Sympathy for the Devil – Rob Nugent on the decline of reading

The rough beast is slouching towards Bethlehem again. In the latest issue of Quadrant Rob Nugent warns that young people are losing their connection with history and culture. Literary reading is in decline and postmodernism is to blame. According to Nugent, our intellectual elites no longer perform their role of transmitting culture to the young.

A generation of history numbskulls

The evidence Nugent offers is almost entirely anecdotal. He starts with the results of an informal survey of first year economics students at the University of Cardiff that showed that few of them could answer seemingly easy questions about British history. For example, only 11.5% of the 284 students surveyed could name even one 19th century British prime minister (pdf). Presented with an easy to digest cliche of declining educational standards, the Mail Online picked up the Cardiff story and posted it next to pictures of semi-naked celebrities with the headline Trendy teaching is ‘producing a generation of history numbskulls’. But Nugent is a serious fellow who complains about celebrity gossip, so he probably read about the study somewhere else.

Nugent couldn’t find quantitative evidence for Australian young people as a whole, Australian university students or even a few of hundred students studying a particular course at an Australian university. So instead of demonstrating that Australian students don’t know anything about history, he offers a single example of the kind of trendy teaching he believes is causing the problem. His example is "a first-year course in early modern European history that "reflects the fundamental problems facing the teaching of humanities subjects in universities worldwide". It’s a course that sounds suspiciously like ‘The Worlds of Early Modern Europe‘ — a unit offered by Macquarie University. Not only does it include frank discussions of sexuality, but it is taught thematically rather than chronologically — an approach Nugent insists deprives students of "the mental scaffolding they need on which to build any kind of real analysis."

This is the kind of salacious chatter tabloid editors love — academics wasting taxpayers’ money on titilating trivia. After all, every Mail Online reader knows that history is supposed to be boring. Just as mathematics is about memorising multiplication tables and doing long division, history is about memorising names and dates. It’s about wars, battles, kings and prime ministers. It’s not about transgender prostitutes, witches, the everyday lives of women or about food — that’s the kind of thing the internet is for. And why on earth are first year history students being told that Saint Thomas Aquinas liked herring?

Bad teaching leads to collapse of civilisation!

Nugent’s essay is an entertaining but intellectually lazy rant. Where old-fashioned marxists blamed every social problem on the ruling class and capitalism, Quadrant contributors blame everything on the elites and postmodernism (except when they’re blaming feminists, marxists or greens). In recycling a cliched complaint about the forces of darkness Nugent misses an opportunity to make his readers think seriously about the issues.

Nugent claims we’re descending into an Age of Ignorance. He argues that our intellectual elites are "either blind to the culture of the past or actively hostile to it". Instead of nurturing elite culture and maintaining our civilisation’s connection with history, intellectuals have become preoccupied with mass culture (or what they take to be mass culture). Not afraid of tabloid-style hyperbole, Nugent claims we’re heading for a new Dark Age:

The politically unreconstructed, such as myself, still call that period following the collapse of the Roman empire in the West, the Dark Ages (knowledge was lost, many major cities shrank to collections of huts, the science of the classical world was a curiosity in books unread or even lost). It is deeply depressing to consider that we may be confronting something of a Dark Age ourselves; and there is a terrible bleak irony to it. A period of mass education descends into mass ignorance. History has a grim sense of humour.

Sir Humphrey would be appalled

What Nugent doesn’t ask is how the collapse of Rome led the decline of learning and culture. According to Professor Peter Heather of Kings College London it has to do with the collapse of the Roman state. In an article for the BBC he writes:

Roman elites learned to read and write classical Latin to highly-advanced levels through a lengthy and expensive private education, because it qualified them for careers in the extensive Roman bureaucracy.

The end of taxation meant that these careers disappeared in the post-Roman west, and elite parents quickly realised that spending so much money on learning Latin was now a waste of time. As a result, advanced literacy was confined to churchmen for the next 500 years.

