first light in January (in, yes, sometimes a foot of snow) to run my paper route, which I did partly because it made me feel semi-grown up (and partly because I had my eye on a thirteen-foot Grumman canoe). It was no big deal. Kids did these things. We were, as they say, transitioning out of kid-hood.
To be sixteen, working the graveyard shift alone at Kriegstedt’s Esso on Route 301, fueling the big eighteen-wheelers that came howling in for diesel at three a.m., talking to the drivers as almost an equal—it was close to manhood. I liked it. We liked it. It was preparation for the big world. Marching for transgendered rights or getting our navels pierced would have seemed lunatic.
It still does. Different world.
Out of the Sixties came the cult of Relevance, meaning a fascination with things of no relevance, and a distaste for learning anything requiring either effort or maturity. Once the chain of cultivation breaks, how do you weld it together? That generation—I was once of them—swept into faculty lounges as a sort of jejune intellectual anthrax and turned the universities into political sand boxes. Soon we had departments of the utterly trivial, and courses like “Lesbian Chicana Theory in the Brazilian Favela.”
Before long there were few, and soon there will be fewer, who knew of the things lost, or why they mattered. Declining societies drink from the sumps below, so the values and dress of the black ghetto became the standard. There came rap music, which isn’t, and the dumbing down of everything to hide the deficiencies of the deficient. Now what?
The rot goes beyond the academic. The whole epicene circus smells of weakness of character. Watching our prancing half-men and furry co-eds, I wonder what would happen to them if it rained hard. America today lives in an unconsciously precarious equilibrium. Some two or three percent of the population grow food for an urbanized country that has never shot a rabbit, baited a hook, or existed other than in the world of McDonald’s, dope, and latchkey afternoons. They seem never to have been in a schoolyard fight, never had to take care of themselves, defend themselves, or to understand that one day they might have to do it.
What if one day Mommy, or Mommy Washington, isn’t around to take care of them? Any disruption—riots, for example, that stopped the flow of food trucks into the cities—would cause devastation.
We have become soft, mentally vacuous, helpless, a civilization on the brink. As the US subsides into–what?—I am gratified that, though feckless, unlettered, and helpless, our university girls will have hairy armpits.