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Peter Lawler

One thing that distinguishes us conservatives from libertarians is that we are actually worried about growing inequality in America. We’re not that obsessed with the bare fact of economic inequality, but we are concerned about decreasing mobility. And we’re particularly concerned about the breakdown of what can loosely be called our common middle-class culture. As wealthy and sophisticated Americans show signs of becoming a kind of self-perpetuating “cognitive elite,” the lives of members of the lower part of our middle class become increasingly difficult or even pathological. 

Big Think essayist Pamela Haag very incisively described 15 purported human goods Americans used to share in common that are now becoming “elite customs.” They’re obviously not all equally good, and one or two, in my view, aren’t good at all. Let me reflect on the two that seem to me most fundamental—marriage and books. It’s surely true that a worthwhile human life is constituted by meaningful work and personal love. Love, of course, is most often and reliably found within marriage and the family, and certainly it’s within a stable family that we find the surest sources of personal security and personal significance.

To work and love, of course, we should add leisure. And leisure, at its heights, is about enjoyably discovering who we are and what we’re supposed to do through by arousing our minds and hearts—our thoughts and imaginations—by reading. Well, maybe not only reading. But it has been through books that Americans have been infused with what loosely can be called a “common culture,” a common way of experiencing our world and our place in it. We can at least say that one sign of personal impoverishment is the inability to experience the emotional—even erotic—elevation that comes through reading “real books” in our free time.

What we can say of a man who’s never known marriage (or a good woman) or a good book?


Americans across the board used to be big on both getting married and marital fidelity. Not only that, it wasn’t uncommon to marry outside of one’s “social class.” The rich kid in a small town went to the public school and met girls from all over town. And, he could generally marry the girl with whom he happened to fall in love. You would think that our sophisticates–influenced by feminism, the Sixties, and all that–would think and act as beings who’ve transcended, through their enlightenment, the confines of monogamy. Sometimes they actually do talk that way, but increasingly they aren’t acting that way. Stable marriages with children are once again the norm, and divorce rates are in decline. Meanwhile, more ordinary Americans typically talk “traditional values,” while they increasingly lack what it takes–both economically and culturally–to practice them. So broken families, single moms, and all that are increasingly the norm.

Not only that, it’s easy to see the “powerful trend” of “assortative mating.” Like are marrying like. Our cognitive elite is living both geographically and emotionally detached from more ordinary Americans. Its children are attending schools full of kids like themselves. Despite all our elite talk about “diversity,” that assortative tendency persists from kindergarten to law school. Our schools across the board are more stratified by I.Q. and parental privilege.

It’s very possible to exaggerate even powerful mating trends, but they can’t be good for equality of opportunity for all our kids.


Americans of all incomes used to regularly go to libraries, and kids read plenty of books in public schools. Another great leveler in our cities, of course, was the fine inter-class education available to Catholic kids in the virtually free parochial schools. Now the habit of going to the libraries (where books can be borrowed for free) has almost disappeared. Wealthy and sophisticated kids have plenty of books at home. Their parents buy them in bookstores but especially online. Their parents also have the time and inclination to read to them. But that time disappears when families are broken or when both parents are stuck with tough jobs.  And as the bottom part of our middle class continues to get detached from institutional religion—from churches—reading the Bible and related books also withers away. (It’s important to add when that detachment doesn’t occur, neglected but important counter-trends develop, such as home schooling, which is typically very bookish.)

American kids, more than ever, are stratified into those who read—those who have regular access to books—and those who don’t. I’m not talking here about basic literacy, but being open to the human good that is the enjoyment of literature. I could go on to explain that it’s the capacity to enjoy and really see what’s  going on when words are deployed well that’s a virtually indispensable prerequisite for any position of leadership. But I want my main takeaway to be that reading is indispensable for beings with souls.

Our wealthy and sophisticated kids go to schools where books are still taken seriously (and sometimes very seriously), if only as the necessary path to become academically accomplished enough to be admitted to an elite college. Meanwhile, in ordinary or worse public schools–especially in our secondary schools–“real” books have been slowly disappearing. And the new Common Core Standards seem to be somewhat about taking out what books are left. Fiction is to be mostly replaced by informational nonfiction, and apparently even To Kill a Mockingbird may not have much of an educational future.

If anyone were serious about reinvigorating the public schools as the great American vehicle of equality of opportunity, there would be more attention to having kids read “real books”—great literature—than ever. Liberally educated teachers would lovingly read Mark Twain or even Harry Potter aloud to our little children to compensate for what they’re not getting at home. And lots of classroom time would be given over to children reading to each other. Kids would really be held accountable for what and how well they’ve read in grade after grade. I’m not denying for a moment that we can find this kind of attention in some of our very non-elite schools, and sometimes in surprising places. But if we’re going to having national standards, nothing should be more important.

The same compensatory bookishness should animate our nonselective colleges. But they, instead, follow the lead of the public schools and their educational experts by being about acquiring skills and competencies while bypassing the “content” found in this or that real book.

You’d wish the impulse behind developing a Common Core would be giving all American citizens access to the same intellectual and imaginative “content.” And my job would be a heck of a lot easier if all students came to college having read many of the same “real” books (and for that matter seen the same classic films).

