Cultivating hope in the darkest of days

Culture Counts
November 23, 2007

There is more to agree than to disagree with in this elegantly written short book, especially as regards the ends Roger Scruton is keen to promote: the maintenance of standards of judgment and the preservation of valuable cultural achievements - the achievements of "high culture" - that inform those standards and contribute to the continuance of practical moral and social wisdom.

These are good aims, and important ones. In explaining why they matter and what can be done to achieve them, Scruton offers some convincing insights, not least about education. He reminds us that in addition to knowledge of facts and techniques, there is also knowledge of how to feel - emotional knowledge - which is required for a just appreciation of the meaning of life and its chief values. The education of our moral sensibilities relies greatly on our capacity to understand, appreciate and appraise the arts, which therefore have to remain central to the curriculum, for they are constitutive of the culture whose preservation and transmission Scruton defends.

And because culture matters in this way, Scruton continues, what is taught in the curriculum has to be regarded as the chief focus of the educational endeavour, rather than the individual thus taught. He sees the failure to get this target right as the cause of dramatically falling standards in contemporary education, which seeks to be "relevant" to local and temporary concerns through "student-centred" techniques, thus threatening the loss of that body of cultural expertise and knowledge, which is what should be passed on as the sustaining core of society.

It is in this last passage of thought that the transition from what to agree and what to disagree with begins. First, Scruton couches his case in somewhat hysterical terms, describing the West as suffering a "crisis of identity" (what a reductive concept this is) caused by multiculturalism within and threats from militant Islam "without" (here Scruton seems to forget that Islam is one of the West's major religions, too). With a gesture towards the once-importance of Christianity as a sustainer of Western culture, Scruton rehearses the litany of complaints against the relativist, postmodernist, secularist temper of the age that is indictable for the "identity crisis" in question. He is not wrong to say that the first two are to blame for the corruption of the academy, which has made university arts and humanities all but irrelevant to the intellectual life of society, but the very fact that they have become so is evidence that they have not had - because they have not the strength to have - the "identity destroying" effect he alleges.

Outside the academy intellectual life flourishes, and most of it owes much to the cultural valuables that Scruton rightly defends. Accordingly, the trumpet note of imminent collapse with which Scruton begins his book is out of tune and out of place.

This is something inferable, indeed, from what Scruton says in his closing remarks, where he lists the various ways that Western art and culture continue not just to survive but to flourish, although his chosen illustrations are without exception conservative, conformist and retrospective: not, as it happens, a bad thing in every case. But the claim about flourishing can be made more generally, at the very least because there are enough people (the same minority fraction of the population as ever, but that means in absolute terms a growing number) who care enough about the culture to carry it forward, as such minorities have done throughout history.

A problem with Scruton's suggestion about how our alleged cultural decay is to be addressed is that he seems to envisage a curriculum dependent on a "canon", but without suggesting how to prevent the canon from becoming a dead hand on creativity, innovation and fresh thinking, including fresh thinking about old problems. There has to be oxygen in a culture, not just dust-laden stale air. There is no reason why the best of the past cannot be consistent with what is both new and good, but whenever canons lie too heavily across the path of endeavour it is in danger of being dynamited wholesale out of the way, to general loss.

Perhaps Scruton's doom-saying about the health and identity of Western culture is the sort of thing people say in book proposals on the subject and then include it in their introductions because they have already written those dramatic words down and they seem good - especially in Scruton's aphoristic, almost vatic, prose. We all have a tendency to overegg the pudding in prospect. But there is good reason to think that matters are not as bleak as Scruton paints them. Still, he is right about the importance of culture, and this part of his argument merits notice as an eloquent restatement of that familiar but valid point.

A. C. Grayling is professor of philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London.

Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged

Author - Roger Scruton
Publisher - Encounter Books
Pages - 136
Price - £10.99
ISBN - 9781594031946

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