The bureaucracy’s role in preserving and transmitting culture wasn’t unique to Rome. As Nugent observes, "The imperial Chinese state had a system of examinations whereby smart but poor boys could become a part of the state bureaucracy". In 19th century England the civil service performed the same function. In 1855 aspiring bureaucrats were asked questions such as: "Name the first and last of the 12 Caesars and the principal writers of the Augustan Era."

As fans of the BBC series Yes Minister would recognise, this system of competitive examinations and jobs for life helped create a career path for students of classical history and culture — students like Sir Humphrey Appleby. While a knowledge of Latin and the history of late Roman empire was of little use for the crass business of manufacturing or trade, it could open the door to a prestigious civil service career (whether this kind of education helped them do their jobs is another question).

It was conservatives who led the attack on the civil service as a conduit of culture. It’s a struggle satirised in exchanges between Yes Minister’s classically educated bureaucrats and the LSE trained minister Jim Hacker.

By the 1980s high-culture Toryism had been replaced by the more utilitarian approach of Thatcherism. Like Dickens’ philistine school teacher Thomas Gradgrind, Margaret Thatcher insisted that history must be about names and dates. As she wrote in her autobiography: "No amount of imaginative sympathy for historical characters or situations can be a substitute for the initially tedious but ultimately rewarding business of memorizing what actually happened" (p 595).

British academics were horrified at Thatcher’s attempts to ‘reform’ education. In 1985 the Congregation of Oxford voted to deny Thatcher an honorary doctorate. Two hundred and seventy five of the university’s academics had signed a petition claiming that: "Mrs. Thatcher’s Government has done deep and systematic damage to the whole public education system in Britain, from the provision for the youngest child up to the most advanced research programmes."

Anglosphere conservatism took a populist and anti-intellectual turn in the 1980s. The private sector corporation was held up as the model to emulate. And for ambitious bureaucrats, a degree in economics became more valuable than a degree in the humanities.

Nugent complains about the decline of cultural and historical literacy in an age of mass education. If there has been such a decline, the increasing emphasis on vocational education must be part of the explanation. As Troppo’s Ken Parish has argued, academics are expected to market a humanities degree as an investment in human capital — a short term sacrifice that will open doors to a well paid career. But as Danny Crichton writes at Fiat Lux:

Attempting to put the humanities on utilitarian or economic terms is fundamentally flawed, since they are fundamentally anti-utilitarian and anti-economic. They do not subscribe to the notion of a dollar today, but rather the goal of understanding ourselves, our society, and our humanity for the benefit of our long-term development.

The romantic turn

Like Thatcher Nugent argues that students need a framework of facts in order to understand history. But he also approvingly cites the poet John Keats who argued in favour of a ‘negative capability‘ — the ability to be "in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason". Unlike Thatcher, Keats placed a high value on empathy — the ability to see the world from another’s perspective. In a letter to Richard Woodhouse he wrote:

I am a Member; that sort distinguished from the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime; which is a thing per se and stands alone) it is not itself – it has no self – it is every thing and nothing – It has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion Poet. It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one; because they both end in speculation. A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity – he is continually in for – and filling some other Body …

The discussion of empathic understanding is the most interesting part of Nugent’s essay. Like Keats he relishes the dark side. In a reference to 17th century poet John Milton, Nugent asks:

Be honest now, would you really prefer to spend long hours munching on fruit in Milton’s deeply-dull Eden, or hanging out with Lucifer’s fallen but very companionable angels enthusiastically discussing philosophy and ideas, designing buildings, playing games and sport, attending music gigs, and tossing off the odd bit of creative writing?

Nugent argues that the ability to inhabit the minds of others has a role in history too. He writes:

We need to approach the historical past as we do another society or culture, sensitive to the fact that we bring to it a worldview that is “other” to that of the people who lived then; and that our job is to be as receptive as possible to the experience of their world, not impose upon it intellectual constructions designed to suit our own purposes.

And this is where things get challenging. Milton’s drama Samson Agonistes is sometimes interpreted as a celebration of religiously motivated violence. When Samson brings down the pillars of the Philistine temple, he has God’s sanction. As Yale University’s John Rogers says "We would have to call him something like a suicide bomber".

