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Volume 30, Number 4 (Summer 1990)

America’s Fin de Siècle: End of a Century or a Civilization?

book cover imageThe Culture We Deserve
by Jacques Barzun. Edited by Arthur Krystal.
Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1989, 187 pp., $18.

Gleaves Whitney

Politically America may have won the Cold War, but culturally she has entered the fin de siècle. Despair is chic among youth. Recently a television news hour reported that pop singers feel rather downbeat about America, their lyrics adding up to an endless tale of woe. High culture, too, is in a lamentable state. So-called artists are making headlines with an American flag laid out on a museum floor and a photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine. Most scholars in the social sciences and humanities, meanwhile, are learning more and more about less and less in endless rounds of trivial pursuit; apparently they’ve abandoned all pretense of speaking to an audience outside the ramparts of the academy. Given such conditions, is it rash to ask whether America’s cultural decline is merely a temporary ebb that will spawn new creative energies in the arts and higher learning, or whether the present decay signals something more foreboding—the disintegration of American culture and civilization?

This question underlies Jacques Barzun’s latest collection of essays, The Culture We Deserve. Few historian-critics are so well qualified to diagnose American culture as Barzun, who spent over five decades as a student and professor at Columbia University, and in the process earned a place alongside the most esteemed men of letters in the West. Since mid-century, generations of undergraduates have become acquainted with him through such well-known works as Darwin, Marx, Wagner and The Modern Researcher.

The twelve essays in the present volume are occasional pieces composed mostly during the 1980s. In them Barzun explores, with characteristic élan, the state of the fine arts, the illiberality of the liberal arts, the decay of modern language, and the general malaise that has settled over humane letters. Professional optimists will not like this book. Barzun’s diagnosis of American culture is blunt: the patient is sick and the tumor is in the pink of health. At moments he seems to set his gaze beyond America to some future civilization that will have the talent and confidence, the vision and stamina, to restore high culture. He reminds us that “Civilization is not identical with our civilization.

The stench of cultural decay is perhaps nowhere more noticeable than in the nation’s seats of higher learning. One problem is that the academy, in its attempt to be all things to all people, has for a long time conflated professional training with liberal education. The results have been disappointing. Our graduates receive bachelors’ degrees, yet remain culturally and ethically illiterate. They may have mastered a computer language or two, but cannot read Shakespeare or even The Federalist papers with any fluency.

The source of this problem lies in the pervasive elective system, made popular by Charles Eliot at Harvard at the end of the last century. The elective system encourages students to treat their education merely as a smorgasbord of offerings. Often little more than impressionistic judgements based on course descriptions guide undergraduates through their curricula. The easiest courses, or those with the “sexiest” descriptions, or most popular professor, draw the largest crowds.

Liberal education, however, is more than accumulating credit hours at random, with a smattering of ancient philosophy here, and a dollop of medieval literature there, and a pinch of modern history elsewhere. A coherent sequence of courses, taken in the right order over a four-year period, must be required if students are to be introduced to the best authors, books, and ideas of the West in an historical and logical manner. Such an education tends to be as formative as it is informative. Its value lies in inculcating a sensibility to the good, the true, and the beautiful, without which life declines into meaningless tedium.

But—educators cry—is not this sort of education elitist? Does it not run counter to the goals of American democracy, committed as it is to liberty and equality? Not at all, retorts Barzun: “Such arguments are foolishly inconsistent. A person is not a democrat thanks to his ignorance of literature and the arts.

Leading the academy in its mass exodus across the Styx are, ironically, the very persons to whom our intellectual heritage has been entrusted—the professors. Not all professors are culpable, of course, but in the social sciences and humanities departments of our leading graduate schools, many of the best and brightest have become unabashedly politicized and excruciatingly specialized. They write to a small coterie of like-minded experts and use jargon that shields them from intelligent lay criticism. Today it is not uncommon to find philosophers who have shunned the serious pursuit of ethics and metaphysics, historians who have eschewed engaging narrative in favor of “retrospective sociology,” and literary critics who have abandoned their traditional role as “midwife” to the text, in order to pursue “deconstruction,” which amounts to an act of epistemological terrorism.

Moreover, politicization of the various academic disciplines is now so commonplace that avant-garde scholarship can be downright banal. Feminist English professors declare that literature = politics. Legal scholars of the critical legal studies (CLS) persuasion say that law = politics. Intellectual historians who pride themselves for being on the cutting edge argue that history = rhetoric.

In this environment, one casualty of university education has been pleasure—the pleasure of learning. Barzun insists that great works of history, literature, and art are best comprehended by what Pascal called the esprit de finesse, or intuitive understanding. The mind must first seize upon the character of the whole before it analyzes the parts. But undergraduates are taught to approach books with a toolbox of analytical methods and theories. The ideal is to become a method-monger. Yet method mongering robs one of the pleasure of reading a text. It diminishes openness to discovery by requiring students to squeeze a creative work into the vise of the most up-to-date method—extracted no doubt from an unreadable journal article.

