KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Is there a precise moment where you can say, yes, yes, this is the moment when America went “lite”?
DAVID GELERNTER: The Cultural Revolution itself began right after World War II (when our leading colleges were still in the hands of the generally centrist WASP elite) and culminated around 1970, when intellectuals were in control, and preparing to use these universities as platforms for imposing their worldview throughout the schools’ establishment and cultural elite.
So America went lite starting around 1970. The big change was complete by the 1980s: In ’83, “A Nation at Risk” described the mediocrity of our schools; in ’87, Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind described the intellectual corruption of our universities. Both times, these disasters had (of course) already happened. And Bill Bennett, secretary of education under Reagan from ’85 to ’88, repeatedly drew the nation’s attention to this cultural disaster.
So by (say) 1990, America-Lite was a done deal. Each year since, we’ve seen a new crop of largely ignorant high-school and college graduates (children we have failed to educate) released into an ever dumber and denser cultural atmosphere.
LOPEZ: Is it a bit dramatic to call what’s happened here an actual “cultural revolution”? Was there blood? Mandates?
GELERNTER: American culture had its throat slit and bled to death at our feet. Isn’t that revolutionary enough? The blood is only metaphorical, but to the 40 percent of [all] infants [who are] born to single mothers this year, the consequences will be real.
In a piddling few decades, the world’s most powerful, influential cultural establishment happened to get demolished and rebuilt from the ground up. What had been basically a Christian, patriotic, family-loving, politically moderate part of society became contemptuous of biblical religion, of patriotism, of the family, of American greatness. The American cultural elite used to resemble (more or less) the rest of America. Today it disdains the rest of America. That’s a revolution.
Example: Look at (just) the arts in 1960 vs. 1990. In 1960, the whole country knew Robert Frost’s poetry; Leonard Bernstein was reaching large TV audiences for classical music with his Young People’s Concerts on CBS; theater and ballet were thriving, reaching larger audiences all the time; Hemingway was only the most famous of America’s serious novelists; and American avant-garde painting was a topic for Life magazine. (And European artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, and Giacometti were international celebrities.) In 1990, silence. High culture had become a term to laugh at. No blood; no mandates. Just an empty lot covered with weeds where the art used to be.
LOPEZ: Why is the “smashing of etiquette” so important? When I let — and expect and welcome — a man to hold the door for me and let me have the first cab again, will I know we’ve come through this storm?
GELERNTER: If these things are done in the archly cynical, self-conscious, self-mocking, God-forbid-I-should-actually-be-serious style in which we specialize (we post-cultural zombies) then of course they’ll mean nothing.
But if they’re done as a matter of course — like speaking grammatically — then (trivial as they are in themselves) they will speak eloquently about the actor and the society he comes from. These things used to be important because they said “this is an ‘ought’ society where we take our duties as seriously as our rights — not an inch-deep, egomaniac society where our rights are sacred but our duties are all owed to ourselves.”
LOPEZ: What was the “Great Reform” and what’s most important for us to understand about it today?
GELERNTER: In 1945, Yale and Harvard and their colleague institutions, America’s most powerful and influential colleges, were mostly run by and for the WASP elite. They all had intellectuals and scholars among their populations, but the ideal students, faculty, deans, and presidents were social and not intellectual leaders. The Great Reform was a beautiful impulse with dreadful consequences. The major colleges opened their gates to Jews, blacks, women, and other once-excluded groups.