Since seeing the movie Julie and Julia the other year, I do a double-take whenever I see an old photograph of Julia Child on a cookbook: Is that the actual chef, I wonder, or Meryl Streep, who played her so realistically? So I found myself doing a double-take when I saw the photograph today of my too-soon departed friend Peter Lawler, for his image looked so like the famous picture of Walker Percy, the novelist and essayist he most admired. Both were Southern and Catholic and, to borrow the title of one of Percy’s novels, both adopted the conceit of the “Last Gentleman,” an ideal whose lasting charm insures it will never quite be true.
It seems every year we have more proof that American universities are failing to engage in civic education, especially if we understand the concept as requiring meaningful reflection about the nature and purposes of government rather than just an awareness of the mechanisms of our government. There are exceptions, but for the most part, it seems unreasonable to expect much from the cafeteria-style general education curriculum required at most colleges. It is just as often remarked that even the civic education that some college students might encounter does not help, either—at least if you are a U.S. citizen who cares about fostering morally serious debate about the legitimate purposes of government in shaping our lives.
It’s hard not to think of the printing of two million copies of Harper Lee’s “new book” as a capitalist macroaggression against America. Many readers consider it a sequel, although it’s really a rough and in some ways misbegotten draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, the work that stands as the one and only account of heroic virtue shared by all Americans. When I go to my college classes, I (fake) struggle to find a piece of cultural literacy that all of us in the classroom share. The result is always the same.
In various lectures and publications, I’ve had occasion to call attention to the problem of the “birth dearth,” the fact that the birth rate has dropped below–often well below–the rate of replacement in just about every prosperous and high-tech country.
The relevant facts are laid out for our country (if hardly for the first time) in Jonathan V. Last’s thoughtful and accessible What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster. I can’t resist immediately making the point that American “disaster theory” is going in two different directions. One pole is all about climate change (warming) and the ecological disaster. The other is population change (declining) as the disaster for “social” (as opposed to natural) ecology. There’s obviously something unnatural or “manmade” about both disasters. And in both cases, the claim for disaster might slight the singular capacity of our species to ingeniously adapt to change of all kinds.