Monday, March 21, 2011

The Dumbing Down of Everything

The National Catholic Register

 Friday, March 18, 2011 11:15 PM Comments (35)
It is somehow fitting for the oxymoronic age in which we live that we call the uniform distribution of mediocrity, progress.
Anyone who has ever had the good fortune to watch Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War cannot help but be taken aback by the simple eloquence of men of little formal education and the surpassing eloquence of some of the educated.
Illiteracy was widespread 150 years ago.  Yet, those who were literate, even with just a fourth grade education, had such a facility with words that this blogger is put to shame.
Take for instance the letter of one Samuel M. Potter to Cynthia Potter, December 10, 1862.  Potter, writing to his wife makes evident his lack of education but yet his writing elevates.  He writes of the mundane aspects of his work in a hospital and signs off his letter this way.
  Josey must be a good boy to his little brother & nurse him for me & I know Lucy & Bell will like the boy they have got. Bell be a good girl & Lucy must be good to her sister Bell as well as her little brother. Well Mary I feel proud of the compliment the old doctor paid you. You are deserving it. May God bless you Mary & enable you to grow in grace, to adorn the Christian character & to hav your hope in heaven. Well Cynthia let us all still put our trust in that Almighty power that has kept us all in the hollow of his hand & we will be happy. No more at present but remain
Your affectionate husband
S.M. Potter
Are there many men today who could, even without the broken prose of Mr. S.M. Potter convey as much love and affection?  It hardly seems possible.  So much more so is the writing of an educated man of that era.  Sullivan Ballou, a lawyer from Rhode Island wrote this to his wife on the eve of a battle that would take his life.
I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt . . .
Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battle field.
The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them for so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood, around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me—perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness . . .
But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights . . . always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again . . .
These are amazing fruits of an era of illiteracy.
150 years later we have almost universal literacy, but is it a literacy without anything to say?  What average man of even a college education today could write as well as Mr. S.M. Potter?
But what seems worse is that in our world of universal this and universal that, why do we produce only mediocrity?  With all these “educated’ people walking around, why are there so few S.M. Potters, never mind Sullivan Ballous?
It seems a sad mark of progress that mediocrity must be the rule, that in order to level the playing field, all that elevates must be bull-dozed.  This may be as true of literacy as it is of liturgy and even healthcare.
Perhaps these are merely the curmudgeonly musings of natural born conservative.  William F. Buckley once wrote of his conservative magazine that its mission is to “stand athwart history, yelling stop.”
But I can’t help but feel that we could do with a little less progress.  I stand athwart history so that all that still elevates is not flattened into the parking lot we call progress.
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