Friday, April 20, 2018

Apologia for Civilization

Things used to be simple--well, not recently, but if you go back a ways, say, to Greece in the 5th century BC. As we see in the somewhat overheated motion picture 300, the fragile roots of democracy and reason in Athens and Sparta were threatened by the immense army of Xerxes I. Rather surprisingly, the forces of Oriental despotism were defeated by the Greeks, thus ensuring the survival and growth of Western Civilization.

Now, however, the forces fighting to destroy Western Civilization are not only outside, but inside. Activists who claim to merely want the contributions of oppressed minorities to be honored are pretty clearly fighting to have the actual foundations of civilization erased. The Wall Street Journal today editorializes on a recent example:
For more than 70 years the 1,500-student private liberal arts school in Portland, Oregon, has required every freshman to take a yearlong course covering the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman canon (Humanities 110). Through these texts, students explore “issues of continuing relevance pertaining to ideals of truth, beauty, virtue, justice, happiness and freedom, as well as challenges posed by social inequality, war, power and prejudice,” according to the course description. These themes transcend race, gender and culture.
But activists calling themselves Reedies Against Racism denounced the course as “oppressive” and “Caucasoid,” claiming too many of the writers were white men. You know, like that lame Aristotle dude. Last spring they demanded that their peers participate in sit-ins, and last fall the bullying grew worse.
Author Michael Walsh has a new book coming out that points out how the diminishing role of the arts in education has weakened the cultural defense of Western Civilization:
In Monday’s speech ... I located a signal change in the Western education system that, at the time, looked like an advance: the American reaction to the launch of Sputnik in 1957. Suddenly, America felt it was losing its technological edge over the Soviets so American schoolchildren became acquainted en masse with the wonders and joys of the slide rule and the hard sciences. The effect was immediate: we quickly regained and maintained our advantage over our antagonists, but it came with a price: the downgrading of the importance of the arts as a civilizing and ennobling force in American public (and private) life.
So while the emphasis on tech eventually resulted in the creation of the personal computer and the iPhone, it also reduced the literary and plastic arts from essential elements of nationhood to “entertainments” for the wealthy; triggered the coarsening of society and, worst of all, cut both America and, shortly thereafter, the Western European nations from the wellsprings of their shared patrimony. This may not entirely have been by design, but it was seized upon by the nascent philosophy of the Frankfurt School, which by this time had been transplanted from pre-Nazi Germany to Columbia University in Manhattan and quickly spread throughout the American system of higher education.  
The result? To take just one example, the New York City public school system went from offering a model education in music and the arts to needing police officers in the schools—a reflection of the overall changes in demography, to be sure, but also of the decivilizing effect the loss of a democratized high culture entails. More Mozart, fewer metal detectors…
I was very critical of Walsh's last book in this post. One hopes that the new one will be better written. Two things that are absolutely essential for honest scholarship are first, to find the best expression of the arguments of your opponents and confront those. Not, as is common these days, to fake up weak straw men to attack. Second, do not hesitate to criticize those who make poor arguments even if they are on your side.

That being said, I think that the point Walsh is making in the above quote is a very good one. A big problem, and one that I am constantly trying to address in this blog, is that we have lost touch with a great deal of our cultural patrimony in the form of the arts and philosophy. These fields cannot, cannot, be replaced by science, though that is what is constantly being attempted.

Let's have a little Mozart for our envoi. This is the String Quartet No. 19 in C major, K. 465 by Mozart, nicknamed the "Dissonance" because of the strange harmonies of the introduction. The performance is by the Hagen Quartet at the Mozarteum in Salzburg:

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