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

The first two parts of this essay have made use of T. S. Eliot’s little book Notes towards a Definition of Culture (1949) as a guide to thinking about transformations over the last half-century in both the institutions of higher education and the larger society, especially the American society, in which these institutions find their context.  The Notes add up to a deceptive text, from its seeming plainness of prose and its quiet gentlemanliness in respect of Eliot’s rhetorical opponents (always Mr. Laski and Mr. Mannheim) to its reticence in actually achieving the definition towards which its title makes a hopeful promise.  The explanation of the last is that culture, as Eliot sees it, is experientially always a particular culture, rooted in a particular foundation, invariably in some way religious although religion might fade into the background as a culture develops.  Nevertheless, as Eliot affirms with Arnold Toynbee, “no culture has appeared or developed except together with religion.”  Eliot deliberately equivocates about the difference, if any, between culture and civilization, rejecting Oswald Spengler’s idiosyncratic distinction of those two terms in The Decline of the West, and supposing that a consensus, surviving in his day, could meld or separate them competently.  One might speak, for example, about the original Gothic-Christian culture of the early Middle Ages and of the Western Civilization stemming from that prototype. With such continuities the Notes concern themselves most emphatically, with Eliot diagnosing post-war European – and by extension North American – civilization as having come to a point of fractiousness and disintegration.  In particular, Eliot saw the alienation of the elites of society from one another and from the society at large.  Part two of the present essay argued that Eliot was mistaken in the first of those two propositions but that he was quite correct in the second.

Notes towards a Definition of Culture interests me just now, in part, because I intend for the students in my senior seminar for the fall semester 2012 to read it – in connection with several other instances of modern non-modern dissentient discourse.  They will also read, for example, René Guénon’s Crisis of the Modern Age (1927) and Nicolas Berdyaev’s Fate of Man in the Modern Age (1936), books that Eliot would have known, along with other titles constitute a convergent non-conformist critique of the modern dissent-intolerant order that calls itself liberal without cracking a smile.  Guénon, for example, anticipating many a later critic of ideology, saw in modern anti-religiosity the traits precisely of religiosity, complete with an explicit dogma and with peculiar sacraments in which the faithful regularly participate.  Berdyaev, a refugee from Lenin’s Russia, shared Eliot’s perception that the modern liberal order tended almost automatically to totalitarianism.

In Eliot’s analysis in the Notes, the high danger exists that the modern, self-denominating liberal order “will slip into the assumption that culture can be planned” whereupon naturally the university will assume the role of the planning agency, offering to the state its special expertise in this, that, and everything.  Those who assume that culture may be constructed the way a building is constructed will do so in vain and their efforts will likely be destructive.  Because, according to Eliot, “culture can never be wholly conscious,” culture also cannot avoid constituting “the unconscious background of all our planning.”  Here again as in Part II of the present essay, the vantage point of sixty years after the Notes permits some small correction, perhaps merely a modification, of Eliot’s case.  In 1949 the vestige of traditional culture still formed something like a “background” to Western thinking, but sixty years later the crusading antinomianism of the Western elite classes has permeated all institutions and has itself become an “unconscious” element in cognition and action in competition with a diminished vestige of traditional culture.  Complications now arise.

The previous, authentic culture already represented the spontaneous, organic adaptation of a particular people or polity to its environment, including itself.  That culture qualifies in this way as true.  The new, “planned” culture, which empirically speaking is an antinomian ideology in conflict with the authentic culture, must be imposed, since its precepts (entirely reactionary) would never occur to ordinary people in the course of their lives.  In organizing itself purely as a reaction to something true, the ideology will run to false; people cannot therefore adapt themselves to the ideology without violating their nature.  Many people, however, having internalized the ideology so as ritually to reject the old culture (even while remaining ignorant about it), will be unable to trace their maladapted unease to its proper source – the falsehood of petulant contrarianism that now shapes their behavior and structures the society. Yet the unease will persist and the prevailing wisdom will be unable to assuage it.

