Review of Scruton’s “Culture Counts”
An Extended Essay on the Value of Cultural Education (3 of 5 stars)
Roger Scruton’s book, I think, is slightly mistitled. The subtitle should probably read something like: “on the importance of education as a furtherance of cultural knowledge.” (Not as pretty and less likely to sell bools than “faith and feeling in a world besieged.”)
This extended essay is an argument for the importance of educating students not just in academics or technical skills, but cultural education. And anyone involved in education knows that this is the minority position right now. Music and art programs have been long under attack, and literature courses focus as much on technical writing skills as they do on examining classic works. Even the mention of “great works” or “the canon” is likely to rouse the ire of many. We prefer John Grisham and JK Rowling.
Scruton further makes things interesting by pointing out that while schools today focuses on “knowledge that” (facts) and “knowledge how” (technical skills). But what also needs to be remembered – what Scruton believes is the chief value of education in culture – is “knowledge what,” which means “knowledge of what to do, how to apply what I’ve learned, and what to feel in given situations.” (As a special educator dealing with students with social/emotional issues, I focused a lot on instruction on how to act and how to feel appropriately, but this was always a “special ed thing.”)
The big criticism I have of Scruton is that he fails to make any compelling case as to why cultural education (education in classic works of literature, art, music) is the only way to achieve this “knowledge what” Yes, the great works of literature are often great because they express characters and dilemmas deeply and thoughtfully, giving the student a wonderful way to view these people and issues objectively. But just as George Eliot produced works that do this, so do contemporary authors like Wally Lamb, Jodi Picoult, and – yes – John Grisham. Scruton prefers the former authors, but doesn’t explain why the latter can not achieve the same things. (And Scruton’s case against pop music is even more ridiculous, reminding me of the used-to-be-hippie who, while listening to classic rock stations, wonders why they don’t make music like they used to. Scruton, like this poor hippie, doesn’t realize that classic rock stations play the hits that survived the test of time, rather than all the top 40 songs that didn’t.)
While Scruton correctly notes that the proper end of education is not to give the students what they need, but to give the future at large what it needs. By educating students, we ensure that the ideas we impart on them find their way into the culture at large. Scruton, however, wrongly suggests that this idea is contra to John Dewey’s educational philosophy. While I am no fan of Dewey, this type of anti-individualism (educating as social engineering) is all to common in Dewey’s words.
Scruton does score points, however, with his critique of postmodernism, relativism, and multiculturalism. He notes that relativism that seeks to “contextualize” reason fail to realize that this itself is using reason (and that reason is quite a universal method, rather than a contextual ideology). Abandoning reason (or compartmentalizing it) is bad pedagogy because it takes away our ability to teach kids one of the most crucial skills of all: how to judge and analyize. [If anyone needs to read a good argument in praise of judgment, see Theodore Dalrymple’s “In Praise of Prejudice.” and…judge…for yourself.)
Overall, I thought that Scruton’s was a decent but somewhat short-falling defense of cultural education. As mentioned, he has many interesting pedagogical ideas, but none of them show that the “great works” can do what modern works cannot (except by very post-hoc arguments against all things modern). It will be of at least some interest to those concerned with the proper direction of education.