When the reader encounters in T. S. Eliot’s Notes towards a Definition of Culture (1949) references quoted from Harold Laski to such things as the building of a “new civilization” based on “social justice,” he might excusably muse to himself that he has the feeling of having met with these phrases before – only before would not be exactly right because he will have met with them recently in twenty-first century palaver whereas Eliot wrote his Notes sixty-three years ago. The Notes – which will figure along with books by Nicolas Berdyaev, José Ortega-y-Gasset, and three others in a seminar that I will teach in the fall semester of 2012 – put in order a number of disconcerting intuitions that plagued Eliot with redoubled urgency after the Allied victory of 1945. The cultural “Waste Land” that issued from the previous war had seen no relief of its spiritual drought; its desiccated provinces remained in sullen, low-grade demorale. Seeing to small tasks first, the Notes begin by clearing the rubble from that necessary but much-abused word culture. Eliot’s analysis finds it easier to say what culture is not than to capture the word’s meaning in a dictionary-type gloss. Eliot contents himself on the one hand with a purely formal explanation of the term – culture refers to the internal relations of the parts of a society as organized by the society’s founding ideas – and, on the other hand, with pointing out that the term resists a reductive definition because the numerous societies correspond to numerous cultures. Culture is the character-producing content of a society, so to speak. Importantly, culture relates closely with religion.
While Eliot, although American by birth, addressed his Notes to the immediately postwar British polity, his remarks extend not only across the Atlantic, but across the decades. Whether one considers Britain in 1949 or the United States in 2012, the cultural content of the society is – or at any rate was originally and had (or has) been for centuries – the Western European, Christian culture whose roots nourish themselves in the melded soil of the Classical and Christian bequeathals to the Gothic Middle Ages. The concept of the university, a quintessentially Western invention, originated in a frankly and totally religious purpose: The preservation and inculcation of the Catholic faith and its coordination and reconciliation with the other branches of knowledge; and in that context, the high culture resisted practical distinction from the religion even though different faculties might represent one aspect of the duality or another in the institution. Culture and religion are for Eliot “the whole way of life,” as embodied in ideals that cry out for realization at the individual and group levels. Eliot writes that the dynamic balance of religion and culture “should mean for the individual and the group something towards which they strive, not merely something which they possess.”
Higher education in Western society had a teleological, as well as a curatorial, meaning: By inspiring talented individuals to strive for the continuous perfection of the cultural ideal, it enhanced the likelihood that the cultural inheritance would pass on to the next generation of the educated elite, who would serve as models of conduct and achievement for the non-elites of the society; and thereby the character of the whole society would be maintained.
In Eliot’s view, higher education in its traditional form possesses a Janus-like guise, looking backwards to cultural foundations and forwards to the continued preservation and refinement of the ideals. The educated elites embody the general culture “at a more conscious level,” in Eliot’s phrase, than did the non-elites. The educated elite never created the culture, however; and indeed for Eliot the culture originates spontaneously and organically in a founding vision, for good or ill, sometimes ascribable to a known visionary. Yet as Eliot himself observed already just after World War II, the Western elite had abdicated its curatorship. In North America and probably in Britain the higher education elite began thinking of itself as a self-validating professional elite, mainly concerned with its own specialized functions (the departments of the college or university) and its members’ status and privilege in respect to the social hierarchy. Investing in the ideology of the utopian future, the professoriate alienated itself from its actual past. This development entailed an increasing like-mindedness within the profession that accelerated towards lock-step conformism in the three decades following 1968.
Eliot, of course, had only a generic inkling of the sequels to what he described, but he foresaw keenly in outline. He writes in the Notes of what happens to a society when the trends of professionalization, bureaucratization, democratization, and egalitarianism converge, as, before his eyes, they were converging in his day: “The élites… will consist solely of individuals whose only common bond will be their professional interest” and who will have “no social continuity” with the larger society; “they will meet like committees” and they will represent themselves as possessing “more culture” than the non-elite classes even though their real distinction will be in mere “greater specialization of culture.” What Eliot’s argument strongly implies but omits to make fully explicit is that when an elite in control of an institution (it might be the higher-education elite) sets itself in opposition to the assumptions that have hitherto grounded the society, it no longer functions even in the manner of owning “greater specialization of culture.” It now functions (although that is hardly the word) as an actively hostile colony that has usurped a traditional niche of the society, one that it did not create and whose actual creators, along with the creators of the larger society, it openly despises.
