The Alliance for Responsible Citizenship (ARC), Jordan Peterson’s anti-WEF, held its first big international conference in London last month. Not much united the various speakers politically (the lineup covered everything from Leftist gender critical feminists to traditional religious conservatives, who basically agree on nothing except a suspicion of the trans movement). But one word did seem to be on everybody’s lips: ‘story’. The problem facing Western civilisation, apparently, is either that a negative story has taken hold (essentially, that there is something uniquely oppressive or pernicious about the West and that this has allowed it to exert illegitimate dominance across the globe) or that our societies lack ‘shared stories’ to unite us.
The various speakers who raised this issue were, I think, on the right subject, but there is something superficial and incomplete about their accounting for what is undeniably a concern: an advancing moral nihilism that is apparent throughout Western societies and especially among the young. The general consensus seems to be that something has gone wrong with the education system, such that teachers are no longer communicating to young people a sense of the importance of Western values, or a proper assessment of its history. And the consequence is self-centredness and moral decay.
Niall Ferguson, who was interviewed at the ARC conference, had a lot to say about this. And there is clearly something to it.
But I don’t really buy it as the underlying explanation for what is going wrong. This is for two reasons. The first is that all it does is really relocate the question to a different level of abstraction; it doesn’t really get at why the failure to pass down cultural inheritance is taking place – except through reference to a ‘woke’ takeover of the teaching profession which again simply displaces the question further up the food chain to universities. (And which then leads us to a blind alley: why were our universities so susceptible to these corrosive ideas to begin with?)
But the second reason is more important, I think, and it is simply this: the vast majority of children, I am afraid to say, pay little or no attention to almost anything that goes on in school, least of all their history lessons. And this is something which ‘anti-woke’ critics of the education system often miss. Being intellectuals themselves, and often having gone to very good schools, they have a totally distorted understanding of the level of actual learning that goes on in the average, bog-standard secondary school, and of the extent to which ideas are taken seriously.
To give a trivial but illustrative example of this, I have a vivid memory of studying the Great Depression in 1930s America – a subject which, for some reason, seems to have been taught almost universally to British school kids in the 1990s – around the age of 14 or 15 and being asked by the boy sitting next to me what must surely rank as one of the stupidest questions of all time, misconceived at every possible level: “Dave, who’s the President of England?”
This was somebody, you understand, who had chosen history from a range of options to study at GCSE level (the set of exams almost all pupils in the country take at age 16), and was by no means the least intelligent person in the class. The truth of the matter was simply that he had one main interest in his life – he was on the Great British ten-pin bowling team, bizarrely enough – and never paid the slightest bit of attention to what he was being taught in school or what was going on in the news. He had bigger fish to fry.
There is not necessarily any dishonour in this: it is what I think almost everyone is like, although probably not quite to that extreme. They have other things to do than worrying about matters that they consider not to concern them and which they have no control over. That the world might well be a darned sight better if more academics, journalists and political commentators were like that too (and I include myself in this) is by-the-by; what matters is that an awful lot of what teachers say to their pupils, in ordinary schools, goes in one ear and out of the other.
The problem we have, then, is not that the education system is somehow generally ‘going wrong’ in failing to inculcate in pupils a ‘positive story’. It has been going wrong for a very, very long time in that sense. I will grant you that when it comes to subjects such as history or politics the important question is what the children who will go on to become ‘thought-leaders’, senior civil servants, MPs and so on are learning, and this is where I am sure the ‘negative story’ critique becomes salient. But at the broader, societal level, this is really not the problem.
My contention would be that we suffer from a much more serious malady, which is that – leaving aside whether the stories we hear are negative or positive or need to be ‘better’ – we have a serious, and growing, deficit in storytelling full stop. And here we need to think a little more carefully about what stories are and why they are important in structuring our thought.
In The Sibling Society (a now largely forgotten book that I have written about before) the poet Robert Bly gives an interesting definition of adulthood:
[A]n adult is able to organise the random emotions and events of his or her life into a memory, a rough meaning, a story.
