The Peril of Disregarding the Past

In a recent New York Times column, David Brooks told a story that perfectly captured the divide between what I call “traditional conservatism” and liberalism — “liberalism,” which historically is a good term, but has been perverted.

He quoted a report by a Harvard faculty committee, which read, “The aim of a liberal education . . . is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar . . . [and] to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to reorient themselves . . .”

The report helps us understand why higher education has been corrupted, and why we are producing a generation of barbarians.

The language Brooks quotes goes far beyond teaching critical thinking or even encouraging students to, as the old bumper sticker used to say, “question authority.”

As Brooks rightly argues, the report describes “an entire way of living.” In this way of living, “individuals should . . . be skeptical of preexisting arrangements . . . break free from the way they were raised . . . [and] discover their own values.”

This disregard for the past seems even natural in our day because, as Brooks notes, our cultural norms exalt the individual over the institution—so much so that appeals to things such as institutional memory are regarded as primitive.

Thus, we are increasingly unable to understand ideas such as those expressed by former Chicago Cub Ryne Sandberg at his induction into Baseball’s Hall of Fame. He spoke of the respect due the game, his teammates, opponents, and, most of all, those who had played the game before him.

If this brings to mind the biblical phrase “the great cloud of witnesses,” it should. What Brooks wrote about institutions is in accord with Christian ideas about the role and importance of tradition.

One of the best exponents of this was G.K. Chesterton. In his book Orthodoxy , he wrote, “Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors.” And he wrote that “tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”

It’s not only respect for tradition that’s involved here — it’s prudence. These institutions and arrangements have helped to preserve the moral order, which is our first duty to maintain. They have been shaped by people who took into account the world as it is — filled with fallen human beings — instead of an imaginary utopia filled with perfectible people.

This respect is why true conservatism is a disposition, not an ideology. It doesn’t seek to reinvent man and his world — its concerns are about what T.S. Eliot called the “permanent things.”

In contrast, perverted modern liberalism, which includes many who call themselves “conservatives,” is about innovation, breaking from the past, upsetting the established order, and maximizing individual autonomy.

But this is precisely the worldview that has brought us to the economic crisis we face today. People of all stripes—bankers, bureaucrats, and John and Jane Q. Public—all cast off those stuffy old virtues like thrift, avoiding debt, delaying gratification, and they “reoriented” themselves and all of us into a global recession.

Whoever said worldview doesn’t matter?

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