High-Culture Activities and Meaning

I’m very much looking forward to economist Bryan Caplan’s Princeton-published book The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money. Have been for several years. Battles over higher education usually focus on its ultimate purpose. Many argue that the goal of college transcends mere earning potential and is instead concerned with molding students into informed, critical-thinking members of society. The problem is that the latter is largely a fiction and I’m sure that Caplan’s book will demonstrate this more fully.

Interestingly enough, a draft of one of Caplan’s chapters is available online and it raises even more questions about the tastes and preferences people have.

Educators hope to enrich the soul in a hundred different ways. But there’s one form of enrichment high school and college pursues more explicitly and energetically than any other: instilling appreciation for high culture. English classes push classic novels, plays, and poetry: William Shakespeare, Washington Irving, Edgar Allen Poe, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Sinclair Lewis, Robert Frost. Music classes push traditional music, especially classical music: Antonio Vivaldi, Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and above all else, John Philip Sousa. Art classes are more hands-on, but still try to raise the status of visual works in top museums. Even school’s iconoclasm is conservative: Academic curricula often cover Kurt Vonnegut, Arnold Schoenberg, or Jackson Pollock, but rarely George R.R. Martin, Lady Gaga, or Frank Miller. Though some schools promote high culture more energetically than others, academic curricula are plainly tilted against pop culture.

How effectively has this tilt fostered high culture?

Image result for i hate reading gif…Consumer demand is shockingly low overall: American spend 0.2% of their income on all reading materials, barely more than $100 per family per year. Americans used to spend more on reading, but never spent much: Back in 1990, well before the rise of the web, reading absorbed 0.5% of the family budget. Today’s Americans spend about four times as much on tobacco and five times as much on alcohol as they do on reading. Within this small pond, high culture is no big fish. Here are three rankings of the bestselling English-language fiction of all time. Sales figures include school purchases and assigned texts, so they overstate sincere affection for the canon.

While sales figures are plainly flawed, all three lists [Wikipedia, Ranker, How Stuff Works] paint similar pictures of the public’s long-run literary tastes. High culture is but a niche market. Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities tops two of the three lists. The Catcher in the Rye, Ben Hur, To Kill a Mockingbird, Gone With the Wind, and Lolita all appear on at least one list. But fantasy – Tolkien, Rowling, Lewis – dominates. The point is not that fantasy lacks literary merit; by my lights, Lord of the Rings towers over Catcher in the Rye. The point is that the books high school and college classes hail for their supreme literary merit lose out to much less prestigious genres. By and large, literature teachers fail to “get through” to their captive audiences: They rarely spark love of reading, much less love of the genre they urge their students to admire.

In music, pop culture’s victory over high culture is even more decisive. The Three Tenors in Concert is the best-selling classical album ever. With twelve million copies sold, it does not even break into the top fifty albums of all time. Looking at overall sales, classical music is only 1.4% of the U.S. music market. Country is eight times as popular, and rock/pop over thirty times as popular. Classical does better globally, but still only commands a 5% share of the world’s music marketplace. Well, at least it beats jazz. The point, again, is not that classical music alone is aesthetically worthwhile. Bad Religion isn’t Bach, but it’s good. The point, rather, is that schools’ aesthetic priorities have negligible cultural impact. Even if American schools are the root cause of all U.S. consumption of classical music, their combined efforts only boost its market share from 0% to 1.4%.

Why is this the case?

The straightforward story, though, is that high culture requires extra mental effort to appreciate – and most humans resent mental effort. Students are overwhelmingly bored by Shakespeare, and the rare fan of high culture would probably have come to love the Bard on his own. Students sample a little high culture when their grades depend on it. As soon as the exam ends, however, the vast majority of students rush back to their low-brow comfort zone. Anyone reading this book is probably a bird of a different feather. You may even remember the names of the teachers who opened your eyes to the finer things in life. I owe my love of classical music to Mr. Zainer (General Music, 7th grade), and my love of literature to Mrs. Ragus (Honors English, 11th grade). A quick look at the basic facts, however, shows that our experiences are abnormal. The vast majority of our classmates emerge from years of cultural force-feeding with their aesthetic palates unchanged.

He concludes,

I am an economist and I am a cynic, but I’m not a typical cynical economist. I’m a cynical idealist. I embrace the ideal of transformative education. I believe wholeheartedly in the life of the mind. What I’m cynical about is people.

I’m cynical about students. The vast majority are philistines. The best teachers in the world couldn’t inspire them with sincere and lasting love of ideas and culture. I’m cynical about teachers. The vast majority are uninspiring; they can’t even convince themselves to love ideas and culture, much less their students. I’m cynical about “deciders” – the school officials who control what students study. The vast majority think they’ve done their job as long as students obey. Deciders barely care if students inwardly transform for life as long as they outwardly submit until graduation.

…Mandatory study of ideas and culture ruins the journey. Even if you bite the end-justifies-the-means bullet, compulsory enlightenment yields little enlightenment. For all their Orwellian self-congratulation, schools are unconvincing. Under auspicious conditions, they fail to make either high culture or liberal politics noticeably more popular. Regimentation may be a good way to mold external behavior, but it’s a bad way to win hearts and minds – and a terrible way to foster thoughtful commitment. As Stanford education professor David Labaree remarks, “Motivating volunteers to engage in human improvement is very difficult, as any psychotherapist can confirm, but motivating conscripts is quite another thing altogether. And it is conscripts that teachers face every day in the classroom.”

I’m interested to see if Caplan beefs up his arguments in the final version. Nonetheless, this helped me realize that claims that we should, say, “save the arts” because it’s where people find “meaning” are exaggerated. Or at least misleading. “Saving the arts” is rarely (if ever) about saving low-brow entertainment, but most people prefer the latter. Most people don’t find meaning in books, opera, or Shakespeare because most people don’t engage them. Meaning, it seems, lies elsewhere for most people.

Most people just want to veg.

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