When we look at the problems of today, when we see so many disordered
lives and moral misconceptions, we also find a generational discontinuity.
As a people, we have forgotten our history, even as our history is no longer
properly taught, even as our traditions are handed down in a grossly
abbreviated or mangled form. This is a serious situation for a country that
must preserve certain essential understandings and institutions in order to
It used to be that children were given many things — parental
guidance, traditions, rules, discipline. Some children still receive this
kind of upbringing. But studies show that most do not. Today our children
are given a kind of freedom, a chance to form opinions at a very early age,
to have sex and to get pregnant, to make potentially devastating choices
before the consequences can be fully appreciated. All of this, at the same
time, is taking place in a permissive environment which ignores or neglects
the lessons of history and life. In fact, the very mechanisms intended to
transmit those lessons have broken down or else they have been appropriated
for other tasks.
As many of you may know, the educational emphasis today is on math and
science. We are a technocratic civilization where opportunity depends on
specialized knowledge. After all, our lifestyle depends on the construction
and maintenance of machines. But wisdom is not born from technological
studies. Real wisdom derives from human experience and a careful study of
history. In today’s context, it seems we have forgotten the lessons of the
past, growing convinced that we have discovered a new and better path (and a
Despite all this, we are still living in history. We are not at the “end of history,” as Francis Fukuyama suggested. There is great confusion today about who we are, about where we are going, and it is a dangerous confusion.
Perhaps it boils down to the fact that our modern judgment — or
misjudgment — rarely takes history into account. With us there are theories
of economy, theories of equality and democracy — but the solid stuff of
historical experience is missing from our liberal and so-called conservative
formulas. We have been losing the past gradually, decade by decade. Today’s
young people are almost walled off from the past. The very tools of
understanding they have been given by the educational bureaucracy prevent
them from taking a respectful attitude to the past. Even worse, the coming
generation chiefly relies upon the false vicarious experience offered by
Once upon a time a large part of education involved the reading of
history and intimate contact with adults. Beginning in the mid-1970s,
history requirements were dropped at one university after another.
Meanwhile, the history taught in high schools evolved into a series of
politically correct lesson plans, often masking a subtle neo-Marxist subtext.
It can be argued, from all of this, that Americans educated since 1976
haven’t a foundation for understanding themselves or their situation because
they have absorbed so little that is great or genuine from the past.
In her book, “A Tribe Apart,” Patricia Hersch describes the current
isolation of young people from their elders and the experience of previous
generations. She describes “a congruence most [adolescents] have never
known.” The new generation doesn’t seem to fit. Since we have left history
behind, since adults interact with children less and less, young people are
being shaped by what might be called “institutions of the here and now.”
Commercial civilization and its media provide inputs as harmful as those of
liberal rationalist educators.
“In the nineties,” writes Hersch, “the
generation gap is a gaping hole that severs the continuity of generations.”
According to a 1992 report published by the Carnegie Council on
Adolescent Development, young people spend almost all of their discretionary
time without adult supervision. “It is a conundrum,” notes Hersch, referring
to statistics about troubled teens: “by all indications a substantial portion
of kids we know must be participating in seriously unhealthy behaviors.”
It is my view that the crisis has developed with a self-deceptive
edge. “There is a confounding lack of congruence between what adults see and
what we are told is true,” writes Hersch.
Imagine growing up in a world with disintegrating moral norms, without
traditions or historical anchors, where everything is based on entertainment,
consumption and the cult of career success. Imagine the conceptions that
take shape in children living under such a regime. Imagine the many
misunderstandings. From the perspective of the coming generation, history is
a bad old land where discrimination ruled and discomfort prevailed. It needs
to be argued, in this regard, that such a standpoint must prove to be
disorienting when it ought to be a process of orientation.
There are other causes at work in the generational discontinuity, to
be sure. “It is because we aren’t there,” argues Hersch, who blames the
disconnect on absentee adults and parents. In addition to the neglect of
history, a kind of age segregation has taken hold in our society. In my own
book, “Origins of the Fourth World War,” the consequences of our increasingly
institutionalized neglect of children and the elderly is explored. I believe
this is a root cause of the generational disconnect that has overtaken us.
It almost seems that each generation today walls off their parents and their
children. Why is this happening? Is it because each generation is now so
different, so isolated by the progressive degeneration of values, that the
thoughts and feelings of each generation produce a vague hostility between
those who represent yesterday, today and tomorrow?
As noted in my book, the young are herded into concentration camps for
the child, called “schools,” while the elderly are herded into concentration
camps for the old, referred to as “retirement centers” or “care facilities.” The
generations are separated out, segregated and isolated one from the other.
This suggests a desire, on some level, to minimize contact between the
It was Edmund Burke who once said, “People will not look forward to
posterity who never look backward to their ancestors.” He also predicted
what modern education would become under a regime guided only by convenience.
“Along with its natural protectors and guardians,” Burke noted, “learning
will be cast into the mire, and trodden down under the hoofs of a swinish
Imagine a generation that receives its ideas about life from a morally
agnostic educational bureaucracy, which praises Martin Luther King Jr. as
the greatest human being yet known. Meanwhile, all other lessons of history
remain undeciphered, their hieroglyphics briefly committed to memory for the
sake of Friday’s test. Then all is forgotten.
Over 200 years ago Burke wrote that civilization was in danger because
false logic was beginning to supplant historical experience. Men were losing
their respect for the past, he explained, and no longer held tradition in
high esteem. He feared “the total contempt … of all ancient institutions,
when set in opposition to a present sense of convenience. …”
Burke feared that convenience would triumph over all, ruining
civilization in the process. And now that we have arrived in the Age of
Convenience, we can see that things are beginning to go terribly wrong.
The world of today’s adolescent, which Patricia Hersch describes, is a
world cut off from the beliefs and meanings of forefathers. Children today
might use the same words that their grandparents used to describe higher
things, but they do not signify the same ideas. Because convenience is the
God we worship best, life’s other priorities are shortchanged.
Burke long ago pointed out that community is not merely a system of
people living together here and now. It is a system that stretches back to
our ancestors and ahead to our posterity. Being an American means living in
a community that includes George Washington. But the ideas of Washington and
those of today are separated by a gulf that is more than generational.
Washington was concerned with duty. Today that concern has been overthrown
Burke argued that our political rights are inherited. They are passed
from generation to generation and do not spring, full blown, out of the
nothingness of pure logic. Furthermore, the understanding needed to preserve
our political inheritance must also be transmitted; but the transmission belt
from one generation to another has been bureaucratized, dehumanized and
subverted. We have built up an imaginary catalogue of rights that Burke
predicted would destroy real rights. Today all the talk is of homosexual
rights, animals’ rights, women’s rights and the rights of the child. None of
these are inherited or fit with the living system of the past. All are
abstract and unconnected to the human system that links the generations and
promises continuity to the future.
“The pretended rights of these theorists,” wrote Burke of the
political innovators of his own day, “are all extremes; and in proportion as
they are metaphysically true, they are morally and politically false.”
Whatever crisis you wish to emphasize — from teen pregnancy to
political corruption to military decline — the common root is a regime that
miseducates its children, failing to transmit adult experiences and ideas in
all their fullness. To some extent, due to the progressive nature of the
breakdown in our culture, many adults are like children in their
understanding. As I wrote in my book, “Today we no longer think in terms of
history or futurity. We think of ourselves as the Be All and End All.”
On this point, we ought to think a second time.