I increasingly see the wisdom in this view. For a toddler beginning to make sense of the world, life comes in a series of unforeseen events that have no rational connection to each other. Gradually, she learns to connect events together and piece them into something resembling a coherent personal narrative. This allows her, as she grows into adulthood, to understand her life in terms of an ongoing story – with a beginning, middle and end (which is, of course, in the future). And this then gives her the capacity to construct goals within the short-, medium- and long-term, and to think about the kind of legacy she would like her life to leave behind. This ultimately gives her the capacity to imagine her life as having an overarching meaning, from which she can then derive purpose and guidance in her conduct.
This may not always have been necessary for human beings; there is a large body of literature on the thought-worlds of premodern people, and I am reasonably convinced by the notion (advanced by such thinkers as Larry Siedentop, Michael Oakeshott, and Fustel de Coulanges) that premoderns, being usually totally embedded within a coherent cultural context, did not need to imagine their lives in the way that I am describing. But modern people, who do not find themselves within that kind of an environment, are forced to reckon with the fact that they are individuals, and that they are to a greater or lesser extent responsible as individuals for their own lives; this makes the formation of personal narratives of critical importance in becoming a fully functioning adult in modernity.
One is a fool if one thinks that one can discover some knock-down argument as to why stories exist and why we think them to be important, as though it is an instrumental question – which it clearly is not. But one of the virtues of story-telling is that, of course, it teaches by example how a narrative is pieced together from a series of haphazard events. And I don’t think it is therefore an accident that the quintessential modern art form, which began to come to prominence precisely as modernity itself could be said to have dawned, is the novel. A novel does many things. But one of them is to engage the reader in a continuous narrative into which he dips in and out over the course of days or weeks, and which requires him to repeatedly enter in and out of the mind of a fictional person (or fictional persons) whom the author has created, and in and out of a series of mental images which are thrown into his imagination as he reads.
This makes novel-reading a kind of worked example (made much more powerful because it is almost entirely implicit) of the narrative-building exercise which the modern life requires to generate meaning. It teaches us how to process events – disconnected from one another temporally, at bed time each night or on the train to work each morning, as a story. And as a consequence it causes us to reflect on events in general as being patterned in some way, with a broader meaning than simply being one damned thing after another. It follows that novel-reading is an important tool in the teaching of modern adulthood – it is, if I can be forgiven for using the word, part of the praxis of modern living, through which, as individuals, we reflect upon what we are doing with our lives and what we would like them to ultimately resemble.
Now, I do not want to overegg the pudding and suggest that novels are the only such tool, and that films and TV series cannot have a similar effect (although I think it is a much lesser one). And nor do I want to fall into the same trap of the Niall Fergusons of this world and imagine that there was ever some prelapsarian age in which novel-reading was universally practised by everyone in society, but which is not perpetuated due to some great failing in the education system. (I am reminded here of Shane Warne, being asked in an interview in the mid-1990s about reading, saying that he had only once ever read a book and that it was about UFOs.) While novel reading was definitely more widespread once than it now is, and one can read heartbreakingly moving accounts of semi-literate chimney sweeps in Victorian England impatiently waiting for the next instalment of the latest Dickens serial, it was obviously never the case that everybody in modern Western societies was a serious novel reader.
My argument, then, is not that, but something else: as novel-reading has become less widespread, we have seen an accompanying rise in practices which could be said to have the diametrically opposite effect on our inner lives, and which teach precisely the opposite way to approach the vagaries of circumstance – namely, doom-scrolling, internet surfing and short-form videos, which are now almost predominantly the way in which adolescents, teenagers and young adults find entertainment, and which they do almost reflexively, even when supposedly engaged in some other sort of activity (such as watching TV). Adults are used to handwringing about these compulsions (often while compulsively doing so themselves). But they do not tend to think about the effects that they have on the structure of thought.
Phenomenologically, as I am sure you know, something odd happens to the mind, and to one’s capacity to think, when engaged in that meandering process of purposeless internet activity – a not entirely unpleasant sensation of floating aimlessly on a Dead Sea of mildly diverting entertainment which, while composed of many very short, individuated rushes of interest (20 seconds of this video here; 30 seconds of that news story there; this meme over here; that gif over there), has an oceanic quality to it – like a single, vast abyss of content that is somehow uniform for all of its ostensible variety. What is absolutely characteristic of the experience is that it is devoid of coherent narrative (one is tempted to say it actively militates against narrative), consisting as it does of a near-infinite mass of unconnected, quasi-random interactions with fragments of content.
