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Opinion | Robert Pinsky

Democracy and the cultural ideal


The 2016 presidential election made me more aware of two demographic groups. One is made up of young American males, mostly white and not college educated. They wavered, surprisingly, between two candidates — Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

The second category of young people, much larger and made up of various races, genders, and ethnicities, was resolutely not interested in voting.

I know what choices I would like from these young citizens. But what would I like our country to give them?

Thinking about that question, I watched a cable news pundit blame the founder of Facebook for what she called his blunders dealing with online evils like Holocaust deniers or Russian government agents posing as American black nationalists. This generation of media magnates, she said, lacked the humanistic education that might equip them for such issues of truth and free speech.


My first reaction was to snort. In my long experience, professional humanists and their students are not ethical models. We humanists cheat and lie as much as anyone. Even the excuses we contrive are no better than those of opticians, bartenders, or senators. Art, it has been well demonstrated, does not teach good behavior.

But on second thought I remembered some words of my poetry teacher at Stanford, the doughty rationalist and contrarian Yvor Winters. He said that it was a patriotic good for young American poets to become college teachers, if they had a gift for it. Democracy, he told us, needed a population that had learned to use and understand language as well as possible.

In other words, Winters proposed the old unrealized ideal of a democratic culture: frail, yearned-for, vulnerable to ridicule, and resistant to demagogues. A democratic culture, whatever it might be — that is what I wish for those young Americans torn between Trump or Sanders, and those others declining to vote.


The fate of that unrealized ideal is a great, unidentified crisis of my lifetime. Social media; reality TV; the tweeting, authoritarian demagogue; xenophobia; fascist rallies; race as the most egregious of many divisions — all may be mere episodes (or alarm signals) in our larger national story: the struggle to attain a culture worthy of the term, a ruling-class culture when the ruling class is the people.

By a culture I mean not a list but a form of desire.

When I was 17, I entered my state university. Many of my teachers were war veterans educated by a revolutionary law, the GI Bill. The state or land-grant universities were established by another law, the Morrill Act. Senator Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont proposed this legislation, only to have it defeated many times, beginning in 1857. In 1862, thanks to the secession of states whose senators had opposed it, the bill creating state universities — a landmark in American culture — passed and was signed by President Abraham Lincoln.

I didn’t know that history. I knew almost nothing. I had never seen a feature-length movie by Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. Although I had read almost everything by Mark Twain, and a lot of science fiction, I had not read Homer’s “Odyssey,” and I may not have heard of the Koran, Jane Austen, or “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.” As a high school musician I could recognize Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” and Miles Davis’s “So What,” but I had no idea how they might be related. When I saw the name “Yeats,” I thought it rhymed with “sheets.” I liked listening to Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald but I didn’t understand how, like Keaton’s “Sherlock Junior” or Emily Dickinson’s poems, their performances were American works of art.


But now I was surrounded by talk about such things. My intelligent, articulate parents had not tasted the heady collegiate discovery of intellectual and (also important) pseudo-intellectual conversation. Someone has said about certain students, “At least they’re pretentious.” He could have been describing my friends and me at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Tuition cost next to nothing, a few hundred dollars per semester.

Freshman composition opened glorious, high-class portals to what felt like everything. My composition teacher was Paul Fussell, author of “The Great War and Modern Memory.” As a young infantry lieutenant, Fussell had been terribly wounded by artillery shells that killed the enlisted man next to him. His war book is dedicated: “To the Memory of Technical Sergeant Edward Keith Hudson, ASN 36548772/ Co. F, 410th Infantry/ Killed beside me in France/ March 15, 1945.”

Fussell was not one of those professors whom the GI Bill had brought from the working classes into an academic meritocracy. He grew up rich, in Southern California. He has written that he was grateful for basic training as the first time he met people who worked for a living. Sergeant Hudson was an older working-class man who was a kind instructor to his well-off, inexperienced officer — a personal history I learned decades later.


Fussell, I understand now, believed in the effort for a democratic culture. He chose to teach an “honors” section of freshman composition. Maybe we, his students, were indebted to Sergeant Hudson. Certainly we resembled the ethnically mixed infantry squad in the war movies of that era. The black member of our working-class group, Henry Dumas, became a poet praised by Toni Morrison and published by Random House. The Armenian from Union City, Peter Najarian, has published several books, including “Voyages,” a moving account of first-generation immigrants. Robert Maniquis, Filipino-American, is a literature professor at UCLA. Fussell encouraged us to compete with one another as writers. Like Winters, he believed good writing was good thinking, and he convinced us.

Thousands of teachers continue that work. But state universities, rising and expanding then, are somewhat strangled today, much more expensive, and less well supported. Also neglected are the most important institutions of all, community colleges.

In 1958, the idealistic project I benefited from was thriving inside the academy. In 2000, Mark Zuckerberg and his age group may have been less fortunate. Generations of tenured professors have turned in other directions, with different underlying convictions, than my teachers Fussell and Winters.

Skepticism, seeing through texts, may have displaced seeing into them. Composition, which seemed a democratic portal, has become another academic specialty. There is more emphasis on each person’s particular, bounded inheritance, rather than on each one’s unlimited birthright to “all that lives and to everyone, forever” (James Baldwin’s distinction in his preface to “Notes of a Native Son”).


These changes may be good. But I grieve for that birthright. I can’t help wishing it for those young voters and nonvoters — my possible, long-ago, selves.

Robert Pinsky was the US Poet Laureate from 1997 to 2000. He founded the Favorite Poem Project and teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Boston University.