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Contest Archives Columns Contest Archives ENLIGHTENMENT, THEN AND NOW


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This is January's Gold Winner in the Column Contest.

  The Age of Enlightenment, which so strongly influenced the thinking of the Founding Fathers of America, happened only to the privileged classes.  People of culture could read and write.  That was how they participated in the refreshing new winds of thought that were blowing across Europe. 

When I was young, I was able to maintain the comfortable illusion that Americans still respected education and culture - up until 1965.  That was when I graduated from the private boys’ school in New York City where I had been educated from fourth grade through twelfth.  I then suddenly found myself in a midwestern college where everyone around me seemed to have come out of the movie, American Graffiti.  Culture Shock doesn’t begin to describe it!

  The truth, of course, is that a small percentage of Americans has always valued education and seen it as a sign of class - whereas most have never cared about education or class.  It is the difference between whether your season tickets are for Lincoln Center or Yankee Stadium, for Ballet Arizona or BankOne Ballpark. 

Now, don’t get me wrong - I have nothing against team sports, tractor-pulls or action-adventure movies.  I just think that people miss out on a lot of good stuff if they can’t also appreciate theatre, dance, music, art, and literature.  You could have season tickets for both sorts of entertainment!

            When I was in high school, I was considered privileged because my family owned movie projectors and an expensive collection of Hollywood films – in 16 millimeter, black and white.  Today, everybody owns Hollywood movies - in color - on VHS and DVD.  And big-screen TVs make our old equipment look like cumbersome dinosaurs.

When I was in high school, it was a mark of enormous prestige if someone had a telephone brought to his or her restaurant table.  Today, every teenager has a cell phone, and communication devices are as common as acne. 

            Now, don’t get me wrong.  As a Yogi of limited means, I appreciate the egalitarianism of today’s society – the fact that more people with less money can enjoy privileges that used to be available only to the rich.  This is a living example of the American ideals of democracy, technological advancement, and increasing opportunity for all. 

But – where, oh where, did the Enlightenment go?  Along with those class privileges, we also had a sense of Education.  We understood that we were not better than other people, only vastly more fortunate.  And because of our fortunate position in life, we had a responsibility to know as much as possible about our cultural heritage - even to be its torchbearers.  It is that sense of cultural awareness that I find missing in most people today. 

Of course, we were not gifted equally; each of us manifested our cultural talents in a different way.  My sister’s cultural talent was in Music.  She became a classically trained musician with a beautiful operatic voice.  Years later she continued her education – and her service to humanity – with a Master’s degree in Music Therapy.

My cultural talent was in English.  When I was in high school, I enjoyed reading the most richly worded books I could find.  Such writing was a sign that the author was as educated as I, and that he or she respected my mind and wanted to reward my time.  I would always buy the hardcover, unabridged version – never the Reader's Digest Condensed.  As a writer myself, I understood how vitally important the placement of each word was to the person who had written it, and then spent weeks editing and perfecting it.  That person wanted me to taste and savor the verbal combinations, too!

Today, people use single letters – abbreviated - in place of whole words.  This is sometimes justified because space is limited on cell phone or pager screens; but I think it’s mostly just apathy.  Nobody respects your mind anymore.  Our attention is treated like something cheap - and so is our language.  And, as a result of this dumbing-down, fewer people know how to read and write. 

To be more accurate - fewer people know how to enjoy reading.  The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy is magnificent (of course, I watch only the extended version).  Thank God for Peter Jackson and friends - because an appalling number of our young citizens have no idea that the story is available in print!  Before the release of the third film, I was talking to a college-age fan of the movies, and I mentioned that, of course, The Sword that was Broken would be re-forged.  He looked at me with wide eyes.  “How do you know?” he asked with wonder.  “Have you seen the next movie already?”

I was just as gob-smacked on my side.  “No!” I answered.  “I read the books – thirty-five years ago!”  When I told another young fan that I had read the books in college, she assumed that it had been an assignment!  She could not conceive of reading a book for pleasure!  In point of fact, I had let my schoolwork slide so I could sit up for four nights in a row in my second-hand armchair, smoking my Gandalf pipe and reading each book through, cover to cover.  Schoolwork be hanged!      

 I feel real pity for people who deprive themselves of the literary world of J.R.R. Tolkien.  Middle-earth is one of the true pleasures that this earth affords.  The pity comes from the fact that these people speak English and supposedly know how to read!

             Once I had adjusted to the new reality, I came to love being in college in the late 1960’s as a member of the flower-child generation.  I still believe that our Tolkien-like rebellion - against Money and Power that are gained at the expense of the creatures and environments of Mother Earth - was a necessary stage in human awareness.  The war to save our ecology is still being fought today.  The Orc-like mechanisms are strong, and many people resist their own evolution. 

But what started out as a conscious experiment on the part of college-raised intellectuals in back-to-basics simplicity and mind expansion – an exaltation of spiritual values, and even of physical love as something natural, good and celebratory - has devolved, 42 years later, into an orgy of instant gratification, disposable relationships and possessions, and the dumbing-down of that very intellect that set the whole process in motion! 

Today, I am a teacher.  And I have had to face an even harder reality than I discovered in 1965.  Our culture has become defined by sound-bytes.  Any truly valuable teaching has to compete with millions of bits of nonsense that invade peoples' minds every hour of the day.  And, because information (whether accurate or not) is so cheap and plentiful, Learning has lost its value.  Education for its own sake – like culture or manners - is no longer seen as anything important. 

Obviously, there are exceptions to this gloomy picture, as there have always been.  I am one of those exceptions – and so are you, my friend, if you have followed the words of this essay so far.  But ours is an uphill struggle.  We’re going to need all the help and luck we can get.

To compete with the mindless, culture-deprived pace of today's world, will take adaptation and inventiveness, and a very clear mind and vision of our own.  Nowadays, if we have a clean and pure teaching that we think can improve people’s lives, we need to "hook" their attention with a conveniently-bottled sample of that fresh water – unless we can find a way to put it on a strip that they can dissolve on their tongues! 

If we can find a way to attract their interest, they might finally get intrigued enough to seek out the well and draw directly from it, themselves.  Maybe they will gradually learn to distinguish between Substance and that which is hollow. 

But don’t hold your breath while waiting to see if it works!  As the Bhagavad Gita advises, continue to do your duty as best you can, but leave the outcome to God. 

Every day brings events that can upset us and take away our peace of mind.  However, very few of those events can be changed by our being upset.  The wise, therefore, seek to maintain their equilibrium – and their sense of humor - while pondering what is best to be done.



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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Although this piece could be considered a little condescending, it points out some real problems in American culture today, where evrything is reduced to it's 'cliff notes'.
I particularly liked the phrase about 'resisting our own evolution', how true!
People would be so much better off if they read more and watched TV less.

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Bravo Ted

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Well thought out, beautifully written Ted.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Ted...this is a great breakdown concerning "enlightenment," & would love to see it inserted into educational curriculums nationwide.
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many, many things to learn. and teach.

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
but, the most important is to spend time in the shire as often as needed or is possible. i go there whenever the whim moves me.
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