Headed to disillusion, boredom, decadence?

In a recent letter (April 25) I described Edmund Burke’s notion of Moral Imagination and how that attribute was shared by many of the great minds of the western tradition. I described Burke’s belief that student’s can best acquire this trait through the study of great literature. I suggested the new Common Core Standards (endorsed by the Ohio Department of Education and our local public and private schools) would inhibit the development of this important quality by limiting the study of classical literature in favor of non-fiction “informational texts.”

I would further argue that by intentionally restricting access to the historical notions of eternal Truth and Beauty found in classical literature, Common Core will leave young people susceptible to the development of what Burke called the Idyllic and Diabolic Imaginations.

Burke described the Idyllic Imagination as a mental disposition that inclines one to reject recognized dogmas or rules as well as established manners. He saw this form of imagination as destructive rather than constructive, seeking the “liberty from” something rather than the “liberty to” something. In an American context, this generally means liberty from those duties that are married to each of the rights we enjoy as citizens. Furthermore, because the Idyllic Imagination has no unifying principle, Burke reasoned, it is a destabilizing force in society. It leads to disillusion, boredom, and decadence, qualities in evidence during the recent Occupy Wall Street demonstrations.

Still worse is what Burke calls the Diabolic Imagination which, when cultivated, panders to the “lowest human urges for violence, destruction, cruelty, and sensational disorder.” Unfortunately, it is this attribute that informs much of our entertainment industry and the tech-savvy Internet world today. As an essentially anarchical trait it has historically been the driving force behind violent revolution and social upheaval. GK Chesterton saw it in the barbarism of Prussian society on the eve of WWI and it was readily apparent in the recent Boston bombings.

Knowing the purpose of great literature is to help students form a healthy, positive sense of Moral Imagination (through the study of great lives worthy of emulation and an appreciation for timeless ideas of objective Truth and Beauty) one is left with a healthy sense of skepticism regarding those who would seek to impede its study. Only the most callous educational activists, blinded by political ideology or egotism, would knowingly seek to separate young people from their cultural inheritance.

Kevin Ritter