Scruton: Culture Counts

May 23, 2017

Culture Counts
Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged
Roger Scruton
(Encounter, 2007)
118 p.

This book is a reflection on education, aesthetic and moral judgment, the value of a shared culture, and contemporary threats to each of them.

Scruton begins his discussion of education with a statement that brought me up short:

It is one of the most deeply rooted superstitions of our age that the purpose of education is to benefit those who receive it.

On the contrary, he argues, the purpose of education is to perpetuate a culture. We educate so the next generation can inherit the knowledge and judgments by which our culture has been formed and in which it consists. No doubt this education will benefit the students, but this is not its purpose, or at least not its primary purpose. “Knowledge gained is a gain for all of us; knowledge lost, a loss that all must bear… This is what education does for us: it keeps knowledge alive…” On this view, core curricula and academic competition make good sense, for not only is there an essential body of knowledge to be learned, but those best able to receive and understand it should be preferred.

And knowledge means more than just facts of history, science, or civics. It includes knowledge, for instance, of “what to feel”: the education of the emotions and the aesthetic sensibility (cf. The Abolition of Man). We must learn what things are good and beautiful, and how we ought to respond to them.

Naturally, this kind of knowledge involves making judgments, both moral and aesthetic, and rather than avoid this point Scruton underlines it: having a culture means making judgments. Indeed, he argues that culture largely consists in a set of shared judgments. They are subjective in the sense of being held personally and based on personal experiences and tastes, but not subjective in the sense of being arbitrary or indefensible. They are rooted in real experience and shared reflection.

As a practical matter, Scruton advises that this understanding of education is well-served by the notion of a “classic” or “touchstone”: an artistic, literary, or religious artifact “whose significance endures across generations and provides a point of comparison for other and lesser creations”. Not only do such works provide an education in excellence, but they also emphasize the shared judgments by which cultures cohere. From the idea of a classic, the formation of a “canon” emerges naturally.

Of course, everything Scruton advocates is vigorously contested in our culture today. Aesthetic judgments (and, I would add, moral judgments, though with less consistency) are habitually relativized, so much so that the whole sphere of distinctively aesthetic experience has nearly disappeared from view; “desire alone remains”. Moreover, even the basic project of passing on culture from one generation to the next is attacked. Scruton writes, here and elsewhere, about the West’s “culture of repudiation”, which no longer aims at appreciation and appropriation of its own heritage but instead attacks the means by which and vessels in which culture is transmitted. Whether this is truly the objective, or whether it is merely the prelude to the reconstruction of culture on other grounds, embodying different values and judgments, is hard to tell, but that it has weakened both our educative institutions and our shared culture is evident.

In principle, the picture of education and culture Scruton paints appeals to me. The culture of which I am a part, which has been formed to a large extent by my religion, and which has in turn formed me, is one which I admire and labour to appropriate. I have a conservative temperament, am inclined to honour the great achievements of the past, and am a believer in the value of cultural continuity. However, the generally happy view of culture as a network of shared judgments darkens considerably at the prospect of that culture reconstructed along other, contrary lines. If education isn’t for students, but for society, then who should decide the curriculum? If not students, then parents? Surely not, for education is not for families, but for society. Who could be entrusted with this responsibility? One fears that in practice the power would fall into the hands of bureaucrats, and one needn’t consider that real-world prospect long to arrive at a dispiriting thought: we no longer have a culture left to preserve. I begin to see the appeal of the individualized, even fractured model of education and culture (or, “culture”), for in troubled times it would, ironically, at least permit one to promote and pursue the traditional aims of education.

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