Author and academic Joseph Epstein writes: “The English philosopher Michael Oakeshott notes that one of the signs of being cultured is that one knows what one doesn’t have to know.” (We shall, naturally, exclude sports scores and the like from consideration here.) What, then, should a cultured person know? The better question, Epstein offers, is what cultured persons were once expected to know: “Contemporary visual art, perhaps for the first time in the history of painting and sculpture, is one of those things a cultured person no longer has to know.”
Epstein as professor remarks upon the understandable initial lack of cultural and intellectual knowledge on the part of his past students: “My sense is that these students were, as I hoped they would be, as I myself as an undergraduate was, properly cowed by their own ignorance.” What of our contemporary cultural condition? Are we willing to learn, remember, and recollect? If “the art of the past—visual, musical, above all literary—is the chief route to culture”, where do we stand culturally?
I’m not sure that this same exercise would be of much avail today. Now students need merely pick up their smartphones and Google the names on my list. I’m less than sure that culture, and the notion of being a cultured person, has anything like the high standing it once had. Might most people today rather be well informed than cultured? What was once a high human aspiration—the possession of culture—may no longer be so.
Though we are ambitious, we no longer aspire. We do not want to work, in the broadest and deepest sense:
Among those of us fortunate enough to have grasped its significance, high culture took us out of our small worlds into a larger universe where human possibilities were immensely enlarged. But now high culture, once thought to be not the shortest but the surest way to the good life, is no longer the main quest in artistic or intellectual life, having been not so much defeated as replaced by noise, nervous energy, sheer distraction.
The future, then?
No longer a continuing enterprise, high culture itself will become dead-ended, a curiosity, little more, and thus over time likely to die out. Life will go on. Machines will grow smarter, human beings gradually dumber.
A veridical presage, I would say.