By Emmett J. McGroarty, J.D., director of the Subsidiarity and the Constitution program at the Institute for Human Ecology

We often think of centralized government as impairing sound decision-making, efficiency, and liberty. But it has other consequences to human flourishing. When centralized government makes decisions that individuals or local government should be making, it places the human person in lower standing. That may be abstract, but invariably it has practical consequences. The sad story of great, classic literature in America demonstrates this.

One of America’s great cultural achievements was the popular view that all children should have an academic education. That’s not to say that all should attend university, and it’s not to discount the trades, which certainly offer wonderful opportunities. It simply means that to flourish children should have a grounding in their culture and have an appreciation for the good and beauty of the Almighty’s creation. They should be equipped to pursue the truth, to fully exercise their liberties, and to be persons of substance in their communities and in their families. Early on, such an education took root in America. It included the study of classic literature–fiction, poetry, and biographies in narrative form.

Great literature sparks the imagination. It develops the ability to express one’s self, in verbal and written form, providing a sound means for the exchange of ideas. It hones one’s analytical skills.  Through it, one develops empathy and practices prudential decision-making without the consequences of the real world. It helps one handle uncertainty and ambiguity, enabling one to better resist rushing to conclusions and assuming the ill-will of another. Through great literature, we pass culture to others, including to following generations. It is a gateway to a passion for history. Reading great literature facilitates the study of the human condition.

In the 1800s a counter-theory arose to the American Experiment and began to gain favor in elitist camps. Experts must manage society to peaceful and prosperous ends. Citizen-directed government must be marginalized, all the better to give experts the necessary leeway. Likewise, the fabled checks-and-balances our Constitutional structure must be circumvented. That view favored a different type of basic education for the masses—a lower, utilitarian education that would further the narrow aims of employers and bureaucrats in a managed economy.

For over a century that view was increasingly reflected in public policy and the growing administrative state. From the1990s that trend accelerated and reached its apex with the development, and federally driven adoption of, the Common Core standards. Fidelity to those standards required a dramatic reduction in the amount of classic literature children read: as noted in the Revised Publishers’ Criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy, Grades 3–12, “[m]ost ELA programs and materials designed for them will need to increase substantially the amount of literary nonfiction they include.”
See study here and commentary here and here.

What does this mean to the formation of the person? Does the trend away from classic literature lend itself to a climate of rancor and divisiveness, a rush to judgment and an inability to understand the perspectives of other? Does it callously deprive the human person of all but crude practices in the sharing of ideas with others? Does it deprive them of the beauty of appreciating another’s point-of-view, without necessarily agreeing with it?  Are we disintegrating into a society composed not of mere rivals but of enemies, as Alexis de Tocqueville described France to have been on the eve of the French Revolution?

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