It’s not easy to get students to see outside themselves and the culture they inhabit. Our experience conditions us to love what who we are. This is natural, and even Biblical to some extent. But of course many other great cultures exist/ed and studying History can shake us up and force us to confront ourselves anew.
That’s why I treasured the comment of one student years ago when we looked at the work of the Renaissance genius Brunelleschi, who advanced the science of perspective,
built the first dome in the western world since the Pantheon . . .
and entered the sculpture/engraving contest for the doors of the Florence baptistry . ..
among other things. After taking all this in, one student remarked, “Boy, we suck,” which delighted my ears to no end. He understood that in many ways, our civilization has a long way to go. I don’t love Renaissance culture, but clearly they had enormous achievements in important areas, and we justly remember them for it. They put their time and money into innovating things beautiful and useful, things that have blessed succeeding generations for more than half a millennium.
What about us today?
I came across this Marginal Revolution post from a few weeks ago, where Tyler Cowen makes the point that India’s latest Mars mission cost less than Gravity, Hollywood’s latest space movie. At various points in the history of the west different inspirations have taken hold. At one point we built cathedrals, at other times we sailed the seven seas, or all wanted to speak French. We had inspiration and aspirations. This is where we spent our time, energy, and money.
The world will little remember Transformers: Age of Extinction, or Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides despite the fact that they cost $325 and $378 million respectively. On balance it appears we put our money, our dreams, into merely entertaining ourselves. We’re not, praise God, quite at “bread and circuses” yet, but the trend should concern us.
And given what I witnessed Sunday, we can’t even make good Super Bowl commercials anymore. I miss the good ol’ days (exhibit ‘A’ below).