T. S. Eliot, Culture, and Higher Education, Part II

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.

17 thoughts on “T. S. Eliot, Culture, and Higher Education, Part II

  1. Somewhat off topic, but I’ve been reading Stewart Elliott’s Faces in the Clouds and he refers to a couple of studies which show that poetry since the 18th century has made continually less use of personification. This seems highly correlated with the decline in religiosity. One of the reasons for the decline in literary quality may turn out to be the inability of people to view the world in an animistic way which is the precursor to both religion and personification.

    The Romantics were right to return to an animistic conception of the universe as opposed to the Neo-Classicals, but they were perhaps too individualistic in their attempts at mythmaking. Earlier poets largely inherited their mythology and did not need to come up with their own private one. To some extent though they didn’t have much choice. But Eliot’s unqualified preference for the Neo-Classical (Enlightenment) line of poetry is a bit odd for a conservative.

  2. To “The Man Who Was…”: It’s not off topic at all, but quite to the point. Since the person is a potential of human nature, any diminution or distortion of human nature will also be a diminution or distortion of personality. In the Notes, Eliot refers to statist and global projects as “de-humanizing.”

    Eliot was much keener on the Metaphysical Poets than on the “Silver Age” Neoclassicists. It is somewhat odd that Eliot rejected Romanticism as broadly as he did because the Romantics (I am thinking again specifically of Wordsworth and Coleridge) had a great deal in common with the Metaphysical Poets. Compare, for example, Wordsworth and Traherne.

    Incidentally, Nicolas Berdyaev believed that personality had been fostered in a new and unprecedented way by Christianity and he too correlated the decline, specifically, of Christianity with the withdrawal of personality from the modern world.

  3. A splendid commentary on the thought of T S Eliot who contrived to be a modernist poet – at least to begin with – and a trenchant critic of modernity as a Christian dissenter from it.

    I once heard someone ask Eliot whether ‘the dissociation of sensibility’ which he discovered in the poetry of Milton and Dryden, had been, as it were, reversed in the poetry of the modern age. He answered that he had made a number of literary judgments in the past which he no longer understood.

  4. I’m interested in your observation that the worldviews of university professors are disintegrating insofar as their specialized knowledge is concerned, but coalescing with respect to their political, moral, and religious opinions. This describes my experience. Within my own department there is absolutely no communication between “research clusters,” and absolutely no common understanding how the activities taking place in those clusters relate to each other. At the same time, with the exception of yours truly, everyone appears to be on the same page in questions of public opinion. One consequence is that this university department (and I believe most) is a very, very dull place. When we are not silenced by mutual incomprehension, we are stupefied by liberal platitudes. Either way, it’s one long yawn.

    To a student major in my department, the material appears highly fragmented. They often blame themselves for failing to see the unifying themes and overall pattern, but it’s really not their fault. The themes that exist are vague, vestigial, and vanishing. Integration with the larger world of science and art, when it occurs, is idiosyncratic. The “background” that holds the whole melange together, so far as I can tell, is a vague, multicultural, technocratic, and statist utopia. What holds everything together is that it is somehow moving us towards that.

  5. To Alex:First — thank you. Next — I suspect that the dissent was present from the beginning. The motif of fragmentation in The Waste Land is not there because Eliot advocates fragmentation or takes delight in it; it is there to represent as adequately as possible the fragmentation of modern life.

    To JM Smith: I see what you see and we see what Eliot saw and foresaw. Even within a department, the atomization of “competencies” might be complete and yet the unanimity on moral matters is emphatically present; it is the only thing that can transform the scattered atoms into the molecule.

    Best to all. TFB

  6. To JM Smith again: I respond immediately to your invocation of the “one long yawn.” I can’t remember when I last had an interesting or stimulating conversation on campus. Some of the best conversations that I have nowadays occur in the barbershop that I visit regularly and in my favorite tavern, Old City Hall, in Oswego. In both places, non-academics who are nevertheless at least as well educated humanely speaking as most of the academics whom I know engage in actual dialogue about a wide range of subjects. In these places, the participants in the discussion rarely or maybe never let disagreements get nasty. The contrast between free discussion in the places of business and the sullenness and rancor on campus is startling.

