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May 26, 2005

Middlebrow, again

Fenster Moop writes:

Dear Blowhards,

In the current edition of Commentary--not yet posted to the web--Terry Teachout returns once again to an issue that obviously intrigues him: whether the common culture of his youth, or anything approximating it, will ever return. I wrote about this question, referencing Teachout, previously.

In this article, Teachout goes deeper, but remains ambivalent on the subject. He dredges up an old quote of his in which appeared to be pining for the emergence of a cultural version of Ronald Reagan, someone who might bring us together again, probably in sepia. He ruefully acknowledges his more current view that, in the era of blogs, things are probably fragmented for good. But by the end of the article, a little of the earlier sentiment seeps back in. Maybe, he concludes, things like the internet will enable new versions of a common culture, even if that does not entail raising Alistair Cook from the dead, digitally, in a resurrected Omnibus.

I sympathize with Teachout's ambivalence. Having read his memoirs (which I recommend) I can see that we are near-contemporaries--close enough in age and outlook to fondly remember the common culture of the era, which for me was comprised of things like Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts and the aforementioned Omnibus. Like Teachout, I grew up in a town, longed to escape some day to Some Other Place, and saw a path in the middlebrow culture of the day.

So if you are looking for an answer from me, sorry. I am probably as conflicted as Teachout. Who knows whether the longing for a recentering is evanescent, simple nostalgia, or whether it signifies something more significant? At the moment I lean toward the latter view. Something there is that doesn't love a wall, including the walls between red and blue, between right and left, between secular and religious, that are now deemed permanently a part of the new order of things.

(For instance, I just can't buy into David Gelernter's argument that we should just chuck the whole idea of public schools. If culture is fragmented, it doesn't necessarily follow that schools should follow suit. It might be that the fragmentation of the culture is the problem, and the last thing you want to do is throw the last life preservers over the side.)

By the way, Teachout couches his culture ruminations in an anjoyable little essay on his own experiences blogging, and the effects of blogging on the arts and culture. And Michael, you'll be happy to note his reference to this site, 2Blowhards, and that it beat his own culture blog to the punch by a year or two. Prescient of you!



posted by Fenster at May 26, 2005


"I just can't buy into David Gelernter's argument that we should just chuck the whole idea of public schools"

I am curious, do you buy into public (government) grocery stores, or public video stores, or public convenience stores, etc.?

Remember, their is a good reason why Public Schools are ALWAYS complaining about not having enough money, yet they are over twice as expensive as the average private school.

I know this was not the main part of your post, but I couldn't help myself.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on May 26, 2005 2:52 PM

The public school comment jumped out at me, too. Fenster do you have children in a public school? Not being snarky, honestly asking. I live in a town with what are considered good public schools. I send mine to Catholic school. The public schools suck all the funding up and leave people with the alternative of paying twice or choking down the monopolists one-size fits all product. I have no idea why this is considered good. Again, not being flip. I simply do not get why the supposedly uniform experience that public schools are supposed to be providing to people is somehow a good thing.

Posted by: Lexington Green on May 26, 2005 6:14 PM

I think Fenster's argument in favor of public schools rests on their working against cultural fragmentation. He characterizes them as "life preservers" against this process. For a variety of reasons, I doubt they serve this function.

The kind of unity that a common government education brings does not lead to cultural unity. Historically, for example, there was more cultural unity in the Old American Republic, which had the low rates of public education, than in modern America, which has high rates of public education.

Why is this? The heights of cultural unity in history are associated not with cultures typified by centralized education but by group feeling. Public education does not generate group feeling because (1) it is compelled; (2) it is unpleasant; (3) it provides no "group" for the individual to identify with -- to the contrary, individuals tend to identify against the compelling institution and the group it represents.

Culture cannot be compelled. It must be experienced into being and argue for itself. Government schools lack an appealing argument for themselves, much less anything else. Cultural unity is an after effect of good culture. A culture cannot be truly embraced for the sake of some other good -- like national duty. I cannot love music or art because it will benefit my neighbor.

Public schools as compelled institutions run against the true grain of American culture -- a culture of liberty. The moral foundation of our people is undercut by institutions attached to compulsion; they cannot serve as conduits for the repair of such a culture.

Posted by: Pensans on May 26, 2005 9:28 PM

I grabbed Commentary from my P.O. box a couple hours ago and just finished reading Teachout's article.

Quite a lot of it is about blogging in general and how Terry got into the game. I find his personal account interesting, and hope that Blowhards readers will buy the June issue of Commentary at the newsstand (if they don't already subscribe). In spite of his killing schedule (or maybe as PART of that schedule), Terry seems quite current and savvy regarding the blog scene; I found almost no nits worth picking.

