Years ago, when my wife and I first committed to homeschooling our kids, we caught hell from my sister, a public schoolteacher. Most of her objections were familiar to us, and we had answers for them. One we did not see coming, though: her utter lack of sympathy for our interest in a pedagogy that focused on the classics of the Western tradition.
This surprised me because my sister was a conservative, like most people in my hometown. My conservatism is primarily cultural, social, and intellectual. Hers was also cultural and social, but it was more temperamental than intellectual. In fact, though my sister was a math instructor, and a good one, she had a reflexive disdain for intellectualism. She saw it as an effete indulgence at best, at worst a rationale for exploiting the common man. For her, the culture war was really class warfare—and her brother was on the other side of the trenches.
It did not matter that I had forgotten more political theory than she ever knew. What mattered was that I was a city dweller who shopped at Whole Foods and did not care for Sarah Palin’s style of politics. That marked me out as a traitor to the tribe.
From my side, frustration with this anti-intellectual attitude thrust me into a love-hate dynamic with my home and the conservative base. When I lived in Dallas, my fellow middle-aged high-culture conservative friends and I lamented how our parents’ devotion to the Fox News Channel made political conversations impossible because our folks could not believe anybody who did not love Fox News could be a real conservative.
We were not liberals, and in fact many of us were from small towns and longed for the good things those towns had to offer. But how could we live in a place where the art, the books, the music, and the food we loved would be seen by fellow conservatives as a sign of our inauthenticity?
The fraying of Americans’ bonds with our civilization’s artistic heritage and philosophical roots is a perennial theme among conservative culture warriors, who tend to blame liberal college professors, with their infamous hostility toward Dead White European Males. Who needs the Ancient Greeks when you can study Lady Gaga?
But that is only a partial explanation: The role of mass-culture consumerism—“masscult,” as social critic Dwight Macdonald called it—is underappreciated. It turns out that conservatives who spite the 1960s revolt against authority and hierarchy often fail to see how the cultural revolution co-opted their own side as well. This is hardly the fault of the grassroots—on the contrary, it is the upshot of a much larger social transformation.
To be sure, anti-intellectualism and a suspicion of elites have been mainstays of American life since the beginning of the republic. John Adams is reputed to have said, “I am a revolutionary so my son can be a farmer, so his son can be a poet.” In fact, his son, the highly cultured John Quincy Adams, became the sixth president of the United States—only to be turned out of office after one term by the populist war hero Andrew Jackson. In 1831, after Alexis de Tocqueville and his traveling companion, Gustave de Beaumont, met Jackson, de Beaumont confided to his mother that the president was “not a man of genius.”
But he was American to the marrow, perhaps even more than John and John Quincy Adams. As historian Richard Hofstadter put it in his 1963 classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life:
Tocqueville saw that the life of constant action and decision which was entailed by the democratic and businesslike character of American life put a premium upon rough and ready habits of mind, quick decision, and the prompt seizure of opportunities—and that all this activity was not propitious for deliberation, elaboration, or precision in thought.
Yet while Americans have always viewed the contemplative life with a certain disdain, there was no precedent for the mid-Twentieth-Century swamping of intellectual elites’ authority by the rising tide of mass culture. In fact, according to historian George Marsden’s recent book The Twilight of the American Enlightenment, Douglas Hofstadter and his cohort were the last of their kind: American public intellectuals who spoke with authority for a mainstream (and liberal) cultural consensus.
Men like Douglas Hofstadter, Dwight Macdonald, sociologist David Riesman, and literary critic Lionel Trilling expressed a widely held view: That the survival of Western civilization and its cultural achievements faced a mortal threat from communism abroad and from mass consumer culture at home—and only elites like themselves could show the way to cultural salvation.
Most of these leading liberal intellectuals had confidence that a strong pragmatic consensus could be forged in America. It would have to be built on Twentieth Century ideals derived from Enlightenment sources: belief in the authority of science and a secularism that enshrined individual fulfillment as its highest goal.
Traditionalist conservatives of that era doubted that collectivism and consumerism could be overcome without a recovery of our religious roots—but they had relatively little influence over mainstream thought. Walter Lippmann, who did have credibility among the intelligentsia, argued that there could be no recovery without what George Marsden describes as “a return to the conviction that had long been basic to Western thought: that there [is] some sort of objective moral order or set of timeless moral principles that could be discovered through rational inquiry.”
The reaction shocked Walter Lippmann: his colleagues treated him as a heretic. But he was right, as the cultural upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s would prove. Never again would there be such a broad American consensus, nor would there be an authoritative intellectual caste to set the tone for the wider culture. Dwight Macdonald’s prophecy of mass culture as a “revolutionary force, breaking down the old barriers of class, tradition, taste, and dissolving all cultural distinction” came true.
What does all this history of a half-century ago have to do with the failure of conservative cultural elitists—that is, rightists preoccupied with the loss of the Western intellectual and moral tradition—to connect with grassroots conservatives like my sister? There are several points to consider.
First, George Marsden observes that the sense among postwar intellectuals that the health of American society depended on their leadership evaporated in the 1960s. Their confidence in the durability of Enlightenment assumptions proved to be hallucinatory. Without shared moral consensus, combined with the belief that truth can be discovered by reason, cultural authority collapses under bombardment by competing claims, with no agreed-upon mechanism for choosing among them.
