Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Whatever happened to high culture? -- Joseph Epstein

Painting by Boris Chaliapin (1955)

Joseph Epstein

"For many years I taught an undergraduate course in prose style to would-be writers. At one point in the course I used to present my students with a list of 15 or so items that included such names and events as the Peloponnesian War, Leon Trotsky, Serge Diaghilev, the 1913 Armory Show, the Spanish Civil War, Nicolas Chamfort, Boris Chaliapin, C. P. Cavafy, the Dreyfus Affair, and a few others. I asked how many knew who or what these items were. A few among them knew one or two of the names and events listed. I said that, at 20 years old, I myself could not have done better than they. I then added that, if one wanted to pass oneself off as a cultured person one had to know such things and a great deal more. 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.
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. How did such a change come about?
Truly cultured people were always a minority, at any time and in every place. One used to be able to find a certain number of them in universities. Some schools appeared to have more than others. Columbia in the days of Jacques Barzun, Lionel Trilling, F. W. Dupee, & Co. was notable among them. They were also to be found in the books one read at universities. One could not read, for example, George Eliot without being immensely impressed with her vast learning, deep understanding, and artistic control over complex material, and wondering if, were she alive today, one could engage her in conversation without oneself seeming sadly inadequate.
No George Eliots around today, and no Barzuns or Trillings either, which is a sad subtraction from the richness of not merely culture but life itself. Nor is it easy to imagine such people soon replaced. Universities, operating under the tyranny of political correctness and the requisites of dumbing down, seem just now keener on building up the self-esteem and protecting the tender sensibilities of their students than in creating young men and women eager to possess culture.

The acquisition of culture requires repose, sitting quietly in a room with a book, or alone with one’s thoughts even at a crowded concert or art museum. Ours is distinctly not an age of repose. The rhythm of our time is jumpy. The smart phone is its characteristic instrument, with calls and texts coming in more than intermittently, Google there to consult as an aide-memoire, to check for stock prices, ball scores, recent terrorist murders. Information not culture is the great desideratum of our day, distraction our chief theme.

Cable television, with something for everyone but the thoughtful, awaits at home. What with raising children under the full-court press regime of parenting, making a living, working out at the gym, worrying about one’s diet, taking a breather to watch a baseball game or a movie, there is scarcely time left to read a serious book or anything else that might be construed as acquiring culture."


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