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Masscult Midcult Highcult Popcult

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For what it’s worth, I wasn’t ignoring Jem’s questions.  I was just leaving them for this post.

And things being what they are–I’m in a noisy computer lab, and it’s easy to be distracted–I just want to outline my answers at first.

To begin with, there is the “what is culture?” question, and here I’m at a bit of a disadvantage.  I’m not sure where I used the word that made the question arise in the first place, because I use it in several different senses.  Sometimes I use it as a stand-in for “society.”  Sometimes I use it to mean the overarching assumptions of a social world.  Sometimes I use it when I should really use “civilization.”

That said, I’m going to assume that the issue here concerns what the content of the canon should be, or what the content of an education should be.

And if that’s the question, then my basic outline of what it would take to be completely educated would look like this:

            a) the history of event from Greece to the present

            b) the history of ideas from Greece to the present (philosophy in all its guises (political science, ethics,  Aristotle and Aquinas, Freud and Nietzsche and Marx, Adam Smith, Hume, Locke, etc)

            c) the history of art from Greece to the present

             d) mathematics through elementary calculus, and including statistics)

             e) the basics of biology, chemistry and physics, including an understanding of the standards of scientific evidence and some experience with constructing and carrying out empirical experiments.

So that’s what I want,generally. 

How to get other people to value it is a more complicated issue.

I really do not want to impose this on anybody who doesn’t want it.

What bothers me, at the moment, is that most of my students don’t even know it’s there to be wanted.  They aren’t aware that such a thing as a liberal education exists, never mind what it might do for them or what it is supposed to be for.

What’s more, they’re often woefully misinformed about what will, in fact, get them a job after college. Nearly all of them are concentrating on narrowly vocational degrees in a world in which entry level hires for those employment tracks that lead to significant promostions (say, getting to be a CEO someday) are almost all of students who major in NON vocational subjects but at higher-tier universities.  That holds for who gets admitted to the name law and business schools, too.

So what I want to do is just to get it out there, to make people aware of what exists.

Then, if they want to reject it, at least they’ll actually be rejecting it.

Right now, they’re not rejecting so much as they’re oblivious.

And, I’ll admit, the university departments aren’t helping. 

Although these days, the problem isn’t the politicization of them–most of them aren’t particularly–as it is the fact that the departments themselves have lost sight of what a liberal education is and what it is for.

Tomorrow, there will be more quiet and more ability to concentrate.

Written by janeh

April 7th, 2010 at 10:23 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Masscult Midcult Highcult Popcult'

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  1. Thanks, Jane. Are literature and music–from Greece to present to be included as well? (I promise, last question)
    If the canon was adapted to appropriate grade levels and taught in elementary and secondary schools (a great deal of it definitely was not in mine, and some not in my children’s) then students would be aware of it and recognize its importance–or dismiss it. And, as college students could make an informed choice on whether to continue studies on these subjects.


    7 Apr 10 at 11:26 am

  2. With all due respect for classical Greece, even a Western Civ course outline that leaves out Egypt and the Tigris-Euphrates has, I think, started a bit late–certainly later than Herodotus and Thucidydes would have. That’s true for general history, art and ideas. I’d say a “completely educated” person ought to pick up a bit of Indian and Chinese history as well. They might find ideas–monotheism, say, or the zero–unfamiliar to Pericles, but very much a part of our own culture.
    In science and math, I’m pretty much in agreement, though on balance I’d be better off today without my last three semesters of mathematics but with three semesters more of Middle East, South Asian or East Asian history. (Of course, I’d happily trade all those hours of politicalization You say aren’t there any more-I’m sceptical–for training as an electrician or plumber.)
    As for the relative value of degrees, certainly there are jobs out there for which any degree will do, since entry-level positions don’t require anything beyond what should be taught in high school. But “they take non-vocational majors from the higher tier universities” remains a red herring.
    Yes, you go to Johns Hopkins or MIT if you can. But at least on the “future CEO” end, that only works because we can’t ALL be in the First Tier. And if it takes being CEO some day to be a “significant” promotion, most of us will never get one, and can’t regardless of major. Again, we can’t all be far above average. Lesser promotions must suffice.
    If East Podunk (Dogpatch Ext.)is where you can get in, then the choice is a degree and training pertinent to your ambitions and one which is not, with “East Podunk” on the sheepskin either way. My people hire international studies majors right along. The ones from JHSAIS get right in. The ones from second tier schools have to present themselves well at the interview and do scut work for the first year. Psychology or philosophy majors from second tier schools don’t even get to interview. (Come to think of it, I’m not sure the ones from first tier schools do either.)
    Much of what you describe would make better citizens, and better equip people for life. Some of the rest is fun. But let’s not lose track of earning our bread, either.


