The Harry Potter Paradox
In 1896, when the United States was emerging from an unprecedented economic depression and mired in the social turmoil of the post-war era, voter turnout was close to 80 percent, nearly its highest point in our history. This, at a time when fewer than 5 percent of Americans had college degrees and fewer than 20 percent were high school educated. For those who had recently acquired the right, to vote was to take one's life into one's hands; for those who could read, access to "breaking news" was only available through telegraph and newspapers. Meanwhile, political discourse was, by today's standards, verbose, intricate, and almost unintelligible.
Today, barely half of our citizenry avails itself of the right to vote. Yet all have that right and most have higher levels of education than ever before. Moreover, the Internet and the news cycles provide access to more byte-sized and easily consumable information about the political process than one could ever want. Among our very own Millennial generation, voter participation is below the national average.
But perhaps the problem is not the voters, but the constant appeal to their lesser natures. Dumbing down the political process has not resulted in more widespread participation; it has resulted in a dumb political process. People have responded accordingly.
Here, as in so many areas of our culture, we find a tendency to pander, which might raise participation in the short term, but in the long term guarantees the opposite. This has become a generational problem; to win the hearts and minds of the Millennial generation, the temptation to pander has become irresistible.
Consequently, we are, as a generation, consistently underestimated and under-challenged by the institutions that seek our patronage. Convince us that just anybody can do it and none of us will want to do it. Politicians, our culture of arts and letters, the church -- these all strive for relevance by lowering their standards and expectations and in so doing undermine our generation's willingness to participate in them.
This pattern is everywhere around us. Recently, the Very Rev. Gary Hall, Dean of the National Cathedral, explained to the Washington Post his new strategy to keep the Cathedral "robust and relevant." The strategy involves public tai-chi, yoga, and meditation in the Cathedral's nave. Hall's explanation: "If I get people together and say, 'Let's talk about God,' we'll get an argument. But if I say, 'Let's all pray together and experience the divine together in our own way,' people can enter that in a much more creative and less-judgmental way."
This is a misguided strategy. Christianity can never compete with non-Christian forms spirituality on such terms. One can always go down the street for a meditative experience lacking that judgmental gothic aesthetic. It's not simply that this is a concession to trends; it's that it robs the religious community provided by the Cathedral of all that is distinctive or challenging.
Similar issues plague the Catholic Church. The virtues of many of the liberalizing tendencies of the post-Vatican II church are manifest; but few can argue that a more "accessible" liturgy and a less "abstruse" scholastic curriculum have actually brought young Americans back into the fold.
Higher cultural institutions, where youth attendance is especially low, suffer a similar fate. A performance of Show Boat at the opera house might sell more tickets than The Ring Cycle or a contemporary avant-garde opera. But such strategies will not transform young people into opera goers, nor aging opera goers into Millennials.
So too with contemporary American theater: attendance is low; theaters are closing; audiences are smaller, grayer. So theaters fight back by pouring gasoline on the fire: they seek wider appeal by turning popular movies into musicals. But this only calls attention to the fact that theaters are not movie theaters, making them seem less relevant. Art cannot compete with entertainment, for art, as Flannery O'Conner put it, "is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it."
Call this the "Harry Potter Paradox." When that series was at its apogee, some decried the quality of the writing, the scope of its imagination, the depth of its allegories. "It's no C. S. Lewis!" This was met with the inevitable refrain: "At least kids are reading more than used to!" Well the verdict has been reached: America's children in fact read less now than they used to. The Harry Potters and Hunger Gamers of the world are outliers.
This paradox is at its most obvious in the case of the humanities, where concerns about being "current" "applicable" and "relevant" have driven these fields into irrelevance.
Students who want pre-professional training won't study philosophy, much less Medieval Literature. Period. Don't let's compete with business departments on this score. Or, if technology is what attracts a student to the classroom, she'll choose robotics over Lyric Poetry on an iPad. The humanities need to sell students on what makes those disciplines unique and vital, even today.
A good model for this is dramatic television, a surprising beacon of hope in the barren landscape of contemporary culture. This genre -- not to say all of television! -- has improved remarkably in recent years, becoming more challenging, more sophisticated. To be sure, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Boss and The Wire are not on a par with War and Peace or The Divine Comedy. But they are well-written, long-form, dramatic works with relatively complex narrative structures, dialogue, and character development, to which serious actors are increasingly drawn -- as are Millennials.
Moreover, dramatic television takes advantage of, rather than reacting against, current circumstances and new technology. The age of the Internet and social media has, unexpectedly, enabled the rebirth of the serialized narrative form which once dominated prose literature. There is a lesson in this. The point is not to go back in time, but forward, only without watering everything down.
We don't mean to place all blame on forces beyond our control. On the contrary, this state of affairs calls for a generational response, especially as Millennials become creators of culture. It is incumbent on us not only to resist but also to replace this culture of pandering; to imbue these institutions with the expectations and standards they have lost; to cultivate habits and virtues needed to participate in our culture and our political process, no longer as mere consumers and taxpayers, but as interlocutors and citizens.