Regarding cultural crackup from the monolith era (and what follows isn't an original thought), I think it's important to keep in mind that the mass media era was pretty much a 20th Century thing. In the first quarter, the dominant players were mass-circulation magazines (Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Scribner's, The Literary Digest, and so forth) and the silent cinema. Then came radio in the mid-20s, followed by yet another layer around 1950 in the form of television.

So to me the question is, what was the nature of American culture and "nationhood" (in the tribal, not state, sense of the word) over the nearly three centuries before 1900? Was the country really that culturally united when there were no national newpapers and few journals that circulated widely? Think ante-bellum South and Boston, Hub of the Universe -- how much commonality was there. Oh, and in the early days, there weren't large public school systems. To be sure, there must have been mechanisms of cultural interchange (the political system? religion and pulpit oratory?). I haven't looked into any of this, but perhaps a Blowhard reader might be able to cite a study or two.

All this leads to the problem Terry and Fenster are mulling over: whither the cultural future? Granted the Internet and the rise of niche communication channels means the environment is totally different than in, say 1840, it might not be a bad idea to figure out how the country managed before mass media appeared; a few clues to the future might be found.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 26, 2005 11:10 PM

In the movement from a rural society to an urban-industrial society, we have lost the stability and cultural independence that small community living offered.

My mother was a public educator working for many years in small towns; a school teacher who loved her students and expected their mutual attention to learning. I grew up believing in the positive aspects of a public education, and am still convinced it is a worthwhile institution. Although there are many complex reasons why public education has fallen into disrepair, the loss of community and a structured family unit play no small part.

"In our fragmented society, parents must rely on impersonal agencies for help coping with daily problems that informal communal relationships used to provide. While troubled marriages, shifting job markets, single-parent households, and dual-career parents have created instability in community structures, society is looking to schools as its stabilizing force. And, although teachers are incapable of teaching and fulfilling the roles of parent, social worker, and healthcare provider they are often called upon to do so by circumstances. The shifting structure of present-day communities makes it difficult to respond in established ways to the needs of children" - Boyer, E. L. (1991). Ready to learn: A mandate for the nation. Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

So, how do we fight the fragmentation? Perhaps the answer lies in seeing the remnants of our past, that of small farming communities with local businesses and manufacturing. We can't "go back home", but the very things we find nostalgic could be the pathway to a better future.

We can't all live in Marble Falls, Texas, nor would everyone choose to do so. But, we can fight the assimilation of our individuality into some teeming urban mass of sociopathic robots. The relatively close-knit communities of our past were willing to sacrifice material opportunity for the spiritual and cultural benefits small-town living afforded. I think a return to such values (and hopefully, less the ugly suffocating narrowmindedness that often afflicts small town life) is inevitable, and unavoidable if we want to preserve what is special about America.

Jes' don't ever-body move to MY small town of choice *grin*.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on May 27, 2005 12:56 AM

Hmmm, while sitting in my ritual boiling-pot of a bubble bath at midnight reading a good novel and sipping icy cold Dr. Pepper, it occurred to me that my previous comment was a clue about the success and oddity of blogging - bloggers have found that secret ingredient to reconnecting with each other, similar to residents of a small town. Each blogger has an identity, self-defined, and a sense of community with his online neighbors. Strange and electronic it may be - we have recreated something definitely felt missing in our daily lives. The 21st century answer to the Line Shack Cafe, early morning hot coffee, the warmth and camaraderie of caring neighbors. How the hell have you been, Joe?

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on May 27, 2005 1:30 AM

Well, if there is no longer a common culture, what have I spend the last thirty-mumble,mumble years doing? Trying to reconcile my Indian parents and Indian birth with a Midwestern childhood? I dunno, seems like part of my trying to 'fit in' was just this sort of middle-brow stuff - like watching Masterpiece Theater on Sunday nights and feeling that I had to read the "Great Books". No joke. I am sooooo middleblow, it's painful. And then I found in college, my ethnicity was the cool part of me. Who knew?

Oh, I know that is not exactly his point, but when you are partially on the outide, looking in, there is more of a 'commonality' that you can ever imagine, and I *am* talking about books and art, here.

As for public education, if we are to continue to be an 'immigrant' nation, then isn't the public school where children of immigrants can learn about the culture around them, take part in the larger whole and not just the smaller part (no matter how delightful and wonderful and serving as a 'base' that smaller part is?) This immigrant child learned about the larger world through public school (not that my parents were terribly conservative, they were not, they liked America and Americans, but they were new to this place and learning, too). I suppose you would do that in a private school, as well, but I have an awful fondness for that public school...

Posted by: MD on May 27, 2005 10:07 AM

Pensans -- great post.

