1990s >> >> no-1040-april-1991

Barbarians at the gate

In the United States and to a lesser extent in Britain, university departments in the Humanities (Classics, Literature, Languages, History, Philosophy, etc.) are emptying of both students and teachers. Education is giving way to what is in effect vocational training: Business Studies, Law, and Medicine. Scientists are disappearing down tunnels of specialisation, unable to communicate even with each other. Twenty percent of all American students are choosing economics since this is seen as the way to make the most money. The best-paid jobs for scientists are in armaments or patent medicine. The barbarians are at the gate.

None of this is new. Alarm at the state of scholarship has been voiced for most of the century. The extension of higher education to members of the working class has been blamed for the trend by some—“More Means Worse”—particularly in Britain after the 1944 Education Act. In the United States such critics blame the upheavals of the Sixties and positive discrimination in favour of women and blacks.

The majority view has been that the malaise goes deeper and has been around a lot longer than these phenomena. “The World’s Classics Compressed Into A Few Chapters” was satirised by the Canadian Stephen Leacock in the thirties. Others winced at Readers’ Digest, The Five Foot Shelf Of Books (specify your colours), potted literature, “crackerbarrel philosophy”, homogenized culture, pasteurised art. Great Thoughts of Great Men, etc.

In England the novelist Richard Aldington had complained that the best poets had gone into advertising. “Phyllo-san fortifies the over forties!” was a better piece of alliteration than could be found in any literary review and “My Goodness, My Guinness!” was nearly as good.

Whine of muzak

We should not be surprised at this, nor at the fact that most artistic and musical creativity is being put to the task of selling soap powder and toilet paper, chocolate bars and preparations to make your armpits charmpits. Talented men and women are discovering fulfilment in drawing Noddy characters and training articulate monkeys to urge us that life will not be complete without this or that product. The whine of muzak from some twentieth century Mozart follows us round the supermarket and the pop-music industry goes through its weekly production cycle.

A third of the American population is said to be functionally illiterate. In Britain Peter Morgan, director general of the Institute of Directors, has complained that 60 percent of British children leave school at sixteen—and two-thirds of them without any academic qualifications. We could add that the only literature any of them are likely to have come into contact with is advertising jingles. It does not seem to occur to him either that a market-dominated world is unlikely to produce a different result. He refers to continental Europe where a marginally happier situation reigns, but we should expect similar economic conditions to produce similar results in the long run. Cultural traditions there have put drag chains on the slide to barbarism—as they have in Scotland—but one would have to be a real optimist to hope for the future of education.

The problem lies in the collision between human values and the scientific market-directed machine which is colonising every aspect of our private worlds, cultural, intellectual, and emotional. The application of cost-benefit analysis to tastes like plaster-ducks-on-the-wall versus Michaelangelo’s David, or Gandhi versus Heinrich Himmler, or the Good Samaritan versus Ariel Sharon can only lead to the conclusion that a little of what you fancy does you good. Eating people is not wrong, just a matter of taste.

Market madhouse

Since the 1920s the Frankfurt School in Germany—Adorno, Marcuse, Benjamin, Lukács, Habermas—and, more recently, the post-war Paris thinkers like Castoriadis and André Gorz have tried to deal with the crisis this has created in philosophy. The spreading application of the criteria of the physical sciences to non-physical things, like taste and goodness, has cut the ground from under the philosophers. If they can’t be measured, the argument goes, they are nonsense at worst, and a mere grunt of pleasure or squeal of pain at best.

One conservative critic, the American professor Allan Bloom in his The Closing of the American Mind, has written of the fate of those condemned to trying “to find their way through the technical smorgasbord of the current school system, with its utter inability to distinguish between the important and unimportant in any way other than by the demands of the market”.

If he thinks deeply about that last clause, he might be able to add his bit to the efforts of those of us who are trying to find our way not only through the crisis-ridden school system but out of the market-dominated madhouse we inhabit as well.

Ken Smith