Being and Nothingness: Why Are We Lying to Young People About Our Civilization?

We hear a lot about a “vocations shortage” within the Church. Usually, the concern focuses on the narrower meaning of “vocation” as a calling to the priesthood or the religious life. Yet, the problem cannot be understood in such isolation. In truth, the “vocations crisis” in the narrow sense is intelligible only as part of a much larger crisis affecting the whole range of human vocations, not just the narrowly religious ones—the vocation to marriage, the vocation to a particular kind of work, and the like.

Among our young people, we all too often find a deep-seated unwillingness, perhaps an incapacity, for even thinking about such a thing as a vocation. A vocation is a call to be something, to be a particular being living a particular life in a particular time and place in the world. It is a call to be something and not nothing. Yet, the young today seem unwilling to become anything at all.

This is, of course, most obvious in the case of the underclass, where young people simply drift in and out of the prisons and mental hospitals, sell and use drugs, avoid work like the plague, and so on. Yet it is also noticeable in different ways in the middle-class “yuppie” population. Here we see such phenomena as young people who like nothing so much as the chance to stay in graduate school far past the age when their parents would have been settled into a career. Law school in particular seems to be a common means of extending the schooling process, though it is usual these days to attend without any particular idea of ever practicing law. That would be too confining.

Marriage tends to be put off for years and when it does occur is often just a legal ratification of a live-in arrangement that has been going on for some time with no particular commitment expected. Again and again, we hear such expressions as, “I’m not ready to settle down.” Parenthood is postponed to the remote future if it is considered at all. Almost invariably, the people will tell you that they can’t afford to have children. They seem to feel that an essential qualification for parenthood is the ability to buy your child at least $500 worth of toys every December 25. The real problem, of course, involves a shortage not of material, but of spiritual resources.

So what the vocations crisis is really about is the individual young person’s resistance to becoming anything in particular. Yet to be in the full sense is always to be something and, therefore, not to be anything else. To be something—to be at all—is to be oneself in relation to others, in community, not in a vacuum. “Self” and “other” are the essential categories of being. Community, though, doesn’t just mean the aggregate of people who happen to be around at the present time. The genuine human community includes past generations, whom we keep in memory, and future generations for whom we provide and sacrifice. Community in this sense is lived by us as a living tradition, cultural, intellectual, spiritual. It is a whole system of meanings and roles associated with these meanings. Within this network, to be is to serve, and service requires a community of love and meaning which is embodied in a civilizational tradition.

Here we come to the key “finding of fact” in this matter: The education of the present younger generation, people born in the 1960s and later, has been based on an almost deliberate refusal to teach them the Western tradition, because, after all, it would limit them, would be repressive, and so on ad nauseam. The situation reminds me of a young lady I used to work with. On one occasion, someone told her a joke which involved a reference to the Book of Job and she asked me to explain it to her. It turned out that the reason she didn’t understand it was that she had never heard of the Book of Job. Her parents were Presbyterians and, I gather, fairly regular church-goers, but they felt that it would be unfair to indoctrinate their children in their own faith (if they had any) because that would limit their freedom to choose their own religion once they became adults.

There seems to be the notion here that children raised in a total vacuum will somehow be perfectly happy and free adults. This is the ultimate practical application of Descartes, who thought that he could come to know things by methodologically retreating from being into nothingness. Today’s parents think that their children can become something if they, the parents, retreat culturally from being into nothingness. As part of this project, the children are raised as no one and nothing in particular in a cultural and spiritual vacuum. But in the end, being is inseparable from meaning, and meaning can only be learned from a coherent civilizational tradition with the spiritual order that entails. Without meaning, a human being can’t be anything, he can only drift.

Let it be understood that I am not talking here about human laziness in passing on a cultural tradition. This has, of course, been a recurring evil throughout history. As a civilization goes into decline, its cultural tradition becomes more and more attenuated because people become lazy and neglect to teach their young adequately. As a result, each generation is more deficient than the last one in its grasp of the tradition and hence worse in teaching it. This is a basic process in the decline of a civilization.

Here and now, however, we are not talking about this process, but about a deliberate policy of withholding the tradition from a whole generation of youth. What is happening is not the slow decline and death of a civilization, but the murder of that civilization, with its spiritual and intellectual culture. Nowhere do we see that murder more perfectly epitomized than in the picture of the contemporary barbarian Jesse Jackson leading a mob around the campus of Stanford University chanting, “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Western culture’s got to go!” Murder seems to be the order of the day: murder of the unborn, murder of the sick and elderly, murder of a whole civilization. It all hangs together.

We need to keep this reality in mind when we hear people talking glibly about the failure of our schools to teach “basics” and the need for educational reform. Here again, the problem of our schools isn’t a failure to educate, a failure to be remedied by more money, better teaching methods, and so on. Our schools are the way they are because our society and our educational bureaucracy follow a deliberate policy of miseducation. More money for schools will not solve this problem but will make it worse by increasing the subsidy for miseducation.

There is a lot of talk today about “basic skills” and the need to return to teaching these in the schools. By “basic skills” people mean, presumably, such things as “reading, writing, and arithmetic.” Yet, it is very unlikely that these things can be learned outside the context of a total intellectual tradition, something inseparable from the spiritual order. This is evident in the case of reading and writing. People who do not come to love the written word as it is found in their civilization’s literature are unlikely ever to master that written word. Here love precedes knowledge and skill. Even science and math are absolutely dependent on a tradition which tells us that there is truth and that it can be known. There is no culturally neutral residue of “basic skills” which can somehow be preserved while we go all out to murder the spiritual and intellectual culture of the western world.