Posted by: jult52 on May 27, 2005 11:03 AM

Fenster: thought you'd enjoy this exchange:

Our papers are full of stories around the problems with children and
teenagers - drugs, underage sex, "yob culture." But hasn't such
reporting always been the case throughout history? Please provide
sources that indicate if my hunch is true, that the media and "popular
culture" tends to describe our young as being out of control in some
way, and has done throughout history. Quotes and sources please.


Thanks for another intriguing question!
The expression of alarm over the ways of the young is certainly
nothing new. Many sources attribute a quote about the dreadful
behavior of children to Socrates. Its actual origin is in dispute, but
the dispute is an interesting one:
"The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for
authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place
of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their
households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They
contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties
at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers."
ATTRIBUTION: Attributed to SOCRATES by Plato, according to William L.
Patty and Louise S. Johnson, Personality and Adjustment, p. 277
The quote is commonly attributed to Socrates, but apparently there is
no conclusive evidence that he actually said it. The Library of
Congress notes that this quote is "attributed to Socrates by Plato"...
The quote may have come from Plato's Republic Book 4, where Socrates
is quoted saying the following regarding things that he thinks have
been neglected: "I mean such things as these: when the young are to
be silent before their elders; how they are to show respect to them by
standing and making them sit; what honour is due to parents; what
garments or shoes are to be worn; the mode of dressing the hair;
deportment and manners in general. You would agree with me? Yes."
The Greek philosopher Plato studied under Socrates. Plato complained
about the youth of the day, also. "What is happening to our young
people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They
ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions.
Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?" I think this is
a direct quote, but can't find the reference at the moment.
Here's another one:
"I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on
frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond
words... When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and
respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise
[disrespectful] and impatient of restraint" (Hesiod, 8th century BC).
A question which arises periodically on alt.quotations is for the full
text and the source of the 'ancient' writing complaining about the bad
manners of youth nowadays. It is frequently suggested that Socrates
coined the material (almost certainly not true) although it is
occasionally attributed to Roman, Babylonian or other ancient sources.
...the mayor of Amsterdam attributed this observation to Socrates:
'The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for
authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in lace of
exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their
households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They
contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties
at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.'
This wisdom from the grave was subsequently reported in the New York
Times and reprinted widely. After Malcolm Forbes included Socrates'
words in a Forbes magazine editorial entitled 'Youth,' his
research staff went crazy trying to prove their authenticity. They
contacted a wide range of librarians, classicists, and other experts
on Socrates. None knew of any source for the passage. The researchers
finally called Amsterdam's mayor, Gijsbert van Hall. Van Hall said
he'd seen the lines by Socrates in a Dutch book whose title he could
not recall. There the search ended. 'We suspect,' Forbes'
researchers concluded, '. . . that Socrates never did make those
cracks about Athenian youth.'...
Here (in the translation by Patric Dickinson) are some parts of the
speech that resemble the 'quotation' above:
. . .
A boy must hold his tongue among his elders.
. . .
Greed was abhorred, it was taboo to snatch
Radish tops, aniseed, or parsley before your elders,
Or to nibble kickshaws and giggle and twine one's feet.
. . .
So, you shall learn to hate the Agora,
And shun the baths and feel ashamed of smut;
. . .
And to get up and give your seat to your elders,
And not to behave towards your parents rudely
. . .

(From others) There are also sometimes suggestions that something
similar originated from ancient Sumer or Babylon, in particular,
something reputed to have been written on Babylonian clay tablets
thousands of years ago, a father complaining about how the rising
generation (his own son in particular) were lazy, disrespectful, were
going to make a mess of things...

I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on
the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless
beyond words. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discrete and
respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and
impatient of restraint.
--- Hesiod, Eighth Century B.C.

Here is another great example:
"The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of
today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for
parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as
if they knew everything, and what passes for wisdom with us is
foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest
and unladylike in speech, behavior and dress."

Who wrote that, and when do you think it was written?... it is an
extract from a sermon preached by Peter the Hermit in A.D. 1274!

It should be noted that the attribution of this quote to Peter the
Hermit is as shaky as the attribution of the other quote to Socrates.
But both quotes help to make the point that adults throughout history
have been alarmed by the behavior of young people. Fortunately,
civilization has not yet come to an end because of the rebelliousness
of teenagers!

I'll conclude with one of my favorite quotations from one of my
favorite authors, the great G. K. Chesterton:

"I believe what really happens in history is this: the old man is
always wrong; and the young people are always wrong about what is
wrong with him. The practical form it takes is this: that, while the
old man may stand by some stupid custom, the young man always attacks
it with some theory that turns out to be equally stupid."

I hope this is helpful. If anything is unclear or incomplete, or if a
link doesn't work for you, please request clarification; I'll be glad
to offer further assistance before you rate my answer.