That unease, tenacious as it must be and in connection with other developments, will a pose threat to the ideology and thereby also to the ideologically invested elite.  How so?  Suffering can provoke introspection; introspection can lead to “extrospection” and to questions about the standing order.  Questions about the standing order can lead the distressed subject to reject that order, especially when dissentient critics articulate the causal basis of the subject’s discomfiture.  Soon the institution’s concern will consist not only of indoctrination, but also of active vigilance for and suppression of counter-indoctrination or simply of doubt.  The institution will seek cooperation from other institutions to extend its control over its clientele extramurally.  The familiar Orwellian “thought crimes” will soon appear to take their place in an increasingly total regime of prescriptive attitudes and behaviors.  It will not suffice merely quietly to assent to the ideology.  The dominating elite will insist on voluble espousal and it will punish by expulsion and excoriation the refusal volubly to espouse.  The totalitarian impulse will generate the censorious and emissary regime, which at the end of Part II of this series I referred to as “sacrificial.”

In the Notes Eliot devotes an entire chapter under the rubric of “education.”  He observes the topics of discussion concerning education in general at the time of writing and discovers five main themes.  Three of these maintain their relevance in an early-twenty-first century context.  First is the debate about the “purpose of education,” in which Eliot finds the symptomatic confusions and obfuscations of an age that pretends to find a fixed nature in nothing.  Nearly all the “purposes” that Eliot surveys are blandly utilitarian, such as “training the sort of men and women the age needs” or worse “making the pupil instrumental to the accomplishment of a social change which the educator has at heart.”  Second is the advocacy of using education “so as to give ‘equality of opportunity,’” which Eliot in a footnote classifies as “Jacobinism in education.”  Eliot sees the built-in limitation of this project pellucidly: “Any educational system aiming at a complete adjustment between education and society will tend both to restrict education to what will lead to success in the world, and to restrict success in the world to those persons who have been good pupils in the system.”

Finally there is what Eliot calls “the Mute Inglorious Milton dogma.”  Students of affirmative action in North American education, especially at the post-secondary levels, will recognize the fallacy.  As Eliot writes, “this myth assumes that a great deal of first-rate ability – not merely ability, but genius – is being wasted for lack of education; or, alternatively, that if even one potential Milton has been suppressed in the course of centuries, from deprivation of formal teaching, it is still worthwhile to turn education topsy-turvy so that it may not happen again.”  In its present day form, the proponents of the argument will have added the predictable victimary flavor to their presentation, claiming that the betrayal of the supernumerary Miltons resulted not from accident but by nefarious design from which their program redeems the society.  But it is the modern institution of education, especially of higher education, that polices and suppresses achievement and persecutes and ejects dissenters.  The modern “Mute Inglorious Milton dogma” is, in fact, a case of projection, attributing to the other the guilt in one’s own sin.  Eliot has another response.  If we had missed a Milton, he argues, “we may also have escaped some Cromwell guilty of his country’s blood.”

Eliot calls the dogma of equal opportunity “the most influential of all” among modern beliefs about education whatever the level, noting that it “is maintained stoutly by some who would shrink from… its probable consequences.”  “Equal opportunity” puts into practice the moral-political doctrine of egalitarianism.  Returning to an earlier observation, Eliot notes that this particular dogma stands in a hostile relation to the family, the lynchpin of the traditional culture that the new “planned culture” seeks to supplant.  Jacobinism in education requires that “the institution of the family [be] no longer respected” and that parental supervision of children should pass to the state.  Eliot writes: “Any system which puts [such a plan] into effect must see that no advantages of family fortune, no advantages due to the foresight, the self-sacrifice or the ambition of parents are allowed to obtain for any child or young person an education superior to that to which the system finds him to be entitled.”  Having stated it that way, Eliot next discovers that the dogma springs from “envy.”

Egalitarianism, whether in education or any other department of the society, requires “the expansion of envy.”  The dominant class encourages people to think that evil blocking agents have cheated them; propaganda claims that others have won their station in life undeserved, as by an unlawful subterfuge.  It then falls to the state “to level the playing field,” as the saying has it; and “leveling” in this context inevitably means punitive sanctions against talent and productivity.  It strikes Eliot as axiomatic that “whenever the school assumes another responsibility hitherto left to parents, we might do better to admit that we have arrived at a stage of civilisation at which the family is irresponsible, or incompetent, or helpless,” with a number of etceteras.  Jacobinism in education means inevitably the assumption, made over into a mandate, “that there must be one measure of education to which everyone is educated,” whereupon education will have become an “abstraction” – or, benefiting from sixty years in the enormous classroom of reality, a coercive abstraction.