Second, the postwar exaltation of individualism and nonconformism in the face of what David Riesman famously called “the lonely crowd” played into emerging consumerist currents in the mass media. The newly popular medium of television catechized the culture to accept the gospel of self-fulfillment, which came to entail liberation through the satisfaction of desire.
For decades now, conservatives have condemned liberals for championing hedonism at the expense of traditional moral values. Yet even as social conservatives dunned liberals for treating sexual behavior as a matter of individual choice, they came to accept the same media-driven, market-based morality within their own spheres. The Reagan-era rebellion against liberal elites and the managerial state was expressed in individualistic terms.
Without question this populist turn had some justification. The problem is that populist conservatives understood themselves according to the same paradigm as the 1960s counterculture: as rebels standing up to a repressive elite and its institutions. Whether consciously or not, they embraced a right-of-center version of emotivism: the idea that feelings are a reliable and sufficient guide to truth and right conduct.
When you put all these factors together—the collapse of consensus, the decline of authority, the rise of individualism, and the triumph of emotivism—and place them atop the historical American aversion to intellectualism—it is no wonder that the seeds of a more cultured conservatism have had trouble finding purchase among the grassroots. Culture is hard; culture war is much easier and more emotionally gratifying.
The culture war within my own conservative family—between my masscult sister and I—symbolizes an important divide within conservatism itself. It is a divide that has become starkly geographic. Neil Levesque, director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College, recently told the Wall Street Journal, “The difference in this country is not red versus blue. It’s urban versus rural.” According to the Journal report, the division has far more to do with culture and lifestyle than with policy.
Hence the pathos of those intellectual conservatives who embrace small-is-beautiful localism but who struggle to connect with the populist masses whose interests they ostensibly share. Often the inability to fit in or find work back home drives these culture-oriented conservatives to cities. There they encounter liberalism articulated with a cultural sophistication that, even if it does not seduce them, amplifies the alienation they feel from their own tribe.
On the other side, you have millions of grassroots rural and small-town folks whose media-driven, market-determined conservatism makes them passive pawns of jingoists, nationalists, and corporations who do not have their welfare in mind. Yet they are understandably anxious about being taken for unenlightened rustics because they would rather watch “Duck Dynasty” than read Dante.
This is bad for everyone. Grassroots communities end up losing many of their best and brightest to cities, where they, in turn, are more likely to lose their conservative values. And even if they do not, these intellectually and artistically inclined exiles are unable to give of their own talents to build up cultural awareness and institutions back home.
The country’s cultural divides have grown wider over the years, including among conservatives—but they are not unbridgeable. Since I returned to take up residence in the small south Louisiana town where I was born, I have seen a few signs of hope.
The conservatives I know who are interested in high culture are not elitists but rather grassroots Republicans who have embraced the classical Christian schooling model. Classical Christian schooling is a Great Books approach to education that embraces the canonical works of Western civilization, including Greek and Roman philosophy and literature, and presents them within a Christian context.
According to the Circe Institute, a web-based resource for instructing Christian homeschoolers in the principles and methods of classical education, “the classical Christian does not ask, ‘What can I do with this learning?’ but ‘What will this learning do to me?’” This is a powerfully countercultural mindset in the age of No Child Left Behind. It requires an at-times immense exertion on the part of parents because there is little in mass culture to press young people, or their mothers and fathers, towards active engagement with the Great Books.
I plead guilty on this count: for most of my adult life, I have been the kind of cultural conservative more interested in bemoaning the decline and fall of Western civilization than in figuring out ways to live the tradition and teach it to my children. Classical Christian homeschool changed that by forcing me to read the things I previously only wished I had read—and complained that my schooling never taught me. Going through the Great Books with my older son has awakened in me a visceral love for their beauty and wisdom and an eagerness to share these things with others.
Everyone in our classical Christian homeschooling community is a conservative, but none of us are college professors. We are ordinary people who grew tired of the emptiness of mass culture and wanted better for our children. So we came together around a couple of visionary teachers and made it happen. In time, we hope that other conservatives will see the fruits of our labor and want to do the same thing, either through homeschooling co-ops or in their private and parochial schools.
Great Books conservatives cannot hector the populist grassroots into throwing their arms around something that is still fairly unusual. We have to show our compatriots why the Western tradition remains so vital to those who are willing to make the effort to explore it.
A case in point: though the Twentieth Century Catholic novelist Walker Percy has not yet made the ranks of the Greats, my wife and I have joined with like-minded liberal friends to start a literary festival in our south Louisiana town to honor Percy, who set some of his fiction in our parish. We are hoping that cold beer and boiled crawfish will lure our neighbors away from the television and out under the live oaks to talk about books, ideas, and the work of local culture.
Nothing good will happen if high-culture conservatives remain hived away in urban and academic enclaves, despairing, while the conservative masses unwittingly surrender their core values to a degraded pop culture. Because the days when the opinions of intellectual elites automatically held sway over the masses are long gone, high-culture conservatives have to think creatively.
“Americans [tend] to think about things in practical ways, from the bottom up rather than the top down,” writes George Marsden. Friends of the permanent things are going to have to be more eclectic in their approach to the wider world and not wait on elite institutions—most of which are in the hands of cultural liberals—to act. More classical schools? Yes. But we also need more cold beer and crawfish boils. Aristotle goes down surprisingly well with a frosty bottle of Abita Amber.