|High Culture / Popular Culture|
"The old reigning assumption was that one had four years for an undergraduate education, and these years were best spent, at least in the classroom, not on the novels of Kurt Vonnegut or the movies of Wes Anderson, but on certifiably great works—certified by that harshest yet fairest of all critics, Time. One couldn’t of course become educated—except, vocationally, in a trade: engineering, say, or accounting—in four years, but if one was lucky in one’s teachers one could get some rough idea of what education was about and how to go about acquiring more of it once outside of school.
What education is about, the assumption was, is the attainment of culture. By culture was meant an understanding of life and what is most important in it. This understanding is obtained through experience, observation, insight, and the ability to get outside oneself to view the world from a larger than merely personal perspective. Culture at this depth comprised a compound of a sense of the past, an understanding of what morality was about, and intelligence. The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa notes that “culture has always signified a combination of factors and disciplines that, according to a broad social consensus, are what define it: a recognition of a shared heritage of ideas, values, works of art, a store of historical, religious, and philosophical knowledge in constant evolution, and the exploration of new artistic and literary forms and of research in all areas of knowledge.”
The study of the past is the main portal through which culture is acquired; and once through that portal, the art of the past—visual, musical, above all literary—is the chief route to culture. Study of the great art of the past, the imbuing of tradition, was also thought the most certain way to ensure that there will be important art in the present and in the future.
Matthew Arnold, the great Victorian promulgator of the gospel of culture, held that poetry “is criticism of life,” and criticism itself is “a disinterested endeavor to learn . . . the best that is known and thought in the world.” Culture was attained through finding and pondering that best."