    7 Apr 10 at 4:39 pm

  3. Personal comment. I went to a 2nd tier university. I was forced to read Oedipus Rex, Hamlet and some George Bernard Shaw play. Result, I hated Shakespeare, enjoyed Shaw and was neutral about the Greeks. But I have not read any of them since I graduated. Can you teach “culture”? I rather doubt it.

    Since then, I have developed an amateur interest in history. I am appalled by US and European people who hate their own society but do not know that Muslims destroyed a Christian society in North Africa and were major players in the slave trade. They also don’t know that the Chinese had a very expansionist society and that India had major empires and wars.

    The idea that only the Christian West has a nasty history is based on ignorance. Could we counter that in High School and University?


    7 Apr 10 at 5:28 pm

  4. Oh, John, I wish you (or I) had been at one particular session of, well, meetings, I suppose you’d call them, focused on different aspects of a certain model of church development, all explained carefully for the layperson. Some of it was really fairly sensible although not terribly fascinating to me – all about balance in the different aspects of spiritual development. Anyway, the one I missed was on the balance in various world cultures, and you guessed it, ours, unlike any of the others, is typified by imperialism. If I’d done the readings beforehand, I would have gone to the session no matter what, but I didn’t; I came across that gem doing some catch-up reading afterwards.

    I think you can teach the elements of culture. That’s a big part of culture; that everyone knows the same stories, and they can certainly be taught.

    To join in – I don’t think I got any Western culture (aside from what I absorbed by living in it from my – what? Nth rate? Small, newly-formed, provincial and not even American or British – university. Except maybe science. I did a bit of science and English literature and even a bit of literature from other cultures, in translation, of course, except for the French Canadian literature, well, I won’t go there.

    I did Antigone in HS lit and a tiny bit about ancient Greek and Rome in HS World History. Nothing about the rest of the world, but there are only so many hours in the day, and I think I spent quite enough of them in school, especially K-11, thank you very much. It can’t all be shoved into the school curriculum; you impart the basics and the skills to dig up more, should the student want.


    7 Apr 10 at 7:59 pm

  5. Cheryl, you are saying that the organizer of a study of church development didn’t know about the Muslim conquest of the Byzantine Empire or the conquest of Spain and the Reconquista! Not to mention the Turkish siege of Vienna. Things are even worse than I though!


    8 Apr 10 at 4:36 am

  6. Not ‘church development’ in the sense of church development, and it wasn’t the organizer, but the author of the movement. Not that that makes it any better. They should be online somewhere.

    This is the book the sessions were based on:


    Look at page 15 of the pdf (page 28 of the book):

    “However, the greatest danger of Western cultures is probably their inherent tendency to dominate others. Is imperialism typical of the Western world? Of course it is.”

    Oh, well, when you read (and attend) a lot of different things, you’re bound to find some of them a bit odd. But I do wish I’d managed to get to the session where that was brought up.

    My first thought was ‘what about China and Tibet today?’ You can’t call China part of the West! And India and Pakistan fighting over Kashmir, and the only reason most of Africa isn’t fighting imperialist wars is that the colonial borders mean that any such attempt would result in civil war within their own boundaries since ethnic groups are divided by their boundaries. There have certainly been pre-Colonial African Empires – Songhai, Mali and of course the original Zimbabwe although that may have been a state rather than an empire. I don’t know as much about African history as I’d like.


    8 Apr 10 at 6:54 am

  7. I meant “Not ‘church development’ in the sense of church development through history’. And the idea of a balance among prayer, evangelism and charity makes sense.


    8 Apr 10 at 6:56 am

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