“Whatever Happened to High Culture?”

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.

The whole article.

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Politics and “a psychological disposition towards cognitive laziness”

University of Toronto critical theorist Joseph Heath inquires: Whence the sapience of homo sapiens?

The core idea, known as dual-process theory, “is that we have within our minds two very different styles of cognition, two different ways of approaching and solving problems.” Intuition is referred to by academics as system one, while reason is system two.

Intuition usually works well enough for many purposes. It’s the easier path, so we incline toward it. However, the brain’s rapid intuition is also buggy, the product of earlier evolutionary times.

Reason is often what academics, not surprisingly, engage in. It has four essential characteristics: it is linguistically based; it is linear, where one thought follows another; it is conscious, meaning every step of the argument is explicit and available; and it is “effortful,” i.e., it requires our full attention and concentration. All of this is a rather slow process, said Dr. Heath.

What, then, of political life?

What [Prime Minister Pierre] Trudeau was implying was that “in a very emotionally charged debate, certain kinds of policy positions [federalism] are going to be at an intrinsic disadvantage because those policy positions are fundamentally not motivated by emotion [as is sub-federal nationalism/separatism], they’re motivated by rational insight. The debate is not neutral,” said Dr. Heath.

These considerations lead Heath to call for a new “slow politics.”

The article.

“Our exhausted (first) world: a plea for 21st-century existential philosophy”

Philosopher Sheridan Hough writing about the enervated hedonism of many of her students (by their own admission, “just zoning out on a Barcalounger with a grilled cheese”):

[L]et me tell you that this is a phenomenon I’ve observed over the years, on a number of North American campuses, and it continues to astonish me. They are exhausted. These children of first world everything, every material good and privilege that humans have wrought, fashioned and fought for over millennia, are simply tired of the whole thing.

ln this case, everything leads to nothing(ness):

We might observe that the students in the existential ‘check-out’ line are in a different condition from this redoubtable, yet empty, human being [without a self]: they aren’t even aroused by the prospect of taking up the gleaming mantles of propriety and esteem—those letters after the name! The corner office and the elaborate business card. Oh, they will do all of it, of course, but the point of their activity, any of it, except for indolent repose, has gone missing: their subjective condition is not fully functioning.

The work of becoming a subject lies unclaimed.

Outmoded Concepts

Reviewer Simon Gadke on True Style author Bruce Boyer:

The things he advocates, perfectly echoed in his easy prose style, are restraint, elegance and the occasional flash of whimsy and individuality. It’s an aesthetic rooted in concepts as outmoded today as a gold collar pin: propriety, civility and manners.

“Fashion,” then, as an articulation of the “ethical” in ethos:

Boyer’s own style is instructive: brown suede shoes, corduroy slacks, muted tweed jackets.

Q.E.D.

“A guy who believes the classroom should be a democracy, not a dictatorship”

Democracy or dictatorship — are these our only choices in the classroom? False dilemma, anyone?

Says this GTA teacher:

“The idea of a teacher as ‘lead learner’ is important, and a teacher’s desk represents the holy grail of authority. If we’re supposed to be a democracy but I have a ‘throne,’ how can I say equity in my classroom is real?” he asked.

On this account, teachers have no real ability to inform or guide, so “equity” demands that teachers and students occupy the same intellectual (and even physical) level, with no unfair (fascist) presumption of greater ability on the part of the teacher (er, um, “lead learner”). We should, naturally, expect to teachers to be learners, too (which should keep teachers humble, as this “lead learner” points out rightly). But teachers and students, we should figure using common sense, occupy substantively different levels — and if they do not, things are amiss.

In today’s “inquiry-based learning” approach, a teacher might start a lesson by asking, “What do we wonder about this topic? What do we need to know?” and then work with students to figure out how to find the answer together, said Education professor Nancy Steele, of the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Are teachers allowed to come into the classroom with any sense of direction? Are we here looking at an organic dialectical process cultivated in a principled way or mere anomie? Tom Nichols offers this timely and exceedingly valuable thought:

I fear we are witnessing the “death of expertise”: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.

No one (well, almost no one) wants a return to the bad old days of authoritarianism. Authority or expertise means roughly the considered views of those with important experience in an area. But we all have our own “experiences,” don’t we? Yes, but not all experiences are equal, Nichols reminds us:

I am (or at least think I am) an expert. Not on everything, but in a particular area of human knowledge, specifically social science and public policy. When I say something on those subjects, I expect that my opinion holds more weight than that of most other people. I never thought those were particularly controversial statements. As it turns out, they’re plenty controversial.

Mark Bauerlein asks in The Dumbest Generation (186): “If mentors are so keen to recant their expertise, why should students strain to acquire it themselves?”

Why, indeed?

William Deresiewicz on the Neoliberal Arts

An extreme example, to be sure, but one that could not have emerged except on the basis of an already diminished culture:

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, [Wisconsin governor] Walker “proposed striking language about public service and improving the human condition, and deleting the phrase: ‘Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.’” The university’s mission would henceforth be to “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

What to think, though, of a president of a leading liberal arts school who claims not to know the meaning of “liberal arts”?

[H]e said, a bit belligerently, “I’ve been here five months, and no one has been able to give me a satisfactory definition of ‘the liberal arts.’” … “So what do you think the college should be about?” I finally asked him. “Leadership,” he said.

Plato offers us some ideas about leadership, too. But they do not suit the contemporary soul.

The article.

“‘Flipped classroom’ is professional suicide”

Jonathan Rees asks:

Proponents claim it [the flipped classroom] frees up class time for direct interaction between faculty and individual students. Instantly suspicious of flipping my classroom, I wondered how my students would find time to do their assigned reading if they were watching class videos in their dorm rooms three times a week? I also wondered what the rest of my class would be doing while I personally interacted with other students, one by one. I am yet to get satisfactory responses to either of these concerns.

Very good questions, these. First, under the flipped classroom model, students are supposed to fulfil the traditional tasks of reading and going to class, and the new chore of watching recorded talks. More work, and thus less likely to get done. Or perhaps the videos will supplant the readings altogether (this writer would welcome the change). After all, tl;dr. Second, can’t students simply do the readings in advance as assigned so everyone can enjoy the benefit of class time free of the unregenerate hideousness of the medieval lecture? Why do we need the extra work of videos to achieve this end? Why this restructuring? A venture:

“In an age where people seem to think that education is just a matter of ‘delivering content’ that translates into mad workplace skillz, I’m uneasy about providing the university with any multimedia content that could be aggregated into a enormous-enrollment course taught by a grossly underpaid and underinsured Ph.D.”

“Self must stand aside”

Mark Edmundson, author of Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals, on “Why We Need to Resurrect Our Souls”:

At a certain point it will again become clear to young people that they have a choice in what they make of their lives. There are ideals of the soul and there are desires of the self, and young people will once again have the chance to decide which they will pursue. They may come again to understand that self at its best is a protection for the life of soul, and when the moment comes for soul to exert itself, self must stand aside.

Agreed. But an open question: What elements of contemporary culture support such a way?