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Anthony Esolen’s plan for saving American culture is as incen­diary and inspiring as its gov­erning metaphor — a phoenix rising out of the ashes of what he sees as a dec­i­mated society.

But it may be just as mythical.

Out of the Ashes, the latest book from Prov­i­dence College English pro­fessor, author, Divine Comedy trans­lator, and 2017 Hillsdale College com­mencement speaker Anthony Esolen presents a vision of the state of American culture and edu­cation that is nothing short of apoc­a­lyptic. His solution for a post-mortem America is a nos­talgic shot in the dark — Amer­icans should call up the ghosts of teachers and edu­ca­tional systems past to res­urrect a culture cen­tered on local churches, small clas­sical schools, and pickup games of baseball. And though I can’t pitch a baseball to save my life, Esolen’s enchanting picture of an America reborn in city parks and back­yards tempts me to believe it’s worth a try.

But before he can sell readers on his grass­roots vision, he must open their eyes to their accus­tomed wasteland. He opens as a Virgil to his readers’ Dante, walking his readers through the empty halls of their own home­towns: our libraries are empty, their copies of Dante, Shake­speare, and Alexander Pope long left unread. Our ball­parks are deserted as young boys play on com­puters inside. And our col­leges do not teach stu­dents to refurbish the homes of their minds with virtue, curiosity, and faith.

Esolen teaches at Prov­i­dence College in Rhode Island. | Amazon

Seen through Esolen’s eyes, America lives in a cul­tural nightmare, and he doesn’t leave any stone unturned in his jeremiad: Esolen’s ghost story reaches from the inner workings of Amer­icans’ minds — embroiled as they are in our identity-pol­itics- and fem­inist-movement-fueled con­fusion — all the way to the empty churches that echo with the loss of the ultimate end of human edu­cation and cre­ation.

Esolen has recently come under fire from stu­dents and col­leagues at Prov­i­dence College for his prophecies of doom about the state of modern edu­cation, par­tic­u­larly in a response to a column for the Catholic Crisis Mag­azine in which Esolen argues that the current pre­oc­cu­pation with “diversity” above all else impov­er­ishes study of the liberal arts:

“Why is intel­lectual diversity not served by the study of a dozen cul­tures of the past, with their vast array of customs, poetry, art, and worship of the gods?” he writes in his essay, polem­i­cally entitled “My College Suc­cumbed to the Total­i­tarian Diversity Cult” by a Crisis editor.

The essay led to a rebuke from the pres­ident of the college and a petition to remove Esolen from his job — which, as Esolen points out, shows a telling lack of interest in diverse views on the part of Prov­i­dence College members.

But perhaps Esolen does lean too heavily on polemic. Esolen has brought various levels of decla­mation into his pleas for the res­ur­rection of intel­lectual culture throughout his career. For example, his “Ten Ways to Destroy the Imag­i­nation of Your Child” is Esolen at his preachiest with his pseudo-satirical tract about edu­cation for young children. But Esolen, a teacher at heart, uses humor to more pos­itive effect else­where; his “Ironies of Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Lit­er­ature” allows him to show off the culture he hopes to res­urrect — one that can afford to take itself lightly, cen­tered as it is on Divine Light.

The more Esolen focuses on praising his much-beloved classic stories, the more clearly his voice sings out  — and through him, a glimpse into lit­er­ature and learning as he would have them. His trans­la­tions of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” are not to be missed for their music or their honesty to the Italian lan­guage. The intro­duc­tions and foot­notes show that Esolen’s mind is attuned to the harmony of Dante, one of the world’s most lively, expansive poetic minds. Esolen is at home here, recre­ating in English Dante’s medieval world with its ordered holistic view of escha­tology, morality, poetry, and spir­i­tu­ality.

This recon­struction of worlds is the strength of Out of the Ashes, as well — not only does Esolen lay out a blue­print for rebuilding what he sees as an empty culture, but he takes care to furnish the place, as well. He adorns the book with ref­er­ences to stories from the lit­er­ature he teaches in his English classes. For stu­dents familiar with the great works of the Western tra­dition, his ref­er­ences to Homer, Dante, Shake­speare, and great Protestant hymns will be welcome guests and points of light in an oth­erwise dark polemic. For others, the stories can serve as a rec­om­men­dation list of the works that Esolen finds most essential and enlight­ening.

How, then, does Esolen recon­struct American culture? Through avenues familiar to many Amer­icans — lit­erally. Esolen calls Amer­icans to take their towns back — the town halls, the school houses, the impromptu baseball games, the country parishes, and the lending libraries.

For readers tempted to look down their noses at the quaintness of such an exis­tence in a world that is too “complex,” too far “developed” for such rustic plea­sures, Esolen includes a page or two of pointed ques­tions that can lea to some soul-searching: Do you have the skills required to go on a fishing trip for the afternoon? Have you ever thought about the social skills boys are learning when they play a game of baseball? What are the names of the trees that you walk past as you get in your car for work?

Perhaps his most ardent cry is to insti­tu­tions like his own: Esolen would see new col­leges in the clas­sical edu­cation tra­dition — small, Christian ones that make the pursuit of edu­cation again a con­ver­sation between friends. He has his models: Patrick Henry College, Wyoming Catholic College, and Hillsdale College get shoutouts for their small size and focus on the liberal arts.

Are Esolen’s solu­tions prac­tical? Workable? Maybe not, but they are tempting as ideals, and his warnings about our sep­a­ration from the world and people around us ring true, harsh as they may be.

In an ideal world, Esolen could leave behind his strident calls to action and focus on the work he does best: teaching and trans­lating the stories he loves without “Out of the Ashes”’ defensive edge.

Perhaps it is enough that Esolen allows us to hope with him as he attempts to raise the phoenix of American culture from the ashes.

Esolen’s is a small and pre­cious idyll, a modern pas­toral: “Think of it, everyone — preachers, parish­ioners, cho­risters, artists.”