My favorite source of ranty things to blog about, Jack Marshall, has a post up about that great bugaboo of conservative pundits, our lack of cultural literacy, and I want to rant about it, because just the phrase “cultural literacy” makes my skin itch.
I blame it on early childhood exposure to the writings of Allan Bloom, who for some reason felt it necessary to write ponderous complaints about our culture, like this bit about rock-and-roll:
Young people know that rock has the beat of sexual intercourse. That is why Ravel’s Bolero is the one piece of classical music that is commonly known and liked by them.
Picture a thirteen-year-old boy sitting in the living room of his family home doing his math assignment while wearing his Walkman headphones or watching MTV. He enjoys the liberties hard won over centuries by the alliance of philosophic genius and political heroism, consecrated by the blood of martyrs; he is provided with comfort and leisure by the most productive economy ever known to mankind; science has penetrated the secrets of nature in order to provide him with the marvelous, lifelike electronic sound and image reproduction he is enjoying. And in what does progress culminate? A pubescent child whose body throbs with orgasmic rhythms; whose feelings are made articulate in hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents; whose ambition is to win fame and wealth in imitating the drag-queen who makes the music. In short, life is made into a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy.
(Sigh. Somebody should have stopped him. Friends don’t let friends write that way.)
Anyway, Jack quotes with some admiration from a post by political scientist Patrick Deneen. Here’s a taste:
But ask them some basic questions about the civilization they will be inheriting, and be prepared for averted eyes and somewhat panicked looks. Who fought in the Peloponnesian War? Who taught Plato, and whom did Plato teach? How did Socrates die? Raise your hand if you have read both the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Canterbury Tales? Paradise Lost? The Inferno?
Who was Saul of Tarsus? What were the 95 theses, who wrote them, and what was their effect? Why does the Magna Carta matter? How and where did Thomas Becket die? Who was Guy Fawkes, and why is there a day named after him? What did Lincoln say in his Second Inaugural? His first Inaugural? How about his third Inaugural? What are the Federalist Papers?
It cracks me up that the first item on Deneen’s list of important cultural touchstones is a war that happened 2400 years ago, between political entities that have long since vanished.
And why exactly is it important to know how Socrates died? Is it so we can understand references to hemlock in popular culture? That seems trivial, and easy enough to look up if you need to know it. Or maybe the importance of how he died is the example of how the powers-that-be violently put down a troublemaker? But if that’s the case, I don’t think we are lacking in modern examples. Look, I admit I don’t know much about Socrates, but surely there are other reasons why he’s interesting besides how he died?
Having been raised as a Lutheran, I am generally familiar with Martin Luther’s revolt against the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, but I’m not sure anyone needs to know the details, especially people who aren’t Christians. I don’t understand what’s so important about how Thomas Becket died, what Dante imagined Hell might be like, or what Lincoln said in his inaugural addresses? (And although I’m not an expert on his presidency, I think it unlikely he was inaugurated three times…I assume this is some kind of joke…)
I’m not arguing in favor of ignorance. If you are fascinated by Homer’s writing or the history of the Christian church or debates over the proper role of government in America, then by all means dig in. I admire people who go out of their way to acquire knowledge. But there’s a vast gulf between being happy that you know interesting things and arguing that everybody should know those things.
When it comes to “cultural literacy,” people have some funny ideas of what’s important to know. Jack Marshall, for example, is annoyed that people don’t understand the phrase “keep your powder dry”:
The phrase at issue is a useful and formerly famous one. It comes from a reported quote from Oliver Cromwell […] during the Battle of Edgehill in 1642. Cromwell supposedly told his Roundhead troops in that opening fight of the English Civil War, ”Put your trust in God, my boys, but mind to keep your powder dry.” The last part of the quote is usually evoked to mean “keep cool,” but the entire quote is more profound. As the late language maven William Safire wrote in the New York Times, it means ”stay calm” but carries an implicit, most ominous threat: ”and be prepared to blow the enemy’s head off at the propitious moment.”
The thing is, soldiers have long since stopped carrying sacks of black powder. Modern guns use bullets that come in pre-assembled cartridges filled with smokeless propellants that will actually burn just fine when wet. Soldiers fight in the rain all the time. In fact, modern bullets will even fire underwater. (It’s a bad idea for other reasons, however, so please don’t try it.) In the modern world, there’s no practical point to telling someone to keep their powder dry. So if you want to tell someone to be prepared for a conflict, you’ll have to settle for saying “be prepared for a conflict”…which sounds like it should work.
So much of “cultural literacy” strikes me as a pretense. It’s the high-brow intellectual equivalent of the tech nerd who sneers at you for not knowing the difference between Unix and Linux, or the music aficionado who is shocked that you never heard of his favorite influential artist, or the gearhead who looks down on you because you can’t drive a stick. It’s “You’ve never seen Star Wars?” but about ancient Greeks.
Cultural literacy fanboys insist that knowledge of these things is necessary for us to understand each other, get along, and work together. Without this shared cultural content — without knowing who Oliver Cromwell was, or how Thomas Becket died — we can’t maintain our civilization. Or, to employ a little bit of modern culture, they’re saying the world works like “Darmok.”
“Darmok” was the name of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Captain Picard found himself stranded on the planet El-Adrel IV with Dathon, a member of an alien species called the Tamarians, whose language frustrates Picard’s universal translation technology: The translator is able to translate the words, but the resulting speech doesn’t make sense. It eventually turns out that the Tamarians speak entirely in cultural allusions, saying things like “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” or “Temba, his arms wide.” Since the translator has no knowledge of Tamarian history, it cannot resolve the allusions to Darmok, Jalad, Tanagra, or Temba, so it can’t figure out what the alien is talking about. This turns out about as badly as you might expect, resulting in at least one death and the near-destruction of the Enterprise before the protagonists figure out what’s happening.
The argument of the “cultural literacy” advocates is that a shared culture avoids these kinds of problems. That may even be true. But if the primary purpose of cultural literacy is to enhance communications, then it doesn’t matter what shared culture we have, as long as we have the same one. There’s no need to go through the effort of teaching everyone the history of Greek philosophy, English governance, and the Christian church when people will happily build a shared culture around televised sports, Star Wars, and Twitter memes.
At the end of “Darmok,” after the Tamarians and the Federation have finally figured begun the diplomatic process, the Tamarians reveal that the phrase “Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel” will enter their language. The two civilizations have taken the first small step toward building a common culture.
Because that’s what people do. We build our common culture together. The “cultural literacy” mavens seem to be pining for a return to a mythical olden-time of a shared common culture…that only ever really existed at the heights of Western academia. And if Deneen and Marshall want to argue that elite universities should continue to teach the traditional canon, they should go right ahead. I’m sure it’s a wonderful thing to have learned. But in the age of mass media and the internet, we have plenty of common culture.