Over the last few months I’ve been discussing the forgotten (or, rather, systematically ignored) history of American occultism, partly because it’s interesting in its own right and partly because it offers a good functional escape hatch out of the rigidly dualistic vision that has so tight a stranglehold on so many people’s ideas of the history of the United States. We have a lot more along those same lines to discuss, and next week I’ll be posting another serving from the same simmering pot. In the meantime, though, the current state of emergency has been having some intriguing effects, and we should talk about those, too.
No doubt the current coronavirus outbreak and the vagaries of the public policy measures taken to control it will be a subject of endless discussion for months to come. I don’t propose to add much to that discussion here. It’s enough for present purposes to note that the systematic efforts made to flatten the curve of infections, so that US hospital systems would not be overwhelmed, appear to have worked. The millions of deaths predicted early on were effectively headed off, and the outbreak has slowed to the point that some states have already removed the more extreme preventive measures and others are preparing to do so.
The most important of those measures, though, may have some unexpected results. I’m thinking here of the mandatory closures that resulted in millions of Americans staying home most of the time. Until those orders went out, a very large number of people in this country lived on the equivalent of a high-speed treadmill, scrambling at top speed to keep up with the demands of work, commuting, and social commitments. That left a great many of them too tired and distracted to do much more than keep scrambling—too tired and distracted, certainly, to stop, catch their breaths, and think about whether they actually want to lead the lives they’re living.
For more than a month now, by contrast, the treadmill has been turned off. Willy-nilly, a great many Americans have landed in the equivalent of one of those retreats where you have the time and space and solitude to think about your life and figure out where to go from here. Not all of them have made use of the opportunity, but to judge by what I’ve read while lurking on a variety of online forums, a very significant number have done so, and a good many of them are not well pleased by what they’ve realized over the course of their involuntary retreat time.
For example, most American schoolchildren have been staying home during the emergency, and those who go to public schools have generally kept doing their schoolwork by way of various distance learning arrangements. As a result, a great many parents of school age children in the United States have had the chance, in most cases for the first time, to find out exactly what their children are doing to fill the hours they spend in this country’s public schools. That hasn’t exactly been a pleasant revelation, and it bids fair to reshape the entire debate around schooling in today’s America.
For decades now, proponents of the US public school system and proponents of homeschooling have been locked into a debate closely tied into the broader rhetoric of the so-called culture wars. A large number of homeschooling families, that is, belong to conservative religious movements that disapprove of the ideological biases of modern US public school education. The proponents of the public school, system, of course, return the favor with interest, disapproving just as heartily of the ideological biases of the conservative religious movements. That’s exactly the sort of rhetorical merry-go-round that’s been filling our national life with the sort of political calliope music with which we’re all far too familiar—and it serves, as all such rhetorical games reliably serve, to distract attention from other issues less welcome to either side.
Thus it’s probably necessary to say that based on the sample I’ve seen, parents of schoolchildren who have been looking over young shoulders at their daily lessons aren’t particularly bent out of shape by the ideologies on display therein. What has them looking on in dismay is just how little their children are being taught or expected to learn. They’re watching their kids receive dumbed-down lessons that take vacuousness and mediocrity to previously unplumbed levels, and make-work exercises that by and large are well within the capacity of an ordinarily intelligent hamster. Many of them are watching their kids complete a day’s worth of lessons and assignments in well under an hour, and they’re wondering for very good reason exactly why those same kids are being expected to sit in a school for six or seven hours a day, five days a week.
Thus the core problem with the public schools, from the point of view of a great many parents of schoolchildren, is not that they teach this or that ideology. It’s that so few public schools teach much of anything at all. That’s something that people have been talking about out on the fringes of our society for a while now, but it wasn’t something that most parents heard about or noticed. Now it’s become impossible for many of them to avoid. The result, of course, is that a great many of them are starting to think about whether they can do a better job of teaching their children themselves—and in a great many cases, yes, they can.