  7. I grew up in western New York State, and although I don’t know the Old City Hall tavern in Oswego, do know the type of place you’re talking about. It’s one reason I now live in the blue-collar end of town and am apt to skip the faculty wine parties. My neighbors haven’t read very much, but they speak their minds, are interested in new ideas, and disagree politely. This is not, I should add, the no-collar end of town where illiterates in wife-beaters drink beer on the curb, so I’m not going all Whitmanesque about The People. And yes, I could not be happy enjoying exclusively the society of these salt-of-the-earth types.

    I’ve been thinking about this general topic because I’ll be leading a graduate seminar this fall, which is mandatory for all graduate students entering our program and is meant to prepare them to succeed in graduate school and beyond. I’m really struggling over the extent to which I should advise absolute conformity, since I really do believe that, along with intelligence and hard work, conformity is the key to academic success. “Be exactly like the people around, solve the problems they believe need to be solved, and you’ll be a named professor before you’ve stopped mining your dissertation data,” I’m tempted to say. It’s right, of course, but it’s also wrong.

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  9. From the perspective of someone who has taught at a small only mildly selective liberal arts college for many years, and who went through grad school 1976-85, a great deal of what you say hits home. Eliot was clearly prescient in many ways. I can say I have a clear idea of what went wrong. I can’t say I am sure why. The contradiction between the real conformity and timidity of graduate students and professors, and their self image as daring and radical, is truly, well, downright crazy. I have some questions:
    Was intellectual life really more dynamic and honest, say, pre-1970? I suspect so. I am curious to hear from any real old timers on this question.
    The mindset you describe is of course very much that of humanities and social science professors. But what about scientists, business professors, law professors?
    Are we seeing true ideological conformity? What strikes me is also the prevalent timidity and avoidance of any genuine engagement with opposing views. Which means, people just stay quiet.
    What are the origins of bureaucratization? I’m reminded of the last paragraph of Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. But his “iron cage” is not an iron cage of liberalism. He saw a culture-destroying bureaucratization as a quite likely consumation of the centuries long development of industrial capitalism he has studied. I think we should bear in mind also that bureaucratization is not a merely governmental phenomenon. The modern business enterprise is equally dominated by the relentless drive toward bureaucratic proceduralization. Nineteenth century socialists I think rightly pointed out that business bureaucracy was leading the way in the “socialization” of society.
    A great deal of what is wrong with the contemporary academy is precisely its “Gleichschaltung” not simply into the precepts of liberal ideology, but also into the rigors of comodification. Education has become product. Pleasing the consumer is the consideration that trumps everything else. This has eroded the authority of the teacher to the point that the teacher is not in a position to expect very much of students. Is this caused simply by a callow ideology of distinctionless egalitarianism? Or has shallow egalitarianism colluded in a symbiotic way with capitalistic consumerism?
    Another view of this whole question is provided by the philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis in his essay “The Rising Tide of Insignificancy” which is available online. I suspect that many readers of this blog will not like him, since he is really not conservative by any definition. But he does very much excoriate late twentieth century Marxism, postmodernist nihilism, and standard issue liberalism.

  10. To Jeremy Smith: Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I daresay that many of your questions (all well-posed) are self-answering, if not exactly rhetorical. Ideological Gleichschaltung and general timidity are synergistic. My graduate studies were from 1984 to 1990, but the first part of my undergraduate studies was 1972 – 1976 or so. Many of my undergraduate instructors were also later on my graduate instructors. I can indeed report a difference of engagement and openness. In the 1970s at UCLA there was a good deal of argument, of give-and-take, among all parties, students and faculty. By the mid-1980s it had cooled. In English and Comparative Literature (I was a C-L Fellow), one was either a Marxist of some sort or a deconstructive fellow-traveler, or one was Bertonneau or Haeussler or Schneider and that was about the round-up of independent thinkers. (P.S. Mark Bauerlein was there; he was my office-mate for a few semesters. Add him to the roster.) The singular dissenting professor was Eric Gans, who became my dissertation director.

    I have dipped into Castoriadis. I wish I had the time to revisit him adequately.

    Best, TFB

  11. I was also in Comparative Literature, at Indiana.
    I agree that my questions were quasi rhetorical. But I am genuinely distressed and in fact puzzled by the direction intellectual life has taken. So I basically meant just to float a number of possible explanations for possible further discussion. In general an observation I have often come across–and that I think is at least worth taking seriously–is that there is a real tension if not conflict between the imperatives of a capitalist economy and precisely the kind of traditionalism that the (very thoughtful) members of this blog are championing. I would be curious to hear what they think of this.

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  13. Pingback: A fúria anti-religiosa das elites neognósticas « Frente Ocidental.com

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