Athenians, Visigoths, and ‘I Love Books Month’

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Tuesday, February 2, 2010
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With apologies to Tolstoy, happy families are not all alike. I know this because my family had a tradition that I’m sure was unique.

Each February, in lieu of the bombarding Valentine’s Day celebrations, my parents would take us to the bookstore, where we could pick a book to commemorate “I Love Books Month,” a holiday of their own devising.

Corniness aside, I’m certain I’ll follow that tradition — and the other literary traditions of my childhood, from the rite of passage that was earning the right to a library card by successfully reading “Go, Dog, Go,” to the nightly ritual of “reading lights” — when I have children of my own.

Why? Because I want my children to be Athenians.

Neil Postman, noted cultural critic and author, wrote a graduation speech once, and never gave it.

Postman’s speech has taken on undeniable relevance in our modern age, and should be required reading for anyone entering an institution of learning.

Postman argued that culture is a never-ending battle between two historical metaphors, the Athenians and the Visigoths. The Athenians, he wrote, represent the higher inclinations of mankind — the art, the culture, the nobler virtues.

To be an Athenian, he argued, was to organize a life around a set of values. To be an Athenian was to cherish art, to revere language, to “understand that the thread which holds civilized society together is thin and vulnerable.”

While students ostensibly attend college to become part of the grand tradition of higher learning, the campus today is often the very embodiment of the destructive Visigoth spirit.

As Postman put it, “The Visigoths think of themselves as the center of the universe. Tradition exists for their own convenience, good manners are an affectation and a burden, and history is merely what is in yesterday’s newspaper.”

Visigoths, he wrote, rather than appreciate the wonders of the academy, would be more likely to “scrawl obscenities on the wall.”

This should begin to sound familiar.

If the preservation of culture matters, if there’s something about the American ideal worth fighting for, then our generation has a good deal of work to do.

Our culture is coarse and degrading, our politics is bitter and ugly, our communities are fractured, and our national discourse is frivolous when it is not fratricidal.

This is why literacy, civic engagement, cultural achievement, and decency so depend on the institution of family. The ways of thinking that produce the sort of citizens upon whom civilization depends can’t be learned from television, or peers, or even from schools.

Intelligent, productive citizens — Athenians — don’t just spring full-grown from difficult family lives and a ruined culture. They are formed by communities, and mentors, and mostly by families.

If you had the type of family that made learning a priority, that taught you to read, and read well, that encouraged you to think — be thankful.

And if there’s any glint of hope in the mess our generation’s parents made of their marriages and families, it’s this: we’ve seen the devastation, and we want to do better, even if we’re not sure how.

Reach Will at