Genuine works of art—like pregnant parables, myths and symbols—simultaneously reveal and conceal profound truths about human nature, culture, the soul, and the spirit. What and how much such works reveal depends, of course, upon the moral, intellectual, imaginative, and spiritual resources of the person on the receiving end. The impact of education is, likewise, substantially limited by the potentials already present in the student. And while education can help to actualize and to ripen these potentials, it cannot, by itself, instill such potentials. It cannot provide someone with these seeds. It can only assist in their germination and nourishment. I needn’t point out the fact that everyone’s ‘seed bag’ is a little (or a lot) different from everybody else’s—in terms of what and how much is packaged there.
In the ‘nature-versus-nurture’ debate—which stretches back at least to the time of Socrates and Plato—the extraverted, pragmatic, behaviorist, ‘can-do’ American outlook and educational system have generally come down on the side of nurture, while downplaying and even ignoring natural disparities in various forms of intelligence, inborn talent, and drivenness. For many of us here in the U.S., there is something deeply offensive to our acquired egalitarian principles (or presumptions) in the mere suggestion that nature has distributed her gifts unevenly. We are thus tempted to make socially and economically ‘advantaged’ persons assume all of the blame for these ‘inequalities,’ when, in fact, they only carry part of the burden of responsibility for them. Naturally attractive men and women almost invariably have doors opened for them that the rest of us who are ‘homelier’ can only pry open by other means. Where a smile or a wink works for the ‘beautiful people,’ a crow bar or a bribe is required by the unprepossessing and ill-favored who also ‘want in.’ Cosmetic surgeons are doing their level best to level this particular playing field. But when it comes to the less tangible assets and door-openers, external ‘doctoring’ and ‘implanting’ can only accomplish so much before life coaches, therapists, schoolteachers, and other ‘improvers of mankind’ are obliged to admit—if not defeat—only the most limited success.
It is widely assumed in this culture that a person’s moral character and values are learned or derived almost entirely from the models and exemplars in his/her midst—either through actual contact or through the TV, or a mixture of both. In America, we are not publicly or officially encouraged to believe that a fair percentage of persons are born with souls (i.e., with spiritual, mental, or ethical gifts) that are inherently superior to those of most others. And yet, it may be asked: can there possibly be a generally embraced delusion more ridiculous than this one—namely, that we humans are all born equal, when evidence to the contrary is as blatant and obtrusive as can be? It seems to me that there are two ideological sources behind this collective myth—the ideological egalitarianism and the slightly older, metaphysical myth of materialism, which attempts to reduce everything—including all distinctions of quality (moral, ethical, spiritual, aesthetic, etc.)—to matter or to quantitative material factors.
The naive egalitarian fantasy—defying indisputable counter-evidence afforded by actual life and genetics, which most Americans self-contradictorily (or schizophrenically?) regard as fate-deciding and inviolably deterministic—assumes that since our innate capacities (of the body, heart, intellect, imagination, spirit, etc.) are intrinsically equal and therefore equally deserving of all that society and the educational system have to offer, we are either advanced or held back by external or socio-economic factors. To be sure, as unwitting materialists we recognize that physical birth defects such as blindness or brain impairment thwarts and hobbles an individual at the otherwise fair and equal start of a race for life’s rewards and prizes, but as equally unwitting fantasists, we politely ignore actual differences and surrender to wishful thinking.
The peculiar myth of egalitarianism is founded upon a view of the human being that our shrewd forebears would have found unforgivably simplistic, one-sided, and reductive. The human being—or the ‘human animal,’ which sometimes seems more fitting—at the center of this anti-hierarchical, anti-traditional, anti-aristocratic modern worldview is, for the most part, no more than a biological machine or an economic unit that has been stripped down and purged of those faculties and virtues that were held to be most important by our ‘quaint’ pre-modern ancestors, but which occupy only a marginal, non-essential place in our mechanistic-materialistic modern world: soul, poetical or visionary imagination, spiritual inspiration, and a capacity for deep philosophical contemplation. Little wonder, then, that the barrenness and spiritual bankruptcy of our culture become apparent as soon as we direct our gaze away from the mesmerizing technological, economic, and engineering feats we (or, dare I say, our celebrated technocratic ‘betters’—i.e., Edison, Tesla, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, etc.?) excel at. We are skillful at manipulating matter because we pay an inordinate amount of attention to it. But I would suggest that just as we are doing with our rainforests, farmland, and once-teeming seas, we have simply trashed the rich, loamy cultural soil that is absolutely necessary to nurture a Plato, a Dante, a Shakespeare. Trees cannot rise to such great heights in such shallow, nutrient-poor soil. Thus, our egalitarian fantasy—always secretly siding with the mediocre, the tepid, the flaccid, the self-complacent—has become a self-fulfilling prophecy: those with the rarest spiritual-cultural potentials are necessarily malnourished and spurned under such unfavorable conditions, allowing the stunted and the dull to appear taller and brighter than they truly are.