Marriage and Reading as Elite Customs

One thing that distinguishes us conservatives from libertarians is that we’re actually worried about growing inequality in America. We’re not that obsessed by the bare fact of economic inequality, but we are concerned about decreasing mobility. And we’re particularly concerned about the breakdown of what can loosely be called our common middle-class culture. As wealthy and sophisticated Americans show signs of becoming a kind of self-perpetuating “cognitive elite,” the lives of members of the lower part of our middle class become increasingly difficult or even pathological.


BIG THINKER Pamela Haag very incisively described fifteen purported human goods Americans used to share in common that are now becoming “elite customs.” They're obviously not all equally good, and one or two, in my view, aren't good at all. Let me reflect on the two that seem to me most fundamental—marriage and books. It’s surely true that a worthwhile human life is constituted by meaningful work and personal love. Love, of course, is most often and reliably found within marriage and the family, and certainly it’s within a stable family that we find the surest sources of personal security and personal significance.

To work and love, of course, we should add leisure. And leisure, at its heights, is about enjoyably discovering who we are and what we’re supposed to do through by arousing our minds and hearts—our thoughts and imaginations—through reading. Well, maybe not only reading. But it has been through books that Americans have been infused with what loosely can be called a “common culture,” a common way of experiencing our world and our place in it. We can at least say that one sign of personal impoverishment is the inability to experience the emotional—even erotic—elevation that comes through reading “real books” in our free time.

What we can say of a man who’s never known marriage (or a good woman) or a good book?

MARRIAGE: Americans across the board used to be big on both getting married and marital fidelity. Not only that, it wasn’t uncommon to marry outside of one’s “social class.” The rich kid in a small town went to the public school and met  girls from all over town. And he could generally marry the girl with whom he happened to fall in love. You would think that our sophisticates—influenced by feminism, the Sixties, and all that—would think and act as beings who’ve transcended through their enlightenment the confines of monogamy. Sometimes they actually do talk that way, but increasingly they aren’t acting that way. Stable marriages with children are once again the norm, and divorce rates are in decline. Meanwhile, more ordinary Americans typically still talk “traditional values,” but they increasingly lack what it takes—both economically and culturally—to practice them.  So broken families, single moms, and all that are increasingly the norm.

Not only that, it’s easy to see the “powerful trend” of “assortative mating.” Like are marrying like. Our cognitive elite is living both geographically and emotionally detached from more ordinary Americans. Its kids are attending schools full of kids like themselves. Despite all our elite talk about “diversity,” that tendency persists from kindergarten to law school. Our schools across the board are more stratified by I.Q. and parental privilege.

It’s very possible to exaggerate even powerful mating trends, but they can’t be good for equality of opportunity for all our kids.

BOOKS: Americans of all incomes used to regularly go to libraries, and kids read plenty of books in public schools. Another great leveler in our cities, of course, was the fine inter-class education available to Catholic kids in the virtually free parochial schools. Now the habit of going to the libraries (where books can be borrowed for free) has almost disappeared. Wealthy and sophisticated kids have plenty of books at home. Their parents buy them in bookstores but especially online. Their parents also have the time and inclination to read to them. But that time disappears when families are broken or when both parents are stuck with tough jobs. And as the bottom part of our middle class continues to get detached from institutional religion—from churches, reading the Bible and related books also withers away. (It’s important to add when that detachment doesn’t occur, neglected but important counter-trends develop, such as home schooling, which is typically very bookish.)

American kids, more than ever, are stratified into those who read—those who have regular access to books, and those who don’t. I’m not talking here about basic literacy, but being open to the human good that is the enjoyment of literature. I could go on to explain that it’s the capacity to enjoy and really see what’s  going on when words are deployed well that’s a virtually indispensable prerequisite for any position of leadership. But I want my main takeaway to be that reading is indispensable for beings with souls.

Our wealthy and sophisticated kids go to schools where books are still taken seriously (and sometimes very seriously), if only as the only way to become academically accomplished enough to be admitted to an elite college. Meanwhile, in ordinary or worse public schools—especially in our secondary schools—“real” books have been slowly disappearing. And the new Common Core Standards seem to be somewhat about taking out what books are left. Fiction is to be mostly replaced by informational nonfiction, and apparently even To Kill a Mockingbird may not have much of an educational future.

If anyone were serious about reinvigorating the public schools as the great American vehicle of equality of opportunity, there would be more attention to having kids read “real books”—great literature—than ever. Liberally educated teachers would lovingly read Mark Twain or even Harry Potter aloud to our little children, to compensate for what they’re not getting at home. And lots of classroom time would be given over to children reading to each other. Kids would really be held accountable for what and how well they've read in grade after grade. I'm not denying for a moment that we can find this kind of attention in some of our very non-elite schools, and sometimes in surprising places. But if we're going to having national standards, nothing should be more important.

The same compensatory bookishness should animate our nonselective colleges. But they, instead, follow the lead of the public schools and their educational experts by being about acquiring skills and competencies while bypassing the “content” found in this or that real book.

You’d wish the impulse behind developing a Common Core would be giving all American citizens access to the same intellectual and imaginative “content.” And my job would be a heck of a lot easier if all students came to college having read many of the same “real” books (and for that matter seen the same classic films).

For now, I can still rely on To Kill a Mockingbird, if not much else. That’s not quite true.  Because I teach kids who’ve mostly been to Sunday School (which in much of the South is much more serious and bookish than public school), I can still rely somewhat on their Biblical literacy—or, more precisely, their love of or at least respect for one good book.

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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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