You’ve grown up in the public school system, and it shows. You are sensitive to the world around you, and in touch with your “feelings”—a perfect little guilt-ridden example of a twenty-first-century castrato or an overbearing feminist airhead. You hardly know the alphabet or how to count, or even what sex you are, but you can feel up a storm.

As for your education, well—history, science, language, and any comprehensive view of the last two thousand years of human expression in the arts (if these things were mentioned at all) were viciously truncated. For the most part, you have learned only what has happened since the early twentieth century. Immersed in electronic observation, you probably don’t know what a screwdriver is, or how to change a lightbulb. But you are iron-bound to the idea that everyone is a winner, and no one ever loses. And of course you have been trained that there are certain words you must never say, and certain thoughts you must never think. It doesn’t matter—you probably never learned to spell these words anyway. Although not quite sure what you stand for, you are committed to riot and mayhem against anything that you have been taught to oppose. In short, you have been living in lala-land ever since you popped from the womb. And now, having been well indoctrinated on the elementary and secondary level, you are determined to attend college. Don’t worry—you’ll get in. Colleges are desperate for money, and everybody gets accepted someplace.

Not very long ago, colleges and universities were thought of as places for questioning, finding a direction, and learning a certain proficiency in one’s chosen field. No one ever thought that students might end up paying to unlearn what they had learned from family life. Nevertheless, ill-prepared as you are, you still suspect that you are being sent into the lion’s den without a slingshot. It must be the lingering influence of that obsolete construct called the family (who can barely afford to pay your way). But don’t worry—all that family atavism will soon be dead as a doornail, as they used to say when people knew what nails were.

In some sense, I feel a certain sympathy for you. Feckless and ignorant, you stand here on campus like a turkey in the rain, trying to make one of life’s big decisions, without a clue in the world, or outside of it.

It goes without saying that you already have a comprehensive resume—I believe you began it in the second grade—which covers all the standard stuff: your firm belief in global warming (just scratch that and scribble in “climate change”.) Your support of any and all who ignore the law, and your solid commitment to any enhancement of “woman’s rights.” There’s more, but those are the three major required items.

Your lack of interest in dating the current crop of mouthy, long-haired, gravel-voiced, politically correct Amazons that pass themselves off as females, plus your emotional reaction to the sight of a beautiful sunset, have shoved your indecisive self into a major decision. You are going to study art! Not that you know exactly what art is, or in what medium you want to express yourself. But what could be more high-minded or more beneficial to the human race?

After adding a couple of extra paragraphs to your resume about your middle-school basketweaving experience and your participation in a communal mural about indigenous people who may once have owned the land where City Hall now stands, you sign up for some art courses, and—you’re off.

After the first few lectures it’s easy to discern that art history really began in the early 1900s. Everything else before that has already been declared more or less irrelevant, and been explained away as useless. You are being gently guided to the revelation that everything—even art—is rooted in politics. Should you discover that some artist from the French Revolution painted the way he did because of the political climate, that’s acceptable of course—but you are generally encouraged to stay this side of 1900, where those in the know agree that the true aesthetic revolutionaries emerged.

You are taught some other things as well. You learn that there is no balance between personal opinion and artistic expression, and that there is no time for draftsmanship, design, or the elegance of drawing. Subtlety is out of date. You are taught that true artists are revolutionaries first—only after that is technique to be valued, or even considered. Everything except politics is downplayed— so much so that when you look at Picasso’s Guernica you must search out its political context and ramifications, and nothing else.

Groups are crucial to your artistic development. Don’t hesitate to align yourself with as many clubs and collectives as you can. At first, you may have naively wanted to hear differing opinions, but group pressure exerted itself to the contrary. Let’s say an expert on stained glass windows early Renaissance masters or other experts were invited to speak at your campus. You and your group, you learn, should be the first ones out there on the picket line to protest this elitist, Eurocentric lecture from happening. Break a few windows, and lob a few paint balls! People who lecture on such irrelevant and insulting stuff are holding you back! You are politically obliged to defend a modernist (and even postmodernist) stance in the arts. And the next Hitler may be right there next to you, throwing rocks.

