Sunday, 30 December 2007

The Width of Wisdom of Roger Scruton

"It is one of the most deeply rooted superstitions of our age that the purpose of education is to benefit those who receive it."

The above the opening line from Roger Scruton's essay, Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged. Where Scruton goes from here I will leave for now, but concentrate on this line in itself.
The first natural focus of attention is on the word superstition. Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary describes this as "a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation b: an irrational abject attitude of mind toward the supernatural, nature, or God resulting from superstition
2: a notion maintained despite evidence to the contrary."

So superstition tends to refer to irrational beliefs such as faith in practices for warding off bad luck, the ominous foretelling of dark events by means of, for example, a black cat crossing one's path, breaking a mirror, etc. Or maybe someone else might describe belief in a deity as a superstition. Here Scruton chooses to interpret the notion of education's purpose to be beneficial to the educated as being of this ilk of phenomenon- not simply a debatable proposition, but a distinctly irrational one.
Is this an educated use of the word superstition? Or is it an irrational usage of a loaded word designed, consciously or subconsciously, to lend false weight to an argument that doesn't suffice as proof in itself?

To get a clearer look at this issue we should understand what education might actually mean. It has a far broader significance than simply the passive accumulation of knowledge fostered in an external education system.
Evolution in the sense of progress is from simple, relatively unfree structures to more complex profound ones such as the higher mammals. So the human is a more profound entity than an amoeba, but human evolution occurs very much within the individual life, rather than simply being a matter of impersonal biological processes. From birth the individual as a psycho-physical organism is undergoing extraordinarily profound and complex processes of self-deepening such as the development of linguistic abilities, walking, hand-eye coordination, etc, and this naturally does not end at age four, but continues through life. So the individual is an existential reality involved in a living evolutionary process of self-education, through which processes as a direct immediate consequence he is made more profound and enhanced as a living structure. The mind is deepened and transformed existentially as a result of its education; it isn't a question of its gaining materially from this education in some hypothetical future. The purpose of the child's development in the area of linguistic ability isn't some abstract like a potential benefit to language; it is the onward development and enhancement of the child as a living being, whose existence is an absolute value.

This innate genius of the mind and body for self-transformation and refinement is the ground upon which education depends, and for which serves the entirety of its purpose. Life is the first principle of life, not culture. It is also, needless to say, the ground upon which the creation and fostering of culture depends. The culture we produce is an outpouring of our human reality, whereas the notion that we are subservient to what we produce is an example of the description used recently of a belief system where the mind conceives of something and then bows down to its own conception.
Scruton sees as especially pernicious the idea culture and knowledge being “relevant to the interests of the kids themselves”. I am not arguing in defence of whatever form of education Scruton is attacking, but a great work of art or thought is great because it is intrinsically of extreme relevance to life. Relevant isn't in the sense of some mundane question of practical utility, but in the sense of being a profound distillation and reflection of the artist's immersion in life, and given the universality of the human condition this naturally feeding into the life of the art 'consumer'. The whole point of an artwork is the dynamic of its transformative existential effect on the experiencer's mind: in the words of Andrei Tarkovsky, "The purpose of art is to provide a spiritual jolt." It doesn't exist simply to exist, and naturally without a human mind it has nowhere to exist.

True teachers do not provide knowledge as a benefit to their pupils; they treat their pupils as a benefit to knowledge. Of course they love their pupils, but they love knowledge more...And their overriding concern is to pass on that knowledge by lodging it in brains that will last longer than their own.(Education is) the process whereby knowledge is transferred from one brain to another

In total contrast to the transformative dynamic of the child's development of innate kinetic mental and physical potentialities Scruton's vision of education is of us fulfilling our function by being static storage devices within which knowledge is preserved and passed on: an all too solid subject object universe dualism.
He seems to see knowledge and culture as a kind of semi-divine world of higher reality to which its priests, the teachers supply the children as ritual vessels within whom is preserved the holy substance of culture. We are in a sense a lower evolutionary species than our abstract culture.
As for his use of the word love here, it is unfortunately covering two very different emotional experiences. What one feels for knowledge is a very different experience than that we should feel for a living person, and that anyone would first of all confuse the two 'loves', and secondly to place love of external knowledge higher is a reflection of sadly enervated sense of life. Such a description of one's feeling for culture being love also rings false and something of a sentimental cheapening of the nature of much of the highest art.

What does it benefit ordinary children that they should know the works of Shakespeare, acquire a taste for Bach or develop an interest in medieval Latin? All such attainments merely isolate a child from his peers, place a veil between his thinking and the only world where he can apply it, and are at best an eccentricity, at worst a handicap. My reply is simple: it may not benefit the child – not yet, at least. But it will benefit culture.

What it benefits a child or any person is the immediate existence of his existential being. That Scruton imagines the youth's intermingling of his mind with Bach is at best an eccentricity which may be of benefit at some hypothetical future date shows how little he understands of the human condition, imagining that benefit is to in terms of some tangible material gain. Life at the level of profit and loss rather than directly apprehended as living truth. And as he apparently sees no such gain in the broadening of the child's psycho-physical being both in the playing and listening of such self-expanding music, then this is "at best an eccentricity". At best! And this is the man who imagines himself as a defender of culture.

