Our ability to understand the age of Jefferson is degraded. We are no longer able to respond to his voice, disallowing ourselves to comprehend his diction, his rhetoric, as clear, though, as it is. I’ve seen as much from attempts to use The Declaration of Independence in freshman composition classes; in the same classes, the difficulties that Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” posed were starling. I even had a classmate in a seminar in 17th century literature, an English major, questioning why John Donne should have to write in the manner he had in his Meditations. It was then, in that English literature seminar that I began to suspect that we might be lost as a society, for those of us bestowed with the responsibility to protect and defend literacy could no longer do so. I understood my freshman comp classes having trouble with Jefferson, although I did understand that this was because we had no longer maintained a tradition where we kept him current, and that was the fault of our schools and our pedagogy. But when an English major questioned the language of Donne and by doing so rhetorically questioned why we should even have to read something so difficult, I was appalled. I did hold prejudices then that this was an American phenomena, and that it wasn’t British, or French or Italian . . . I have subsequently revised my opinion and see that declining literacy is a worldwide issue, at the same time we increase alphabetization and call it literacy.
We only imagine that our lives are more enlightened than Jefferson’s because we have suffered an academically instilled ignorance that allows us to assume without words attached to the presumption that history is progressive. Ours must be the superlative age because we are farther along in the course of human experience; but then this would infer that human knowledge was some how cumulative, that there was a chronological addition that made every period in the succession of human events a sum larger and thus better than the previous one. We have to be the smartest of all ages, right?
It’s not that so many in Jefferson’s day could read, but those who could defend the skill, supported it, understood it better as a cornerstone of civilization and their liberty than we do. Those who couldn’t, at least envied it; they wished they could, or at least enough of them did that justified the pursuit. Today we believe that this is somehow elitist, and unnecessarily so. Yet, the lowering of standards is elitist in effect because what it is saying is that it is unnecessary to teach at higher levels when lower ones are good enough and there will always be those who will rise, like cream in un-homogenized milk. The only homogeneity in our culture is in how everyone is allowed to under educated if they do not swill it otherwise.
We serve only power thus. There is nothing left in our education that could steer power from the will to power. The latter is our only ethics. There is no Truth; there are no longer little ‘t’ truths. What is right and wrong is determined by power; fact and fiction have been irrevocable blurred. Lying is telling the truth; testimony is what you can get away with, and it’s the overarching degree I’m talking about, not the presence as opposed to some imagined past absence.