Sometimes I wonder if the future, in some strange metaphysical way, reaches down into our psyches and readies us to accept what is to come. Maybe we know things before we know them. By the time change is plain to see, we’ve unconsciously adapted to it and have learned to call it something else–God’s will, human nature, life.
Let’s say, for example, that the American Empire is just about over. Let’s say China and India and other countries as well are set to surge ahead in science and technology, leaving reduced opportunities for upward mobility for the educated, while capital continues to roam the world in search of cheap labor, leaving a shattered working class. Let’s say we really are becoming a society of fixed status: the have-nots, an anxious and defensive middle and what George W. Bush famously calls his base, the have-mores. What sort of shifts in culture and social structure would prepare us for this looming state of affairs? A resurgence of Christian fundamentalism would fill the bill nicely.
Intellectually, scientifically, even artistically, fundamentalism–biblical literalism–is a road to nowhere, because it insists on fidelity to revealed truths that are not true. But religious enthusiasm is not all bad. Like love or political activism, it can help troubled souls transform their lives. And if what we’re looking at is an America with an ever-larger and boxed-in working class and tighter competition for high-paying jobs among the elite, fundamentalism is exactly the thing to manage decline: It schools the downwardly mobile in making the best of their lot while teaching them to be grateful for the food pantry and daycare over at the church. At the same time, taking advantage of existing currents of anti-intellectualism and school-tax resistance, it removes from the pool of potential scientists and other creative professionals vast numbers of students, who will have had their minds befuddled with creationism and its smooth-talking cousin, intelligent design. Already, according to a study by University of Minnesota biology professor Randy Moore, 40 percent of high school biology teachers don’t teach evolution, either because it’s socially unacceptable in their communities or because they themselves don’t believe in it.
If you think of current behavior as an advance accommodation to what is on the way, some things make sense that otherwise are mysterious. Why, at the very moment that we are talking obsessively about academic “excellence” and leaving no child behind, are we turning our public schools into factories of rote learning and multiple-choice testing, as if learning how to read and count were some huge accomplishment? Well, if your fate is to be a supermarket checker–and that’s a “good job” these days–you won’t be needing Roman history or art or calculus. By the same token, cutting state university budgets, burdening students with debt and turning college into a kind of middle-management trade school makes sense, if shrinking opportunities for the professional elite lie ahead. Why create more competition for the graduates of the Ivy League?