For now, I can still rely on To Kill a Mockingbird, if not much else. That’s not quite true. Because I teach kids who’ve mostly been to Sunday School (which in much of the South is much more serious and bookish than public school), I can still rely somewhat on their Biblical literacy—or, more precisely, their love of or at least respect for one good book.

This post originally appeared on Big Think and is reprinted here by the author’s gracious permission. Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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5 replies to this post
  1. Well, these tendencies are the natural path taken by republics which desolve into empires. I think Pat Buchanan’s book “A Republic, not an Empire” (which I remember reading and considering to be the best book on what ails America at the time it came out) hit the nail on the head about how this all came to be. Back then, the question of “Republic or Empire” was still a question – it no longer is. For better or worse, America is an Empire. We are now struggling over whether it will be an Empire of Liberty or an Empire of Indulgence. Of course an Empire of Liberty is preferable to an Empire of Indulgence; but it is a very low thing compared to even the basest of Republics.

    In an Empire, there is a plebian class, and it is perfectly natural that this plebian class be dirty, uneducated and have family habits resembling those of animals more than those of humans. This entire imagery insults our democratic sensibilities, for as Americans we grasp for Empire but cannot give up on the notion of equality which was one of the foundations of our republican way of life. So we wail on and on about the destruction of middle class America while, under our very eyes – America becomes less American – literaly – since so many millions of people now live there who are not Americans, do not think of themselves as Americans and have no inclination to become Americans (and the very term “American” is no longer meaningful). The same thing happened to Rome, which by the time of the Empire was populated by a rather vast swamp of non-Romans.

    Yes, yes – this is all very undemocratic in terms of analysis because aren’t all people just people, and aren’t we all equal, and can’t we all just get along? Well, yes and no. Yes, we are all just people, eseentially equal under God, but no – we can’t get along unless we agree on certain fundamentals of culture and build a wall of seperation that makes “American” distinct from “Tribal Zulu.” The alternative is not utopian equality – it is what America (like Rome before) has become now: a swamp of alienated proletarians amongst a minority of over-indulgent sophisticates.

    A last point: I remember being in the Herge Museum outside of Brussels, and there was a little display whereby you could peak in to four or five different visual expositions and see different cultures in different countries – back in the 1930s. Every one presented something highly unique, a totally non-European civilization – aesthetically at least. One could really marvel at human difference in those pictures. Nowadays – there’s a McDonalds in every one of those places, all of their inhabitants are on facebook…and none of them read the great books. So: World Democracy – and a world where there’s no point in traveling any more…

    • Mister Rieth, you need to get around more! Yes consumer-driven homogeneity can be irksome, but I’ve found interesting cultures among my 50-60 countries visited so far. My South Asian friends take their kids to McDonald’s as a treat, but in their homes we eat pakoras and listen to Bollywood hits or Kawali or classical raags. Maybe the most leveling function is dress, universalised because of cost and fashion, but by and large you’d have to be very old now to recall people in native garb apart from festivals; exceptions are South Asia and East Africa, chiefly among rural folk. A traditionally clad Swahili Coast lady can be a fine sight indeed.

  2. Some good ideas in here, but I have some questions:

    ‘We can at least say that one sign of personal impoverishment is the inability to experience the emotional—even erotic—elevation that comes through reading “real books” in our free time.”

    Did you mean this? I can’t see much value in “experiencing the…erotic….through reading.” It seems rather voyeuristic, to me.


    “The rich kid in a small town went to the public school and met girls from all over town. And, he could generally marry the girl with whom he happened to fall in love. ”

    IMO, the window of time in which this could happen was fairly small. Didn’t happen before recently, and has faded somewhat, if it was ever common.


    “Now the habit of going to the libraries (where books can be borrowed for free) has almost disappeared. ”

    Not in my experience, it hasn’t. But the libraries are no longer for reading, or books. Now they are social centers and computer centers. Who started this trend? I’m not sure it was “the public”.

  3. We used to visit the library often, but more and more, they do not have the books we wish to read. They are constantly purging the older and superior books to make way for the bad ones. I do take advantage of interlibrary loan a good bit, but taking your child to the library to browse and choose titles is not what it once was!

    Additionally, I know nothing of the statistics, but in my city library, there were many more low income families and young people there than middle and upper, but the low income families were by and large not the ones browsing the books. They were using the computers and filling baskets full of dvds. I myself have appreciated the dvds available at my library, and it is still the easiest way to get access to lot of classic BBC series and the like, and certainly, having computers available for those who can’t afford to have them at home is a good service, but by and large, there was a lot of gaming, and I worked hard to guard the innocence of my children and keep them from that area for fear of what they might accidentally encounter. So, in my experience, it isn’t the habit of going to the library that has dwindled. Ours was often packed. It is the habit of using it as a means of reading quality books that has changed, and so have the libraries themselves changed when it comes to providing such a thing.

    Even as one of those middle class people who has lots of books in their home for their children, I have gotten, or rescued as it may be, most of them from local library sales where they were being sold for a pittance.

  4. “What we can say of a man who’s never known marriage (or a good woman)…” Um, how about “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned…”?

    Alas many of my well-read, well-educated, bright friends well into middle age have abandoned books for online grazing, and the retired ones seem to bury me in emailed links to rubbish. The problem surpasses education although on that, Dr. Lawler, you are right as always. There is a Gresham’s Law of reading, that easily accessible garbage drives out time for proper reading.

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