Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged, kindle edition, by Sir Roger Scruton. Originally published in 2007. 120 print pages.
This is the first book I’ve ever read by the recently departed Sir Roger Scruton, and I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. I was expecting to find ideas that I’ve read in any number of Scruton’s essays over the years; simply expanded and better fleshed out. What I found here was partly that, but also an opportunity to think more deeply about the importance of culture and beauty on us as individuals, and on the generations left behind when we are gone.
Scruton makes a strong case for understanding the importance of knowledge as something to be passed on. That this understanding is of greater value than our modern, ravenous appetite for increasing bits of random information. Anyone who has engaged in an online discussion can relate to being bombarded with links providing “pertinent” information offered solely for the purpose of winning an argument. Once the point is made, further opportunity for understanding is discarded in favor of the checkmate. There’s the pretense of knowledge where none truly exists.
It is sometimes said that we now live in a “knowledge economy,” and that “information technology” has vastly increased the extent and accessibility of human knowledge. Both claims are false. “Information technology” simply means the use of digital algorithms in the transference of messages. The “information” that is processed is not information about anything, nor does it have its equivalent in knowledge.
Scruton noted that this way of being and living leaves little margin for passing along true, practical knowledge that will be of value to our progeny :
it is true of practical knowledge, too, that we educate people in order to conserve it, and if we ever lose sight of this truth, then we are sure to lose what practical knowledge we have.
The true purpose of education, Scruton asserts, and I agree with him, is to transfer the kind of knowledge that isn’t acquired by a few clicks of the mouse. But first, he notes, we have to do away with the silly idea that education exists solely for the benefit of the student:
I emphasized that we make a mistake in believing that education exists primarily to benefit its recipient. I suggested, rather, that the goal of education is to preserve our communal store of knowledge, and to keep open the channels through which we can call on it when we need to.
This is a very hard sell in the postmodern West, which doesn’t even pretend to preserve the tension and delicate balance between individual liberty and the common good. We have gone so far that we absolve ourselves and our own children from any sense of familial duty. The idea that education is bigger than its recipients is gone.
At the core of all this, Scruton’s focus is defending the necessity of teaching the canon of high Western culture against those who are part of the current culture of repudiation. The culture of repudiation seeks to discount the value of classical Western culture as elitist at best and racist at worst. This repudiation is apparent in nearly every postmodern art form.
One of the things Scruton did here, which I was not expecting, was to give an appropriate nod to the originality and value of musical genres such as jazz. He doesn’t hold them in the same category as Mozart, of course, but he does acknowledge their value when compared to the popular music of today. He offered a theory on the connection between the downward trajectory of musical culture and what it tells us about the cultural zeitgeist of today.
Pop music, which presents the idealized adolescent as the center of a collective ceremony, is an attempt to bend music to this new condition—the condition of a stagnant crowd, standing always on the brink of adulthood, but never passing across to it. It shows youth as the goal and fulfillment of human life, rather than a transitional phase which must be cast off once the business of social reproduction calls. For many young people, therefore, it constitutes an obstacle to the acquisition of a musical culture.
I can relate to this. Despite having fully embraced my adult life and all of the responsibility which it entails, I still feel a certain nostalgia for the popular hits and R&B music of the 1980s and 1990s. There is a sense in which much of the music of my adolescent and young adult years serve as a sort of soundtrack of my life. When I listen to those songs today, however, rather than simply being caught up in the catchy beat, I am incredulous of the vapidity in the lyrics and that I’d never noticed them before. Scruton also notes that the perpetual adolescence induced through popular music and culture, in general, undergirds an ever-present attempt to de-contextualize important rites of passage. He uses, for example, one result of the sexual revolution:
The ritual transition from the virgin to the married state has all but disappeared, and with it the “lyrical” experience of sex, as a yearning for another and higher state of membership, to which the hard-won consent of society is a necessary precondition.
Scruton didn’t only see the assault on Western culture as an assault from within due to the cult of adolescence and the repudiation of tradition, but also from without via multiculturalism, including the increasing encroachment of Islamic culture in Europe. As an Englishman, Scruton was especially attuned to those happenings in his home country.
There are myriad topics to explore in Culture Counts, far more than I can summarize here. Even if you don’t agree with Scruton on all counts, he at least raised pertinent questions that have been mostly ignored in this generation which purports to know better than all of our ancestors who have gone before.
Time will tell, I suppose.
4 out of 5 stars.