As for his idea that the deepening of one as an evolved autonomous person "places a veil between his thinking and the only world where he can apply it": this is so comically senseless as to almost be beyond criticism. Scruton seems to accept as a given that the world of reality is wholly disconnected from the world of culture. In what reality does culture exist if not this reality? And within what reality is culture created in the first place? Yes, that would again be this reality. And that profundity places a veil between oneself and life rather than deepening its connection! What absurd schizophrenic vision. It is a kind of lower gnostic vision where reality is accepted to be intrinsically inane and disappointing, while culture offers a sentimentalised haven for the disappointed soul, as evidenced by Scruton's statement elsewhere that "wisdom is the truth that consoles." Consoles against what? The answer to that presumably: what is imagined to be reality. Enslaved within a false intellectual system, with a fuzzy faith in culture as a higher realm and end in itself.
Scruton has possibly a well-intentioned aim which is to provide a bulwark against the rising tide of ignorance, but his own ignorance of life leads him to vapid worship of false gods: knowledge over the individual, the abstract over reality; though most likely the underlying motive beneath his position is the Hegelian exaltation of the authoritarian State over the individual- in total contrast to the truly democratic position.


Anonymous said...

Interesting. i don't quite agree with you but it's Scruton's own fault for writing in a highly impressionistic and personal way. i suspect (from the book of his i've read) that he would actually agree with you about art to some degree, but coming from a totally different angle.

By the way, just a technical note, but long posts read more easily if you put a line between each paragraph - otherwise it tends to read like one long unbroken stream of letters.

Andrew K said...

You're probably right on the paragraph breaks, but on what basis do you not quite agree? Lines such as "such attainments merely isolate a child from his peers, place a veil between his thinking and the only world where he can apply it, and are at best an eccentricity, at worst a handicap" need no addition from me to demonstrate their inanity and lack of understanding of reality.
He hands over "reality" to the idiots.

Anonymous said...

Oh, it's just a generalised sense from all the things of his i've read. He does, in England: an Elegy, argue that a classical education fitted out chaps for suborning the world to the British Empire, so in his view it did have some use (administering our slave colonies), albeit a rather questionable one.

Being as i am fairly cultured i do think knowing about Dante, Proust, Bach, etc., does make it harder to interact with the commoners. If they find out you like anything other than Big Brother they think you're mad, and the present culture can't but seem inane and monstrous after an hour walking with Dante.

i know people at work often seem surprised when the conversation leads to something like art (e.g. if they ask about the Andrea del Sarto or de la Tour i've stuck on my office wall), as i've largely managed to succeed in being able to talk to people as human beings, without any shared vocabulary of Big Brother; but perhaps that ability to appeal to the common human, shorn of any particular culture, may have been fed by reading so widely, and at depth. Hard to say.

Looks a lot better with the paragraph breaks! As a musician i'm sure you know the value of silence or slowness to emphasise volume.

Andrew K said...

But that's what I mean: Scruton's is the total intellectual abdication of someone describing himself as a philosopher, to the point where he accepts that reality is the applied idiocy or delusions you describe rather than reality as it actually is, which is supposed to be a strong area of interest of thinkers. It's probably an extension towards absolute nonsense of the science religion reality divide of some time ago.
You're right on the par breaks- they do look better, but my intellectual intimacy is endlessly more with books than with computer writing, and such breaks don't tend to be needed in essay writing there. But this is a different medium with usually far narrower lines so....

Andrew K said...

From looking at Scruton's Wikipedia entry I see a strange issue mentioned, not that it's of any relevance to the issue at hand:

Scruton has been involved in various business ventures, most notably Horsell's Farm Enterprises, a consulting firm advising clients on public relations, which he co-founded in 1999. This firm has been the source of some controversy, since among its clients is one of the world's largest tobacco companies, for which a quarterly briefing paper, The Risk of Freedom Briefing, has been prepared and circulated to press and politicians since 2000.

In early 2002, The Guardian disclosed a leaked confidential e-mail in which he asked Japan Tobacco International for an increase of £1,000 over his existing fee of £4,500 per month and discussed his aim of getting opinion pieces published "in one or other of The Wall Street Journal, The Times, The Telegraph, The Spectator, The Financial Times, The Economist, The Independent or The New Statesman" on "major topics of current concern" to the tobacco industry.[2] As a result of the disclosure, the Financial Times dropped his weekly column, "This Land." Scruton argues that his relationship with JTI was never concealed, and the new proposal was never acted upon, but his critics respond that his previous articles failed to mention any links to the tobacco industry.[

Anonymous said...

The swine! That is quite depressing, i like his stuff. Another writer with feet of clay...

Andrew K said...

Sixty grand or so sterling a year to write sneaky propaganda pieces for a tobacco giant is no paltry income boost in most of our books.
I'm obviously a bit less impressed with what I've read by him.