Soon you find that you are developing a “fixed position” in both politics and the arts. You are willing (with the supine acquiescence of the college faculty and administration) to chase those who differ off campus. You are showing the world how sensitive you are. If necessary, retreat to a “safe space” where you can congratulate yourself and your like-minded friends on how encrusted with political virtue you are. That will really signal to others that you have solidly progressive commitments. That’s all that actually matters now, whether you are a painter, a sculptor, or a garbage collector.

As for your art classes, you may be well behind on studio assignments, but who cares? You’re knee-deep into theory. Conventional art students are interested in paints and canvas and sizing and sketchpads and frames. You are beyond all that.

Very soon, your concern for visual pleasure, nuanced thought, and actual meaning will have evaporated. Rich colors will seem out of date. Well, who cares? You always had trouble with that anyway. How you feel and the ways in which you evoke those feelings seem more important than any visual, aesthetic pleasure. After all, if the poets you know no longer care about rhyme, metrics, order, and reason; and the musicians are indifferent to harmony, melody, and structure; and the sculptors know nothing about human anatomy… why should you bother about any of that boring stuff?

You’ll become lost in an Alice-in-Wonderland world of “process” and “found” and “aleatory” art, where a random look at your uncle’s belts in a closet will cause you to rip them out and enter them, unmodified, in a museum exhibit. The slovenly depiction of a drug-induced nightmare, or any dubious piece of junk you picked up on the street will both become beautiful in your eyes, outshining the most evocative drawing or the finest woodcut.

When your four years of posturing, grouping, categorizing, and acting out are done, you will get a worthless degree, perhaps allowing you to teach the same kind of stuff to younger persons who follow your path. Will you be an artist? No one can say. But it is good to keep in mind that chimpanzees were being trained to make cute random daubs on canvas long before you were born. It’s a long and hallowed tradition. So you might as well settle back, have another banana, and await your audience.


Previously published in The Pennsylvania Review

(Editor’s Note: The Society does not usually republish essays unless the venue is no longer available online)



A former Wilbur Fellow and six-time Pushcart nominee, Sally Cook is a regular contributor to National Review, and has appeared in venues as varied as Chronicles, Lighten Up On Line, and TRINACRIA. Also a painter, her present works in the style known as Magic Realism are represented in national collections such as the N.S.D.A.R. Museum in Washington, D.C. and The Burchfield-Penney, Buffalo, NY.

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22 Responses

  1. Joe Tessitore

    How incredibly accurate and caustically funny and brilliantly written is this?

    Sally Cook at her best!

    • Sally Cook

      Thank you Joe, somehow I knew you might enjoy me raking a few pomposities over the coals on this topic. Do you have anything to add? This would be a good time !

      • Joe Tessitore

        Thanks Sally, in fact I do:

        Portrait of an Imbecile

        They tell me what to do and I obey.
        How else can I get through another day?
        That circle in the parking lot is mine.
        As long as I stand in my spot, I’m fine.

        The other day I had to take a leak.
        And I know that it’s bad to be a sneak.
        But though I tried, my pee-time I forgot.
        And so I tied my johnson in a knot.

        My cousin – the matriarch of our family on my father’s side, gave me the first line – almost verbatim.
        Unfortunately, she was talking about her entire family:
        They tell us what to do
        and we obey.

        Thanks again for the opportunity.

  2. Julian D. Woodruff

    “… you have learned only what has happened since the early twentieth century”: that’s being extremely generous.
    I’m reminded of the joke about the conductor berating his orchestra: “I taught you everything you know. And what do you know? NOTHING!”

    • Sally Cook

      Perhaps not even that, Julian. This is a very dark time – I would like to see the topic pursued here where there are so many who can see it.

  3. Leo Zoutewelle

    As they say, “This should be read by all Americans!” I am afraid most Europeans are already too far gone to benefit from this wisdom.
    Well done, Sally!

    • Sally Cook

      Dear Leo,
      So glad to hear you voice your appreciation of my Millennial bashing.
      I would imagine you have seen this first hand. Parents here are so confused about what is actually happening in the schools, I am sure they hardly know what to think. Kids are being trained up to be good little PC robots. But think about If — if millennials are this passive and short-sighted, then what will the next generation be? Probably some sort of quasi-robotic form of life — if you can call it life !
      Would love to hear what you have to say, either by prose or poem.