The word specialization has come into the discussion. “While it appears that progress in civilisation will bring into being more specialised groups,” as Eliot writes, “we must not expect this development to be unattended by perils.” Coming to the point, “cultural disintegration may ensue upon cultural specialization: and it is the most radical disintegration that a society can suffer… the most serious and difficult to repair.” Among the symptoms of cultural disintegration that Eliot cites as visible on the scene in his day are that “religious thought, philosophy and art [have] become isolated areas cultivated by groups in no communication with each other”; and that “artistic sensibility is impoverished by its divorce from the religious sensibility” and “the religious by its separation from the artistic.” Once again from the perspective of sixty years later, it is possible to say that these trends have deepened and that this will have been largely due to the absorption of the range of activities into the higher-education framework. Nowadays novelists, painters, and doctors of comparative religion all work for the university, attached to one or another specialized faculty. At the same time that they retire within their specialized fields, they espouse the overarching professional worldview. The tendencies to hermetic confinement within the narrow discipline and to homogenization in convictions occur simultaneously and each represents a diminution from the previous balance of functions in the society.
Specialization, bureaucratization, and the rest, go together, but not without ideology. Indeed, under the influence of the ideology the distinct faculties become gradually homogenized so that the nominal discipline becomes secondary and everyone, whether in history or literature or philosophy so-called, in fact teaches – or rather indoctrinates on behalf of – the ideology. Recruitment to the elite will be affected by these developments, especially when the elite class makes a fetish of egalitarianism. (That the elite should regard itself as the vanguard of egalitarianism is, of course, an irresolvable contradiction, but so is much else in the modern order.) It might appear to a naïve observer that under the regime of democracy, with its meritocratic theory, the opportunity to join the cadre becomes larger, but this does not in fact occur. In Eliot’s analysis, “if [the] ‘purpose’ [of selection] is only to get the best people… to the top… we lack a criterion of who are the best people; or, if we impose a criterion, it will have an oppressive effect on novelty.” The criterion will, in other words, promote orthodoxy. To bring the focus back to higher education and to extend Eliot’s analysis: Under professionalization, specialization, and bureaucratization, the criterion of recruitment to the instructing class will be amenability to the ideology. Recruitment will become a search for the intellectually malleable rather than the intellectually independent, and for the already like-minded.
In large polities – and here again, while Eliot was thinking of Britain in 1949, his remarks apply with even greater force to the United States in 2012 – where the manner of governance becomes more and more statist and a central bureaucracy begins to bully all the institutions of a particular type to imitate a single, mandatory pattern, regional differences within the polity will suffer a kind of sabotage. Recall Eliot’s generic definition of culture as the holding-together in tension and balance under an effective moral vision all of the parts or classes of a given society. (Eliot’s is a strikingly federal vision of culture.) The tension is as important as the balance; the intact cultural system acts to preserve real differences, including the regional differences that super-urbane people regard as quaint or folkloric and that committed ideologues see as the smoke of peculiarity indicating the fire of heterodoxy. Those differences of dialect-flavor and of regional preference in turn contribute to the richness, the range of possibility in the society. Under a statist polity, the difference between a Scots university and a Home Counties one or a California university and a Massachusetts one will steadily diminish until every university is simply a British one or an American one. The difference between public and private and between religious and secular universities will also diminish towards a vanishing point. This large-scale Gleichschaltung of all higher-education institutions is an empirical feature of the contemporary scene, which is one of dreary sameness.