Of course the pushback has already started. It’s not accidental that a few weeks back, while the current emergency was getting under way, Harvard Magazine published an article calling for a ban on homeschooling. Of course the article trotted out exactly the sort of rhetoric I mentioned above, and of course it did so in the cluelessly hamfisted way that’s become de rigueur these days whenever the talking heads of the comfortable classes rail at deplorables who won’t shut up and do as they’re told by their self-proclaimed betters. The result was practically self-parody: we can’t let parents decide what to teach their children, only we have the right to decide that! It’s an old song, though rarely played in so shrill and tone-deaf a manner.
I suspect, though, that it’s going to get even less applause from the audience than it has in the past. I also suspect that if state officials attempt to crack down on homeschooling in an attempt to head off a wholesale flight from the public schools, they’re going to discover that they’ve just handed their political opponents a weapon that will be used with impressive vigor in the next few election campaigns. We’ll see how the game plays out, but it seems likely that the long decline of American public schooling may just have passed the kind of inflection point after which not even the most frantic defense of a failed status quo can stave off radical change.
The realization that our public schools no longer provide an education worth the name is only one of the insights that seem to be dawning in a good many minds just now. Another is the realization that it’s not necessarily a good idea for both members of a married couple to work ouside the home. A great many people are beginning to wake up to the economic possibilities of the household—to put things in economist’s jargon, the production of goods and services at home by and for family members, outside the reach of the money economy.
In nearly all human societies throughout recorded history, the household sector produced a very large fraction of all goods and services. That stopped being true in large parts of the industrial world in the second half of the 20th century, when lavishly funded marketing programs set out to convince people that they should stop producing goods and services at home and let the money economy take over that aspect of their lives so big businesses could profit off them. The two-job family was a core element of that marketing schtick, and it was pushed heavily by advertising campaigns that borrowed the rhetoric of feminism to convince women that being exploited by an employer was somehow more liberated than working for themselves and their families at home.
I should probably stop here and point out that even aside from the little matter of same-sex marriages, there’s much to be said for abandoning the notion that men by definition should work outside the home and women by definition should manage the household economy. That was never as universal as it’s sometimes claimed, by the way; my wife’s great-aunt Martha worked as a bookkeeper for most of her adult life while her husband Charlie stayed home and took care of the household. For that matter, I was a househusband for a good many years, and transitioned from that role to that of breadwinner only when my writing career started bringing in enough income to support us and my wife’s health made it necessary for her to leave the work force.
So talking about the revival of the household economy isn’t a dog whistle for some kind of antifeminist agenda, though no doubt corporate marketing campaigns will try to make this equation if the household economy gets going again. In any family containing two or more adults, there’s often a strong case to be made for one of those adults to stop working outside the home and take the household economy in hand, providing services such as childcare, cooking, cleaning, food preservation, gardening, and a range of other practical crafts that would otherwise have to be paid for in cash. Add up all those services and products, and then factor in the savings in commuting costs, business clothing, and all the other incidental expenses of having a job, and in a good many cases the benefits and savings outweigh the foregone income.
That’s been true for a good long while now, but here too this was something that you rarely heard anyone discussing except well out on the fringes of society. Now, it’s suddenly a live issue, because people have had the chance to remember that there’s an alternative to the two-job treadmill. Watch online conversations where the subject comes up and you’ll find that a good many people are realizing how much they enjoy being home and having the time to cook meals from scratch—and the half-bare shelves of your local grocery store will testify to how many people are picking up raw materials such as flour so they can bake their own bread for a change.
Once again, there’s sure to be pushback. On the one hand, the corporate conglomerates that cash in on people who don’t have time to maintain a household economy are sure to pull out all the stops in an attempt to hold onto their formerly reliable cash cows. On the other—well, ask women who’ve chosen to be homemakers what kind of treatment they’ve gotten from other women, and you can count on hearing horror stories; it can get really brutal. (In my experience, househusbands get much less hassle from other men.) Here too, though, I think we’re passing an inflection point of some importance, and the pushback may not be anything like as effective as it’s been up to now.
