"The Preachers chiefly shall take heed that they teach nothing in their preaching, which they would have the people religiously to observe and believe, but that which is agreeable to the Doctrine of the Old Testament and the New, and that which the Catholick Fathers and Ancient Bishops have gathered out of that Doctrine." A proposed canon of Elizabeth I, 1571

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Location: Bedford, Texas, United States

I am a presbyter in the diocese of Fort Worth, Texas (Anglican Church in North America). I serve as Chaplain at St. Vincent's School and as a canon of St. Vincent's Cathedral Church in Bedford, Texas. In addition to my parish duties and teaching Religion classes in the school I am also the Middle School Social Studies teacher.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

High and Low-brows in America in the Early 21st Century

There is a piece by Wilfred M. McClay in the Wilson Quarterly on-line that is worth the time to read. Here is an excerpt:

The great underlying trend of intellectual life in the past century was the ascendancy of the academy. The modern re­search university has by now absorbed into itself an astonishingly large part of the nation’s intellectual life, with consequences yet to be fully grasped. One should acknowledge that, in many respects, this new institutional reality has been a good thing. The academy provided a haven for free and disinterested intellectual inquiry in a commercial society and gave those who work with ideas a place to make a decent living while plying their trade. The division of knowledge into academic disciplines and distinct communities of interpretation made for greater rigor and clarity in the production of studies in nearly all fields. Whatever its failings, the academy supplied a highly serviceable context for intellectual activity of a high order.
Yet there were costs, and they stemmed largely from success, not failure. The modern university still proceeded from Enlightenment assumptions about the nature of knowledge—that it can be objective, universal, progressive, and cumulative. Those assumptions worked fairly well for the natural sciences, moderately well for the hard social sciences, and not at all for the softer social sciences and the humanities, which found themselves in deepening crisis. The logic of specialization contributed to the problem by dividing inquiry into smaller and smaller subunits, each with its indigenous jargon and distinct community of interpretation, and each with little to communicate to the world beyond itself.
But this understates the extent of the problem. The abandonment of the general educated reader as a cultural ideal over the course of the century was, in fact, an intellectual, cultural, and moral calamity, and a betrayal of the nation’s democratic hopes. The situation at century’s end bore an uncomfortably close resemblance to what Santayana and Brooks had described nearly 100 years before. The split in the American mind still existed (as sharply etched as ever), and it still divided highbrows and lowbrows. But the highbrows became ponderous, impenetrable, professionalized academics, whose air castles of thought were surrounded by moats of jargon designed to keep the dabblers and dilettantes at bay. They were the true legatees and custodians of the genteel tradition, despite the disappearance of almost every trace of Victorian reticence and belletristic pretension. The lowbrows, meanwhile, were the manufacturers and purveyors of commercial mass entertainment, with debased aesthetic standards and a coarsening effect on the populace. Instead of being elevated by contributions from on high, political discourse was debased by the domination of the low.
As a result, the vital center of ideas still stood largely unoccupied. The leavening effect the two halves of the American cultural schism might have had upon one another—and occasionally did have—was hard to find, and harder to sustain. Those few hardy souls who were able to cross over—a Leonard Bernstein in music, a Tom Wolfe in literature, a David McCul­lough in history, an Andrew Wyeth in painting—won the scorn (often masking envy) of the illuminati and were dismissed as middlebrows, popularizers, and sellouts. Yet it is precisely in that vibrant democratic middle ground, where ideas drawn from elite and popular cultures mix and mingle, and where the friction between idea and lived reality is most powerful and productive, that the genius of American culture has been found in the past. Such was the hope of Emerson and Lincoln, whose uncommon eloquence sprang from the commonest of roots. Such was the promise of jazz, whose tangled and improvised mongrel beauty became the very image of modern America. The bifurcation of American culture, intensified by the heavy hand of the academy and the numbing effects of mass culture, has made it no easier for peculiarly American ideas of this sort, possessing both intellectual sophistication and wide democratic scope, to flourish and find a receptive audience. But an American artist or thinker can have no worthier goal than to reach that audience.

The entire piece may be found here .


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