In this essay, I propose that the paradigm presented by Matthew Arnold on the meaning of culture can and should be a response for understanding the eroding arts and humanities today.
The Unmapped Classics
The twentieth century economist E. F. Schumacher recounts in A Guide for the Perplexed that while in Leningrad, 1968, he was lost amongst some churches. After consulting his map, he grew perplexed: “I could see several enormous churches, yet there was no trace of them on my map. When finally an interpreter came to help me, he said: “We don’t show churches on our maps.” Contradicting him, I pointed to one that was very clearly marked. “That is a museum,” he said, “not what we call a ‘living church.’ It is only the ‘living churches’ we don’t show.” The experience reminded him that throughout his schooling and university life, “I had been given maps of life and knowledge on which there was hardly of trace of many of things that seemed to me to be of the greatest possible importance to the conduct of my life.” The maps given to Schumacher “advised me that virtually all my ancestors, until quite recently, had been rather pathetic who conducted their lives on the basis of irrational beliefs and absurd superstitions.” His ancestors’ religion, like Christian churches by the Soviet Union, were not to be taken seriously save as dead carcasses to be put on display in museums or library shelves.
Analogously, many students—who have some sense of the living importance of past works of western civilization—may notice that at large public universities much of the classical humanities canon (e.g. Homer, Dante, Shakespeare) are treated like churches on Leningrad maps. The classics are politically outdated works, possibly to be marked down in a Great Books course but not as the essential route to a liberal arts degree. They are mostly unmapped in an education. Today, many comparative literature departments teach instead as the their main hermeneutics various forms of postmodernism. What its form, each shares “a reluctance to ground discourse in any theory of metaphysical origins, an insistence on the inevitable plurality and instability of meaning, a distrust of systematic scientificity, and the abandoning of the old Enlightenment project.” This abandoning of old studies continues in other departments such as history. It typifies that with “the rise of the race/class/gender approach, subfields perceived as excessively “traditional” or overly focused on “dead white males” have gone into decline,” or “have been “re-visioned” in the hopes of transferring focus to topics oriented around themes of race, class, and gender.” Teaching and scholarship mean within the liberal arts (1) exposing past texts and traditions as mere propaganda for racist, sexist, classist, or homophobic social orders, or (2) re-appropriating them as tools to subvert modern forms of social injustice.
A Revolutionary Curriculum
The public controversy over the closing of the collegiate mind, on what is and especially is not taught, began in the 1980s when Stanford University decided “to drop its required year-long course in Western Culture” that coincided with a ruling “by the Stanford Faculty Senate that every course in the university’s new program must include ‘works by women, minorities and persons of color,’ and that at least one work each courter must address issues of race, gender or class.” All “across the country, colleges and universities have been busy revamping their educational programs according to criteria” which once “would have been considered blatantly political” and thus not suitable for an environment like the university. The student is educated not so much in the clash of ideas but in a specific political ideology. This revision of the humanities marks a great contrast with the older conception of the arts and humanities: that “our critical engagement with great thinkers enriches our understanding” and enables us to fuller apprehend “truths that when we appropriate them and integrate them into our lives, liberate us from what is merely vulgar, coarse, or base.” The liberal arts meant liberation from the ordinary and course self so the student could become her best self.
How refreshing is the contrast to read Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy (1869), where he says culture is “a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.” As a student in want of this culture, I reacted to those words as the late Saul Bellow did to Allan Bloom’s language in The Closing of the American Mind: “A style of this sort will seem to modern readers marred by classical stiffness—“Truth,” “Knowers,” “the Good,” “Man”—but we can by no means deny that behind our objection to such language is a guilty consciousness of flimsiness, and not infrequently the trashiness, of our modern talk about “values.””
Arnold described culture not as a stale mechanics of learning Greek and Latin for bookkeepers. Rather he specifically prescribes culture as the solution to what Thomas Carlyle called our “Age of Machinery,” an age where mere means become our final ends: wealth, industrial enterprise, religious affiliations were thought to be irreducible instances of human flourishing. Yet as lovers of culture, Arnold says, “we are fond stickers to no machinery, not even our own; and we have no doubt that perfection can be reached without it.” Culture, however, “insists that men should not mistake, as they are prone to mistake, their natural taste for the bathos for a relish for the sublime.” The pursuit of one’s total perfection or, more classically, Eudaimonia is the goal of culture, and in the contemporary circumstances provides a goal for the humanities in its self-identity crisis. My engagement with past great thinkers, writers, and artists takes me out of my contextual stock notions and habits and I am confronted by great persons with different contextual notions and habits. New thoughts arise out of such a communion, so that I can be ruled by reason and freed from mere social conditioning and conventional assumptions. In pursuing mankind’s perfection, one needs what most perfects—the best that has been written and thought. And since a focal point of study needs to be established if there is to be study, a classical canon can be affirmed as that desired focal point.
Culture as an Alternative Framework
This view is not, as some may object, a “scheme [which] is, in essence, one of imposition from above and from outside.” Rather this view of the arts and humanities bears an authentic humanism and contemporary objections to it seem, paraphrasing Bellow, bearing behind them a guilty conscience of the flimsiness and trashiness of modern values that our university system frequently propagates. Even Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton admits, men and women “need a sense of tradition and belonging. There is nothing retrograde about roots.” That notion may explain why he went from being known as “The Author of Literary Theory” to being known as “The Author of After Theory.”
Admittedly, this view of the humanities cannot be justified solely on the “culture” it transmits. Once this appeal is made for the humanities, Roger Scruton notes,
[T]hey become vulnerable to deconstruction. One can summon any number of theories—the Marxist theory of “ideology,” or some feminist, post-structuralist, or Foucauldian descendant of it—in proof of the view that the precious achievements of our culture owe their status merely to the power that speaks through them, and hence that they are of no intrinsic worth.”
Then the humanities are vacuous of learning and scholarship which have the aura of authority and invitation enticing the student into an exercise of intellectual virtue and free inquiry. The defense of a sense of tradition and affirmation of our western cultural inheritance may require a teleological account. One finds such an account in Arnold: human flourishing or perfection by increase in experience of beauty and knowledge, what he called ‘Sweetness and Light’. This teleology branches beyond the contextual, yet still affirms it. Culture as such rebuts the machinery of a politicized university, the postmodern humanities, and the campus “cult of selfie.”Arnold held his principle of culture was an active social principle that refreshed with free thought one’s prior beliefs and sentiments by the streams of “the best which has been thought and said in the world.” Culture does not directly inform men and women for action. Rather, it forms their cognitive habits to ask why they ought to act this way rather than that way. Culture prescribes not the life of action, or what Arnold held as the Hebraic “strictness of conscience.” Rather, culture prescribes “the spontaneity of consciousness” (or Hellenism) that makes directed and thoughtful action possible. The intellectual virtues, practiced in coming to know what is best and why it is thought so, make possible the practical virtues in life because the former student has increased in the experience of asking why action X and reasoning an account for X.
The Practical Effects of Culture
Dewey emphasized the necessity for good education to render the student’s experience with practicing good habits, since “every experience enacted and undergone modifies the one who acts and undergoes, while this modification affects, whether we wish it or not, the quality of subsequent experiences.” So the proper liberal arts education is an education sentimantale: it informs both our emotional and intellectual attitudes, basic sensitivities and ways of meeting and responding to all conditions of life: “that every experience both takes up something from those which have gone before and modifies in some way the quality of those which come after.”
Arnold’s account offers a sense of experiential continuity transcending time and place. For example, when I memorized John Keats’ poem, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” in freshman year of high school, I internalized words expressing a sense of beauty. At the time it seemed just a grade to receive. In later years however it gave me a grammar to express awe and wonder. When I first travelled to Oxford, England, I saw ancient architecture resonating with poetry and history of past lives and love of learning affecting us still. I had the language to express myself since Keats taught me what to say: I felt
like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken.
Or like stout Cortez—when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien
Examples of Culture
As with the recitation of Psalms in Christian and Jewish services, one incorporates a language to engage present experiences using the past, thereby giving that language new meaning. We thus have a continuity of experience between past and present, and our experiences add to that first experience of writing, performing, and playing. The humanities are an affirmation of what it has meant to be human in preceding eras. An artist’s act of creation has more potency when he or she aims to innovate within a tradition, like the modernist artists such as Eliot and Stravinsky. They were original because they were traditionalists. Eliot saw the task of the modern artist “to find the words, rhythms, and artistic forms that would make contact again with our experience—not my experience or yours, but our experience—the experience that unites us living here and now.” Likewise, the task of the modern student is to find through past works what unites us living here and now. However, given our universities’ post-mortem condition due to the humanities’ postmodern condition, those educators teaching Arnoldian culture shall have to be like churches in Stalingrad, going often unmapped but living in pursuit of the students’ total perfection.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
1. E.F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: Harper Perennial, 1978, 2004), 1.
3. Schumacher, 1-2.
4. David Macey, The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory (London: Penguin Books, 2001), 309.
5. KC Johnson, “In History—the Obsession with Race, Class and Gender,” National Association of Scholars, 3 October 2012.
6. Robert P. George, “Academic Freedom and What It Means Today” in Liberty and Civilization: The Western Heritage, ed. Roger Scruton (New York: Encounter Books, 2010): 79-92, 80.
7. Roger Kimball, Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education, 3rd ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1990, 2008), 18.
8. Ibid, 19.
9. George, 83.
10. Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, 1869, ed. Jane Garnett (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 5.
11. Saul Bellow, “Forward” in Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, 1987 (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2012): 11-18, 12.
12. Carlyle writes: “Were we required to characterise this age of ours by any single epithet, we should be tempted to call it, not an Heroical, Devotional, Philosophical, or Moral Age, but, above all others, the Mechanical Age. It is the Age of Machinery, in every outward and inward sense of that word” (Thomas Carlyle, ‘Signs of the Times’ (1829), Critical and Miscellaneous Essays, 5 vols. (London, 1899), ii. 56-82, at 59; quoted in Arnold, 189-190).
13. Arnold, ibid, 27.
14. John Dewey, Experience and Education, 1938 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), 18.
15. Terry Eagleton, After Theory (New York: Basic Books, 2003), 21.
16. Roger Scruton, “Scientism in the Arts and Humanities,” The New Atlantis, Number 40, Fall 2013: 33-46.
17. Arnold writes, “The idea of perfection as an inward condition of the mind and spirit…[and] as a general expansion of the human family is at variance with our strong individualism, our hatred of all limits to the unrestrained swing of the individual’s personality, our maxim of “every man for himself.” The idea of perfection as an harmonious expansion of human nature is at variance with our want of flexibility, with our inaptitude for seeing more than one side of a thing, with our intense energetic absorption in the particular pursuit we happen to be following. (37)
18. Dewey, 35.
19. Dewey, ibid.
20. John Keats (1795–1821), “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” in English Poetry II: From Collins to Fitzgerald, The Harvard Classics (1909–14).
21. Roger Scruton, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture (London: Continuum, 1998): 68-84.
22. Scruton, ibid, 80.