The dismal inadequacy of our public schools and the weary burden of the mandatory two-job family: these are the two most common realizations I’ve seen as I scan the internet. There are others. It’s an interesting question, for example, whether the American university industry will survive in its current form, or at all, now that distance learning arrangements have given parents and prospective students the chance to gauge just how little value comes in return for those absurdly inflated tuition payments. It’s also an interesting question just how many people will be willing to go back to work in cubicle farms now that they’ve realized that they can get just as much work done sitting comfortably at home. The list could be extended to quite some length; there seems to be little in American life that isn’t coming in for a hard and skeptical look now that people have the free time to stop and think. By and large, though, we can sum up the entire pattern of reflection and reassessment in a simple if colorful way: a great many Americans have discovered that their lives suck.
You’d think that they would have been aware of that long since, but human nature is what it is. Most people have had, as I have, the experience of being in a bad relationship, or a bad job, or a bad living situation, or what have you, but being so caught up in the moment-by-moment scramble to cope with the situation that it never quite sinks in how bad it is. Then it ends, or you get a sufficient respite from scrambling in some other way, and you finally have the chance to take a good hard look at it and realize just how awful an experience you’ve been through.
A lot of people seem to be going through that experience right now. A poll in Britain a little while ago asked people how many of them wanted things after the coronavirus outbreak to be exactly the way they were beforehand. The vote in favor of returning to the pre-pandemic status quo? A mighty total of 9%. I’d be surprised if the figure was quite that high here in the United States. I’m quite convinced, for that matter, that so many people in the US are insisting loudly that nobody should go back to their ordinary lives yet, that we have to stay locked down indefinitely and that nobody should go back to work, because they can’t bear to go back to the dreary lives they’ve made for themselves.
It’s always a troubling experience to realize that your life sucks, but it’s also a helpful one, because that realization makes it possible to change. If the things that make your life suck are a matter of personal choices, once you grasp this, you can make different choices. If the things that make your life suck are a matter of social, cultural, or political factors—for example, the dismal quality of US public schooling or the problematic nature of the mandatory two-income family—you have two ways of taking action: you can change your own relationship to those factors (by considering the possibility of homeschooling your kids, for example, and assessing whether your family will benefit if one of its adult members leaves paid employment for the household economy) and you can also help bring about change on the larger scale (by lobbying your state legislators to support homeschooling as an option, for example, and being encouraging to other people who choose to move into the household economy and defending them against bullies who think they ought to tell everyone else what to do).
This is a good time to consider such projects, precisely because so many people are rethinking the basic patterns of their lives just now. We’re taught to think of our minds as isolated bubbles of consciousness forever walled up inside the bones of the skull, but plenty of common human experiences remind us that that’s a half-truth at best; there’s a collective dimension to our consciousness, and it’s easier to change your life when other people are doing the same thing. If on due consideration you decide that your life sucks, now’s the time to change it.
It’s worth stressing here that there is no one-size-fits-all recipe for a life that doesn’t suck. There are families for whom homeschooling isn’t a viable option; there are even some decent public schools left in the United States (though you’ll want to listen to the kids and their parents, not to the teachers and administrators, if you want to figure out which those are). Similarly, there are families for whom the two-income rat race really is the best option. The point of a time of reflection and reassessment isn’t to become a different kind of conformist, unthinkingly obedient to yet another set of rules handed down from someone else. It’s to find the space and clarity to make your own decisions, whatever those happen to be.
With that in mind, I’d like to encourage my readers to do two things over the course of the week ahead, and as far thereafter into the future as they wish.
1. Assess the choices you’ve made and the life you’ve accepted, and see if it’s time for a change. If the answer is “yes,” do something about it.
2. Assess the collective actions and structures of the society in which you live, and once again, see if it’s time for a change. If the answer is “yes,” consider taking both of the kinds of action discussed above: change your own relationship with the problematic features of your society, and see what measures you can take to help further the process of collective change.
On the far side of silence, new possibilities stand open. Joseph Campbell reminds us that in the journey of every hero or heroine there’s a departure from the familiar, and very often this takes the form of a withdrawal into solitude and contemplation. That period of reflection and reassessment is a crucial step toward unfolding the potentials for magnificence that we all have within us but so few of us ever use.