Cultural 'keep-away'

Carlin, David R. Jr.

OF SEVERAL HINDS David R. Carlin, Jr. CULTURAL 'KEEP-AWAY' THE TRICKLE-DOWN THEORY OF GREAT IDEAS In the June 22 issue of The New Republic, Louis Menand, writing in the "Washington Diarist"...

...Please don't misunderstand me...
...But I can't help getting a little woozy every time something like this happens in class, the same wooziness a Roman must have felt when he saw the Vandals at the gates...
...For purposes of full disclosure, I should note that I teach at a community college...
...More silence...
...and such institutions are, of course, not jam-packed with National Merit Scholars...
...Acquaintance with 408 "uncultured" folks of this sort is apt to persuade one that the world can get on quite well without Great Words, Great Books, and Great Ideas...
...Surely The New Republic has better things to do than to keep my students away from Homer and the Bible...
...Finally, a student volunteers, "I've heard of him...
...Blank stares...
...Hirsch's book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (Houghton Mifflin, $16.95, 251 pp...
...To say there ought to be a canonical list of wisdom books is like saying there ought to exist what Walter Lippmann called a public philosophy...
...In the 1984 Democratic presidential primaries, for instance, Walter Mondale had no need to call on Machiavelli, Madison, or Marx to refute Gary Hart...
...One man's wisdom is another man's poison, is it not...
...And we all know (don't we...
...I think I've heard the name," will be the reply...
...I ask...
...L used to blame their high school teachers when I would discover these empty accounts in my students' memory banks...
...Dragging poets into a sociology class is my contribution to interdisciplinary education...
...that a public philosophy is first cousin to that totally un-American thing, an established religion...
...When society's elites, represented in this instance by Louis Menand, deny that there are or ought to be such things as Great Words, Great Books, or Great Ideas, this trickles down to the young men and women in the middling ranks of society, where it manifests itself as a refusal to believe in the value of any words, books, or ideas which do not have obvious utilitarian value...
...CULTURAL 'KEEP-AWAY' THE TRICKLE-DOWN THEORY OF GREAT IDEAS In the June 22 issue of The New Republic, Louis Menand, writing in the "Washington Diarist" space, undertakes a putdown of E.D...
...But both are dangerous...
...That's the recently published volume, you remember, that contains a list of about 5,000 words and phrases that we all ought to be embarrassed not to know...
...Sometimes, to be perverse, I ask my students why the battle of Waterloo was named after a train station in London...
...What need do we have for a common vocabulary borrowed from the Bible, Plato, Shakespeare, et al., when we have a common culture provided for us by People magazine and TV advertisers...
...Then a darker thought occurs to me...
...I hold what may be called the Trickle Down Theory of Cultural Deprivation...
...Oh, I don't know who he is, but I've heard of the name...
...There you have it: another reductio adabsurdum...
...But follow me into the trenches, where I earn my living trying to teach sociology to students between the ages of eighteen and twenty...
...But the situation is hardly better at the typical four-year college, where I have experienced similar distressing moments...
...I don't know how Menand spends his day, but I'll bet he knows a lot of people who manage to be bright, competent, and public-spirited even when somewhat deficient in their knowledge of Herodotus, Dante, and Kant...
...Menand dubs this a "Great Words theory," and he complains that the trouble with it is that "it leads inexorably onward to the Great Books theory.'' And the trouble with a Great Books theory is that it "in turn runs into the notion that there are certain ideas everyone ought to have...
...More blank stares...
...Do you know Tennyson's 'The Lotos-Eaters...
...There are two reasons for a society to keep up a high cultural tradition, the kind of tradition reflected in Great Books lists...
...Silence...
...Instead he asked, "Where's the beef...
...I could relate scores of pertinent anecdotes, but let one do for now...
...Who is he...
...I suppose it can be plausibly argued that throughout most of recorded history the danger of showing too much respect for tradition has been greater than the opposite danger of showing too little respect...
...If knowledge of the poets won't put money in my pocket or help me find a good spouse, what good is it...
...Have you ever heard of Tennyson...
...Nor do I think persons not acquainted with "The Lotos-Eaters" should be deemed cultural barbarians...
...Then one day it dawned on me that six months after taking my course they probably don't retain much of the precious sociological information I made available to them...
...Besides, if you really want wisdom, you can always watch Oprah Winfrey...
...Who is Max Weber?'' some American lit teacher will ask while trying to teach Hawthorne...
...A full five minutes of wrong answers pass before someone finally figures out it's a trick question...
...But in America we have decided we can dispense with the high tradition on both counts...
...Not long ago, in the midst of a lecture, it occurred to me I could illustrate a point I was driving at by alluding to a certain poem...
...As for wisdom well, the word has a nice, old-fashioned ring about it, but who believes in it anymore...
...I perk up...
...409...
...Menand doesn't bother to tell us what's wrong with a Great Ideas theory...
...I don't think Tennyson belongs on a short list of Great Writers (though I do think he belongs on a longer list of Very Good Writers...
...Second, it contains wisdom, i.e., profound insights into human nature and its situation in the moral and physical universe...
...Good...
...And of the two, neglect of tradition is far the greater danger in America today...
...First, it provides us with a common vocabulary, a shared body of ideas, with which we can carry on serious discussions about serious topics...
...apparently he regards it as self-evidently absurd...

Vol. 114 • July 1987 • No. 13


 
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