Friday, February 4, 2011

A Couple Of Points

This post is all Withywindle's fault.

FLG bait: Edmundson writes "But it's not only the division of experience between hard labor and empty leisure that now makes reading for something like mortal stakes a very remote possibility." FLG, discuss.

Withy was correct. This sentence riles FLG to no end. While FLG is sympathetic Emerson's to cause -- lamenting the decline in reverence for the Western canon in our society, this sentence is part of the problem.

There is no such thing as empty leisure. Skhole is never empty by definition. It is active contemplation. Free time, now that can be empty. That Emerson fails to make this distinction, although in fairness he's far from alone, and instead carelessly uses the two words as synonyms is part of the problem. If we stopped calling anything other than work, leisure, then this would all be much clearer. Sitting in front of the XBOX, which FLG does quite often as well, isn't leisure. It's goofing off in your free time.

Ah, but the meaning of words changes, you say? Even the transition from the Greek word skhole to the Latin word otium added a more lax conception.

To which FLG says, if the meaning of words can change, then let's change it back. Let's stop calling free time leisure to illuminate the difference.

On the other hand, this idea that at some point in the glorious past people could recite Homer from memory and everybody spoke in iambic pentameter is silly. Prior to the 1930s, most people who attended college, especially the elite colleges, were wealthy and attained a level of literary fluency expected by their class. Those from more humble backgrounds, who were lucky to attend university, often attended land-grant colleges and focused on the agricultural and mechanical arts. (Not to even get into the whole Jewish question.)

During this period, it's easy to come to the conclusion, an incorrect conclusion, that the vast majority of people were well-acquainted with the Western canon. They weren't.

But then the G.I. Bill opened up college to millions. What was once the province almost exclusively of wealthy white men began, slowly to open up. This meant changes. Mostly for the better.

But for a variety of reasons, these changes also meant that the Western canon would lose its former standing to some extent. It's relatively easy to understand why the newcomers would be suspicious of texts written by dead white men. FLG thinks many of these charges are solipsistic, but understandable. On the other hand, FLG was assigned a lot of the canon at Georgetown. So, it's definitely still there.

FLG attributes a lot of this to perception though. As he wrote above, prior to the 1930s, going back to as far back as you want to go, the literary, educated classes were largely the upper classes, or at times the religious class. Emerson wants to claim that professors failed to defend the canon on the ramparts of The Ivory Tower, and so now the current literary tastes are less refined. However, once higher education, especially elite higher education, was democratized, its graduates would inevitably demonstrate more democratic tastes. But it doesn't mean necessarily that the culture has coarsened, but only that those who are who make up the literary, educated class more accurately represent society.

If that is one of the costs of increasing access to higher education, then FLG will take it. But let's stop calling everything they do in their free time leisure.

6 comments:

Withywindle said...

But what if traditional cultural knowledge has collapsed even among the top 5%, say, of US college students?

FLG said...

I dunno. I'm not even close to the top 5% and I have a good bit of traditional cultural knowledge.

Alpheus said...

What if traditional cultural knowledge has collapsed especially among the top 5%?

More earnestly: is the big problem that people aren't well-acquainted with the Western canon or that they don't value the Western canon?

Did the democratization of education result in a dumbing-down only because too many of the new students couldn't cut it old-school, or was the new pressure on the smart to distinguish themselves as teachers and researchers part of the problem too? I think you could make an argument that fear of being displaced by hard-working strivers -- reflected especially in much greater competition for top academic jobs -- encouraged many intellectuals to shift the playing field beyond the traditional canon by embracing Marxism, historical revisionism, feminism, post-structuralism, and other theoretical constructs that, while sometimes very illuminating, owe a big part of their appeal to their serviceability as career-promoting bafflegab.

The vast majority of people may not have been well acquainted with the Western canon before WWII, but I would argue that a much larger proportion than at present aspired to be acquainted with it. (There's evidence for this in, for example, the popularity of Reader's Digest and the Harvard Classics.) And I think this that aspiration has diminished in part because intellectual luminaries now find it advantageous to cast doubt on whether all those dead white men are really worth reading, after all.

FLG said...

"Did the democratization of education result in a dumbing-down only because too many of the new students couldn't cut it old-school, or was the new pressure on the smart to distinguish themselves as teachers and researchers part of the problem too?"

I don't think it's just that new students couldn't cut it, but rather that the new students were far more interested in practical arts as compared with their predecessors with more aristocratic leanings.

David said...

Alpheus...."The vast majority of people may not have been well acquainted with the Western canon before WWII, but I would argue that a much larger proportion than at present aspired to be acquainted with it"

Tom Watson Jr, longtime head of IBM, made some comments in his autobiography which tend to support this. A man Watson much admired had achieved high executive rank in IBM despite coming from a rough coal-mining town and never having attended college. When Watson asked him how he had done it, he said his self-improvement program had involved: (1)listening to classical music, (2)reading the classics, and (3)buying suits at Brooks Brothers.

Alpheus said...

To follow up on Withywindle, here's a link to Rose's piece in the City Journal from 2004.

 
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