When literature or history teachers assign their readings, they generally ask students how they "relate" to the text. It's a well-intentioned consequence of instant gratification: Students must be kept interested at all times. It's also one of the most detrimental things teachers do to their students. Rather than let a text broaden the student's perspective, asking her to "relate" narrows the purpose of the text to whatever value the student gives it. Rather than let the text challenge the student's biases, the student uses the text to reinforce existing beliefs or worse -- to dismiss the book as incomprehensible, irrelevant or pointless when relating to it proves impossible.
As Diane Ravitch, the education historian and professor put it, "How utterly vapid to expect that adolescents want to see themselves in everything they read, as if they have no capacity to imagine worlds that extend beyond their own limited experience, as if they will be emotionally undone by learning about the world as it is. How tedious it is for young people to find that school is an exercise in narcissism rather than an opportunity to discover the mysteries of time, space, and human nature."
The method could be dismissed as a passing fad in schools desperate to hold on to students who'd rather be elsewhere. But it's also the norm in college humanities departments, where critical skills receive their last rites, and it's the way most news and information is packaged to mass audiences. If it isn't "news you can use," if it doesn't affect your life, it can't possibly be important. It's the way most Americans understand their world. What a small-minded world it is becoming.
The narcissism has a lot to do with the kind of questions asked after the attacks of 2001 ("Why do they hate us?" "How could this happen?" "What is Islam?"). The questions are poignant, but also embarrassing in their implicit claim to innocence. How can you relate to evildoers, after all? The same narcissism informs the bewilderment at Iraqis' insistence on waging war against us even though we "liberated" them, or with the kind of anti-European attitude that gained currency in the past three years. Why even bother relating to ambiguities when the government's us-and-them simplicities are so much easier to follow?
But wailing about America's innocence abroad is as old as "Innocents Abroad," and not even an American patent. What empire ever let empathy trump self-interest? The narcissism is less excusable when it turns homeward and enables the kind of fundamental shift in domestic policies that's been taking place since the early 1980s, and intensifying since the beginning of this decade. Simply put: If a government program, a public institution, a chunk of pristine geography, a tax or a regulation doesn't directly and materially profit a powerful constituency, it's not worth keeping.
The elderly no longer "relate" to the public school system, so it's easy to lobby their vote when the time comes to defeat a school construction levy or to pander to the school-voucher crowd. The young don't "relate" to Social Security and Medicare, so it's just as easy to lobby their vote when the time comes to destroy those safety nets and replace them with risky Wall Street schemes the young do relate to. A society of affluence ceased relating to the poor about the time when Gordon Gekko announced that "greed is good" and Tom Joad became an obscure literary reference, so it's not even necessary to lobby anyone to end welfare programs or Medicaid, chip away at nutrition programs and keep trying to guillotine child-care programs like Head Start. If curbs on certain civil rights and liberties don't affect the masses directly, no one will really care when they affect a few hundred or a few thousand. What American could possibly "relate" to the prisoners at Guantanamo or to the thousands of immigrants imprisoned without due process around the country?
What American, for that matter, could relate to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where drilling -- 25 years after it was first proposed -- is all but a done deal? "We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it," the naturalist Edward Abbey once wrote. "We need a refuge even though we may never need to go there. I may never in my life get to Alaska, for example, but I am grateful it's there. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope." As the vastness of our heritage is made to fit the smallness of our immediate needs, Abbey's idea could apply to anything being destroyed once it is no longer thought useful to the bottom line.
The possibilities for escape are diminishing, and those most boundless of American frontiers -- our capacity for empathy for people beyond ourselves, our understanding of needs beyond our own, our reverence for places beyond our imagination -- may well be closing.
Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at ptristam@....