Walter G. Moss is professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University and editor of HNN. For a list of his recent books and online publications, click here. His most recent book is In the Face of Fear: Laughing All the Way to Wisdom (2019), which deals with humor from a historical perspective.
The Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress
In April 2019, several articles appeared on the HNN website addressing the declining interest in the humanities, including history. One of them was titled “America’s waning interest in history poses a risk to democracy.” Commenting on President Trump’s poor knowledge of history, he observed that he “is a fitting leader for these times.” Another article, abbreviated from The New York Times, was “Is the United States a democracy?” A social studies battle revolves around the values of the nation. These essays prompted me to ask, “What is the connection, if any, between President Trump, the decline of the humanities, and American values?”
Let’s start with American values. Although any generalization presents difficulties, it can at least help us get closer to important truths. A valuable indicator of American values, first published in 1950, is historian Henry Steele Commager’s The American Mind. As for “the nineteenth-century American,” he writes, “often fond of business, the American was practical in politics, religion, culture, and science.” In the following pages, Commager also generalizes that the culture of the average American “was material”; there “was a quantitative distribution in his thought”; “theories and speculation” bothered him, and “he shunned abstruse philosophies of government or conduct”; his “attitude towards culture was both distrustful and indulgent”, and he expected it (and religion) to “serve some useful purpose”; and “he expected education to prepare for life – by which he meant, increasingly, jobs and professions”. “Nowhere else,” notes the historian, “have intellectuals been held in such contempt or relegated to such an inferior position.”
A dozen years after the publication of Commager’s book, Richard Hofstadter’s work Anti-intellectualism in American life (1962) appeared. More than a year ago, I discussed this historian’s insights as they applied to current American culture and to President Trump. Hofstadter noted that “the first truly powerful and widespread impulse toward anti-intellectualism” appeared during the Jackson era. This anti-intellectualism was common among evangelicals and was reflected in the popularity of the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches myth, the growing emphasis on job training, the popularity of self-help gurus like Norman Vincent Peale, and the strong impact in the early 1950s of McCarthyism.
I then indicated how all of these points relate to Trump, that he “embodies the anti-intellectual tension in American culture” and that he never “showed interest in the humanities or the liberal arts “. Literature, history, philosophy, the arts and any interest in foreign cultures remained foreign to him.
At the end of Commager’s book, he asked a number of questions about the future. What would American education educate people about? How would Americans use their growing leisure? Increasingly abandoning ‘traditional moral codes’, ‘would they formulate new ones as effective as those they were about to abandon? “Would they preserve themselves from corruption and decadence? “Could they preserve their pragmatism from popularization?
In the seven decades since the publication of The American Spirit, the answers we have given to these questions concerning education, leisure, morals, corruption, decadence and popularization have been more negative than positive.
In 1985, Neil Postman wrote in fun to die for, “Our politics, our religion, our current affairs, our athletics, our education and our commerce have been turned into sympathetic adjuncts to show business, largely without protest or even much popular attention. The result is that we are a people about to have fun to death. In 1993, Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to US President Jimmy Carter, said that television had “become an important element in the formation of the [U. S.] national culture and its fundamental beliefs”, that it “has had a particularly important effect in disrupting the generational continuity in the transfer of traditions and values”, and that it has contributed to producing “a mass culture, animated by profiteers who exploit the thirst for vulgarity, pornography, and even barbarism. In 2005, Postman’s son Andrew noted that entertainment had expanded significantly, including the Internet, cell phones, and iPods. In 2018, the broadening continued, and historian Jill Lapore wrote that “blogging, posting, and tweeting, artifacts of a new culture of narcissism,” have become commonplace. Social media “has exacerbated the political isolation of ordinary Americans while reinforcing polarization both left and right. . . . The ties to the timeless truths that held the nation together faded in favor of an ethereal invisibility.
How fitting when in 2016 we elect a TV celebrity (on The apprentice), which, according to historian Niall Ferguson, “embodies the spirit of our time. His tweets – hasty, rude and littered with errors – are just one symptom of a more general decline in civility that social media has encouraged.
If Trump tells us something ugly about ourselves, what does that have to do with the current state of the humanities? In a 2018 essay, “Why Trump’s Crassness Matters,” I noted that “Trump’s rudeness and lack of aesthetic appreciation reinforces an unfortunate tendency in our national character — to undervalue beauty.” The Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville noted this already at the beginning of the 19th century, noting that we tend to “cultivate the arts which serve to make life easy, in preference to those whose object is to adorn it. . . . [We] will usually prefer the useful to the beautiful, and . . . . will demand that the beautiful be useful.
At times, some of our leaders have demonstrated an appreciation for beauty. Historian Douglas Brinkley has written long books about our two Presidents Roosevelt’s appreciation of the beauties of nature, and John Kennedy once said, “I look forward to an America that will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our nature. environment, which will preserve the grand old American homes, plazas and parks of our national past, and which will build beautiful and balanced cities for our future.
Sadly, however, Donald Trump’s philistinism and lack of respect for our environment is all too common, as is lack of aesthetic appreciation – note his constant budget proposals to kill the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. Doesn’t the fact that fewer college students choose history courses and other humanities and arts reflect some of the same reasons we elected our liar-in-chief Donald Trump? We overvalue such things as making money, “getting ahead”, glitz and celebrity status and undervalue what the humanities and the arts emphasize on beauty, truth and goodness.
A month after Trump was elected, I wrote that he reflected the “ugly side of American life.” A comparison that didn’t occur to me then, but does occur to me now, is that our culture resembles the popular understanding of a Robert Louis Stevenson character – Dr. Jekyll and his alternate personality, Mr. Hyde. Trump is the evil Mr. Hyde of our national personality. We also have a good side of Dr. Jekyll represented by individuals such as Carl Sandburg, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Like the Jekyll/Hyde multiple personality, both sides fight for our souls.