A few directions aimed squarely at youth and just as applicable today
as when they were penned. From the Bible;
Second Timothy 2;22
Psalms 119;9
Proverbs 10;1
Colossians 3.20
Ephesians 6;1-3
Proverbs 30;17

Posted by: winiifer skattebol on May 27, 2005 5:33 PM

The book to read is Education and the State by E.G. West. He addresses the common culture argument, the positive externalities argument, the negligent parent argument, and all the other arguments for socialist learning, and sends them all back to school as it were.

If we wouldn't trust socialism to fix our refridgerator or sell us a car, why do we still trust it to raise our kids?

Posted by: Brian on May 28, 2005 12:42 PM

Winifer -- Thanks for sharing that great post; where'd you find it?

Re: the relatively OT discussion of public and private schooling -- wouldn't that fact that education, not public schooling per se, is compulsory, be relevant to this discussion? I know that the question of alternatives is necessarily affected by the public subsidization of a government standard, and so on, but if you think that private education better creates, promotes, or preserves a common, unifiying culture, shouldn't you be giving examples of that, rather than simpling trashing the institution of public schooling? I only ask because I attended private schools (thanks to my parents' privileged upbringing and my own talent for standardized test taking) and still have no flippin' idea what you're all talking about when you say "unifying culture".

I think the notion that intense involvement in a relatively self-selected small community (and my middle school had only a couple hundred students, all of whom knew each other by name) is a good thing is just misguided (and possibly fictional) nostalgia. If anything, I entered the school as an outsider (it was preK-8) at age 10 and even while assimilating could see the tremendous insularity of the population as a whole. So just for practical purposes I feel sort of "eh" towards the entire argument that's bounced back and forth in this comments section.

Somehow I think this must be related to the whole "I am afraid that Islam is taking over the world" branch of American conservative politics, and that makes me immediately skeptical, but even leaving that aside are you really worried that Americans don't identify as Americans? Or that self-identification as an American can vary tremendously across individuals? And why does this kind of ultimately political fervor/belief have to be masked (again) in a "for the children" type argument?

Posted by: Michael non-Blowhard on May 28, 2005 1:17 PM

Responding to M. non-B.: I found it on "Google Answers" here:

Posted by: winifer skattebol on May 28, 2005 10:59 PM

Wow, someone paid $25 for that information to be gathered for his personal use followed by its release into the public domain? Interesting.

Posted by: Michael non-Blowhard on May 29, 2005 1:11 PM

OT: thank you , Ms.Skattebol, for introducing *google answers* to me
This is a wonderful, wonderful thing: I'm reading an answer about Chanel right now; good prerequisite for coming to the Chanel exhibit at the Metropolitan.

Posted by: Tatyana on May 29, 2005 3:58 PM

The expression of alarm at the degeneration of children has previously occured, but that does not mean it has occured continuously.

I have never understood the trotting out of the greeks as evidence that there has been continuous dismay about children.

The suggestion that same concerns about children may be found in every generation is false. For example, during the renaissance and enlightenment, we find a slew of educational reform schemes that paint a picture not of children as wild and disobedient, but as unduly constrained or misled.

It is true that other civilizations have been through the same trajectory of degeneration. But that fact hardly proves that we are not in the middle of a similar period. Indeed, it should reinforce the possibility that we are in precisely such a period.

Posted by: Pensans on May 29, 2005 5:30 PM

Pensans -- So when parents start to complain about the character of their children's friends, we should take that as evidence of general social decline? I'm sure that my grandparents complained about my parents' friends' enjoyment of loud rock 'n roll, but my parents and their cohort seem to have turned out no worse for the wear. And it's difficult to say that any collection of anecdotes is going to represent fairly a population's view of the generation to come, anyway. We have Montessori schools and home-schooling as well as standard public schools and religious and private alternatives. We have happy parents and Republicans. This whole issue seems a non-starter to me.

As an aside, how exactly might one measure social or cultural degeneration, anyway? Let alone its scalar trajectory....

Posted by: Michael non-Blowhard on May 29, 2005 6:21 PM

I didn't suggest that we should take anecdotal evidence of anything as evidence of anything. I suggested that we should not take evidence that the greeks regarded their culture to be degenerating as evidence that ours is not.

If you do not think that the "rock and roll" generations came out worse for wear, I am sure that you are puzzled by how to measure the trajectory of degeneration. I do and am not.

Posted by: Pensans on May 30, 2005 1:58 AM

Pensans -- Well, perhaps with age will come wisdom. I'll be sure to inform my mother of your disappointment....

Posted by: Michael non-Blowhard on May 30, 2005 2:45 AM

It usually takes more than age. I'm glad you talk over important issues with your parents, though it's no thanks to the rock and roll generation.

Posted by: Pensans on May 31, 2005 12:57 AM

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