In his book How Milton Works, postmodernist critic Stanley Fish writes that "’in the end the only value we can put on Samson’s action is the value he gives it in context." But in the wake of September 11 not everyone was content to hold their own "intellectual constructions" at arms length while they inhabited the world of the poem. Oxford academic John Carey wondered whether Samson Agonistes was an incitement to terrorism and should be ”withdrawn from schools and colleges and, indeed, banned more generally.”

It’s the postmodernist Fish who seems to hold most closely to Nugent’s advice on being receptive to the way others experience their world. Conservative critics object to postmodernism because of its relativism — its inability to make judgements about right and wrong. And in the wake of September 11 some declared that relativism was now at an end.

But Fish argues that nobody is unable to prefer their own convictions. If this is what relativism is, then critics are attacking something that never began. He continues:

But if by relativism one means the practice of putting yourself in your adversary’s shoes, not in order to wear them as your own but in order to have some understanding (far short of approval) of why someone else—in your view, a deluded someone—might want to wear them, then relativism will not and should not end because it is simply another name for serious thought.

The question for Nugent and other Quadrant writers is whether they want to engage in serious thought or whether they just want to gather together to rant against their favourite folk devils.

What about the herrings?

As for Thomas Aquinas’ fondness for herrings, could this possibly be relevant for historians? Charles Freeman thinks so. He ends his book The Closing of the Western Mind, with the story of how Aquinas became a saint:

Normally two miracles were required as evidence of God’s power working through a potential saint. Those produced for Thomas were scarcely convincing. On his deathbed it was said he had asked for herrings, unknown in the Italian seas, and sure enough in the next load of fish produced by the local fishmonger there were indeed herrings. As it transpired that the witnesses had never seen herrings before and could not be sure what they had seen, the case faltered. It was left to the pope, John XXII, to break the impasse: "There are as many miracles as there are articles of the Summa." Thomas was duly acknowledged as a saint in July 1323. Thus the power of words and independent thinking were once again given a status that they had almost lost (p 333).

Freeman’s argument is that the church, combined with the authority of the empire, stifled ancient traditions of rational thought. Aquinas reinvigorated Christian thought by recovering the pagan philosophy of Aristotle. Thus his canonisation and the reasoning behind it represent the return of reason. It’s an argument even he admits might be a little overstretched. But the tale of the herrings does illustrate Nugent’s point about context. On its own, the miracle of the herrings is just a curious tale. And that’s exactly how it appears on Stephen Fry’s QI.

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10 years ago

Ouch – spam gets frist?

Interesting post Don.

I like the Fish quote too.

Richard Tsukamasa Green
Richard Tsukamasa Green(@richard-green)
10 years ago

I also think a classical education, because of it’s utter lack of material return, was a form of conspicuous consumption. Only those with means could afford to have a child who was not only engaged in commercially unproductive activity (education) but one that carried no return, and being able to spend alot of time on commerically unproductive ends did carry great prestige. This afterall, was the same era in which amateurism in sport was highly prized (I can’t recall the “amateur” English cricketer who stole from his teammates to avoid becoming a professional) for the fact that no one not of means could afford to do it.

And being of means meant you were of the social class that perpetuated itself theough clubbishness. Who controlled the civil service and would protect their own.

The downfall in classical education may have come when the mere fact of education wasn’t enough to show that you were part of a favoured class. From then, not able to signal wealth and status, it needed to signal intelligence or develop ability, and the classics don’t seem to have been able to do that in the eyes of government and the market.

It also explains the anti intellectual (or at least anti academic) turn of the tories – after all, universities weren’t an club exclusive to those served well by the established class system.

10 years ago

British anti-intellectualism started in the great public (private) schools. Read RG Collingwood on that topic!

It is dangerous to generalize across a wide range of institutions and courses, but you have to realise that when you inrease the university population from approx 3% of the cohort to 30+% you have to lower the average level of capability. That has impacted more on some courses than others, which means that you can tell any story you like depending on the sample you draw for illustrative purposes.

John Passant
10 years ago

What an interesting post. Thanks.

Nicholas Gruen
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
10 years ago

Lazy intellectual rants? In Quadrant? Now I’ve heard it all!