The Endangered Renaissance Personality

Remember all of those drawing-room scenes in 18th century novels, where the ladies play études on the piano, converse with foreign visitors in their native tongue, and even recite poems, while the men recount sporting feats, argue about politics and trade witty anecdotes? Everyone seems so … refined. Even in recent decades, the scholar-athlete-artist has racked up awards and social cachet for his or her breadth and depth.

But in a time where geeks who tweak software lord it over well-read, well-traveled dilettantes, a broad cultural education seems less like something to admire and of which to aspire.

In lamenting the decline of what he calls the cultivated person, Tracy Lee Simmons, a professor at Hillsdale College and author of Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin, couldn’t resist summing up the situation with quotes from the Roman big guns: “Virgil said, ‘Fortunate the man who can understand the causes of things.’ ” (It’s difficult to decipher the causes of our sociopolitical environment when we’re busy monetizing video mash-ups.) And, “Cicero said that ‘to not know history is to remain forever a child.’ By ‘child’ he meant intellectually unformed, and probably a little dangerous.”

Whereas snagging a high-quality spouse was often the motivation for well-roundedness in Jane Austen’s time, today’s young suitors tend to flaunt one, maybe two attributes or areas of expertise.

Professors still sense a thirst for knowledge among students, but there’s no longer a sense of shame at cultural illiteracy. “I asked a smart young woman which president held office before Reagan,” Simmons says. “She didn’t know. When I gently chastised her, she said, ’But I wasn’t born then!’ She felt that let her off the hook, whereas a student from a previous generation would have been mortified.”

What’s at stake here? Well-rounded humanists who will do the right thing … what a pity!


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Bonnie Morét is an award-winning photographer recognized by The Georgia Council of the Arts as "an exceptional representation of contemporary Georgia art work." Her photography is featured on Georgia Public Broadcast's Georgia Traveler. Her exhibitions include Fifth Annual Exposure Awards at Musee du Louvre in Paris, France, Art Takes Miami at Scope Art during Art Basel Miami, Metro Montage XIII at the Marietta/Cobb Museum of Art, World of Water at the Georgia Aquarium, Open Walls at Black Box Gallery in Portland, Oregon, Wholly Georgia: A Look at the Effects of Southern Religious Culture, sponsored by the Art History League and Georgia State University, at Mint Gallery in Atlanta, Georgia, 6x6 at the Rochester Contemporary Arts Center in Rochester, New York, @Phonography: Dialogue in the Wireless Age, at 3 Ring Circus in New Orleans, Louisiana, and About Lands and Lives of the Civil War at the 6th Cavalry Museum in Ft. Oglethorpe, Georgia. Her photography appears in Modern Luxury/The Atlantan, Jezebel Magazine, and hangs in the executive offices at the Georgia State Capitol as part of the Art of Georgia exhibit. Corporate clients include Atlanta Ballet, Atlanta History Center, Chanel Cosmetics, Christian Dior Cosmetics, Sharp Mountain Vineyards, PM Realty Group, Granite Properties, Road Atlanta, Patrón Tequila, StubHub, CBM Records and The Washington Auto Show.