There is a persistent illusion today that it is somehow possible to teach our young people “basic skills” in isolation from any kind of worldview or theology. The schools are supposed to remain neutral about such things, but this is an illusion.

At the most basic level, what the skills known as the “three R’s” really amount to is the ability to use two major systems of symbols—the written language and mathematics. Now a system of symbols is a system of meaning. But all systems of meaning are ultimately grounded in the community of beings, the cosmos, which is God’s creation. They are grounded, that is, in the experience of universal order within which the human community and human order are a kind of microcosm.

This experience of order is a spiritual experience, embodied for us in culture. Thus, culture is inseparable from spiritual order, the life of the spirit. Clearly, skills, understood as the ability to understand and operate within a culture’s basic systems of meaning, are impossible outside those systems of meaning, and they are, therefore, impossible in isolation from concern about the ultimate meaning of the world and of human life. The skills cannot exist separate from a definite intellectual and spiritual culture.

Reading is an obvious case. People don’t learn to read in a purely mechanical way by memorizing the letters and the sounds associated with them. Some sort of mastery of this level of proficiency may be necessary before you can start reading, but having begun, one learns to read largely by reading, and one’s level of literacy is mostly dependent on the degree of one’s acquaintance with the literary culture of one’s society. If all one ever reads is the National Enquirer, one’s literacy is quite limited. On the other hand, if one manages to read Shakespeare, Dickens, the King James Bible, and similar things, a very high and complex level of skill is acquired.

Few people with large vocabularies acquire them by memorizing lists of words from the dictionary. Most people build vocabulary by reading. When I was still in grade school, I developed an insatiable appetite for the works of Charles Dickens and learnt far more vocabulary reading his novels than I ever picked up in school. Even now, I find that, if I come across an unfamiliar word, it is almost a waste of time to look it up in the dictionary, because even if I learn the dictionary meaning, that does not really enable me to use the word or understand it in its many contexts. The only way I retain the word and make it a genuine part of my vocabulary is by seeing it again and again in my reading and gradually getting a feel for its various uses and the subtleties of meaning associated with them. This means that I can’t learn the word without reference to the literary culture in which the word, never reducible to an abstract, univocal definition, has its roots.

Something similar happens when you study a new language. For a long time, the new language is just a set of words, grammatical rules, and on so, which you painstakingly manipulate as something external. The time eventually comes, however (at least if you persist), when you begin to have a sense of being inside the new language, of living and thinking, to some degree, within the system of meanings which is the language’s living reality.

Similarly, we learn math by virtue of sharing in a continuing search for truth, particularly under the aspect of logical clarity. This search for truth presupposes a minimal assumption that there is truth and that it can be known, and this in turn presupposes being.

If we were to compare basic skills with plants in a garden, then the spiritual and intellectual culture is the earth in which they grow and have roots. There is therefore no way the basic skills can survive without the spiritual and intellectual culture. Yet, what we have today is an educational system with a deliberate policy of repressing the life of the spirit, a policy of doing everything possible to prevent young people from learning the intellectual and spiritual culture which nourishes and makes possible the basic skills. For such a system to try to teach the “three R’s” is a contradiction. Of course, it is possible to teach people a kind of rock-bottom minimal literacy which enables them to read ideological propaganda and to understand their orders from the state. This is the kind of “literacy” spread in places like Nicaragua and wherever else Communist governments pride themselves on literacy campaigns.

In our own public schools, we try to teach the mechanics of reading and writing with bland textbooks which have no connection whatsoever with the living spiritual and cultural tradition of the West. They are ideologically sanitized textbooks with no roots, no ties to the world or the earth, eviscerated, bloodless books. They are cleansed of any relation to being or to the community of beings. They usually have, in reality, no individual author. They may carry an author’s name but have been revised and reworked so extensively by committees that the authorship is a fiction only, a fiction by virtue of which some professor of education furthers his quest for tenure. They thus have no connection to any individual human being’s experience of being a particular human living and acting in a world, in the community of beings. They replace the individual soul with an abstract subject.

“Literacy” acquired in such an atmosphere has nothing whatsoever to do with the ability of the genuinely literate person to penetrate the endless depth and subtlety of language in the pursuit of meaning, i.e., the ability to use language in the service of freedom, not slavery. We can’t make a plant grow while poisoning its roots and its soil, though, having done so, we may still be able to get some weeds to grow. The contemporary secularist idea of an educational system which somehow remains neutral in regard to the life of the spirit while imparting “basic skills” is utterly nonsensical and contradictory.

Some years ago, Eric Voegelin developed the thesis that contemporary mass movements and ideologies seek to repress the life of the spirit, since that life can never be completely done away with. We are engaged in a total cultural enterprise of repressing the life of the spirit, and, since the spiritual culture is inseparable from the rest of the culture (how, for instance, would you ever separate Western literature and Western music from Christianity?), the whole culture must be repressed.

Our young people today have been cheated out of their spiritual heritage and have thus lost the foundation necessary for any vocation to be built upon. It is hardly surprising that, in this spiritual vacuum, religious and priestly vocations, which require an especially high level of spiritual commitment and self-sacrifice, should suffer. It is astonishing that even a very small number of young people are willing and able to pursue them. Looking at things from a purely human perspective, it would seem that the Church has lost a whole generation, unless the grace of God can somehow make good that loss.


  • George Kendall

    At the time this article was written, George Kendall was a free-lance writer living in Claire, Michigan.

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