  4. Sarban Bhattacharya

    As a university student, I can firmly assert, Sally Cook’s arguments pointed out the harshest truth of the modern academic life. In the colleges, the predicament one has to incur is loathsome, especially when the student doesn’t conform with the political correctness and the three major prerequisites mentioned here to acclimatise oneself to the progressive milieu of the academia. I was waiting for such an impartial critical evaluation of the modern education system for a long time. The colleges have become the centres of indoctrination against all sorts of order and values, and an ardent volition to obliterate the traditional Western culture is perceived everywhere.

    • Sally Cook

      Thank yoiu, Sarban for the bad news that this is happening world-wide. But you are correct. Everyone is in a state of “feeling”; rational thought is disdained. I wish you would write a poem about it; Would you ?”

      • Sarban Bhattacharya

        I’ll be glad to do so, and I agree with you on how feeling has replaced rationality amongst the younger generations that attend colleges and universities, which is why agitation and political activism often take over our institutions, which used to be considered sacred places for learning. But unfortunately, that sacredness has of late vanished altogether even from the highly traditional institutes like Oxford and Cornell University. In early September, the Cornell University renamed the English department as ‘Department of Literatures in English’ in order to veer away from traditional English literature to what they call ‘a diverse and decolonised course’, which includes literature on climate change, LGBT issues, post-colonial and Asian diasporic literature and many more radically subversive studies.

  5. Sally Cook

    Thank you Joe, somehow I knew you might enjoy me raking a few pomposities over the coals on this topic. Do you have anything to add? This would be a good time !

    • C.B. Anderson

      I’m not Joe, but, dammit Sally, you have stepped on many a sore toe and ruffled many feathers. If only the persons most in need of reading your essay were the ones who actually read it. Your trenchant observations befit someone who has always faithfully fought in the trenches of this culture war.

  6. Margaret Coats

    In recent days, John Carroll University of Ohio (a private, erstwhile Catholic institution) and Kean University of New Jersey (a public irreligious institution) have announced closure of their art history departments, and University of Hawaii at Manoa did the same, but changed its mind. You’ve shown, Sally, that the professors involved had it coming.
    Students who are learning art, whether studio art or art history, do need some sense of the full history and tradition of their fields, and something else as well, which I would call real experience of material art objects. They need to visit museums and galleries and rare book rooms and the homes of any collectors willing to show their art to students. They need to see places where art is on open display to the public, and they need to look at buildings and gardens as works of art. Their school needs to own art, not necessarily of museum quality, but as my art historian husband calls it, “useful for teaching.” Classes need to happen in the school’s art storage areas as well as in classrooms. Students need to be involved in planning, layout, and labeling for exhibitions, even if these take place in some vacant room that they have to clean first. Sally, you’ve shown what is taking the place of these necessities. I’ve left out the studio artist’s clear need to become familiar with materials and techniques on the way to developing expertise through such tedious work as copying. Indeed, everyone learns to value art through a little practice, and the fundamental problem you are writing about is the lack of value for art shown by those who should teach others.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      When I was in grade school in the 1950s, the auditorium and every hallway was hung with full-size copies of old masters (Titian, Rembrandt, Da Vinci, Gainsborough, and dozens of others), all done by WPA artists in the 1930s and given to the Board of Education of New York. I loved those magnificent paintings, which I saw every day for eight years.

      One day many years ago, when I went to the school to vote, I noticed that every single painting was gone. Some brainless turd of an administrator had deemed them ‘too Eurocentric.”

      • Sally Cook

        Dear Joe –
        Somewhere I have a little book outlining what the educational system of that day deemed suitable for my mother to have learned before graduating — not from college though it would seem so, but from high school. So I know how you felt at the absence of those paintings.

  7. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    This is a well conceived essay of integrity that offers its readers an insightful and entertaining look at the true nature of Millennial Art. I thoroughly admire this in-your-face honesty from a talented and accomplished artist who obviously remains true to her heart where art is concerned. Thank you very much, Sally!

  8. Joseph S. Salemi

    Sally’s essay is just as relevant and pertinent to our present circumstances as it was when it first appeared. And it isn’t only about the fine arts — it’s about EVERYTHING that is going on in the K-12 sequence.