A rhetorical aspect of the Notes not mentioned in the secondary literature solicits attention.  In the pages where readers find the footnote on education as an arm of revolution, they will also find numerous references to that British institution the Ministry of Education.  That “ministries” of a frightening sort had recently become a theme in English letters via Orwell’s 1984 should not be left out of the account.  A close reading of Eliot’s text leaves the impression that the Notes intentionally understate the author’s alarm.  When Eliot observes that education, as a salient arm of the self-aggrandizing state, can more readily “adulterate and degrade” culture than “foster and improve” it; and when he worries that schools and universities are “abandoning the study of those subjects by which the essentials of our culture… are transmitted”; then his glimpse of “barbarian nomads… in their mechanized caravans” finds its justification.  Replace “mechanized caravans” with cellular telephones and the array of electronica and Eliot’s “prophetic gloom” seems a good deal less than farfetched.

It remains to revisit the deliberately provocative claim that the modern university, as Eliot’s 1949 meditation helps to see it, really functions “sacrificially.”  That the modern university participates in the general trend towards the totalization of society under an ideological-statist regime, those who stand back from the increasingly mandatory worldview can hardly doubt; such observers might well agree that the modern university plays a central and essential role in this hubristic undertaking.  Eliot’s own assumption, that when the state makes war on the church it becomes a church de facto, provides a good starting-place.  Readers will also do well to recall what this essay, taking its cue from Eliot, has stated many times already: That the label of liberalism in a modern context denotes an antinomian ideology that springs from an invidious reaction by resentment-prone subjects against the religious basis of Western civilization – Christianity.  In the appendix to the Notes, Eliot underscores the Christian basis of the West: “It is in Christianity that our arts have developed; it is in Christianity that the laws of Europe have – until recently – been rooted”; and “it is against the background of Christianity that all our thought has significance.”  The antinomian university tacitly recognizes the validity of such statements, which explains its founding and ongoing expulsion of Christianity and of anything reminiscent of Christian culture.

What happens when, as Eliot asks, “We dissipate or throw away our common patrimony of culture?”  Those who reject the patrimony will produce something not Christian, but that, in a number of ways, mimics Christianity: It will loudly, ceaselessly display Christianity’s sensitivity to the victims of persecution – or sacrifice – but it will revert in practice to gross emissary procedure, achieving the solidarity of its membership through the regular expulsion of non-conformists.  The word “diablerie,” literally “mud-slinging,” appears justifiably in the Notes.  These episodes of mud-slinging and expulsion will occur in the purely symbolic realm (as in the elimination of the “Dead White Males” from the reading-list) and in the pragmatic realm, in the form of what Orwell represented in 1984 in the orgiastic “Two Minutes Hate.”    In recent years the notorious Duke Lacrosse Case provides the paradigm, but the phenomenon pervades the academy both in instances that make newspaper headlines and in hundreds more that never reach public attention.

Ben Stein’s film Expelled (2008) interviews a half-dozen people who lost their jobs for raising questions about the standard Darwinian model of evolution; individuals who question the “Global Warming Hypothesis” (it has changed its name to the “Climate Change Hypothesis”) run risk of reprisal.  If Greater Humbug State Teacher College had been Celebrating Sustainable, Carbon-Neutral Diversity since Fiscal year 2012, someone who called attention to the risible character of the slogan would run risk of reprisal.  The reader may add his own etceteras, as he will.

Readers ought to study Notes towards a Definition of Culture along with Murder in the Cathedral and The Cocktail Party.  Eliot’s chamber-dramas offer indirectly a bolder interpretation of modernity than does his essayistic prose.  In these too the modern break with the Christian basis of the culture leads not to something beyond Christianity but rather backslidingly into gross, pre-Biblical practice complete with the immolation of the victim.  The Duke Lacrosse Case again instantiates the nastiness essential to modern-liberal institutional behavior.  Eighty-eight Duke faculty-members signed their names to a totalitarian, anti-procedural document declaring the innocent parties guilty and demanding, not merely their expulsion, but also their criminal prosecution; hundreds, perhaps thousands, of like-minded academicians across the country demonstrated their solidarity with those signatories.  A public prosecutor who knew the truth acted in deliberate contempt of his own knowledge to charge and harass the victims.  Eliot had seen it coming for a long time.  To understand it, one must understand that it has been in the making for a long time.

