The culture wars of late 18th century America

I rather enjoyed reading about the experiences with students at William & Mary that contributed to Thomas Jefferson taking on the project of education reform (from today’s Wall Street Journal):

By this time he had lost all patience with the college in Virginia’s colonial capital, and no wonder. As Mr. Taylor shows in his unsparing account of Jefferson’s efforts to “reform Virginia through education,” William & Mary was becoming, in the decades before and after American independence, a school in name only. Enrollment was declining, the buildings were a wreck, and the students—mostly the scions of Virginia’s slaveholding plantation masters—made the toga-wearing frat boys of “Animal House” seem like scholars of remarkable seriousness and propriety.

Besides taking potshots at one another, William & Mary’s students, over the years, drank and gambled and vandalized the townspeople’s houses. At least once they fired a cannon down Williamsburg’s main thoroughfare. They broke into Bruton Parish Church, shattering the communion table “into a thousand pieces,” according to one of the students, scattered Bibles and prayer books around the church yard, and “bedaubed from one end [of the pulpit] to the other with human excrement.” They even “dug up the body of a female that had been buried for many months,” a Norfolk newspaper reported, “took it from the coffin, and placed it on the floor of an empty house in a situation too shocking to describe!!!”

This is far from the first time American culture has been besieged by a generation of nihilists, and it likely won’t be the last. College is treated like a second infancy now, with ever-decreasing academic and professional standards, but it is not the first time this phenomenon has occurred.

Jefferson’s experiment with raising better kids essentially had two pillars: (1) remove them from the corrupting forces of urban life (that’s why the University of Virginia is in the Piedmont); (2) remove them from the corrupting forces of elites and bring them back to Enlightenment and neoclassical ideals (that’s why the bratty elitists of the Church of England had no influence over his university’s operations). I think there’s a lot of wisdom in both of these notions.

Jefferson’s experience was not all that different from Cicero’s. When Cicero was a youth, Rome was in the middle of a violent (literally) culture war. He was from an aristocratic family with a serious country estate. Cicero went into a period of self-imposed exile from the negative influences of the city and basically waited out his peers returning to sanity.

From his family’s country estate, he gave himself the best home education a young adult could have for and spent a great deal of time practicing rhetoric and the arts of persuasion. By the time events in the city had stabilized, he was well prepared to take his place among political leadership.

I think the cloistered masses reviving classical education in the United States have taken on the same project. You have a lot of people who are removing their children physically and intellectually from toxic cultural influences now. History shows over and over that they will be rewarded for doing so.

The highest ideals of western civilization always recover because they contain very real moral truths. Sometimes a generation has to hit rock bottom in their behavior to recognize them, however.

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