    Remember when the idiots in the educational establishment started promoting “New Math” in the late 1960s? Mathematical skills plummeted nationwide, and have never recovered. Students were given meaningless tasks about computing in “Base 5”, while their ability to do simple long division or multiplication disappeared. And what did the jackass educationists say: “Oh well, it doesn’t matter anymore — everyone has a pocket calculator for that stuff…”

    This kind of attitude, combined with an active hatred of fine literature,
    real history, and genuine art, dominates in the K-12 sequence. And quite naturally, the infection has now spread to higher education.

  9. Cynthia Erlandson

    I love it, Sally! Sarcasm is a great device when used well, and you certainly do!

  10. Talbot

    While I certainly don’t disagree with most of what you wrote (the problems with my generation, as with all generations, are obvious to anyone not of that age-group), I would offer these small points of contention/elucidation:

    1) Certainly Millennials cannot be blamed for the sociocultural milieu into which they were born; as with everyone, everywhere, no one chooses the society wherein they were raised. Therefore, it seems more appropriate to blame Millennials on previous generations. (I wonder how many would take such responsibility?) After all, if we’re intensely feelings-focused, fragile, and ignorant of the past (which, agreed, that none of these is inherently healthy), we should more aptly blame those who molded the systems which in turn molded us. And, of course, we must bear some responsibility for this: we are told many things that we as a generation ignore, much to my chagrin, and to our detriment. I’m not saying Millennials are blameless: far from it, in fact. But it is too simplistic to spear us and spare Gen X or the Baby Boomers, when these systems are those which we inherited. Again, this is not a critique of your jeremiad, per se. I just think that additional responsibilities lie elsewhere.

    2) The next generation, according to the criteria laid out in the sketch above, will raise your hackles even more, I’m afraid! The first generation to be born with a phone in hand, internet embedded in its brain, etc.

    Thanks for the biting essay. It made me at once hopeful and uncomfortable!

    • Sally Cook

      Dear Talhot –
      Yes indeed, I do have hackles, but they have been raised so many times they are beginning to look a bit like the moth-eaten feathers of an ancient archaeopteryx, There, I knew I would sooner or later get to use that word.
      So yoiu are both hopeful and uncomfortable? That’s a great combination for getting things done.

  11. David Gosselin

    Dear Sally,
    I think it’s important to be solution orientated when we discuss the kinds of problems that you are highlighting. I don’t know if you would agree, but most of these millennials don’t really know where their axioms come from. Addressing the source of much of the social engineering and the rise of the counter-culture involves a lot of different historical, political, economic and social developments, which worth mentioning in a discussion of the problem.

    Considering the stakes, I think it’s important to not only describe the problem, but to describe it in terms of the underlying causes and solutions.

    What would Socrates say if he saw what was going on today, and how would he address it? What would Jesus say? What would MLK or JFK say?
    A lot of the problems in education and the millennial generation stem from the social engineering that took place on the campuses in the US in the shadow of the JFK assassination and the take over of the political system by Hoover’s FBI, and the what is today the Five Eyes intelligence network (The British Commonwealth and the United States). Of course, there is an even much deeper history to the rise and creation of these institutions, a rise which can be traced back to the creation of Wall Street by Aaron Burr and his masters in the City of London.
    Burr was one of the main organizers of the Wall Street financier faction, which he organizes in behalf of the British Crown (this is well known and documented). Wall Street was and has always been a foreign infiltration of the United States by private merchant banking interests, the old financial interests of the European aristocracy, and especially the City of London.
    In light of that, I think it makes sense to decry the loss of values and brainwashing that goes on in our society, but it’s also incumbent upon us to do more than simply poke fun of the many victims of the culture wars and social engineering that has been going on for several generations now.

    As one example of a solution orientated approach, I’d recommend this piece written for the anniversary of JFK’s assassination:

  12. Sally Cook

    Dear David –
    I am not a scholar; only an observer. Every generation has those who stand outside, and its willing participants. My use of sarcasm precludes a resulting academic point of view. To me, sarcasm is the wasp that bites, the bee that stings.,
    Isn’t it high time for these precious ones to start thinking for themslves — wake up and smell the coffee, so to speak? I’m afraid we are precariously close to a time when they will be forced to do so by society.


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