American Decline

The Disunited States of America

By Peter Van Buren, The American Conservative

Two years ago, I walked into a café in Florence and said “Can I get an espresso?” The waitress replied, “No, no, here we say buongiorno first. We smile. And only then we order. Try it, it is nice.” That is a civil place. It was not America. America has become an uncivil place.

Almost all of us are convinced this is a broken place; the problem is we differ violently over what is broken, never mind how to fix it. A lot of us are sure our schools are broken. This is a very fundamental thing for a society, as schools teach kids how to live with each other (“values.”) Fundamental things being broken is bad.

But we can’t even come close to agreeing which books to read in English class, never mind whether the whole education system is simply an expression of systemic racism, baked into everything from whose history to tell, to the role of demanding precision in math, to which historical figure’s name is on the school building. These are very big, very fundamental unresolved societal problems. I don’t know of other countries with such problems. I don’t know of any place so unhappy with itself it resorts to intellectual incest as a palliative.

The result is schooling by ideology. The wealthy now choose among private schools tailored to their needs. Middle class families buy their homes based on the public school that comes with them. In urban areas, public education now means warehousing poor kids of color, the school more a place to pass on food and used clothes than knowledge. American children get very different content in their educations, never mind qualities of education. All very separate and very unequal, an idea once rejected by a more civil society. I really thought we had that one beat.

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