A Second

I'd like to second AVI's recommendation to read this Virginia Postrel essay on culture. This is something we've been talking about for years here at the Hall, but I agree with her assessment that conservatives still have no better ideas about what to do about it. It's as much a magic box for us as economics seems to be for the socialist left.

My best suggestion from a few years ago was to work to introduce the young to old movies. There was a golden age of cinema in Hollywood that celebrated America and its values, in forms variously sweeping and romantic (like The Alamo) or thoughtful and introspective (like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance). Our left has already worked out a countermeasure, though: they've taught the youth to search out 'problematic' structures in every older form of art, and then to shun it lest they be contaminated by these poisonous ideas.

It's tricky. In principle engaging older forms of art -- not just Hollywood as it was, but Shakespeare or Homer, Malory or the artistic books of the Bible -- still has the potential to awaken and enlighten. Perhaps philosophy is still a valid entry point; you can start them on Plato, and then suggest that they should probably read Homer in order to better understand the references. Then you could say, "But, you know, it's going to be different from what 'we' think today. Part of the exercise is coming to understand a world outside of your own, which will in turn give you a new platform from which to criticize the world you live in today."

Indeed, that is ultimately the whole point of the exercise. Many academic disciplines today only teach a system of thought, which you are simply to apply to everything you encounter. The outcomes can be predicted in just the same way that the outcomes of a sausage-making-machine can be predicted. It doesn't matter what you put in the one end, what comes out will look like sausage, because it is the function of the machine to ensure that sausage is produced from whatever you put in it.

At 20-something, and even the early parts of 30-something, this can feel like knowledge: 'I've learned to understand the world in a systematic and coherent way!' Yet you haven't learned to understand the world at all; you've learned to force the things you encounter in the world into a meat grinder. What comes out looks exactly as you expected it to because of the function of the systems you've been taught to apply. To really learn something, you'd need to be able to step outside the system and criticize it independently.

You can only do that, though, when you have somewhere else to 'stand.' You need the perspective that comes with distance. In other words, you need to be able to think in a different way, which means thinking from a different place. You need an opposing discipline or, alternatively or additionally, you need an older world. Coming to see things the way an ancient Greek might have seen them gives you an option. You can look at the system from outside, and see if you still like what it's making.

So too the learning of other ancient ways of thought: Catholic, Jewish, and yes, Islamic; Buddhist, Viking, Hindu, Anglo-Saxon. Read Medieval poetics, if you find that you like them; study the 19th century novels. Anything to get you outside your system, and give you another place to stand.


David Foster said...

"Many academic disciplines today only teach a system of thought, which you are simply to apply to everything you encounter."

Andre Maurois said that people who are "intelligent but not in any way creative," tend to be "dangerously sympathic towards the creations of others. Incapable of formulating a system, (they throw themselves) voraciously on those he came across, and apply them more vigorously than would their inventors."

He cited Sir Robert Peel as an example of this phenomenon. I don't know enough about Peel to assess whether this judgment is fair or not, but I do think it has merit as a general rule.

Academics, in particular, are under pressure to do things that are original research, or at least have the appearance of being the same. What easier way to come up with 'new' things than to just apply a set of given postulates? Especially since applying these postulates will win you points as a Right-Thinking Person....

james said...

As you know, it isn't just the younger generation. A few years ago I was in a botanical garden and conversing with one of the docents. He'd retired, and figured he should give something back after his years of learning about plants and birds. I said "Of him to whom much is given, much is required." He answered--"I've never heard that before; that's an interesting way to put it." Yes, American. I suggested where he could read more...

Roy Lofquist said...

One stop shopping - "The Great Books of the Western World" in one slim volume":


Kidding, of course. It's actually 704 pages.

"The Cave and the Light is a magisterial account of how the two greatest thinkers of the ancient world, Plato and Aristotle, laid the foundations of Western culture—and how their rivalry shaped the essential features of our culture down to the present day."