11 thoughts on “T. S. Eliot, Culture, and Higher Education, Part III

  1. Pingback: Se não pararmos para pensar, vamos ter que aprender tudo de novo « perspectivas

  2. If you are correct in the first part of this installment, and our ostensibly hedonistic society in fact makes more and more people unhappy, it will become increasingly important to root out whatever pockets of happiness remain. I think this is why many feminists are determined to get contented housewives into the workforce. It’s simply intolerable to have living examples of an attractive alternative to careerism, not to mention disconfirmation of feminist horror stories. It will also become necessary to expel intelligent and well-adjusted people of faith, so the pious can be painted as knuckle-draggers and neurotics. It will certainly be necessary to get rid of peaceful, prosperous, homogenous countries. I’ll count myself happy, so long as no one’s happier than I.

    Perhaps one might say that the proper objects of emulation are being quietly removed while fantastic objects of envy and resentment are being thrust before us. Instead of raising exemplars and saying, “this is how to be happy,” much of our education conjures up phantoms of oppression and says, “this is why your not happy.” A hate object, a scapegoat, a sacrificial victim.

      • Yes it’s quite a lengthy read! Thankfully not as long as some of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s work, of which I just finished his (over a) 1,000 page epic, The Deluge. Good reactionary entertainment!

        Thanks for answering Kristor, I didn’t know if anyone would. 🙂

    • I read a draft of the book and wrote a blurb:

      “A very important book, with clear forceful analysis and lots of eye-opening material. This groundbreaking and extremely provocative study is essential reading for Catholics who want to stand back and understand how we ended up where we are today.”

      Putting blurb-style aside, the book really is worth reading. It’s basically aimed at conservative Catholics who combine attachment to the Church with attachment to the American saga of liberty. So his point is that liberty didn’t suddenly go wrong in 1968 or whenever, there were basic problems with making it the highest ideal all along. So he goes into evidence that John Locke was involved in a plot to murder Charles II and the Duke of York, wonders why the Whiskey Rebellion was so much less justified than the Boston Tea Party, insists on the superiority of Mexican law over the system the Americans were introducing into Texas, etc. He also spends a lot of time on the Confederacy as a sort of self-refutation of American liberty.

      The book’s a polemic, and not strictly fair in all respects, but he brings in a lot of very interesting material and provides a useful counternarrative to a standard American conservative narrative that doesn’t really stand up.

      • Thanks Mr. Kalb! Yes I saw that you blurbed the book, I just was not aware that you wrote here on a regular basis. I’m Glad to see you do!

        And thanks for the synopsis! It’s a little pricey for a book, but I’m still going to get it, it really does look like a must-read. I think it’s also important that I read it, as I grew up in the whole “conservative Catholics who combine attachment to the Church with attachment to the American saga of liberty” milieu. (Well, minus the Catholic part, I was raised protestant, now I am Catholic). It’s been a long road to the reactionary side, but it feels like everyday I’m getting closer to making a permanent home there. The more and more I read/learn/study, the more it looks like the problem is not even just the democrats, the left, liberals, progressives, etc but with the the whole liberal order of things. I can’t say I was thrilled to make this discovery, it was hard, but I think it’s true, and that is what is important.

        So thanks again Mr. Kalb! If I could ask you one more question though…you said it’s not ‘strictly fair in all respects’. What did you mean by that? You don’t mean that the author is lying about historical events/people, or giving false accounts of what his opponents believe, etc, etc? Right?

  3. To Jeremy: Regarding Bruce G. Charlton, his is an appreciable argument. It doesn’t quite square itself, however, with my perception. While the thinking of the postmodern academic is indeed infantile, and while the professors have become bureaucrats, “childlike” is not the way I’d describe them. For one thing, actual children and adolescents are often motivated by curiosity and take pleasure in the discovery of facts. Eliot’s analysis might be sharper than Charlton’s. Eliot writes that ideology appeals to those who want to return to the womb, which I interpret as their wanting to retreat from reality (I think I used the phrase “the constant petitioning of reality” somewhere in my essay). To speak metaphorically of the bureaucratic womb is not farfetched. Howard Schwartz has also explored these phenomena from a psychological, specifically a Freudian, perspective. I recommend his series of articles currently in progress at The Brussels Journal. I am somewhat more persuaded by Schwartz’s diagnosis than I am by Charlton’s.

    I have also used the adjective “petulant” to describe the mindset of the professoriate. Petulance is something associated with early childhood.

    The question is, how is a dissenter, within the walls, to react to and interact with such people. It’s a eprpetual minefield.

    Best, TFB

  4. Pingback: Cultural reading | Save Capitalism

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

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