One important element in an intact culture and therefore also in a functioning healthy society is the family. An old saying, now regarded as quaint or even as denunciation-worthy by contemporary elite groups, held that the college stood in loco parentis for the late-adolescents who left home to be scholars in the library and residents in the dormitory. Nowadays the social unit headed by the parents, the family, is quite as much reviled by the reigning higher-education elite as religion or regional preference. The modern higher-education establishment regards itself as the uniquely qualified purveyor of knowledge and attitudes, which puts it in a hostile relation with the family. Eliot writes that “the primary channel of transmission of culture is the family: no man wholly escapes from the kind, or wholly surpasses the degree, of culture which he acquired from his early environment.” The family is not the sole transmitter of culture, but it has traditionally prepared the children to be receptive to honest learning and to be wary of mountebanks; especially it has inculcated the manners without which an individual is socially lame and the society coarse.
Above all, Eliot writes, the family teaches “piety towards the dead, however obscure, and a solicitude for the unborn, however remote,” which “unless… cultivated in the home… can never be more than a verbal convention in the community.” As in Virgil’s Aeneid where in fleeing Troy the hero Aeneas takes care to fetch along the images of his ancestors, reverence towards the dead and solicitude for the unborn constitute an essentially religious attitude in the most general, non-sectarian sense. When the institution of higher education, dominated by a uniform antinomian ideology that alienates it from the traditional society, adopts, as it must, a hostile attitude towards normative religiosity, no one should feel surprised that it also treats the family with disdain. Where the instructor has become an indoctrinator on behalf of an antinomian worldview, it serves his purpose to pry the son or daughter away from the family, the better to suppress the habits of nurture and of natural affection so as to insinuate the institutional worldview. One link between the institution of higher education and the larger society that the higher-education cadre takes care not to sever is its link to the tax-base of the polity. Thus the parents whose influence ideological higher education seeks to cancel foot the bill for their own betrayal.
The last line of the third paragraph back from this one invoked the dreary sameness of modern colleges and universities and derived that homogeneity from trends that Eliot observed as long ago as the immediate aftermath of World War II. Eliot, who respected national and regional differences, as well as the incalculable differences of one family from another, dreaded the trend towards uniformity in society. He remarks in the Notes on the obsession of the intellectual elite with notions like “world culture” and “world government,” to which they see their mental labor as contributing. “It must follow,” Eliot warns, “from what I have already pleaded about the value of local cultures that a world culture which was simply a uniform culture would be no culture at all.” Indeed, “we would have humanity de-humanised.” While the trend has not gone that far, the possibility that, unchecked, it will advance towards consummation, remains alarming. Sensible people will want to stop such a consummation to the extent that they are able although it is unclear how they might be effective in the endeavor.
The trend towards nationwide institutional homogeneity alarms sensible people because it betokens an active, totalizing ambition among the elites, whether it concerns higher education or some other institution of the society – all of which recruit their management and staff from higher education. On this topic, people of the present moment find themselves in a position both to correct Eliot on a minor point and to benefit additionally from his prescience. According to the Notes, the elites tend to departmentalize, such that there is “an increasing isolation of elites from each other.” Not so, as it turns out. When specialization occurs in concert with ideological conformity, the elites are not at all isolated in what has become most important to them, their constantly affirmed moral agreement. While it is true that a member of the Fine Arts faculty communicates not at all with a member of the Sciences Faculty about the arts and sciences, the discipline of each being opaque to the other, they do communicate morally because recruitment has insured that they espouse the reigning shibboleths.
Eliot rightly perceives in ideology a forfeiture of actual thinking and a retreat from the constant petition of reality; ideology is a “reversion” to “the unconscious level.” A widespread “tendency towards reversion may explain,” Eliot writes, “the powerful attraction which totalitarian philosophy and practice can exert on humanity.” The third part of this essay will bring together two themes introduced but not developed in the first two parts – the just-mentioned relation between ideology and totalitarianism and the previously mentioned “sacrificial” character of institutional antinomianism – as they concern the institutions of higher education in their context of the larger contemporary society.