Another casualty has been the pursuit of wisdom. (Why does the very notion make us blush?) It is a noble if difficult goal. For without practical wisdom, which concerns a person’s moral development, and speculative wisdom, which concerns his comprehension of first principles, man cannot reach his potential. Regrettably, wisdom has taken a back seat to vocational and professional training in many undergraduate programs. Colleges must justify their programs by crude market criteria (supply and demand) or their putative usefulness to a technocratic society. It is not unusual for administrators to dilute a meaty liberal education with the thin broth of professional training. In this atmosphere of compromise and misplaced priorities, the humanities fail to humanize. Culture is converted into industry. “Scientific” knowledge in literature, history, and the arts proliferates but adds little to the nation’s stock of wisdom.

How, asks Barzun, can culture free itself from the morass of tedious and politicized scholarship? “The answer,” he ventures, “is simple but not agreeable to face. At some point the overexpansion of the present scheme will bring it to collapse from its own weight. It will begin to look as futile as it really is. The Alexandrian textualists came to grief; the scholastics of the Middle Ages faded away. Similarly the forces of fatigue and boredom will do their work to bring on stagnation and decadence; as happened to the great English universities in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The idea of a university will not die; it will hibernate, and on reawakening will suggest to its renovators the plain duties they should take on.”

Barzun is at his best when he levels his gimlet eye at the current confusion in the humanities. His insights into the decline of scholarship (especially among the faculties of history and English), of language (ironically at the hands of the linguists), and of criticism (now so laden with method and theory that it obscures rather than clarifies) are trenchant. His call to rethink our approach to the humanities desperately needs heeding. If open-minded regents, professors, graduate students, and undergraduates read these essays, a reformation in higher education might break out.

But the book’s diagnosis of cultural decay is not uniformly compelling. Barzun falls short in his brief forays into metaphysics and, more particularly, religion. These are among the topics of an essay titled “The Bugbear of Relativism”, which fortunately is buried in the middle of the book. It is a meandering, disappointing piece. In “Bugbear” Barzun wants to say that the rise of relativism is not so much the cause of the current decay as a consequence. Barzun just cannot bring himself to entertain the idea that the cultural confusion he so bemoans might be the result, in large part, of modern man’s metaphysical malaise and religious distemper.

Yet this alternative is not implausible. Philosophers as disparate as Nietzsche and Maritain have observed that modern man is pessimistic, sick, disoriented. He has no coherent vision of his relation to himself, to others, to nature, or to the divine. The world seems emptied of the principles that once enlivened it. Further, when modern man began losing faith in the transcendental, the ramifications for culture were unsettling. Artists and critics alike succumbed to the romantic “cult of creativity” which, because of its agonistic impulses, more often resembled a cult of destruction. Since Barzun himself avers that “the essence of culture is interpenetration”, surely it is not strange to suggest that the spiritual malaise which has waxed since the seventeenth century might be a major cause of cultural decay. For without assent to a humane religion, man is set adrift in a hostile sea of impersonal forces. His life signifies little. His soul grows sick. Nausea of the Sartrean sort is his lot. The resulting confusion and despair are bound to manifest themselves in “sick” cultural artifacts. The discomfiting question is, can a culture retain its confidence and vitality after suffering from such a disease for three or four generations? Unfortunately, Barzun’s answer is unsatisfactory. His commitment to pragmatism—he is an admitted disciple of William James—blinds him to the religious etiology of modern decadence.

This is sad, if only because the other observations in the book are excellent. Indeed, The Culture We Deserve is a welcome balance to all the current talk of America’s relative economic decline vis-a-vis powers like Japan and a uniting Germany. While economic decline is a matter of serious concern, cultural decadence should worry us even more. The diminution of military and economic empire involves a raft of external conditions, many of which are beyond America’s control. The burden of decadence, by contrast, falls squarely on America’s own shoulders. There are no foreign scapegoats. Decadence literally means “falling away” from previous norms, values, and visions. It refers to the internal, cultural disposition of a people, to its arts and schools and universities, to its confidence in being a cultivating force—all things which lie within the province of American policy-makers, educators, and citizens.

American culture is surely decadent. Its decay is palpable to any sensitive observer who reads the feuilleton section of the local newspaper or attends a university. But is our decadence terminal? Is our civilization on a collision course with extinction? Can we say, with Verlaine, “Je suis l’Empire à la fin de la décadence”? That we cannot yet know; no crystal ball makes haste to help us. In the meantime, Jacques Barzun’s collection of essays challenges us to ask ourselves whether we deserve better.  

Gleaves Whitney was, at the time of writing, a graduate student in history at the University of Michigan. He is currently a Senior Fellow of the Russell Kirk Center and director of Grand Valley State University’s Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies.

Posted: April 17, 2011 in Best of the Bookman.

By 'the Permanent Things' [T. S. Eliot] meant those elements in the human condition that give us our nature, without which we are as the beasts that perish. They work upon us all in the sense that both they and we are bound up in that continuity of belief and institution called the great mysterious incorporation of the human race.

Russell Kirk

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