Skip to content

…maybe a little bit ethnocentric?

To complete the line of thought I started with yesterday’s post, there are now times that I encounter situations or books or ideas that make me think I might be becoming more conservative…or at the very least that I’m becoming a grumpy old man (an inevitability that I anticipate eagerly).

As I’ve mentioned  before, one of the the triggers for this feeling is the EU. It may be the darling of the British left, but all I see in it is a deeply undemocratic technocracy. Another is my concern about the demise of common standards. I’ve previously mentioned this with regards to aesthetics, though aside from architecture I think that’s a marginal issue. Neither do I feel particularly strongly that our modern world’s morals are all akimbo (though I’ll check back in on that subject after I’ve read A Secular Age).

I must admit, however, that I feel it keenly in the area of education. Two things triggered this realisation in recent days. The first was  a moment at work in which an allusion to ‘Paul of Tarsus’ in a conversation about conversions was met with blank stares. The second was reading a review of the newest book by Niall Ferguson (a man whose contributions to public dialogue have been primarily characterised by intellectual laziness and crypto-racism and who nevertheless has secured two professorships at Harvard).

Now, whether because of my leftie background or because I cannot stand Harold Bloom’s writing, I have long dismissed the idea of the western canon, even as I have personally consumed (and benefited from the consumption of) a large proportion of it. Perhaps dismissed is the wrong word: I have certainly thought little about it, and felt little inclination to think more about it. But (and here’s where I sit down to put on my grumpy old man trousers) I worry that I may be beginning to see its point.

Let me explain. As many of you will now, I’m terrified of strangers. Before I started my current job, I would avoid things like ordering pizza over the phone because I found them stressful. And I still avoid going to large group events where I don’t known many people. Small talk isn’t among my strengths, and in the absence of some mutually acknowledged common ground I struggle at conversation. A shared acquaintance or a similar intellectual or professional interest is often enough to get me over the hump, but even that requires some sort of boundaries: “technology” events cover far too broad a range of subjects for me to be confident that I’ll have much at all to say to a stranger I meet there, and casting around for topics is too too awkward.

It’s easy to say that part of the problem is that there’s simply too much to know these days–that the explosion of information and the specialisation of every industry and every intellectual discipline over the course of the 20th century means that a common set of learning or a shared heritage is no longer an achievable goal. As Ann Blair argues persuasively in her new book, though, it has been ever thus. Every generation has complained that there is too much to know. And while our present day has seen an exponential explosion of data, the growth of information based on that data has thankfully grown at a slower rate.

The other stumbling block, of course, is determining whether a common set of learning is even a worthy goal. And it’s here that I think I’m starting to change my mind. I’m a strong proponent of liberal eduction. I don’t believe that the primary purpose of universities should be to seek out and share truth and knowledge, and that such a purpose not only offers the greatest benefit to humanity as a whole, but also equips the society in which such universities operate with the best possible chances of economic and humanistic advancement. I don’t believe, for example, that universities should offer degrees in business or communications. It is certainly in the economic interests of society to train people in both of these areas, but they rightly deserve to be trade qualification rather than areas of stand-alone study in the tertiary education system. As the New York Times pointed out earlier this year, “undergraduate business majors study less than other students, and lag behind in assessments of critical thinking and writing skills — scoring lower than students in education and communications, and well behind liberal arts majors”.

I will admit a certain tendency toward elitism here, but I believe the primary purpose of the universities must be liberal education, and that the purpose of liberal eduction is to teach people not only how to structure thoughts & learn & assess the thoughts of others but also to understand the current state of human learning in at least one discipline and to appreciate how we came to where we are. Both sides of the equation are fraught with culture-specific norms, of course, and in many cases those can’t be disentangled without unravelling the whole. Formulating an argument, for example, is necessarily a social (and therefore culturally bounded) task, and teaching people how to structure thoughts into convincing arguments cannot be done as if in a sociocultural vacuum.

While difficult to deny the links between culture and epistemology, the arguments are abstract and therefore unlikely to attract a large audience. Discussions of the canon and whether it inherently favours dead white men, on the other hand, have a tangibility that earns them greater popular attention. I do believe there’s merit in the whole of the educated class having some shared set of learning, and I suspect that the very tangibility of the canon as a battlefield for a more expansive notion of the boundaries of “our” culture may mean it’s a less intractable problem.

I’m not entirely sure what the answer is, but I hope that there’s room for a global canon in the republic of letters. More than any time in human history, we live in a globalised world. If there is a canon, the very nature of our modern world demands that it include eastern philosophy and histories of a broader geography written from a more diverse set of perspectives. Just as much from western culture has been shed from the core set of learning, so the best of what already exists from other parts of the world should be grafted onto the existing set of knowledge. At least at first, there may be little merit in trying to reclaim things already shed by those cultures. As we go forward, taking a broader view of what matters, I think it will be easier to maintain a global canon.

The alternative, as I see it, is that our only shared knowledge is of the immediate popular culture around us. For better or worse, I have a rather tenuous connection to pop cultures, but I do know that there’s very little chat as boring to listen to as chat about reality television shows, X-Factor, and the like, and so I sincerely hope something can be done with the canon instead.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *