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The Rescue of Culture

book cover imageThe Intemperate Professor, and Other Cultural Splenetics
by Russell Kirk.
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965 [revised edition: Sherwood Sugden & Co., 1988]. 163 pp.

Anthony Harrigan

The afternoon this reviewer completed his reading of this book, he drove along the Cooper River in the Carolina Low Country to the site of an old rice plantation that had been bought by a paper company and then sold to a real estate developer. “Rice Hope,” the plantation, was still intact. The ancient oaks still retained their antique beauty on the bluff above the dark river. But in the ground were white stakes, marking the boundaries of the sliver-size lots that will be sold. A year from now, beauty cultivated over generations will all be gone. Something important will be subtracted from America. It is a tragedy, though few seem to recognize it as such or even to care.

This is what Russell Kirk is writing about in The Intemperate Professor. It is only natural that the believer in a civilized order should jot down splenetic criticism—cross, crusty, and testy words, that is. Our inheritance is being butchered.

There is the butchery of land and buildings, the outward and visible signs of our civilization’s greatness of old. No one is more accurate than Dr. Kirk in describing the fatal illness that is overtaking our world. In his chapter entitled “The Shape of Modern Society,” he gives a grim picture of the great houses of England and Scotland that have fallen into disrepair. Nuclear bombardment could hardly do worse than the socialist planner, the liberal reformer, the designers of income taxes and death duties who are sweeping away the houses which were a frame for British life over the centuries. Dr. Kirk tells of auctions he has watched, broken stairs he has climbed, and gutted house fronts that he has surveyed with sadness. If the new order had put something better or more beautiful in their place, the change could be accepted. But as he points out in the chapter, “The Uninteresting Future,” the planners give us nothing save “modern standardized ugliness.” We “uglify,” declares Dr. Kirk, pointing out that “the bulldozer and the wrecker’s ball intoxicate.”

While museums and art galleries lavish funds on fragments from the distant past and on paintings, entire cities set about to destroy their heritage. Nothing is sacred to the real-estate promoter and the federal urban-renewal planner. In the essay “The Indispensable Patron,” Dr. Kirk lays bare the shame of the foundations. “Utilitarian and humanitarian projects engross the attention of our major foundations,” he writes. “The Guggenheim Foundation and the Bollingen Fund are conspicuous as exceptions. Justification by material works seems to be the credo of the representative foundation functionary.” Thus, he explains, the rich foundations of the United States fail to give substantial assistance to the preservation of historic buildings.

The roots of the behavior of the foundations, of the disinterest in and disrespect for the heritage of civilization, can be traced to the mental substructure of our era.

Much of The Intemperate Professor is addressed to the signs of intellectual decadence which are everywhere apparent in our society. The universities of America should be the source of a learning that binds together past, present, and future. Instead, Dr. Kirk reminds us, many of them have been converted into intellectual “amusement parks.” His portrait of university life in the United States is a terrifying picture, with all the warts and moles revealed. With long experience in the Academy, Dr. Kirk speaks with authority. He finds our universities turned into instruments for social reconstruction and dominated by ideologues instead of scholars. Though tolerance has become an official creed in the groves of the Academy, it is tolerance only of fashionable ideas and faiths. “Some twentieth-century liberals,” he writes in the opening chapter, “are ready to defend to the death their monopoly of the classroom.”

Dr. Kirk gives his diagnosis of the ills of American education. But he also is prepared to propose remedies. It is too much to expect that the powers that be in American universities will read the chapter “American Colleges: A Proposal for Reform.” But therein one finds some general rules by which the prudent college might be guided in its work of reform. It is not possible to give a listing of these rules in this space. But the first and the last of the rules are so important they must be stated here: 1) “The college should reaffirm that the end of a liberal education is an ethical consciousness, through which the student is brought to an apprehension of the enduring truths which govern our being, the principles of self-control, and the dignity of man”; 14) “The college should inculcate in its students a sense of diffuse gratitude toward the generations that have preceded us in time, and a sense of obligation toward the generations yet to be born; it should remind the rising generation that we are part of a great continuity and essence, and that we moderns are only dwarfs mounted upon the shoulders of giants. For this consciousness lies at the heart of a liberal education.”

These words from The Intemperate Professor are the heart of the message that Russell Kirk has been preaching since he first started to write. This reviewer has been reading his work since 1950. This body of writing has a wonderful continuity and embodies the philosophy that Dr. Kirk recommends for an educational institution. In time, perhaps, the builders will take over from the wreckers. When that happens, Russell Kirk’s achievement will be fully acknowledged.  

Anthony Harrigan (1925–2010) was a writer and editor and frequent contributor to the Intercollegiate Review and Modern Age. At the time of writing he was associate editor of the Charleston News and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina.

Posted: July 3, 2011 in Best of the Bookman.

A culture is perennially in need of renewal. A culture does not survive and prosper merely by being taken for granted; active defense is always required, and imaginative growth, too.

Russell Kirk

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