I cannot believe that filling one’s life with great chunks of anti-narrative, as modern youngsters do, does not have profound implications for their capacity to understand the world and their own lives in terms of story. If anything, it seems to have a reverse effect to novel-reading, and even to growing up: it shatters the experience of life into something resembling toddlerhood, with events simply washing over one in a disjointed, apparently entirely jumbled-up and random fashion, which one can make no real sense out of except as a series of pleasurable or fascinating events to occupy one’s attention for a few moments at a time.
This, it seems to me, has two noticeable effects. The first is a pronounced acceleration of what Iain McGilchrist identifies as (literal or metaphorical) ‘left-brain’ thinking – the tendency to want to break the world up into small, abstract, manipulable and easily understandable chunks of data rather than to seek to comprehend the whole. One comes to see life not as an irreducibly complex set of interactive processes – everything continually engaged with everything else – but instead as a very large but ultimately simple mass of discrete phenomena, each of which being readily comprehensible through some easy heuristic. And of course we see this tendency writ large all around us – a relentless, insistent need to describe any and all events through a framework not very far removed from ‘four legs good, two legs bad’. Increasingly people, especially the young, appear to comprehend the world in this way – as though in the end all of human society and its history is merely to be arranged into two vast piles of phenomena, one of them made up of the things which we approve of, and the other of things which we do not.
And the second effect is an inability to achieve, or even comprehend, Bly’s conception of adulthood as being given meaning by an overarching, self-written narrative. When life is chiefly experienced simply as a haphazard and meandering sequence of events, then that is what it will appear to be. The consequences of this are plain – a bleak and passive worldview in which life is understood as not just meaningless, but also ungraspable; something which absolutely cannot be made sense of, since it has no sense, and therefore something which it is not really worth engaging with very much at all. This also explains I think why the default mode of interaction of so many people now seems to be one of ironic detachment; this is not just an affectation, but a necessary consequence of a basic inability to conceive of the world as being something with which to engage sincerely and fully.
These are the problems which I think we face, and they have very little to do with what goes on in schools, and much less to do with what politicians say. They are, rather, attributable to a fundamental feature of the decaying of modernity and the consequent eschewing of story, driven by technology and the way that it affects our interactions with the world in front of us. And they explain why it is that our young people seem so vulnerable to highly simplistic – indeed almost imbecilically simplistic – just-so stories about the world, and why they seem to older generations to be so oddly passive and so devoid of the types of values which traditional societies have always held dear. This is what we have to grapple with: not the lack of ‘better’ stories but a basic lack of story, or indeed a contempt for story, that exists to begin with. This is a far bigger problem to define and resolve, but it is the real one.
It is fitting in closing to refer to a great novel, and here we can turn for wisdom to Turgenev and his depiction, in Fathers and Sons, of one of the great literary nihilists – Eugene Bazarov. Bazarov seems to our eyes to be shockingly current, and this I think is because he encapsulates the two tendencies which I identified in this post. On the one hand, he imagines himself to be a scientist, with designs on subjecting every aspect of social and biological life to what Oakeshott calls “the tribunal of the intellect”. This he comprehends as essentially a matter of breaking everything down into its constituent parts so each can be understood in isolation – as though, in order to really know what a frog is, one must dissect it minutely in order to see how each muscle and nerve works. Yet Bazarov is also disastrously incapable of actively engaging with life in any meaningful way – he does not understand the basics of relationships, of obligation, of commitment, or of empathy – and as a result is condemned to a bleak and pointless mode of living which few would envy. Ultimately it is only at the very end of his life that he shows a glimmer of understanding of the error of his ways, by which time, of course, it is too late.
We should be deeply concerned that our use of technology seems to be inculcating a kind of Bazarovism in the young, and as a consequence condemning them to his kind of fate. Ultimately, though, this has very little to do with ‘failings in the education system’ or words to that effect. The failure is much greater than this, and ought to lead us to a much bigger, and more difficult, confrontation with features of modern life that have become understood by us to be essential. One of these is our use of technology itself. And another is the way in which we raise our children. We will only be able to begin this confrontation with great discomfort. But it will have to happen.