Sunday, 1 May 2022

'For pleasure and edification, not for points credit'

 In 'Culture High and Dry', the first in a collection of essays and lectures published as The Culture We Deserve, the historian Jacques Barzun laments the loss of a broad-based common culture in which all who were likely to take an interest in such matters could be assumed to have a fairly firm bedrock of knowledge and appreciation of literature and the arts (and history, the subject of a later essay). In an age of increasing specialism and declining educational standards, this bedrock can no longer be taken for granted, and the consequences, as Barzun realised, are potentially dire.
  Barzun reminds us that 'the idea of studying literature, studying past art is extremely recent. Down to the 1850s there were no courses in those subjects; they were not subjects at all. And even after they came in, as a hoped-for antidote to science and political economy, nobody believed that contemporary art and literature should or could be studied.' It was assumed that contemporary artists and writers 'would be read or followed by the public for pleasure and edification, not for points credit'. Those interested would 'undergo at first hand, without pedagogy, the formative impress of the latest phase of culture ... As things stand now, the new is brought on campus and dissected before the body has had time to cool.' All is grist to the academic mill, since the various forms of critical analysis deployed bear less and less relation to the work under dissection, the thing itself and how it is experienced, still less to its quality, a concept long ago devalued and jettisoned. Thus academic discourse drifts loose from its ostensible subject and becomes hermetic, and indeed incomprehensible to all but a few academic specialists.
  This is a sad state of affairs, but also, as Barzun, in his civilised, understated way, notes, downright dangerous. When academic analysis comes adrift from its subject and when increasing numbers of students have no deep roots in or knowledge of a wider culture, criticism lies open to any ideology that cares to ride a coach and horses through it. Barzun published these essays in 1989, when he was already in his 80s. Although he lived to the extraordinary age of 104 (dying in 2012), he was at least spared the sight of Critical Race Theory and 'decolonisation' rampaging through an academe of 'safe spaces' and 'trigger warnings', proving his own, very different warnings all too well founded.  

1 comment:

  1. Encourages me to reread the Culture we Deserve.